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Meet Jessica Rothe, Happy Death Day‘s Newly-Minted Scream Queen

The star of Blumhouse’s latest high-concept horror film on ghosts, Halloween and subverting tropes for women in horror

Happy Death Day, Blumhouse Productions’s heady horror flick about a young female college student reliving the day of her murder, hits theaters today, and while the film’s Friday 13th release may exploit obvious horror tropes, its high-concept hook is all-new. Mixing Groundhog Day-on-acid-style existential dread with a litany of more humorous than gory slasher hijinks, the film subverts the classic “final girl” archetype. Instead of remaining a doomed damsel in distress, Tree (played by Jessica Rothe of La La Land) takes advantage of her unfortunate circumstances, using the time warp to uncover the identity of her killer. And like they were for Blumhouse’s recent hits Get Out and Split, audiences are here for this new brand of horror; early box office projections put Happy Death Day’s opening weekend at $22 million.

Below, we catch up with Rothe about becoming a scream queen, doing her own stunts, and the paranormal activity on set.

How did you get involved in the project?

I auditioned for the project a little over a year ago. I was in Atlanta shooting another film and I received the script. And it was funny because I was being relatively selective about the things I was [auditioning] for because I was on another job but I absolutely fell in love with it right away.

What drew you to the role?

Tree’s journey is something we don’t see very often especially for women in horror films. She gets turned from this snarky narcissistic stereotypical college student into this total badass who takes charge of her own life. And I loved the combination of humor and horror and thought there was just a lot of heart in the script. So I was set up with a Skype appointment with the director Chris Landon (Paranormal Activity) and the moment I Skyped with him I was like, oh my god, now I really have to do this job because he is just so funny and brilliant and wickedly, wickedly smart.

New Orleans during Halloween sounds pretty spooky… Were there a lot of ghost stories on set?

For sure. I love New Orleans but I definitely believe it’s haunted. And I’m not someone who… Well, I believe in ghosts, but kind of with a grain of salt. I don’t go around looking for haunted houses to climb around in. But yeah we shot for four days in a hospital that had been abandoned after Katrina, and that place is definitely haunted. 150%. Weird stuff kept on happening. Things kept breaking, people kept on almost getting hurt. I think one time our craft foods truck caught on fire and no one knows why. Just weird stuff was happening all the time. Everything was working, everything was running. There were just no people. Super spooky. So when we finished up we were all pretty relieved.

What is the balance between the humor and horror in the film?

It’s kind of a film unlike any other. We’ve been describing it as Groundhog Day meets Scream meets a John Hughes film. A little bit of 16 Candles thrown in. There’s not really a supernatural element other than the fact that Tree is stuck in this time loop and we don’t know why, other than that she eventually discovers that in order to escape the time loop, she has to figure out who’s murdering her at the end of each day and figure out who’s underneath that terrifying baby mask. In the process she also get the opportunity to really look at herself kind of confront her inner demons as well.

Can you talk more about tropes for women in horror and how this film shifts them?

One of the brilliant things about the construct of the loop is that Tree gets to learn from her mistakes. You see people in horror films… They run up the stairs when you know that they shouldn’t. They follow the creepy sound when it’s obvious that they should run the other way. The girls run around screaming without really fighting back. And Tree initially does those things not because she’s stupid or she’s weak but because she’s being attacked by an unknown assailant and it’s so unexpected that she doesn’t have time to prepare

But as she’s forced to relive this day over and over she really adjusts and grows and evolves into this awesome kickass heroine. And it also means that I get killed a different way every single time, which was really fun to do. I die every way from getting stabbed in the neck with a broken bong to being drowned in a pool to getting hit by a bus.

Was there a lot of fake blood being thrown around? What were some of the technical aspects of shooting the deaths?

It’s actually not a gory film, which I really appreciate because I think it shows you can make a horror film and it can be thrilling and terrifying without gratuitous violence. There were a lot of stunts. A lot of making a horror film, I learned, is extremely logistical. And you have to be very precise to make sure people are safe and don’t get hurt. I had an incredible stunt double. She helped me with a lot of stuff – either the stuff that was too dangerous for me to do, or walking me through how to do my own stunts, which I appreciated. Our stunt team was amazing.

Have you met any iconic horror heroines since the film, or are there any you would like to meet?  

Not yet, but I hope that happens. I feel incredibly honored to even be put in the same category as those women… everyone from Janet Lee, to her daughter Jamie Lee Curtis, to even Drew Barrymore at the start of Scream. Chris and I talked a lot about what makes an amazing scream queen and what qualities from those women can we utilize to kind of make our film the best it can be. And so took a lot of inspiration from all of those women.

Do you know what you’re being for Halloween this year?  

I do. I met my best friend on Halloween like three years ago. We met at a Halloween party and so Halloween has become our friend-versary tradition and this year we’re going as Spanky and Alfalfa from Little Rascals but in the ballerina costumes. So we’re going to be cross-dressing as boys cross-dressing as girls. It’s very intricate.

Main image: Courtesy of NBCUniversal