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JENNIFER CARPENTER on
'THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE'

Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor
for Radio Free Entertainment

September 7, 2005 [introduction revised September 21, 2008]


More of a courtroom thriller than a traditional horror flick, The Exorcism of Emily Rose takes a different approach to the subject of demonic possession. Based on the true story of Anneliese Michel, a young woman who died in 1978 after being subjected to a Church-sanctioned exorcism, the story is set against the backdrop of the trial of the priest who performed the ritual, who faces charges of negligent homicide. Through flashbacks, the audience is told opposing versions of the events surrounding the case by the prosecution and the defense--the former depicting Emily Rose as a sick girl in desperate need of medical care, the latter drawing her as the victim of a possibly supernatural affliction.

In this extensive interview, actress Jennifer Carpenter talks about her experience of playing the film's title role and working with co-star Laura Linney. This Q&A took place shortly before the debut of Dexter, and since then, she has enjoyed some well-earned success on the acclaimed Showtime series about a forensics expert who moonlights as a vigilante serial killer.


The Interview

MEDIA: You do a lot of physical contortion in this movie without the benefit of special effects. How did you prepare for that?

JENNIFER: When I saw the sides, I was in Italy on vacation with my grandmother and my mom, and I had only seen 12 pages of the script. And I spent money I didn't have to come back to LA to have a shot at it. [laughs] And on the plane, you can't get in the aisle and start practicing a seizure, so I just started playing it out in my mind--how I wanted certain pieces to look. And there were certain notes I'd keep and certain notes I'd discard, and everything that happened in the middle was just a surprise. So I got a room with people who were going to work with us for special effects when we needed them. They gave me a room full of mirrors, and so I would just play and look and see what I liked and what was scary. And then adrenaline kind of made me bend a little further than I realized I could. [laughs]

Have you always been extremely flexible?

No. My sister's a chiropractor and she says I have an unusually flexible lower back, but I don't do yoga, because I don't feel like I'm very bendy. [laughs] But, you know...the same way you warm up your voice, I would stretch a little before we'd start.

Did you ever hurt yourself by bending too far?

No. That's the funny thing--when I look back at it a year later, I don't remember any of it hurting or being hard. The hard part about this job feels like communicating what went on in my mind when we were doing it. I should have paid more attention.

Was screaming at the top of your lungs take after take a taxing process?

No. I went to Juilliard, so you spend 13 hours a day on voice and speech. And now I realize why! [laughs] But I was really specific about every sound, which I think helps me protect myself. You know, she says she's possessed by six demons, so maybe one's sticking needles in my heart, so that sound would come from there, and the other one might be like chiseling away at my ribs. So to be specific helped me stay safe. And also, in that room with all those mirrors, I would...I would thank God I was in a different building than everybody else that was working, but I would just grunt and growl and see how high I could get and low I could get, and play with diphthongs and vowel sounds. There was sort of a method to the madness.

Did your perception of the story change over the course of making this film?

I went to Catholic school and stuff growing up in Kentucky, but I feel like I came to it at a really neutral place. I didn't have a lot of my own opinions to place on it or try to champion those causes. So I did the work of the prosecution and the defense. And it's funny, because you get really comfortable on one side. And you're like, "That's exactly how it happened." And then I was really surprised, to go over to [the other side]...And I got really comfortable over there, too. So I never made a decision one way or another, and I think that helped to play it. After the fact, I was having a meal with a friend and having a completely unrelated conversation, and I thought, "I know what happened. I know how I feel about it." And then I saw the movie and I think it's changed again. That's the great thing about this movie--it's not trying to champion after one cause. It's just saying, "Take inventory and see how much room you've left for possibility and doubt and new information, and whatever you leave with belongs to you." I think there was probably some concern about how people in certain groups would react to it, but if your faith can be rocked by a movie, then there's something else you're not looking at. Because like I said, it's just trying to give you questions, not answers, you know?

How much research did you do on the real story that was the basis for the movie?

I was really excited about making this movie. [laughs] So I think I did too much research. I looked at everything that I could get my hands on. The book that it's based on is out of print, and I made sure I had a copy. It's an amazing book, probably the best I've ever read. I think I finished it and flipped right back to the beginning. I did that, I looked at tapes on epilepsy and seizures, and kabuki theater to steal certain gestures and stuff. So I probably researched too much. But I was surprised the first time I heard it called a horror movie, because horrific things happen, but it's based on true events. And I know everybody stamps that on their movies, but it's based on true events, so I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to tell that story. And then I realized it's a solid script, it's a great script, and it's a truthful script, so I will take care of Emily Rose and that character, and then I will have done my job.

Did you speak with the family of the girl the story is based on?

No. I think it would be disrespectful.

What kind of imagery or feelings does the fictionalized name "Emily Rose" conjure for you?

I'm not sure how much I can go into this, but when I heard the name, I thought it's the same cadence as the [name of the girl the story is based on]. And I liked that.

How was Laura Linney involved in your landing the title role?

The 12 pages [of the script] came to me and it said that Laura recommended you for the part--Laura sent your name to the producers and director. And I knew that she had expressed interest in it. So I didn't need to read the rest of the script, if I knew those two things. If I knew I liked the 12 pages and I knew that she was involved, that's all the information I needed.

What was your prior relationship with her?

Well, we did [the play] The Crucible together in 2002. And I had a really amazing rehearsal process with her. I was at every rehearsal whether I was involved in it or not. I really learned a lot about how to work, and we also developed a friendship. And since I responded like this to the script and she knows me so well, I know she knows that the script is right up my alley. And I know I never, ever would have seen it had it not been for her...She's been a guardian angel both in my life and career. Whenever I lose my footing in either, she's a phone call away.

Were you upset that the two of you didn't have any scenes together in Emily Rose?

No. Actually, I think it was, in a weird way, a blessing...It's kind of shot like two movies, so when I was off one day, I would come in and watch her work. And it's really different to sit back and observe than actually be engrossed in it. I think there are some people you want to steal from because you love their body of work, and you want to know how they're getting from A to B. She's just--Tom, too--kind of seamless. They'll go from one end of the spectrum to the other, and they'll make both of them work. And I don't know how they do it yet. I'm going to figure it out, though...and write a book! [laughs]

Why do you think you reacted so strongly to the 12 pages of the script that you initially received?

I feel like so often you're sent scripts where you're the bubblegum, all-American girl saying, [sweetly] "I love you too, Trevor." You know what I mean? And Scott wrote a letter to all of the women who were auditioning, saying, "This is what I want to see in the first scene. This is what I want in the second, third, and the fourth. The person that can do that will get the part." And I thought, "You're inviting somebody to be a player." And very rarely you're ever asked to be a player.

What were those four things he was looking for?

The first thing, they wanted to see pure joy--like just hope. Then, what does something inhuman look like in a human being? Like how does the demon come in? What's that look like? [pauses in recollection] The fourth one was inviting you to do something that wasn't scripted. And the third one was an authentic seizure. And you know what I realized? I give the finger a lot when I'm having a seizure. [tenses up her fingers and demonstrates] Like my hands tense up and my middle fingers pop out! [laughs]

Do you believe in demons?

I believe in possibility, but I'm not sure I believe in demons. I was trying to like downgrade that word to superstition. "Am I superstitious?" And I realized, "No, but maybe it's superstition, maybe it's OCD." They might be closer than you think. [laughs] Like when I pick a book off a shelf, I'll look at all of them. They're the exact same book with the exact same words inside, but I'll think that one is meant to go home with me. Now I sound crazy. [laughs] And I'll never pick the first thing up off a shelf, it has to be the one behind.

Given director Scott Derrickson's previous involvement with the Hellraiser franchise, were you concerned this might be a more overt horror film akin to The Exorcist?

I didn't see Hellraiser or The Exorcist. I think if there were going to be a lot of CGI effects and stuff like that, I would have had more reservations about it. But I knew there wouldn't be. I knew it was going to be based in truth, in a weird way. So like if this story happened in front of you, this is what it could look like. And that's why I was surprised it was a horror film, because it's so many other things to me. It's heartbreaking more than it is scary, to me.

Did you intentionally avoid watching The Exorcist?

No. When I was in Italy trying to get back, I was trying to get my hands on something I could read--some information I could have to help me. And they didn't have it in the gift shop in the London airport. [laughs] But I'm glad it avoided me somehow. I mean, I've heard about the head spinning, I've heard about split pea soup and all of that. And Scott said, "Imagine all the cliches you can think of when you hear that word, 'exorcism,' and let's move as far away from them as possible." And he said, "If it's not new, it's not going to be in the movie. And if you get hurt, you're not in the movie." So that's one reason I didn't hurt myself. He was really open to ideas and stuff, too, and I remember I came to him one day, and I said, "What if she pulled her own hair out of her head?" Because if someone did that in front of you...like how close do you get, and who do you call? The things that could really happen in front of you...those are the scary things. I live alone, and when I hear something outside the door, it's not the thing outside the door that's scaring me...it's the laundry list in my head that I'm going through of what it could be. So I think it takes a different kind of courage to come see this movie.

Which scene stands out as particularly scary or emotional for you?

Doing the exorcism in the barn. That day, I wasn't sure if I was allergic to hay or not. I'm from Kentucky--you'd think I'd know, but I didn't. So I took an antihistamine, and I didn't know they make your blood thin and your heart race. So I was spending all day screaming, and I almost fainted once, but I didn't. Right before I fainted, I came to. I opened my eyes and I didn't know where I was, I didn't know who anybody was. And so I took a breather and we started up again. And it was almost happening each time. And all I knew was that the intention of [that scream] was to get my sister to leave the barn. So when I see it now, and I know how I felt and what I was trying to do, it affects me. It was a weird mind trick. It was so scary for me--how I was feeling--that it scares me now.

Were there a lot of deleted scenes in this movie?

No. It's the same script that we started shooting on the first day as it was the last day. And I've never seen that before.

Did anything weird happen while you were shooting?

Two or three times I was going to sleep, and my radio came on by itself. And the only time it scared me was [when] it was really loud. It was Pearl Jam's "Alive." [laughs] And Laura's TV came on a couple times by itself.

Did it happen at 3:00 A.M. (which the film calls the demonic witching hour)?

I was born at 3:00 A.M., but it didn't happen at 3:00 A.M. I did check.

What are some things you do in your spare time?

I don't keep like thirty friends. I keep five really close friends. And I hang out with them. I think in LA, your friends become your family, and I've got a really good family here. I like to go dancing and partying every once awhile. But I'm a lot quieter than most, I guess. [laughs]

What has been the biggest adjustment for you in moving to Los Angeles?

It was really hard living at first. I think you feel the highs a lot more out here and the lows a lot more as well. So when I first got out here, I was stretching $20 to last for a week and waiting tables. I did that for about six months. And I don't mind it at all. I was really happy for the experience, but it made me get really aggressive about what I want. You know, I've been doing this since I was 8, and I've never considered doing anything else, so I knew I had to kick it in gear. And people say, "Do you have any advice?" [jokes] I don't feel safe or secure in where I am yet either! [laughs] But all I know is be prepared, make it clear what you'll bring to the part. I have no shame in writing a director and saying, "I think you may be making a mistake not going this way..." You know what I mean? You have to chase after what you want.

What's the most outrageous thing you've done to get a director's attention?

I flew across an ocean to get to this audition [laughs]. Money I did not have at the time. I walked up to my mom, who was having a beer at a cafe, and grabbed her arm. I said, "I'm in trouble." It was a four hour conversation on trying to coordinate planes, and [I ended] up spending the night in Texas because all of the Southern California airports were closed. Made the audition with 30 minutes to spare. When I sat down on the couch, I didn't know if I should be hungry or tired or what. I think it might have helped me actually in the audition, to be confused and loose. But that was probably the most outrageous thing.

How did you feel when you learned you landed the part?

I had my hand in a box of Cheerios, and my agent was like, "You've got it." And I just started screaming. I think he knew I'd call him back. I was excited! I was really excited!

What happened to the Cheerios?

I didn't care! [laughs] It was a good day.

What did you think about learning a variety of languages for your role?

Fun! I had a good time. They had a tutor for the different languages come in and talk. I just love that kind of stuff, don't you know? Like that's the great thing about being an actor. Like you play somebody who knows how to play guitar, you get to learn a little bit of guitar. It's fun.

Which language was the hardest for you?

Aramaic.

Why?

Just the way it feels in your mouth and your throat.

Is there any skill you would like a movie role to force you into doing? Like, "I'd like to fly a plane, so I'd better go land a gig as a pilot"?

Sure, I'd like to fly a plane. I can shoot a gun, so I'd like to shoot a gun sometime. I want to do a little bit of everything. I would love to play a singer. Coal Miner's Daughter...that's one of my favorite movies in the world. I'd love to play a country singer at some point. I can't believe I'm saying this out loud! [laughs]

Do you hit the karaoke bars?

See, the thing about playing a singer is you'd probably be lip-synching. [laughs] You don't want me to sing! But I was always told, like, if an audition calls for singing, you should go in and sing your heart out until they say that you don't know what you're doing. You know? Let them say no before you say no. [pauses] Which they did. At my Juilliard audition...you have to pick a song to sing. And, of course, I would pick like a Frank Sinatra song. I don't know why. But I sang like two bars of it, and he goes, "That's enough." I was sure I'd be going to school somewhere else.

Thanks for your time.

Thank you.

Related Material

More Interviews with Jennifer Carpenter
Movie Coverage: The Exorcism of Emily Rose




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