Happy Death Day actress Jessica Rothe practised screaming to play murder victim

Playing a character who is killed several times in Happy Death Day, Jessica Rothe had to scream loudly and often.
Playing a character who is killed several times in Happy Death Day, Jessica Rothe had to scream loudly and often.PHOTO: UIP

When attractive people act like brats, does society let them get away with it? In the horror movie Happy Death Day, a college student and her sorority sisters get away with rotten behaviour because they are thin, pretty and popular.

Actress Jessica Rothe, who plays Theresa (nicknamed "Tree"), agrees with the idea that attractive people get a free pass.

"Theresa does have permission to be narcissistic, self-centred and cruel," she tells The Straits Times on the telephone from Los Angeles.

But in the course of the movie, after Theresa relives her murder many times while stuck in a time loop, she grows as a person.

"That hardened facade gets peeled back to show someone who is smart, funny and kind," says Rothe, 30, who has spent much of her career in supporting roles in movies such as La La Land (2016) and television shows such as Gossip Girl (2012). Happy Death Day is one of her first outings as lead actress.

The movie marries the slasher premise of Scream (1996) with the time-reset concept behind Groundhog Day (1993). Set on a university campus, it has one person - the vulnerable student Theresa - being murdered many times, rather than several people getting murdered once.

Rothe thinks that other than the most obvious one about serial killers, the movie preys on other, more obscure fears that audiences might have. "There is the idea of being trapped, living the same day over and over again, being the person you don't like, and being unable to change," she says.

But playing a character who is brutally killed several times over has one physical drawback. Rothe has to scream - loudly and often. Not just during filming, but also during post-production, when she had to go to a studio to re-record sound.

During re-recording, she offered a range of screams and director Christopher B. Landon (Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, 2014) picked the ones he liked, she says. "I practised using my diaphragm and I drank a ton of tea. Lots and lots of tea and honey."

The film openly pays homage to Groundhog Day as well as Scream. In Scream, a slasher classic, the killer wears the now-iconic melting-face mask. Likewise, Happy Death Day's killer also wears a mask - that of a baby-face doll, a sports mascot of the university.

Landon picked the mask from a range of options offered to him. Mostly, he liked the contrast between the sweetness of the face and the intentions of the knife-wielding madman wearing it.

"There is something innocent and funny about the baby face. It's unexpected and when you see it, it takes you by surprise," Rothe says.

John Lui

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 18, 2017, with the headline 'Scream in time-reset mode'. Print Edition | Subscribe