Ashley Bell is currently playing Tonya on Showtime’s Emmy-winning series The United States of Tara, which stars Toni Collette. When she was studying at Cambridge University in England, she won Best Actress for her performance as Ophelia in Hamlet.
In her latest film, The Last Exorcism, she plays Nell, a young girl who is either mentally ill or possessed by a demon. When her father contacts a priest, Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), to come and perform an exorcism, the minister turns up with a film crew, hoping to make a documentary that will debunk exorcisms – what happens to all of them can only be described as pure evil.
I spoke with Ashley today about her remarkable performance as Nell – all done without the help of CGI.
Daniel Stamm, the movie’s director, told me that when he casts movies he pretends he’s another actor and sits in the waiting room. What was your reaction when you found out he was the director of the movie?
I had done a little IMDB stalking beforehand, and it said that he was from Germany, and this guy had a sight German accent. I was thinking, ‘Oh God, it must be the director’s brother.’ It was really funny talking with him beforehand.
The actual audition was getting exorcised in the room. That was probably the most fun audition I’ve ever been a part of. I was sitting in the chair and I asked to lay on the carpet. I was laying on this carpet, the cameraman was standing over me, and I contorted my body and screamed as this man was summoning this thing out of me, and I just thought, ‘My parents would be so proud!’
Was it difficult turning from a sweet girl to demented?
I probably shouldn’t say this, but it was fun. I had a blast shooting it. From the second I read it, she’s written as such a complex character, it’s such a dream role for an actor.
What I loved preparing for it was that she was two different characters, and Daniel really helped me in the month of prep to look into Nell both beforehand, and who she is when she’s either possessed or insane, and try to pit them against each other and use the documentary camera-style to manipulate the audience and manipulate the outsiders (Reverend Marcus and the documentary crew).
As you were crafting Nell, did you have it in your head this girl is crazy and this is going to be how I’m going to express it, or this girl is possessed and this is how I’m going to try to flesh her out?
Daniel gave me the biggest hint in the preparation which was to try to keep that hope that she’s not possessed, that she could be insane. When I was looking at it, researching more of the insanity was the most helpful thing in going into that.
The movie has an improvisational feel to it, did you stick to the script?
In a lot of the more physical and emotional scenes there was a little bit more room for improv. I know in the barn scene, the exorcism, due to the physical nature of that, there was an impulse to do something and Daniel would welcome that, in that context.
It says in the press kit that you actually watched real exorcisms online –how did that help you?
It was very creepy. I think creepy is the understatement of the year. Even talking to people who’d been around actual exorcisms, they were nervous to retell any part of it, because they thought they would get repossessed or close to it again. There was such fear surrounding that, and the subject itself always had another bend and another turn and something else to explore.
I would listen to these (people who were supposed to be possessed) and you’d hear screams and you’d hear noises that can be made, and then there just comes this noise that is neither masculine nor feminine or animal and you just say to yourself, ‘What is that?’ It comes from this weird place and that was the creepiest part.
The film is very ambiguous, how did you approach the final scene?
I think that’s what is most exciting. When people are leaving they’re still talking about it and debating and thinking it’s something else, and fighting about it. That’s the ultimate compliment.
What was the hardest scene for you to do?
(The hardest part was) when it ended. I loved playing Nell so much. I think for actors the in-between-job time is the hard part of life. Being able to work and play a character that complex for my first huge role was a gift.
I think one of the most fun nights was the last night of filming. I was lying on that table, it was four in the morning in the middle of this field in Louisiana, and I’m covered in fake blood, there is fire behind me, lights in the sky, and I thought, ‘I have the best seat in the house.’ And then a flaming moth flew in my mouth. And I don’t mean he was gay!