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Jessica Rothe admits she’s a “total chicken,” but her fearless performances in Blumhouse’s Happy Death Day franchise suggest otherwise.
Rothe returns to the role of Theresa “Tree” Gelbman in Happy Death Day 2U, which fuses even more genres to the original’s Groundhog Day-meets-slasher mashup. This time around, Tree must enlist the help of a team in order to free herself from another unexpected time loop. The latest loop presents a whole new set of circumstances, some of which Tree may not want to escape.
The first trailer for writer-director Christopher Landon’s Happy Death Day 2U arrived in late November, and viewers were immediately hooked by a clip of Rothe’s character skydiving to her death — in a swimsuit. However, if it wasn’t for reshoots, this standout scene never would’ve made it to the big screen.
“I think Chris had the idea a while before, but because of time limitations and budget, I think we just couldn’t do it the first time around,” Rothe tells The Hollywood Reporter. “When the film was cut together and started testing really well, Chris said, ‘Well, let’s go in and get the skydiving one.’”
After Happy Death Day’s run at the worldwide box office ($125 million on a $4.8 million budget), most studios would end up micromanaging their latest cash cow, however Rothe says just the opposite regarding Blumhouse: “They kind of gave us free rein. We didn’t have to wait and get a bunch of notes from the studio and then alter a ton of things we were doing last minute.”
Rothe also spoke with THR about the challenges of block-shooting Happy Death Day 2U’s many emotional scenes, as well as her experience on the La La Land set and how Happy Death Day’s success changed her life.
I expected Back to the Future Part II to influence Happy Death Day 2U, but I did not expect Val Kilmer’s Real Genius to make its presence felt.
The thing that’s amazing about working with Chris Landon is that he has such an encyclopedic knowledge of all films in all genres. Obviously, I was there when we shot the movie; I was in almost every frame. And yet, when I watch it, I’m like, “Oh, shit! That’s there, too!” So, every influence is such a fun and delightful thing to discover.
Before production began, when you and your director Christopher Landon saw Tom Cruise HALO-jump out of an aircraft in the Mission: Impossible – Fallout trailer, did you both agree that Tree has to top Tom by skydiving in a swimsuit?
[Laughs] I mean, most of my career goals are based on one-upping Tom Cruise. Hands down, it is my favorite death from this film. The really incredible thing was that it was actually brought in during reshoots. I think Chris had the idea a while before, but because of time limitations and budget, I think we just couldn’t do it the first time around. When the film was cut together and started testing really well, Chris said, “Well, let’s go in and get the skydiving one.” I just love how poppy, funny and how “Tree” it is. It’s the most Tree thing to do to just jump out of an airplane in a bikini. Doing the stunt itself was really fun as well.
Were you a genre (horror) fan growing up?
I wasn’t only because I’m a total chicken. I do love other kinds of genre such as sci-fi and musicals. I watched horror films growing up, and I would love watching them with friends. But then, I would spend the next week sleeping in my parents’ room because I would be so scared. When The Ring came out, it destroyed me for an entire week. I just couldn’t deal with how terrifying that film was. So, I definitely have started watching more horror films now that I’m a part of this franchise and part of the Blumhouse family. I want to support everybody, but even when we went to go see Halloween (2018), I just curled up in a ball, watched it through my hands and screamed a lot. Chris found that really funny.
Thus, it must’ve been quite a shock when you first realized that you had been bestowed the title of “scream queen,” a term that means far more than it used to since these parts are becoming more and more dimensional in recent years.
Yeah, it still is. I’m so honored to have the title, and so honored to be a part of this scream queen lineage. When you think about the OG scream queens and all of the incredible women who have really defined this genre, such as Jamie Lee Curtis, they are all so talented and so multidimensional. I feel so grateful that horror films have evolved like they have. With Happy Death Day and with all of the heart and soul that Chris pours into these scripts, Tree is allowed to be flawed. She’s allowed be sassy and brassy as well as fun and kind of snarky. But, she also has so much heart, and that’s one of the things that I love the most about playing her. I love that she exists in this film for people to see.
How did your life change after Happy Death Day grossed $125 million worldwide? Did you start getting more offers for other genre roles? Did you have a bunch of general meetings, aka water bottle meetings?
There were a bunch of water bottle meetings, which are delightful and fun because I got to go into rooms with people who were excited about the work that I did, and I was so excited about the work they were producing or developing. It’s just cool to be part of the conversation in a very different way. I would love to say that overnight my whole life changed and everything was different. In some ways, it was but in some ways, it wasn’t, which I think is a really beautiful thing. I am so lucky to have been a part of making a film that I am unbelievably proud of and so honored to be in; that is the true reward of this. It’s the film, the completed project and then also the friendships that I have. I’m so close now with Chris [Landon], Rachel [Matthews] and Israel [Broussard]. Those are people who I will have in my life until the day that I die. Yes, of course all of the wonderful things that came from the first one, and hopefully, knock on wood, the things that will come from the second … it would be amazing if it can help jump-start my career in another way, but I am so grateful to have had this experience.
Blumhouse has established a business model that has proven to be wildly successful. Now that you’ve led two Blumhouse films, what separates Jason Blum from most producers you’ve encountered in this business?
The thing that separates Jason from other producers is that he takes big chances. Because of the model of the company, he’s more able to do that. He’s able to work with new and exciting talent, whether it’s writers, directors or actors. He’s making so many movies that of course some of them are going to be misses, but some of them are going to be huge hits, too. With films like Get Out, Happy Death Day, Split and plenty of others in development, they give voice to people who otherwise wouldn’t be granted that opportunity. Chris always talks about how if he had walked into any other studio and said, “I want to make a sci-fi-horror thriller and an action, love drama-comedy,” they would’ve shut the door in his face. But, Jason has the incredible ability to recognize talent and empower those people that he believes in.
Also, I have to say that shooting the film itself was an incredibly positive experience. It was so well-developed before we got on set that once we were there, Blumhouse just let us make the movie. They kind of gave us free rein. They trusted Chris so much; they trusted Toby Oliver, our DP. We didn’t have to wait and get a bunch of notes from the studio and then alter a ton of things we were doing last minute. It was a very organic process, which I really appreciate.
Since you performed countless variations of the dorm-room scene throughout both films, did that sequence ever invade your dreams?
[Laughs] When we were filming the first one, it definitely did. It has a couple times. I had a Happy Death Day-type dream recently, but it wasn’t set in the dorm. It was just a weird dream where I discovered that I was stuck in a loop and being manipulated by an outside force who was making me do things over and over again. I would much rather relive being in a dorm with sweet Israel than in the nightmare version of my latest dream.
Did you block-shoot [shoot each location’s scenes all at once] the sequel like you did the original?
We did. Originally, it was something I was nervous about because I was worried that things would start blending together and we wouldn’t get as many nuances. But, it actually enabled us to carve out those nuances even more. We could kind of compare; we had a map that we were etching out and finding, “OK, if this is day two, then in order to get to where we need to be on day five, day three should kind of have this feel.” Chris and I had a very funny shorthand by the time we finished the first one, which we carried right into the second film.
Because you’re playing with so many different genres in this movie, Tree runs the gamut of emotions. One minute, she’s acting maniacal, and the next minute, she’s experiencing something incredibly emotional. Since you block-shot, would you shoot the heavier scenes first so you could end on the lighter ones?
It really depended on what the scene was. Chris was always incredibly aware and sensitive to wanting to make sure that we were put in the best position to succeed. A lot of times we would start with the more emotional stuff so that we could get it out of the way and not be too tired. There were also instances where we shot chronologically, like the emotional restaurant scenes, so that I could experience the emotional arc of those scenes and let it inform the choices I would make later on. I found that incredibly helpful.
Both films illustrate how the smallest interactions can have a profound impact on someone else, even if it’s just reciprocating their greeting. Has Tree made you more conscious of these smaller moments than you would’ve been in the past?
Oh, definitely! It’s one of the things I love about what I do. I have the opportunity to live different people’s lives and learn from them. I would hope that before I was relatively aware, sensitive and conscious-minded, but playing Tree has made me much more in tune with wanting to make the world a better place through my actions.
You worked on La La Land, one of the most decorated films of the last decade. How did that experience rub off on you?
That experience was so incredible. Everyone on that set was unbelievably kind and professional. Emma Stone is one of the most generous, lovely humans I’ve ever met and is such a classic Hollywood star in the way that she is just glamorous, yet kind, and so incredibly poised. Working with Damien Chazelle was really fascinating because he’s a true artist and director. He didn’t always know what it was that he wanted, but when he saw it, he knew it the moment it happened. Watching him navigate and learn how to talk about different kinds of art forms, whether it’s music, dancing or things that he maybe wasn’t used to directing, and ultimately figure it all out was really an incredible thing.
Everybody asks what you’re doing next, but I’m more curious about what you want to do next. Is there a type of role you’ve been chasing for a long time?
There are a couple. The biggest thing is I just want to continue to work with people who are better than me, who challenge and push me and will make me better. I want to work on roles that scare me and intimidate me because I have no idea how I’m possibly going to do them. I would love to play a sociopath; I think that would be really fun. I also want to play someone who’s a lot more measured than Tree because part of the joy of Tree is that she’s so out there, she’s all over the place and very bold. So, getting to explore someone who’s a lot more measured and calculating would be really fascinating. I’d also love to do a lot more period pieces because those are always fun.
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