In Happy Death Day, Jessica Rothe plays Tree, a self-centered college student and professional mean girl who wakes up on the morning of her birthday in a strange guy’s dorm room with no memory of how she got there. Things go downhill from there — way downhill in fact, as Tree ends her day murdered by a mysterious masked killer. But then she wakes up again, back in the same dorm room and about to relive the same exact day…with the same exact ending, unless she can find a way to change that grisly outcome.
Directed by Christopher Landon (Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones) and written by Scott Lobdell (a comic book writer best known for his run on Uncanny X-Men), Happy Death Day is the latest horror outing from producer Jason Blum and his Blumhouse Films banner, and if it sounds a little like Groundhog Day, that’s on purpose. The concept of reliving a day in your life over and over until you get it right is an endlessly fascinating one, and the movie plays up both the scary and comedic aspects of it in fun fashion.
At the center of it is Rothe, who makes Tree’s journey believable, funny and even poignant. Rothe has appeared in around 20 films and a dozen TV shows since launching her career in 2010, and she was most recently seen in the acclaimed musical La La Land before landing front and center in Happy Death Day. She’s got another musical on her slate next — a remake of the 1983 cult hit Valley Girl — but first we spoke with her about Happy Death Day.
Den of Geek: Have you known people like Tree who were just totally self-obsessed?
Jessica Rothe: Yeah, a little narcissistic, a little self-serving? I definitely have had encounters with people like this in my life, but I think the biggest thing for me about Tree that I think a lot of people can relate to is, she is narcissistic, she is self-centered, but it’s all this hardened facade that’s hiding this hurt and pain, and someone who’s insecure underneath, and underneath all of that is a really funny, smart, and at times sweet girl. I think so often people who are cruel, unless they’re truly sociopaths, are hiding some kind of insecurity or some pain underneath, and I really enjoyed that this film explored that in her character, and that we got to spend enough time with her to see who the true Tree was.
Was it interesting to you to play the Groundhog Day scenario within the context of a horror film?
It really was. I think it’s an amazing, amazing structure for a film. I think that the loop quality can add so much because you kind of set up a predictable scenario for your audience, and then they get so much pleasure out of watching a character be stuck in there, but also, the predictability of it and then all of the moments where that structure that you’ve built gets broken down are very enjoyable. I feel honored that our film is part of this great canon that Groundhog Day created. Edge of Tomorrow and Before I Fall, all of those movies have found different ways to play with this idea of being stuck, whether it’s in a time loop or reliving the same day, and I think that’s just such an interesting way to explore different ideas and different genres.
How do you approach playing some of the same scenes over and over, while making each one a little bit different?
We were lucky enough to have time for rehearsals which helped a lot, and Chris Landon, our director, is one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever worked with. He’s incredibly intelligent, he’s really, really funny and kind, and he was so passionate about this project and had such a clear vision that it really helped to define Tree’s journey and map out those repetitive days, while carrying her along that dramatic arc. But, at the same time, Chris was really collaborative, and so we had a lot of fun pushing the boundaries of each day and figuring out exactly where each moment should lie in calibrating them all specifically. ‘Cause, you know, we had to make sure that day one led to day two into day 14, and that we weren’t playing day three where day six should be, and so, there was this consistent conversation going on about making sure that we were on track, so that the overall arc of the film was one that was fun to watch, but also went somewhere.
Which part of her character arc would you say you got the most satisfaction out of performing?
I mean, being a bitch is really fun. There’s something really satisfying about acting without any care for anyone but yourself, and that’s one that I think because of social norms, we don’t all ever really get to do. But honestly, my favorite day to portray was the one where she thinks she has figured out who the murderer is, and she kind of gets to jump into her day with a renewed energy and fix all of the wrongs that she feels like she’s done. A dream that I definitely have, when I look back on days I wish I could change, is the thought of going back and making things right, and the chance to get to do that on behalf of this character was so gratifying.
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What was, physically, some of the most grueling stuff to film?
The repetition could be grueling, but a lot the stunts were really hard. A lot of the death scenes were both. It demanded a lot of emotional and vocal energy, from the screaming and fear of dying, but they also were very, very technical to make sure that they were safe. We were lucky to have an incredible stunt team on our set who really helped make sure everyone was safe, and that the stunts looked good. But, yeah. I think it was a hard shoot overall just because we were shooting a horror/action/thriller/coming-of-age/comedic/love story, and so we just had a lot of bases to cover.
Which horror movies left an impact on you when you first saw them, or as you were growing up?
Well, the very first horror film I ever saw was Scream, which absolutely terrified me. It was back in the day of VHS, so I was at a slumber party, everyone else fell asleep, and I sat up completely petrified, afraid to move, and the TV went to static, and I just sat there for hours staring at the TV, sure that someone was going to break into the house and kill me, so that left a pretty deep scar. But recently I saw Get Out, and I absolutely loved that. I thought it was such a smart, funny, terrifying movie. And another Blumhouse film. I really respect how Jason is meshing genres, and really turning horror films on their head, and creating movies that are still completely terrifying but also have other messages, and appeal to a wider audience.
You are doing a musical version of the 1983 movie Valley Girl next. You already were in La La Land, so is it safe to say that the movie musical bug is in your system?
It really is. I grew up on movie musicals. I grew up on Sound of Music, and Carousel, and South Pacific, and doing one was always something that was on my bucket list, but honestly, something I thought I would never get to do. It’s kind of a lost art form, the musical, in a way, so when La La Land came around, I couldn’t believe my luck. I just felt like I needed someone to keep on pinching me ’cause not only was it a chance to make a musical, but to work with Damien Chazelle, Emma Stone, and Ryan Gosling. And then, I felt so, again, unbelievably lucky when Valley Girl came around. I love movie musicals because I think there is an amount of emotional honesty that’s needed to portray someone who feels so deeply that all they can do is break into song. It’s challenging, but how much joy comes from that, I think, is really special. So I feel so incredibly lucky that I get to be a part of the continuing legacy of movie musicals.
The original Valley Girl is kind of a cult film now.
I’ve seen it a couple of times. I saw it when I was auditioning for the film, and then I watched it again. I absolutely love it. I think Deborah Foreman’s performance is amazing. And it’s also Nick Cage’s first film, and I think you watch it and you know he’s going to be a star. It was really fun watching and taking inspiration from it, and then bringing that over to our version.
The other thing I’m really excited about is, I think that a lot of times new music and new bands were introduced to audiences through films in the ’80s. “I Melt With You” by Modern English was introduced to audiences through Valley Girl, and so I really hope that these kind of amazing ’80s classics that we get to perform in the movie will find a new audience, and people who have never heard this music before will listen to ours and love it, and then go back and find the original recordings, and fall in love with Cyndi Lauper, fall in love with Modern English, fall in love with the Go-Go’s…to me, if nothing else, that is such a worthwhile pursuit for our film.
Happy Death Day is out in theaters this Friday (October 13).