Jessica Rothe on Shocking 'Utopia' Scene and Her 'Happy Death Day' Future
[The following story contains major spoilers for Utopia.]
Jessica Rothe is best-known for her starring role in Blumhouse’s Happy Death Day franchise where her character, Tree Gelbman, died and came back to life at least nineteen times. But in her latest return to the screen on Gillian Flynn’s Amazon Prime series, Utopia, Rothe’s character, Sam, dies in shocking fashion at the end of the second episode, and there isn't a quantum machine to bring her back to life this time a la Happy Death Day. Naturally, Rothe would’ve loved to have been a part of Utopia for the long haul, but the chance to work with Flynn, even for a limited period of time, was a dream job she couldn’t pass up.
Heat Vision breakdown
“It’s sad and somber, but the thing that’s amazing about the wonderful world that Gillian created in this new iteration of Utopia is that it’s a world with real-life consequences; no one is safe,” Rothe tells The Hollywood Reporter. “When I read the first two drafts of the script and saw Sam’s untimely and ultimate demise, as heartbroken as I was, it was such an important moment for the characters in the show and it really solidified the dangerous and unpredictable world that we were in. But working with Gillian Flynn and the incredible cast in Chicago was a dream job, and I’m so excited for audiences to go through that emotional rollercoaster. It’s unique, fun and tragic all at the same time.”
Last year, Happy Death Day 2U was released as a follow-up to 2017’s smash hit Happy Death Day, which grossed $125 million on Blumhouse’s trademark budget of $5 million. Even though the sequel made seven times its production budget, the first film’s box office overperformance may have created unrealistic expectations for the sequel. While a third film has been put on the back burner for the time being, Rothe is still optimistic about her chances of playing Tree again, and she’s even read an outline for the third film known as Happy Death Day to Us. Nevertheless, she also admits that unrealistic expectations were placed on the second film.
“A lot of times, this industry is run on so much hype and unrealistic expectations that people lose sight of the accomplishments that are happening in real time,” Rothe explains. “I hope that the work of all creators and all filmmakers — actors, everyone — can be judged for all of the work that they put into it and the beautiful thing that it is on its own, as opposed to just being a number on a scoreboard.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Rothe also discusses her upcoming Universal film All My Life and how she pulled off a wedding in the COVID era.
[The following interview contains major spoilers for Utopia.]
First off, congrats on that thing you did recently; that’s really cool.
Thank you! Thank you so much. Yeah, it was. It took me a moment to remember what you were talking about. (Laughs.)
Yeah, I just felt like it was best to approach the subject tactfully.
(Laughs.) It’s been such a whirlwind. But yeah, the last year has been so intense and trying for so many reasons on so many people. It really was a silver lining for us, but we kind of got to condense and have a really intimate, small, little thing because I think, in some ways, I’m an intimate, small person. (Laughs.) But thank you. It was really magical, so I appreciate that.
It must’ve been nice to have a temporary return to normalcy.
Yeah, I was an emotional mess because I was so worried. We had everyone get tested, but you still just never know. It was about 30 people, and every single person told us, “I forgot how much I miss people and talking.” Even though we were all outside and spread apart, it was human interaction. So it was really, really special. I hope for you and I hope for everyone that we all get to come out of our little cocoon cages soon because man, people need people.
Well, on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, what’s it like to actually die on-screen and not come back to life for a change?
(Laughs.) You know, it’s a first for me. I think the funny thing is I’m pretty sure I’ve actually died, between stage and screen, in the double digits. Happy Death Day takes care of at least 20 between parts one and two. It’s sad and somber, but the thing that’s amazing about the wonderful world that Gillian created in this new iteration of Utopia is that it’s a world with real-life consequences; no one is safe. When I read the first two drafts of the script and saw Sam’s untimely and ultimate demise, as heartbroken as I was, it was such an important moment for the characters in the show and it really solidified the dangerous and unpredictable world that we were in. But working with Gillian Flynn and the incredible cast in Chicago was a dream job, and I’m so excited for audiences to go through that emotional rollercoaster. It’s unique, fun and tragic all at the same time.
Along with Gillian and Rainn, you were the main selling point in me watching the series. So I was both shocked and disappointed that you had such a quick yet impactful exit. But, like you said, how do you turn down the chance to work with Gillian Flynn, even if it’s for a short period of time?
Exactly. One of the reasons I love this job is I learn so much on every single set. I learn something new from every actor I work with, every director, every showrunner and every DP. It helps me not only become a better artist, but a better person. Gillian is such a unique and prolific voice for our time, and I think she’s so incredibly talented, humble, funny, dry and dark. So it really was a dream come true to work with her, and my hope is that work begets work. You never know what the connections you make on one job will lead to. So, Gillian, if you’re reading this, cast me in your next project. (Laughs.) But you’re so right; you don’t turn down an opportunity to work with someone like Gillian.
There wasn’t a Sam character on the U.K. version that died in similar fashion, right? In other words, U.K. fans wouldn’t have been able to piece it together that you’d bite the dust early?
Yeah, Sam is a completely new brainchild of Gillian. I loved and was so attracted to her integrity and her passion, even though it was sometimes blinding for her. It put her in dangerous and unpredictable situations. She truly believes in making the world a better place and I think that we need more people like that in the world right now. That’s one of the reasons why her death is so jarring and shocking because she was this natural leader for the group and such a bright ray of sunshine in this very dark world. But I think it was such a smart thing that was woven into the show. It surprises fans of the old series, but it’s also kind of like when Ned Stark dies so early on in Game of Thrones and you’re like, “Oh shit. That’s the rollercoaster we’re in for.” And I think that that’s how life is; it’s unpredictable and, at times, too short and fleeting. It really helps people to pay attention and not take things for granted.
What lengths did everyone go to in order to protect the secret surrounding your character’s fate?
Just because I’m a chatty person, I had to monitor and make sure I wasn’t going to spoil anything. (Laughs.) The thing that’s so nice is that the original Utopia, the UK version, is kind of a cult classic, but it’s not something that is very well-known in the U.S. yet. Hopefully, it becomes just as much of a classic here as it was there. As a result, when I told people I was involved with the show, they didn’t really have any context for it. It was also a little strange for me because we shot out of order. We shot episode two first, where I die, and then, we shot episode one last. So I had a really big break while everybody else was in Chicago and I was home. But luckily, I’m not a super avid Instagram or Twitter poster, so people just didn’t know where I was. So it wasn’t something that I had to really monitor myself, which I guess is a little bit of an added bonus for the fact that I suck at technology.
When your casting news broke, you were regarded as a “recurring character,” so I’ve been wondering if that label was meant to disguise things a bit.
Probably. I think that’s very astute. I definitely know that we had a lot of conversations about making sure to not only keep the secret, but also for the integrity of the show that the nerds as a group and me as one of the nerds really felt like a cohesive, unbreakable group. That you can’t really imagine one without the other. So I definitely think that was something on Amazon’s mind and on our own, but again, to kind of make Sam passing very impactful. That you can’t imagine the group functioning without her.
Did you enjoy your goth-play disguise? Did you ever come close to a phase like this?
(Laughs.) You know, I really wanted to, but I was way too much of a goody two-shoes in high school. In high school, I remember when goth or emo was hot and I always thought the girls who came in kind of gothed out were so cool. So I was just way too nervous to commit, but that’s something that I love about this job. I get to live alternate lives and alternate personas. The wig was quite a thing. We actually nicknamed the wig “Liza” because at one point, it kind of looked like a Liza Minnelli haircut. It went through many different iterations, but I really loved it. I love having the opportunity to try on looks, clothes and wigs that I would never wear in real life.
So Utopia isn’t a sneak preview of your first post-COVID red carpet look?
(Laughs.) I mean, I don’t know. COVID times are strange, and maybe I’ll just get really bored with how I look and completely and convert. I have bought some of those oVertone hair dyes that are like pink and blue, but I haven’t been brave enough to try them yet.
Your character has a deep understanding of Dystopia and Utopia, the graphic novels at the heart of this series. She even has conspiracy theories about them. Do you have an interest in something that you know inside out a la Sam and those graphic novels?
Oh, that’s such a good question. When I was in middle school, I had a deep obsession and love of Agatha Christie books, especially the detective, Hercule Poirot, and I had read them all back to front many, many times. I also really loved Sherlock Holmes and big band jazz. (Laughs.) So those were my obsessions at the time. As to now, I have a lot of varying interests, but I think the thing that I consider myself an expert on, whether it’s true or not, is my dog — his moods and his needs — as I feel most pet owners get to the point of. (Laughs.) But yeah, the truth is, I consider myself a student of many things and a master of none. During quarantine, I rented a pottery wheel and have started doing that. I also fell on the hipster bandwagon of baking bread, so that’s been something I’ve been doing, and I have quite a little greenhouse of succulents, cacti and plants going in our house. But I don’t know if I would consider myself the ultimate expert of any of those things, as Sam might of Dystopia and Utopia.
You’re also an expert on Happy Death Day.
Well, Happy Death Day filmmaker Chris Landon recently did some press as part of his new film’s [Freaky] trailer, and he was asked about the status of Happy Death Day 3. He even revealed the title to be Happy Death to Us, which probably fits the potential story really well. Regardless, I have to admit that I was quite attached to the title idea of Happy Death Day Tree, which many people suggested throughout last year’s press tour. Did the two of you ever discuss that title in earnest?
Chris Landon’s brain works in so many brilliant and unpredictable ways, and so I’m sure that title knocked around in his brain for a while. But I would follow him to the ends of the Earth, whether it’s on a Happy Death Day Tree, Happy Death Day to Us or a different project. I just think that he is one of a kind.
Have you read a script for the third film?
I have not, but I know general outline ideas. It feels very important to both Chris and I that if we do have the opportunity to make a third film and finish the trilogy and finish Tree’s story, we want to do it right. I feel so much love and so much deep protection over her as a character, her as a final girl and her as a role model for young women and people of all ages. So I would never want us to sacrifice her story and her journey just to make it something smaller than it deserves to be. Making any kind of follow-up film is always really tricky since you want to make sure it lands the right tone and in the right place. So I’ll be interested to see if we’re lucky enough to find that right place and find the right way to conclude that story.
I really hope you get to conclude the trilogy. The second film still received the exact same Rotten Tomatoes score from critics, and it made seven times its $9 million production budget. In hindsight, I think the first one over-performed financially, which set the bar too high for the sequel’s box office expectations. Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Star Wars: The Last Jedi also faced similar circumstances. But it sounds like you’re optimistic about the third film’s chances.
Yeah, I hope so. I just think Chris is such a brilliant, brilliant creator and collaborator, and I love every moment that I get to spend with him. But I think what you said is so smart and so right. A lot of times, this industry is run on so much hype and unrealistic expectations that people lose sight of the accomplishments that are happening in real time. I hope that the work of all creators and all filmmakers — actors, everyone — can be judged for all of the work that they put into it and the beautiful thing that it is on its own, as opposed to just being a number on a scoreboard.
What’s the latest on your next film for Universal?
So, last December, right before everything fell apart, we finished shooting a movie called All My Life. We shot it in New Orleans, so I was back in New Orleans again, which is where we filmed both Happy Death Day one and two. I’ve also worked on a couple of other projects there, so it is very familiar stomping ground. But All My Life is a really beautiful love story about a young couple who are engaged and have decided to get married. Unfortunately, [Harry Shum Jr.’s character] is diagnosed with cancer, so it’s about this couple’s journey, their friend group and how incredibly supportive they are, how their love kind of sees no bounds and what it is like to navigate that tricky and heartbreaking experience. Harry Shum Jr., my co-star, is absolutely brilliant and beautiful in it. We worked with the wonderful Marc Meyers, who did My Friend Dahmer. It was a really unique and special experience, but very emotional, heartbreaking and tender because when you approach a true story and the events that happened in someone’s life, there’s an amount of care and respect that I want to make sure that I am approaching the material with, even if we are going in a different direction than things that actually happened. But I think it could be a really special film for people right now because at the end of the day, the story is about hope, love, human connection and weathering through hard times. And I think that’s something that people could really connect to right now.
I’m always fascinated by studio-actor relationships and how studios will often keep working with actors they already know and trust. Like you said earlier, work begets work. Since you had a relationship with Blumhouse/Universal via Happy Death Day, do you think that familiarity played a role in your return to the studio for All My Life?
150 percent. I feel so incredibly grateful to be in business with Universal. I think that they just have such amazing taste, and I have the utmost respect for the people that they hire. I think they tell incredibly diverse and exciting stories that range across a multitude of genres. So when I was welcomed back into that family, I was overjoyed. I truly, truly have loved every Universal project that I’ve worked on.
You’re known for your genre work as Happy Death Day and Utopia both take place in heightened universes. Thus, did you enjoy pivoting to a traditional drama that’s as grounded and human as anything you’ve done so far?
I really did. I think that it’s such a gift being an actor and getting to explore all different ranges of emotions and existence. And I, first and foremost, am compelled by story and the people that I’m working with. Whether it’s a heightened horror-comedy, a drama or an action thriller, a good story is a good story at the end of the day. But I come from a theater background and I do really enjoy very simple, stripped-down stories. So I feel very lucky that I was able to be a part of All My Life for that reason.
Lastly, since your Utopia character’s job was to paint grass to look even greener, what’s the strangest job you’ve ever had?
Oh boy. I worked as Alice from Alice in Wonderland at a place in New York on the Upper West Side called Alice’s Tea Cup. I entertained six year olds, predominantly, for birthday parties. I would talk in a very heightened British accent, paint their faces and play hide-and-go-seek inside of a restaurant. It was the best-paying job I had when I lived in New York; I also nannied and catered and did all range of strange jobs. But the best part was at the end of the day, I got to take home a giant box full of scones and if you’ve never been to Alice’s Tea Cup on the Upper West Side, the scones are amazing. (Laughs.) It definitely is a job that I look back on, and it seems like something that would come from an episode of Broad City. It was a very strange job.
Utopia is now available on Amazon Prime
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