Spotlight on the “Final Girl”: Akasha Villalobos and Danielle Evon Ploeger on Last Girl Standing
By Paul Risker.
Billy Wilder, during his conversations with Charlotte Chandler (Billy Wilder: Nobody’s Perfect: A Personal Biography (2004)) was undecided whether The Apartment’s (1960) romantic leads Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine would remain together. The contemplation alone, however, is enough to infer that a film continues to exist beyond the end credits.
Described by producer Rachel Moody as a “little horror movie”, Last Girl Standing (2015) is a film that confronts one of the iconic archetypal characters of the horror genre: the ‘final girl.’ The adjective of “little” is therein laced with a little irony as writer/director Benjamin Moody steps into the shadow of the ‘final girl’ realised as far back as pre-Halloween (1978) in Sergio Martini’s Torso (1973), Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) to expand her journey.
Last Girl Standing is a film that rendezvous with a heritage of horror, only to then confront the psychological fallout of survival that has generally remained lost in the netherworld that lies beyond the end credits – accessible only through the audience’s willingness to imagine what happens next. Moody therein echoes Wilder’s own look beyond the end credits to offer his audience a look beyond the scrolling white on black text of multiple slashers. And within the context of his own film he asks for the contemplation of his audience to inquire of the meaning of the film’s events – the effect to the film’s narrative cause(s). For Moody as in life, art continues to live beyond its physical form within the minds of the curious spectator that breathes life into the metaphysical realms upon which, at some point, all art comes to rest.
Speaking with Joe Dante recently, he asserted: “When push comes to shove, what there is to look at in the film is the actors. Those are the people who have to take the blows; they are the ones onscreen that are making it happen for the audience.” And Last Girl Standing’s young lead actresses Akasha Villalobos (Camryn) and Danielle Evon Ploeger (Danielle) take all the blows Moody can throw at them as they offer a contemplation on survival and the metaphysical death and rebirth in this exploration of what happens next?
In an expansive conversation with Film International, Villalobos and Ploeger took us on a journey behind the scenes of Last Girl Standing to discuss not only the process of creating a narrative and performances, but to reflect on the film’s subtext and the confrontation with expanding while not breaking genre boundaries. The two actresses also took the time to discuss the issue of the depiction and harnessing of femininity in contemporary storytelling.
Why a career in acting? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Akasha Villalobos (AV): I was watching an interview with Christian Bale the other day, who answered a similar question with: “Cause when it’s good, it’s really good, and when it’s not, I fucking hate it.” And I agree with at least the first part: “When it’s good, it’s really good.” And a lot of that has to do with the director – whether it’s good. But when it’s good, it’s alive and visceral.
When I was a young adult trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, I used to say: “I just want to live. I want my job to be living better and better.” And I feel I’ve almost found that with acting. The job is to live and to get as close as you possibly can to a truthful version of it, and that’s a fascinating goal. And also, like life, you never finish learning how to do it better, and that’s the kind of thing I want to devote my life to – something you will probably never conquer. I love the psychology of it and the fact that it’s built on connecting to another person. That last part is true on many levels: the connection of an actor to his/her character and having to find oneself in another in order to portray the character; then the connection of the audience to both the actor and the character, and of course the connection of one actor to another within the scene. I’m also not one who lets herself be emotional in real life, but I get to let that go and even encourage it on screen. For whatever reason I don’t allow myself to bare that part of me otherwise. It’s kind of wonderful to do it publicly. I’ve always had a reverence for theatre and movies. I haven’t been able to articulate why, but I’ll gladly put myself through a lot of hell for the sake of the story, the production or the movie. I think I find it romantic. I noticed it for the first time in high school theatre. Maybe it’s being a part of a community of people dedicated to a single goal. That dedication from everyone is a really important component for me – it’s what makes it “good.” When you’re surrounded by people just doing enough to get by, the acting feels empty, and it makes you wonder why you’re trying so hard to get to keep doing it. But I’m also a workaholic and an extremist, so I like being in a field where you’re expected to push yourself really far. If it doesn’t require everything from me, then it doesn’t feel like my purpose. But just being hard and immersive wouldn’t be enough for me; I really love movies. There are movies that make my heart swell. There are movies that have reminded me of love and humanity. There are movies that have incited me to action and there are movies that have made me think about things in new ways. That’s amazing and that’s an art form I want to be a part of.
There were probably a few pivotal moments. Growing up I was interested in acting. My father is a stage actor in Dallas and so I was auditioning for plays before I had a chance to say: “Hey, I want to be in plays.” I did my first play when I was four. I was Lucy Locket in Babes in Toyland and I continued to do plays here and there after that. But I was also a very shy kid, and I still am quite an introvert. I remember thinking about becoming an actor and telling myself I didn’t have the right personality. I imagined actors were like Jim Carrey with huge outgoing personalities and so I discarded the idea. Then one day I saw an old interview with Mel Gibson – I think I was about 17 – and he was incredibly shy and uncomfortable. And that just made my world turn on end. If Mel Gibson could be shy and be a great actor then maybe I could be an actor. I became really excited and I ran to tell my dad, to which he lovingly said: “I hope you like rejection.” Since then I’ve enjoyed some love-hate relationships with acting. But most recently, I’ve been able to work with several wonderful directors, which has made me realize I truly love acting, and I want to do it more and keep getting better. Acting in Last Girl Standing was a pivotal experience for me because I got to work so closely with Ben Moody, the writer/director. Collaborating with the director is one of my favorite parts of the process, and Ben allowed me to be very involved. After we wrapped, I was like: “I want to do more of that!”
Danielle Evon Ploeger (DEP): To be honest, I feel like as a child I just assumed that I would continue to dress up everyday and play make believe. Obviously in high school I toyed around with other ideas of professions, but none seemed as appealing as making movies. I have always loved seeing the power of imagination come to life. I think all of these thoughts were solidified on the first day of the Performance I class at St. Edward’s University. My professor had us sitting in a circle on the floor breathing in unison and making the same noise on the exhale. When we came to a stop he said: “If there is anything else you can think of doing that will make you as happy as acting, you should leave and go talk to your advisor about pursuing that; because this is not easy.” I literally couldn’t think of one thing that I would rather do, and so I decided to stick with it. And I’ve constantly been reminded since then that this is where I belong.
From adolescence to adulthood, as we become less impressionable our relationship with horror inevitably changes. How do you view the way in which this relationship with the genre evolves?
AV: I’m not sure I can speak to this generally, as my personal relationship with horror is probably a-typical. I saw a few of the classic horror movies as a kid: The Exorcist (1973), Poltergeist (1982), The Haunting (1999) and Scream (1996) when it came out. But I get really terrified. I used to have nightmares from watching Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and I decided that I hated being scared and swore off horror films for most of my adolescent and young adult life. When I came back to them I felt like they had become horror on crack. The scare techniques were so sophisticated. I felt like the horror-watching audience had developed an incredibly high tolerance, and I was not there with them. Even the ‘not scary’ movies were almost unwatchable to me. I remember being in the theatre with my husband watching I Am Legend (2007) and being in so much physical pain from the overload of adrenaline that I considered walking out of the theatre and sitting in my car for the remainder of the movie. So when Ben cast me in a slasher film, I was a total horror-newb (and still am). I had never seen a slasher film before. So once a week I went over to Ben’s and he educated me on the horror genre. So to answer your question, I don’t know how one’s relationship with genre typically evolves, because mine never did. I’m still a terrified kid when it comes to horror movies.
DEP: It’s very interesting to think about the things that scared you as a child versus the things that scare you now. I feel as though childhood fears are sometimes the best way to capture an audience in the horror genre. Finding that vulnerable place where people allow their imagination to run wild with possibilities is key in good horror. I think some of the best horror films do that by eliminating the everyday adult fears people carry around, such as financial fears, work related fears, and so on. In my opinion, great horror comes when a fear as juvenile as the monster under your bed becomes the terrifying truth of your adult reality.
Not only was your character written specifically with you in mind, but you also helped to develop your character? How does this impact the process of becoming the character when you have a chance to develop and discover them at such an early stage?
AV: Ben came up with the character of Camryn on his own, and she was fairly developed when he described her to me. I don’t think I gave him any feedback until he had written a first draft. Rather than my developing the character with him, I’d say it was more a discussion on how Camryn might behave and what she might say in this or that situation. It was great to have a chance to begin mulling over the character earlier rather than later. There was a long stretch where I felt Camryn was nothing like me and that I was not going to be able to act the part well. I thought: I’d never chose to check out from life no matter what I went through, and I couldn’t find a connection to her. I eventually found a way in through her shyness. She’s completely anti-social and so am I, though I hide it better. Once I found that, I thought: Oh my God, she’s me..! She’s me without any censoring or hedging. We may have arrived at our anti-social tendencies via different means, but we lived the same impulses and then it was wonderful to be the most anti-social version of myself I could possibly be.
To answer your original question, I loved being a part of the pre-production process. I’ve been allowed to give notes on the script on two productions, and both times I loved it. It’s a wonderful acting exercise to look at the script on that level. Usually I’m in a position to take the script at face value and try to make it work. But looking at each interaction and deciding whether it made sense to me opened up a wonderful dialogue with the director. And when it’s at a stage where changes can still be made, it can possibly improve the story.
DEP: When Ben told me that he had written the character he wanted me to play with me in mind, I was both terrified and humbled. On one hand all I had to do was be my most authentic self in every scene, and on the other it meant that I would have very little, if any character to mask some of my most personal feelings behind. I realized that I would have to respond with those instincts we sometimes hide from others for no reason other than self-preservation. This was the first time I had been in the position of getting the opportunity to play someone so close to myself. I think it forced me to grow tremendously as an actor and I’m so thankful for that. I can remember talking to Ben about whether the character’s name should be Danielle or something else, and in the back of my mind all I could think was: How could her name be anything else?! After developing some of the more intricate details of her life with Ben, I felt extremely close and almost protective of this girl. It was a very cool experience.
Last Girl Standing attempts to explore less walked paths within the genre, yet I see it more of expanding the boundaries of the genre as opposed to stepping outside of it. In one moment it chooses to revert to the slasher narrative as opposed to wander deeper into psychological thriller or drama terrain, which brings the film full circle.
AV: I agree. Any movie is choosing specific moments from a larger continuum in order to form a narrative. Last Girl Standing is dealing with the same continuum, but it is choosing different moments for its narrative. It’s looking at the quiet moments; the empty moments; the lonely moments; the aftershock and the fallout. But you’re right, she doesn’t wander off in a completely new direction; she’s haunted by the past and her inability to let it go forces it to circle back.
DEP: I would agree that the film expands rather than steps entirely out of the box of the genre. Last Girl Standing continues the story that most horror films end with – it discovers the consequences of surviving something that others did not. There are definitely psychological aspects to Camryn’s journey throughout the film, but I feel that instead of delving deep into them, Ben did a wonderful job of utilizing Camryn’s vulnerable state to set up a fascinating view of the cyclical patterns we sometimes see in the horror genre.
It is not uncommon for film to take a self-reflective position or show self-awareness as numerous filmmakers have explored or celebrated film within film. Outside of film criticism and academia how important do you believe it to be for film to take a self-reflective approach as a means to support the further discussion of the art form?
AV: Self-reflection is a natural stage of growth. It’s about looking at assumptions and determining whether they’re valid. When does the horror movie end? Is it over when the killer is dead? To some extent a meta approach breaks open the boundaries and structures to which we had been previously adhering, and makes a space for new art within a genre. Self-aware art creates tension, which is both entertaining and, like you said, spawns new discussions. It’s so natural for an artist to look at what has come before and wonder what could have been done differently or what has been systematically ignored.
DEP: I think that when creating any form of art, one of the most important lessons is allowing yourself the freedom to bare your soul to the world. The best art happens when someone has the courage to just go for it and does so unapologetically. For film specifically, I have always thought this was the reason why we do it – in order to create a discussion of our innermost thoughts, but to be able to do so on a platform that is one step removed from personal criticism. As an actor I feel this is quite possibly THE most important aspect to filmmaking, because without confronting your honest opinions, there is no platform to build from. Sometimes within the journey of a film you will discover something totally new and unexpected about yourself, but you must start from a place of reflection and awareness in order to recognize it. My mentor and one of the most influential individuals in my career, Richard Robichaux, once said: “You must go into the basement of your soul and open up some boxes.” That has always been my mantra when I feel myself shying away from taking risks in acting.
Last Girl Standing almost presents an interpretation of the cycle of life and death in which Camryn encounters a metaphysical death and rebirth as she is thrust into a life of angst.
AV: Camryn has definitely lived two lives at this point. Though the film doesn’t go into Camryn’s previous life in depth, before her tragedy she was a popular, happy, successful and smart girl with a lot to look forward to. And though she lived through that incident, that person – or perhaps that persona – died. She’s a butterfly who became a caterpillar. She lived, but she’s not living.
DEP: I think Last Girl Standing does a wonderful job of showing how many lives one can live before they die. We are so many times at the mercy of outside influences that force us to become someone we might not ever have anticipated. For Camryn, I think what happened to her in the beginning of the film speaks volumes to this idea that we do not control the cycle, but rather that we are merely small parts of the ever-evolving machine. Camryn’s life and the demons that haunt her are thrust upon Nick when he befriends her. Then consequently, they are thrust upon Danielle as she becomes involved, and so on. I think it’s clear that by the end every character has been plucked from their previous life and fed to the same cyclical machine that Camryn fell victim to in the beginning.
Camryn and Danielle are a juxtaposition of two possible responses to traumatic experience, the confrontation with memory and a chapter of their past. Therein it almost taps into Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde through which, in moments Camryn and Danielle could be viewed as juxtaposing personalities.
AV: Hmm, that’s not something I had considered before. I’m not sure whether Ben wrote it with that intention originally, but they certainly do embody two very different responses to trauma. I hesitate to liken them to Jekyll and Hyde because I feel their different responses are due, in part, to their different types of trauma. Danielle’s was a passive trauma, while Camryn was hunted in a sustained fight for survival.
DEP: I like your take on this. What I find most interesting about the juxtaposition of Camryn and Danielle is that neither of them were truly able to free themselves from their past. Danielle has had more time and is better adjusted to the new life she was forced to live, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she has escaped the cycle. I really admire Camryn’s honesty in confronting the fears that follow her around. She is consumed by her haunting past and tries so vehemently to rectify it, while Danielle went the acceptance route. Many times throughout the film Camryn behaves in the way Danielle had wanted to behave, but decided she had better not. There are times when Danielle is almost living vicariously through Camryn’s rash actions. The two women are fighting the same battle with different weapons and it makes for an exciting thrill ride throughout the film as the audience discovers their fate.
While storytelling is centred upon interpersonal relationships, within certain genres there is often an interaction between the past and the present; the look back to the past and the way in which the past shapes the present. The best horror or psychological thrillers play around with this dynamic, and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on both incorporating this dynamic in Last Girl Standing, and of its place more broadly within horror and genre cinema.
AV: I think the past and the way it shapes the future has everything to do with character. Villains in particular need a rich past that brought them to where they are today. The protagonist often has a diametric past that inspired his or her heroic tendencies. Two characters with different formative experiences make for tension, conflict and ultimately the plot. From a human standpoint the past shapes our fears and thereby our choices. Including the character’s past in a story is an interest in looking at the whys and hows of a story, and that knowledge can enrich the experience of watching those interpersonal relationships unfold. We see this a lot in the superhero genre as well with the emphasis on the origin story. Last Girl Standing built its premise around looking at the slasher genre’s whys and hows. Why are they like this? How will this change who they are to become?
DEP: Well, we are all living a life that is the product of our past, and in doing so are constantly reminded of how we got to where we are now. In Last Girl Standing the concept of time is extremely relative regarding the past. Danielle and Camryn are both able to very quickly tap into that moment in time when everything changed for them. Perhaps their close relationship to the past is part of what makes it so hard to let go of. They both re-live those haunting moments over and over again everyday. It gives both of their characters a common ground to communicate and from there the friendship is born. As far as this dynamic goes in other horror and psychological thrillers, I think it’s a no-brainer for writers to incorporate a tumultuous relationship between a character’s past and present. A character’s memories provide depth without wasting valuable screen time, and the audience has immediately identified with the character because everyone has a memory that latched on long ago, and has yet to release them. It makes the characters more relatable and speaks to the human condition.
The psychological angst of Last Girl Standing is ultimately anchored within a haunting narrative, albeit a psychological ghost story in which the psyche is haunted as opposed to a physical place. If Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) famously asked whether it was the people or the building that was haunted, then Last Girl Standing presents part psyche ghost story intertwined with a slasher, and even as a character study it remains in the confines of the haunting or ghost story narrative.
AV: That’s very interesting. I had never likened it to a ghost story, but she is certainly haunted. And you’re right: she’s not being haunted by an outside ghost or demon as in a traditional ghost story. Instead her own mind is creating the ghost narrative and keeping it alive.
DEP: I have maintained over the years that people are haunted rather than places. By that I mean that certain people have the space within them to participate in the lives lived in other dimensions and frequencies. So perhaps it is true that anyone put in Camryn’s position would be so enabled by the experience that they gained the ability to dim their immediate reality and participate in the reality not visible to those around them. This is where I feel it becomes a character study. Camryn’s character who was once as normal as the next girl, was not so gently shoved from her comfortable life into one of torment and horror. It’s almost as if she began sharing the horrific life experiences of The Hunter after she came into such close and vulnerable contact with him. She acquired The Hunter’s ability to impact lives in a tremendous way and began to shape the future from that perspective, which begs the question will she pass on this influential demon to someone else or can she stop it herself? Is this cyclical force even stoppable?
Part psychological horror and part slasher, why does both a character being haunted by their past and the slasher narrative continue to interest both filmmakers and audiences?
AV: Both psychological horror and the slasher genre are exaggerations of human violence. The first is violence upon ourselves, and the second is violence against each other. Though most of us are not haunted to the extreme Camryn is, we are all haunted and debilitated by our fears. We know our minds are vulnerable and that they shape our reality. Conversely, the slasher genre is an exaggeration of human selfishness. The slasher represents the side of us that likes feeling powerful and disconnected. The slasher is the amalgamation of human-against-human violence of the worst kind: for sport. We can all see a sliver of that in ourselves and we all fear that sliver growing in each other. There’s a thrill to safely indulging in that kind of violence within us.
DEP: I think the slasher film experience provides a tangible and graphic visualization to the thoughts internalized by characters in a psychological thriller. While a psychological horror goes to great lengths to tell the story of how this character became so unstable, the slasher genre provides the immediacy and edge-of-your-seat thrill ride to keep the audience fully engaged. When the two genres converge, what you get is an intelligent depiction of the worst-case scenario of an imagination gone totally wild. It’s the human brain going savage upon itself with all too real consequences: lots of blood, true loss and compassion for the characters who endured it all. What’s not to love?
If a horror film is to create a genuine sense of suspense or terror for an audience then does the director have to create a real sense of fear and terror for the actors on set in order for you to convey this to the audience?
AV: Not at all. That would only work in a documentary or hidden-camera-style setup, as you’ll really only have that response once. I think the nature of moviemaking and the fact that you have to perform take after take precludes relying on actually being scared of the other actors or environment. Really there are two questions: how do actors convey a sense of fear and terror in their performance, and how does the movie create a sense of suspense and terror for an audience? The question of acting is answered individually for each actor, and can even change from movie to movie and scene to scene. But of all the possible emotions and states of mind to recreate as an actor, I think fear and terror are some of the easiest because they are extreme states – you can’t go too far. And the mind is particularly good at scaring itself. It’s a matter of believing your imagination and muscle memory – trying to manufacture that pit in your stomach can start the adrenaline pumping and work you up. I’d say the suspense and terror for the audience is actually created more by the sound and editing than by performance. I doubt watching the performance in raw takes would effect the audience nearly as much. It’s largely about juxtaposition and timing. And the sound effects us on a deep subconscious level and also creates a rhythm that can then be broken in order to create a scare. A stinger chord on an abrupt cut can go a long way.
DEP: Yes and no. Ben didn’t by any means jump out from behind bushes with an axe during filming in order to instil fear and terror into Akasha or myself… haha! What he did do a great job of was helping us to determine an experience of our own that affected us in the way we needed to be affected in the scene. In other words, he helped to discover an ‘as if’ for the scenes in which true fear were needed to convey the gravity and weight of the situation. He also wrote it in a way that allowed your imagination to take you there and live these experiences with these characters, which was tremendously helpful. Good writing makes everything easier and more accessible for an actor. I think there is a great deal to be said about a director that works with actors from the perspective of process instead of product. Ben took special care to create a process that would ensure a product outcome we would all be proud of, and that’s the work of a phenomenal director.
Speaking with Danish actress Marie Tourell Søderberg about Scandinavian television drama offering actresses some of the most compelling characters of recent times, she offered: “I don’t think it is only Scandinavian dramas right now. I also watch House of Cards (2013-) and the character of Zoe Barnes [Kate Mara] and Claire Underwood [Robin Wright] are so interesting because of the way in which they use their female qualities to become as strong as they are, and they are also so inspiring.” I find her comment: “the way in which they use their female qualities to become as strong as they are” to be particularly intriguing. What are your feelings towards the way femininity has been represented in horror over the years and also your thoughts on the ‘final girl’ archetype?
AV: I feel unqualified to comment on how femininity has been represented in horror due to the fact that I haven’t seen a large enough sampling of the genre, but I do think the ‘final girl’ archetype speaks to feminine strength. These girls aren’t normally physically stronger than their opponent, but they have the mental ability to keep fighting, and they are resourceful. There also tends to be a goodness of heart. Whether that influences their ability to survive or not, I don’t know. I just tried to imagine how it might be different if it were the ‘final guy’ archetype. I suppose ‘final girl’ is more dramatic because women are seen as more vulnerable, which increases the tension. ‘Final girls’ aren’t typically girls who have ever thrown a punch, and yet they live longer then their male counterparts. Why? I think they are fighters and they refuse to give up. I tried to think about Kate Mara and Robin Wright’s characters in House of Cards, but I’m having trouble articulating their female qualities in terms of strength. My first thought is that they are strong because they don’t believe they are weak, which is a trap many women fall into. But the belief that you are not weak is not a female-specific trait. I consider myself to be a strong woman, but I see that strength coming from my humanity more than from my femininity.
DEP: Women possess an inherent delicacy that instantly makes an audience more compassionate toward them. Now whether the actress can harness that and maintain it throughout a film is another task entirely. However, if they are able to – like Kate Mara and Robin Wright do so effortlessly – then therein lies pure gold in the realm of performances. Actresses who are capable of doing this do not go searching far and wide for the aspects of their character that will make them appear strong or lovable. Instead they simply employ what they already have at their fingertips. Women are such a conundrum by default that if in a performance they are capable of being so honest with themselves to let both opposing views come to the surface, an audience can’t help but love them – even if they are a villain. A well-executed performance by a talented actress can set a standard for how everyone should live intelligently, unapologetically and without excuses. She can say: “I hate you AND I love you”, and the audience will clap for her because she has the capacity to allow both of those emotions to exist at the same time. This is particularly important in the genre of horror because in order for an audience to care whether a character lives or dies, they must feel connected to the character on a personal level. Women are wonderful in this genre because they find strength appropriate for the situations they are placed in. She may not be as physically strong as her enemy, but more often than not (in well-written female characters) she will use her sensitivity and intelligence to compensate for any lack of brute strength. Shakespeare said it best I believe: “And though she be but little, she is fierce.”
Is there still the need to develop an understanding of how to approach femininity within not just horror but more broadly storytelling – the use of female qualities to create strong female characters on not necessarily a physical but a more emotional and cerebral level?
AV: Absolutely! ‘Strong female characters’ is certainly a buzzword right now, and I do pass on scripts that lack them. It’s tricky. I think the first response is to have female characters that simply act like men, but there is a female strength that is not simply a masculinized female. To me the female principal is grounded and intuitive. We as women don’t have to harden ourselves or be unyielding to be strong. You mentioned strength on an emotional and cerebral level, and I think that’s on the right track. That echoes the women I know in my own life.
DEP: Oh absolutely, there is always room for improvement! I hope to see in the future not only actresses performing with these special qualities at the forefront, but also more writers creating stories with those strong females at the epicentre of the story. There is still volumes left unsaid regarding the strength of a female who finds herself in a seemingly impossible situation.
Speaking with producer Rachel Moody she explained that the approach towards the female characters was: “Explore but not exploit. We strove to create interesting characters over caricatures and to build a strong (non-sexual) female friendship rarely seen in horror films.” How do you view the place of Last Girl Standing and its female characters within horror and genre cinema?
AV: Last Girl Standing has four principal female roles, which in itself is uncommon. The fact that I got to act with another female so extensively was a welcome change; I can only think of one other film where that was the case. The dynamic between Camryn and Danielle is particularly rich as we’re both strong females – both smart and capable. We also get to interact with each other in a variety of ways and under a variety of circumstances. Our scenes are great because we foil and compliment each other. The audience gets to watch more than just ‘girl talk’ as our friendship develops. Rachel is absolutely right: our characters are not caricatures; they are multidimensional realistic women who are distinct from each other.
DEP: I am very honored to have been given the opportunity to play such a badass female character and to be given the freedom to share an honest friendship with another badass female character onscreen. It is something that I feel most women have a strong connection to – an unassuming friendship that takes you down a path you never could have imagined. I think Last Girl Standing sets a precedent for the horror genre in that the story focuses on two women fighting their own personal battle, side by side, without the need for being sexualized on any level. I won’t spoil anything, but they are both put to the test toward the end and prove that a woman will rise to the occasion she is placed within.
How do you view the way in which Last Girl Standing has shaped you both personally and professionally, and how do you think it has informed you moving forward?
AV: Acting in Last Girl Standing has been the high point of my career thus far. I was able to attempt so many different things and act in so many different ways. I get to be physical, emotional, withdrawn and connected. The character runs the gamut, and it was incredibly fun and satisfying to have such a wide arc. In fact, I’m afraid it’ll be difficult to find again. The character was also a huge challenge as I didn’t find the key to understanding her right away, and that’s the kind of challenge I want to continue to find and meet throughout my career. My first thought upon wrapping principal photography on Last Girl was that this is the kind of work I want to be doing from now on – working with talented, smart, serious directors on projects that we all care about and that are both entertaining and meaningful. It has been one of the best experiences of my life and certainly of my professional life, and now I’m looking forward to taking it on the festival circuit.
DEP: Like I said, I am beyond humbled to have been a part of this film. Personally, I feel like Last Girl Standing helped me to find the strength I already possessed and harness that on and off screen. It is very empowering to watch this film and know that I had never been given the opportunity to do anything even remotely similar to this before. I can’t thank Ben and Rachel Moody enough for having me on set and putting so much faith in me throughout the entire process. This film has been a tremendous step for me professionally as I was able to utilize some aspects of film combat I learned in college, and had not yet been able to play with. I also love screaming and I got to scream a lot; so no arguments there. I seem to get cast in lots of troubled roles that inadvertently weaken the female form in one way or another, and so to be able to portray a character so closely related to myself with such a badass flair to her was pure joy. Danielle’s character in Last Girl Standing was the perfect combination of those troubled roles I get cast in and the determined, powerful, game-changer roles I always want to play. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
The world premiere of Last Girl Standing will take place at FILM4 FrightFest on Monday 31st August at 3pm on the Discovery at the Prince Charles Screen.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.