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Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for
August 24, 2010

In the faux-documentary thriller The Last Exorcism, the charismatic Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) feels compelled to come clean about his lifetime of performing staged exorcisms. In an effort to unveil the scientific and medical truth behind the religious ritual, he agrees to "exorcise" Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell), an allegedly possessed teenage girl, and brings a crew to document the experience. But the situation begins to spiral out of control when Nell's condition appears to be authentic; and in the midst of his theatrics and showmanship, the Reverend is faced with the unnerving possibility that he is responsible for a young woman who may very well be under demonic influence.

In a previous interview, director Daniel Stamm recounted a stealthy trick in which he prides himself: during the casting process, he hangs out in the waiting room and mingles with the auditioning actors, under the guise of a fellow prospective hopeful. Armed with this candid perspective, he observed Ashley and felt she innately had the ability to pull off Nell's myriad facets: "Ashley was the sweetest, smartest, most attentive [person], and was kind of helping me with my nervousness, because she thought that I was going to go in," the director recalled. "And then when she went in, she could pull this darkness out of somewhere...So she had the entire range of this really fragile, innocent girl that we needed for the beginning, that you immediately love and feel protective of...And then kind of hell itself." The filmmaker was quickly sold, and Ashley, who was only the second actress they saw that day for the coveted role, subsequently secured the part.

When we last spoke to Ashley, The Last Exorcism was gearing up for its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Since then, the movie has been met with enthusiasm from fans and critics alike, with the performances of its two leads particularly praised. We were thrilled with the opportunity to catch up with Ashley (who, for the record, seems just as eager and excited about the project now as she was when we first spoke to her), and in this interview, she talks about working on her breakout film.

MEDIA: So what was your reaction when you discovered that the dude hanging out in the waiting room before the audition was really the director?

ASHLEY: Well, I had done a little IMDB stalking beforehand... [laughs] (Maybe don't want to admit that.) And it said that he was from Germany. And this guy had a slight German accent, and I was like, "Oh God, it must be the director's brother..." Yeah, it was really funny talking to him beforehand. I think I asked to be able to prepare a little bit, and I think that worked out well. [laughs] But the actual audition--I don't know if he said this--was getting exorcised in the room, for the callback. And that was probably the most fun audition I've ever been a part of. I was sitting in a chair, and I asked to lay on the carpet, and it was in Lauren Bass' casting office in West Hollywood. I was laying on this carpet, this cameraman was standing over me, I started to contort my body and scream, and this man was summoning this thing out of me, and I just thought, "My parents would be so proud!"

How did you feel about doing your transformation from a sweet, innocent girl to a raging, possibly demonic, personality?

I probably shouldn't say this, but it was fun. [laughs] I had a blast doing it. From the second I read about the character...You know, she's written as such a complex character, it's such a dream role for an actor. And what I loved preparing for was those two different characters. And Daniel really helped me in the month of time of prep to research, look into Nell, who she is beforehand, and then 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 kind of manipulate the audience, and manipulate the outsiders, and really play with that. That was a lot of fun.

Did this role allow for improvisation on your part?

Yeah, 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 second exorcism, just due to the physical nature of that, if there was an impulse to go and do something, Daniel would kind of welcome that in that context. And the night before the second exorcism, Daniel actually asked if there was anything I wanted to try. And you know, you dream of that question as an actor. [laughs] And they had actually flown out [Nell's] Doc Marten boots earlier, and I was rehearsing at home and had kind of been working on a back bend and some other physical things, and I said, "Can I show you these?" And he said, "Yes, let's use it, let's put it in!" So due to that nature of things, he was really welcoming if we had anything to share.

How was your experience of screening the film for the first time with an audience at the Los Angeles Film Festival?

It was a ride seeing it with a bunch of different people--you know, having that group experience. And I think when I left, I was most surprised by how smart it is. It's such a smart thriller. And there are so many funny moments in the beginning of it--that's all Daniel and Eli, just manipulating you and dragging you in deeper into this spider's den. It's all them! [laughs]

What do you think of the fan debate over the film's ending?

I think that's what's most exciting--when people are leaving, they're still talking about it and debating and thinking it's something else and fighting about it. I mean, that's the ultimate compliment, I think, for any film--to have people leave and have it still sit with them. I'm praying for a Nell action figure that you can kind of stick into places and just scare people!

For most of its story, the film remains ambiguous as to whether Nell is suffering from insanity, possession, or trauma. Despite the audience being kept in the dark, did you have a specific motivation in mind while playing her?

Definitely. I think Daniel gave me the biggest [help] in the preparation: to try to keep that hope that she's not possessed, that she could be insane or something. And researching more of the insanity and the mania and things like that was the most helpful, to try to get away from that and find people in real life that were out of human form. But you know, even looking back, they were even asking, "Do you ever, ever get a chance to see Nell, or is that just an act from the beginning? Initially, is that even her, or is that a made up girl?" That's all Daniel. [laughs]

Did you shoot most of the movie in chronological order because of its specific style?

Pretty much. Which was really a blessing, just for the way it all falls apart--knowing what's happened, it was really helpful to film that way.

According to the film's notes, you actually studied real exorcisms. How was that experience?

It was very creepy. [pauses] Understatement of the year! [laughs] I think going into it, I didn't necessarily believe. And even talking to people who had been around actual exorcisms, they were nervous to re-tell any part of it, because they thought they would get re-possessed or close to it again. There was such fear surrounding that. And you know, the subject itself always has another bend and another turn and something else to explore...I would listen to these tapes, and you hear screams and you hear noises that can be made, you're thinking are real. And then there just comes this noise that's just neither masculine or feminine, or animal or human, and you just say to yourself, "What is that?" You think it's primal, but it's not even that--like it comes from this weird place. And that was the creepiest part about it.

Did that research, and the experience of making this film, change your outlook on exorcisms and your belief in their authenticity?

Yeah. I think I kind of have more doubts now. But you know, I do feel that real evil exists somewhere in the world, and people can let themselves go there, and I think that's what the scariest part of it is--human nature can let themselves be okay with going down there...

So you believe in the devil now, right?

[jokes] Yes...Who else invented reality TV?

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