Exclusive Interview: Ashley Bell talks The Last Exorcism Part II

On March 1st, CBS Films will release THE LAST EXORCISM PART II; from producers Eli Roth and Strike Entertainment, the film continues where the first film left off, with Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell) is found terrified and alone in rural Louisiana. Nell realizes that she can't remember entire portions of the previous months only that she is the last surviving member of her family. Just as Nell begins the difficult process of starting a new life, the evil force that once possessed her is back.

While the first film was an effectively told entry into the found footage horror genre, its success rested largely on the shoulders of Ashley Bell, who gave a stirring, intense and physically grueling performance as the tormented Nell Sweetzer. Garnering numerous accolades, including a pleasantly surprising Independent Spirit Award nomination, Bell emerged from out of nowhere to become one of the most refreshing young actors in the genre today.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Bell last week to discuss her latest sojourn into Nell Sweetzer's tortured world. We discussed Nell's state of mind in the new film, how THE LAST EXORCISM changed her life, and the price of Nell's famous body contortions.

Where do we find Nell in the new Last Exorcism movie?

It picks up right when the last film ended, and we find Nell having escaped the woods. We don't know what mental state she's in, how much post-traumatic stress she's having, how broken she is. And we follow her as she's thrown into New Orleans, into Mardi Gras; I mean, she doesn't even know what an iPod is. We see how she makes her way through this environment, and we see how the devil teases her; he sets up all these new forbidden things, like music and make-up and friends and a boyfriend. Then he very methodically takes them away.

What was your first reaction to the fact that they wanted to move ahead with a Last Exorcism sequel?

I love the character of Nell, it was incredible to build a character like that, and also to build Abalam, the demon that possesses Nell. So when I got a call to step back into the Doc Martens, I was very eager to do that. I wanted to see the journey Nell would take, because there's so much of the world to explore through her eyes, so much that hasn't been seen. I wanted to live that and see how that would feel.

Were you glad they eschewed the fake documentary format in favor of a more traditional style?

I think it's incredible that they switched styles, I thought it was so cool.

Seeing how you inhabit the character of Nell, did you have ideas about her state of mind following the events of the first film? Were you ever free to add your input while making the sequel?

Well, it was all the same producers involved, Eli Roth, Strike Entertainment and StudioCanal, and they're such an incredible group of filmmakers and so interested in staying true to the character that they sent me the script and said, "contribute." And they made a very safe set to play and explore on; a big thing for me is to do my own stunts. For the first film, the director asked if there was anything I wanted to try, and I showed him the back-bend and he said, "okay, you do that!" I had no idea that was going to become such an iconic image.

I spoke to Eli recently and he told me you hurt yourself while performing one of Nell's body twists.

I taught myself to levitate. (Laughs) Just kidding, I'm not that method. But it's this levitating back-bend that even the stunt people were nervous to do, and they said, "you get her for eight takes only." We went for sixteen, eighteen takes. A couple months ago, I went to my doctor and he said, "did you know you have a stress fracture in your lower vertebrae? Did you do any gymnastics or anything like that?" And I said yeah, one thing comes to mind.

Is it draining to play Nell? It seems like you go through so much to portray the character, physically and mentally.

But that's what I trained for, that's what I studied for. I always consider work a vacation, and the time in between work. (Laughs) So it's draining when the film ends. What was cool about the director Ed Gass-Donnelly was he created a very collaborative set. I mean, we're filming in New Orleans, in the graveyards, in Mardi Gras, all of that is live. That's an actress' dream, to not have to imagine all that, but to be in the middle of a parade, to be right there.

How did your life change after the first film came out and became such a hit? Of course, you received an Independent Spirit nomination, which must have been cool.

It really broke me out. From doing THE LAST EXORCISM, I have a romantic comedy coming out called THE BOUNCE BACK, which is premiering at South By Southwest. I have an action film called THE MARINE 3, coming out on March 5th, which is straight, raw action. Another film called SPARKS based on a graphic novel. It's allowed me to play all these great roles, which was really the end goal.

Did you get a ton of horror movie offers, was there the potential for you to become the next big "scream queen"?

There was some stuff, but was exciting about THE LAST EXORCISM was that I got cited more for my physicality. I got a lot of scripts afterward, and one that struck me was called THE DAY, which I made. In meeting with the producer and director, and they said, "you're going to have to do your own stunts, drop weight, learn how to work with a shotgun, we might make you shave your head." It sounded awesome! The more I'm challenged like that, the more I'm excited to make that transformation.

It must have been fun to play a badass.

Oh yeah! I grew up watching ALIENS and revering Ripley, and I love action movies, I'm such a tomboy, so to get the chance to play with shotguns was really cool.

Are there any plans that you know of for a LAST EXORCISM PART III?

The Devil never has a last exorcism. (Laughs) The first one was Cotton Marcus' last exorcism. What I'm most proud of with this film is the huge twist at the end. It's something only Eli Roth could pull off. There's a huge shock, a big reveal, and I think audiences will be really, really surprised and scared.

Extra Tidbit: THE LAST EXORCISM PART II opens on March 1st.

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