Ashley Bell knows the comparisons are inevitable. She just doesn't think they're terribly relevant. Bell, who plays a teenager who may or may not be possessed by a demon in The Last Exorcism, is well aware that the film will be weighed against the genre standard-bearer, William Friedkin's Oscar-winning The Exorcist (1973), but says her movie is much different.
"Going into it, Daniel"---director Daniel Stamm---"said to watch everything ---and then don't do that," says Bell, speaking over the phone on a press day in Toronto. "The Exorcist is The Exorcist. There's no possible way to recreate that, because it's such a classic."
Bell credits director Stamm, producer Eli Roth and screenwriters Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland for a twist-heavy script that keeps the audience guessing about the source of her character's trauma---and the ability of a con-artist pastor (Patrick Fabian), who specializes in fake exorcisms, to do anything about it.
Rather than ask moviegoers to simply accept that 16-year-old Nell Sweetzer is possessed, the filmmakers wanted to take advantage of audience skepticism. For Bell, that meant boning up on a bit of psychology.
"Daniel kind of gave me the hint to try to preserve the possibility that she isn't possessed, that she's just having a mental breakdown or is mentally ill," she says. "So I started looking into manias and hysterias and post-traumatic stress disorders."
Bell's preparation also required the 24-year-old, Santa Monica-born actor to step into the head of an isolated, religious innocent from backwoods Louisiana, a task that she says involved asking a lot of questions. "I just wanted to figure out what that would be like--- what she'd been exposed to and what she hadn't been exposed to."
Bell, a self-described horror fan who guesses she was 10 years old when she saw The Exorcist, may not have been seeking to recreate Linda Blair's performance from that film, but there are undeniable similarities, particularly with respect to the physical demands of the role. Though Bell's Nell doesn't spin all the way around in The Last Exorcism, she does bend and contort her body while being hijacked by the maybe-demon.
"I actually did all the physical stuff myself, except for break my fingers, which I was more than willing to do," she says. "I got some bruises while filming, but I was so proud of those bruises. They were like war wounds. I felt like I earned them."
Bell was particularly proud of a back-bend in one of the film's exorcism scenes, a physical touch that she inserted after Stamm asked for her input. It looks excruciating, but Bell says she had the experience to pull it off. "I did a lot of ballet my whole life. And karate," she says. "And I'm double-jointed, which is a party trick I like to pull out."
The Last Exorcism offered Bell, whose resume includes bit parts in movies Stay Cool and appearances on CSI and The United States of Tara, her first leading role and a chance to earn more Hollywood party invites. But she claims the pressure didn't faze her. "Luckily I wasn't thinking about that, because I think I would have been really distracted."
For Bell, playing (possibly) possessed required full concentration. After all, those back-bends can go from fun to hellishly painful in a hurry.