For Christopher Landon’s Happy Death Day, star Jessica Rothe gets to live out her birthday—and her untimely demise—over and over again, in hopes of figuring out just who’s trying to kill her. On paper, it might seem like redoing the same day over and over again would be easy, but for Rothe and her director, there were challenges they both faced while collaborating together on the latest production from Blumhouse.
During the recent press day for Happy Death Day, Rothe talked about how she and Landon weathered those challenges, and she also discussed her character’s unique arc, her favorite death in the film, and much more. Look for Happy Death Day in theaters this Friday the 13th, courtesy of Universal Studios.
Great to speak with you, Jessica. What's really fun about this film is that it seems like, “Oh, this character just does the same thing over and over again.” But really, Tree has such a cool, and in some ways unique, character arc in this movie. I'd love to hear about what your initial impressions were of this character when you first read the script, and maybe what it was about her that you connected with.
Jessica Rothe: Yeah, I'm so character-driven when it comes to the work that I choose. It doesn't necessarily have to be the hero or the villain. I love all different kinds of characters from all different walks of life, but there has to be some kind of meat, something to sink my teeth into. And Tree, as you said so beautifully, has this tremendous arc. She goes from being this kind of narcissistic, stereotypical, sorority girl who doesn't really care how her actions affect other people, to this bad-ass heroine who takes charge of her own life and really grabs life by the balls. Over the course of that arc, because of the repetition of the day, we get to watch her not only transform, but also each day kind of peels back a layer of that hardened façade she has up.
We come to realize that it is a façade, that it's a defense mechanism that she's created to be accepted, to be liked, to stay safe, to hide the wounded, scared, hurt girl that's underneath, who's actually funny, and sweet, and smart. That's such a unique journey, but especially for a woman. I think it's one that resonates with a lot of women. But also, a lot of times women don't get to have arcs like this in movies. Guys get to do whatever because their characters are allowed to be despicable and then be the hero. It's very rare for a woman to get to do that.
And that's why after reading the script, and then especially after meeting Chris Landon and being so inspired by his vision and also his energy and kind of how brilliant and darkly funny he is, I was like, "I have to work on this movie." I had to do it.
Chris puts you through a lot in this, both emotionally and physically, but it seemed like there were aspects of Tree’s predicament that would also be freeing, too. Was that your experience with everything?
Jessica Rothe: It was incredibly freeing. I think everyone fantasizes about what that would be like if you kind of just got to live life without repercussions and do whatever you want, and what that bucket list would be. Not only did I get to play someone doing it, but I got to do a few of those moments, like the naked walk of glory—not walk of shame, walk of glory. It was one of the most empowering experiences I've ever had in my life.
And a huge part of that was I trusted Chris so much, and to portray that in a way that I felt comfortable. The crew was incredible. And when we shot that scene, all the women of the crew would surround me holding up their jackets, shielding me from outside eyes, and chant my name, and I would do a little dance in the middle. Then as they yelled, "Action," they would disperse and I'd do my little walk, and they would all come and cover me up at the end. I just felt such love and female awesomeness in that moment. It's something where I could have a very long and successful career, and never get to do that again. So there were a lot of amazing moments filming this.
The continuity in Happy Death Day is pretty nuts, and I’m amazed at your ability to remember everything, from specific emotional beats to just where Tree is at in her own transition. How challenging was it for you to do this character, but then also have to basically repeat everything 15 different times, and keep it all straight in your head?
Jessica Rothe: Yeah, it was hard. It was a lot of notes on the pages of the script. Chris was instrumental, helping me gauge, "Was that a little too cold? Should it be a little bit cheerier? Like, where do we need to be on day one, so we can get where we need to be on day five, so we can get where we need to be on day fourteen?"
And we were lucky in some ways that we had to block shoot those first scenes when I wake up in the room with Carter [played by Israel Broussard], especially. Because at first, that terrified me, the thought of doing all of that at once so early in the process, but it actually gave us a roadmap as to Tree's journey, and where she was going. Though there were times that Chris would have to run up to me on set and be like, "Okay, so remember, you were just stabbed in the heart. You've been killed seven times. So this is about where you are. You're not quite at panic attack mode yet." It was really fun.
You mentioned working really closely with Chris on this, which I can imagine you really had to do just because there were so many little intricate parts in motion in Happy Death Day. How was it like collaborating with him on this character?
Jessica Rothe: I'm so lucky Chris was the director for this. He brings a point of view and a passion and a humor to it that a lot of other directors wouldn't have. The script, he really made it his own. He was part of countless and countless re-writes and re-drafts, so you can really feel his energy and his sense of humor in the words. And as a result, he had such a clear vision of where he wanted the script to go, but he was also really collaborative.
We would have a lot of conversations about Tree and her journey, and my experience as a woman, and if I related to things, or if I didn't, or if things felt right. But for the most part, we were really on the same page, which helped a lot, because we shot the film very quickly. We shot it in five weeks, so there wasn't much time to disagree. But sometimes we would try his way and my way, and I think that's part of any good collaboration.
With this movie, there are a lot of really funny and odd ways that your character dies. I'm just curious if there is one in particular that ended up being a favorite moment for you?
Jessica Rothe: See, that's one of my favorite parts of the film, because Tree is learning and growing as her deaths change. It would be so boring if it was the same thing over and over, so I love that question. I really loved hanging myself, because I got to wear a rig, and I got to do my own stunt and jump off of this ledge. It was really scary, but then it was almost like a theme park ride too. We had an incredible stunt team, and they helped with a lot of that stuff. And I had a brilliant stunt double, too, who helped with some of my heavy lifting in this film.
In case you missed it, check here to read our previous coverage of Happy Death Day.