Jessica Rothe on 'All My Life' and Wanting a 'Happy Death Day' and 'Freaky' Crossover

All My Life
Courtesy of Patti Perret/Universal Studios
The actor reflects on the bonds she formed on the set of the tearjerker, and imagines a battle between Christopher Landon's creations, who inhabit a single universe: "It totally needs to be a showdown of Tree versus Millie."

Jessica Rothe cemented herself as a scream queen to be reckoned with via her two Happy Death Day films, but fans and critics alike will also agree that her handling of the franchise’s dramatic material was just as impressive, if not more so. After two successful Blumhouse films, Universal Pictures clearly felt the same way since they quickly found another starring vehicle for Rothe in the form of Marc Meyers’ All My Life, which is based on the tragic true story of newlyweds Jenn Carter and Solomon Chau. Rothe stars as Jenn, whose engagement to “Sol” (Harry Shum Jr.) is upended by his liver cancer diagnosis.

While the film maintains the essence of Jenn and Sol’s actual story, it was the real Jenn Carter herself, who encouraged Rothe and Co. to utilize artistic license.

“We decided to FaceTime and we ended up being on the phone for over 3 hours. And one of the things that I will be eternally grateful for… is that she made it very clear that she wanted me to make this role my own,” Rothe tells The Hollywood Reporter. “She didn’t want me to feel any pressure to try to mimic her or to worriedly say on set, ‘Would the real Jenn like this choice?’ If I had been trying to do some kind of impersonation, it would’ve made being emotionally present incredibly difficult.”

Ever since Happy Death Day filmmaker Christopher Landon revealed that his latest slasher-comedy, Freaky, happens to take place in the same universe as his two Happy Death Day films, there’s been quite the clamor for a crossover event involving Rothe’s Tree Gelbman and Kathryn Newton’s Butcher character. Naturally, Rothe would love to have a showdown with Newton’s slasher character.

“I think that’s totally the way to go because [Newton’s Butcher] embodies so much strength, power and twisted badass-ness in that role. I was so lucky to get to see it on opening weekend, and it has such fun, wild performances from both Kathryn and Vince [Vaughn],” Rothe shares. “It totally needs to be a showdown of Tree versus Millie. And maybe Vince can make a cameo as a scream queen because he gave us scream queens a run for our money. Who would have ever thought that Vince Vaughn would be the next great scream queen?”

In a recent conversation with THR, Rothe also discusses what it was like to plan fictional and real-life nuptials at nearly the same time, and how the All My Life cast and crew supported each other during the film’s many heartbreaking moments.

Oasis’ (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? was a gigantic record when I was a kid. Even though you were pretty young when it came out, did you eventually form a connection to it down the road?

I did. That song [“Don’t Look Back in Anger”], specifically, is such a staple in so many people’s adolescence. There’s such longing, heart and joy, and that song is even tinged with a little bit of sadness. That song was in the script from the very beginning. It never changed, but there were other musical moments that morphed as we worked throughout the production process. It’s such a perfect fit, and Harry does such a beautiful job performing it. So I’m delighted that it’s our love theme of the movie. (Laughs.)

Since your character doesn’t like zucchini, was this the greatest acting challenge of your career?

(Laughs.) It was. I really like to challenge myself in my roles and move to places that make me uncomfortable. (Rothe says sarcastically.) I love zucchini. One of my favorite recipes that I made a million times during quarantine is Instant Pot zucchini bolognese. It’s a spin on the one that Meghan Markle made famous, but it has Italian sausage in it. I think it’s Italian sausage, zucchini, onion and garlic. It’s so easy and it’s so delicious. But I get it. It’s a weird, very moist, squishy vegetable. I think you just have to make sure you prepare it right.

All My Life exercises artistic license, which is usually the best course of action for true stories, but the real Jenn Carter encouraged you guys to make the story your own, right?

She really did. I got to meet the real Jenn not long after I was cast in the film. We decided to FaceTime and we ended up being on the phone for over 3 hours. We talked about everything from her and Sol’s story, the script, the movies we were watching to our fiancés and our new dogs. It was a lovely, very heartfelt virtual slumber party that we had, and I just found her to be this incredibly kind, generous, sunbeam of a human. And one of the things that I will be eternally grateful for, as you already mentioned, is that she made it very clear that she wanted me to make this role my own. She didn’t want me to feel any pressure to try to mimic her or to worriedly say on set, “Would the real Jenn like this choice?” The freedom that she granted me really allowed me to show up on set every single day and be incredibly present with my amazing co-star Harry, our incredible director Marc, and just find all of the beautiful, intimate moments that existed between us. If I had been trying to do some kind of impersonation, it would’ve made being emotionally present incredibly difficult.

Was there a particular anecdote, photograph or piece of footage that ended up being key to your version of Jenn?

Yeah, there was. I saw the wedding video, which is now at the end of the film, and when I first read the script, I balled my eyes out because it was included with the document. There was something in the video that Jenn and I also talked about at great lengths and it was just the amazing amount of joy that the two of them still carried through this very difficult time. They made a conscious decision to wake up every single day and find the joy in that day, the joy in the moment, and to really take advantage of the time they had left together, as fleeting as it was. So I thought that that was really beautiful and moving. So often, when we think about cancer, illness and loved ones passing away, it’s incredibly easy to focus on the heartbreak of it and how traumatizing and heart-wrenching it is. But there can also be an insane amount of joy, and a big reason why we made this film was to celebrate the life of this incredible man. So, remembering that joy at the end of the day, it felt like it was most important to honor their love and the brightness that they brought into the world. That was incredibly important to me, Harry and our entire cast and crew.

Harry told me that he was a last-minute addition to the film, and yet, you guys still managed to create chemistry on screen. Did you feel any pressure to bond with Harry in a short amount of time, or can two talented actors make up for a compressed schedule rather easily?

(Laughs.) Well, Harry made it so easy. We met during his chemistry read, and he immediately brought so much charm, charisma, heart, talent and emotional complexity to the role. It would’ve been almost impossible not to instantly fall in love with him as an actor and a person. After the chemistry read, I didn’t see him for maybe a month because we were both working, and then we saw each other again when we were on the plane. We switched our seats around in order to sit together and we just spent the whole plane ride talking, catching up and learning about each other. The cocky part of me wants to say, “Well, of course. As an actor, you can make chemistry work anywhere.” But I do think that there is a comfort and an intimacy that can only exist if you truly feel seen by someone and respected by them. That allows you to feel safe enough to open up and be vulnerable. So Harry and I worked very hard to form that rapport with each other and to get to the place where we felt comfortable being incredibly vulnerable and going to scary places.

So what was it like to plan a fictional wedding and a real-life wedding at roughly the same time?

(Laughs.) It was wild. It definitely put a lot into perspective for me. Knock on wood, but I luckily live in a reality where my now-husband is not sick. We are both healthy and well, so we’re both starting off our life together on a much more hopeful note. But it was wild because planning a wedding is so incredibly heightened. You’re worried about so many things, such as table settings, that don’t really matter at the end of the day. So it was fun dabbling in it for the film, and then returning to my real life and being like, “Oh, okay, so if the flowers don’t look a certain way or if the food sucks, it’s all going to be fine because at the end of the day, all that matters is I’m marrying my best friend.”

I know the pandemic changed your wedding plans a great deal, but did Jenn and Sol’s wedding provide you with any direct inspiration for your own nuptials?

By the time we shot the wedding in the movie, I had planned the first iteration of my wedding almost entirely. And you’re completely right; we had to do a 180 because of COVID. But, in a funny way, the inspiration that I took was the whole wedding. Harry and I made a very conscious effort and decision that we, as actors and characters, never wanted to lose sight of each other. It was all about us being connected and spending time with each other. And even though the wedding in the film is a huge wedding with a lot of people, it’s just about us. So I ended up changing what was going to be an almost 200-person wedding in my real life to a micro wedding that was very, very small. That way, we could do it in a Covid-friendly way. But I still carried forward that intention into the day, that intention of, “This day is about me and my partner. It’s about all of the people who helped get us to this place in our relationship and celebrating that love and that connection.” So [now-husband] Eric [Clem] and I were inseparable that day, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. And experiencing the wedding in the film probably did inform that, even though I never thought about it that way.

This is a horrible question, but since you already went through the motions on a movie set, did you feel slightly more comfortable on the day of your ceremony? Did the movie’s wedding almost function as batting practice or an elaborate rehearsal for your side of things?

(Laughs.) No, it’s not a horrible question! This is actually the second time I’ve been married in a movie, or at least the second time that I’ve worn a wedding dress. So, yes and no. Even if you’re not in the entertainment industry, there are so many moments where our lives feel like a movie because everything is so perfect or larger than life or epic in some way. And while I was filming the wedding, I had that feeling of, “Oh my god, my life is like a movie while I’m making this movie.” The fountain scene was an overly romantic, heightened moment for me, personally. And then, at my real wedding, I felt incredibly at ease, but I don’t know if that’s because I had done it before. (Laughs.) Or it was because I knew that I was making the right choice and committing to a life with this person who I love so deeply, who I feel incredibly connected to and who I would do anything for. So it’s kind of a chicken or the egg situation. I’m not sure which came first, but I’m sure that it did inform it in some way.

Since you just mentioned it, how cold was the fountain water?

Freezing. It was so cold. New Orleans in November is a very humid and cold place. When you add humidity and moisture, it’s just a whole different beast than L.A. or Colorado, where I’m from. So it was very cold. And the other thing I didn’t expect was that my dress took on about 40 pounds of water weight because it was this huge, beautiful, multilayer taffeta explosion. So I had all these plans to jump into the fountain and jump in the air and do spins and run around, and I couldn’t do any of it. But that’s the joy of what we get to do, especially when you’re suddenly in a situation where there are real-life circumstances informing your acting, your decisions and the choices you can make. You can’t fake it, and you can’t phone it in or do something that would be unrealistic because it’s physically impossible. So the water being cold, my dress taking on all that weight, the fact that we only got one shot at it — because resetting my hair and makeup and the dress would’ve just been an absolute disaster — added an adrenaline. It just forces you to be incredibly present.

The dog introduction wrecked me as soon as I saw it in the first trailer. What do you remember about the filming of that moment?

Yeah, the first time I read the script, that moment destroyed me. And it did every single time I read it over the next few months as I was preparing and rehearsing. When we did it at the table read, everybody just sobbed. It’s such a testament to our incredible writer, Todd [Rosenberg], in the way that he was able to capture such emotion with such a specific visual cue and what it meant ultimately. On the day we filmed that, we actually didn’t do that many takes of it because we all really understood where it sat emotionally. I just made sure that I was breathing and that I was present. It’s about letting the knowledge unfold in real-time as heartbreaking and terrible as it is, and not allowing Jessica, the actor, to get ahead of where the character would be in my brain. But yeah, that scene is just so devastating.

Journalists often ask you and Chris Landon about a third Happy Death Day movie, but ever since Chris indicated that both stories take place in the same universe, we’ve now shifted our attention to the crossover event of the century: Freaky Death Day.


Of course, I really want to see your character, Tree, go head to head with Kathryn Newton’s Butcher character since they’re both determined forces of nature.

I agree with you. I think that’s totally the way to go because, as you said, [Newton’s Butcher] embodies so much strength, power and twisted badass-ness in that role. I was so lucky to get to see it on opening weekend, and it has such fun, wild performances from both Kathryn and Vince. So I agree with you that it totally needs to be a showdown of Tree versus Millie. And maybe Vince can make a cameo as a scream queen because he gave us scream queens a run for our money. He did a really good job. (Laughs.) But that’s what I love about Chris’ [Landon] work; he subverts things like that. Who would have ever thought that Vince Vaughn would be the next great scream queen? He found a lot of truth, honesty and vulnerability. These are colors that I’ve never seen Vince Vaughn perform before, and that’s one of the things that I love about genre-bendy films. There’s a lot more permission for actors to step outside of the boxes that people are used to seeing them in.

In terms of continuity, Chris told me that you guys had to rebuild the hospital set in Happy Death Day 2U since the first movie’s location was no longer available. Did you also put a bunch of pressure on yourself to make sure you looked nearly identical to Tree in the first movie?

100 percent. That is 100 percent something actors and people worry about. Luckily, we hadn’t waited that long. Chris turned the script around very quickly; he’s an incredibly fast writer. So it’s not like it had been five years and I had shaved my head. (Laughs.) The only big cover-up we had to do was actually in the first one when we did reshoots. Israel [Broussard] had to shave his head for a different project, so we had to get him a wig, which we named Carol. So there are a couple scenes in the first movie where Israel is wearing an incredibly strange hair piece. (Laughs.) But they did a really good job masking it.

Since we discussed chemistry building earlier, did you and Israel have considerable time to get to know each other, or did you build a connection on the fly like you did with Harry?

Actually, on both All My Life and Happy Death Day, we were so lucky because we actually had a week of rehearsal for both. So we had a little bit of time to settle in, get to know each other and rehearse. Actually, Israel and I would go to the grocery store quite a lot. Since he was one of the only people who had a car, he would drive us around New Orleans and take us to Raising Cane’s, which is his favorite fried chicken place in the world. (Laughs.) On All My Life with Harry, our director, Marc, was incredibly collaborative, which I’m so appreciative for. He created a very creatively stimulating and collaborative vibe on set, and after every single day of working for 12 hours and shooting, crying, laughing and having all of the emotions, Marc, Harry and I would go back to the apartment complex where we were staying and make dinner. Then, we’d go through the script and make sure that we understood the work for the next day. We’d also pick apart a scene we didn’t understand or come up with alts for the day just in case some of the text wasn’t ringing through. The wedding vows in All My Life were rewritten and rewritten and rewritten by me, Harry, Marc and Todd up until the day that we shot it. We all felt so incredibly passionate about the film and wanted it to really resonate with people and be universal in its specificity. So what I’m trying to say is that I got a lot of extra bonding time with Harry that way. We were really in the trenches together, and that’s one of the things I actually love about being on location. You’re kind of in summer camp, and you get to spend all of your time creating art with these amazing people. And if you’re lucky enough to get along with them and like them, it also means that you get extra bonding time. So instead of everyone going home at the end of the day and doing laundry... you’re all in a pod, which is kind of delightful.

Since there are a number of heavy scenes in All My Life, was it helpful to have someone like Jay Pharoah on set? Obviously, he can lighten the mood in an instant.

It really was. Jay is so incredibly talented. I love that he gets to kind of show a different side in this movie. But that was the thing that was incredible about our whole cast. It’s an incredibly diverse, multi-hyphenate group of actors. Half of our cast consisted of incredible dancers, singers and musicians. We also had three standup comedians who we would watch do standup on the weekends. It made it so that the energy was always light, fun, inclusive and filled with joy. Those darker, more heartbreaking places were easier to handle because you knew that you had the warm embrace of people waiting for you when you were done with the scene.

The last sequence of All My Life takes place in The Bahamas. Did you turn that trip into a vacation?

A little bit. We came in a day before, and then I stayed an extra day. So we were pretty much on our own island, which was very bougie and fun. We were near the swimming pigs, so I got to go and see them, which was a dream of mine. It’s just so incredibly beautiful out there, and I had never been before. The water is unlike anything I have ever seen, and it was shot so beautifully. I mean, they captured the beauty so well in the shots, but it was 10 million times more beautiful than that. (Laughs.) It was one of those things that I don’t think you can capture on film.

All My Life is now available on VOD and Digital.