“I suggested Jennifer,” the “Kinsey” and “Love Actually” star recently told reporters in New York. “She did the rest.”
Describing Carpenter as “an extraordinarily talented young woman,” Linney said she knew the 25-year-old Kentucky native had the range to play a sheltered Catholic girl whose body is taken over by an evil spirit when she goes away to college. Linney said she was so impressed by Carpenter’s performance in “The Crucible,” Arthur Miller’s play about a 17th Century witch hunt in Salem, Mass., that she was eager to see the actress given a chance to really show what she could do on film. Although Carpenter got the job for which Linney had recommended her, the two, unfortunately, have no scenes together in the movie, which is inspired by real events. That doesn’t mean, however, that the pair didn’t collaborate on the project.
“She is remarkable and I knew that this was the most critical piece of casting for the whole movie,” Linney explained. “She’s an unbelievable athlete. She’s vocally completely trained. She also went to Julliard, so I know her background and how she’s been trained. To be able to do this sort of stuff, to scream like that, 18 hours a day, you have to know what you’re doing and I knew that she would ground (the movie) in a way and make it more complicated and make it as human as possible, so I threw her name in the pot and, God bless them, they listened.”
In the film, Linney plays the fictionalized character of Erin Bruner, a hotshot defense attorney hired to defend Father Richard Moore, a devout, well-meaning, Roman Catholic priest, portrayed by “The Importance of Being Earnest” actor Tom Wilkinson. Bruner, who is agnostic, has the arduous task of proving Moore did not inadvertently kill Emily by suggesting religious rituals, rather than medicine, was the key to restoring her to the sweet girl she once was. Throughout the trial, Emily’s story is told in flashback. The formerly doubtful Erin, meanwhile, finds herself seemingly surrounded by dark forces, hell-bent on sabotaging her case.
Loosely based on true events, the movie is part courtroom drama, part horror film and features far fewer special effects than one might expect. In fact, many of the scariest bits of the movie can be attributed to Carpenter’s skill as an actress, not to computer-generated monsters or gory makeup. Although it treads some of the same terrain as the 1973 horror classic, “The Exorcist,” “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” strives for realism.
Without using pea soup vomit and spinning heads, writer/producer Paul Harris Boardman and writer/director Scott Derrickson said they were always careful to avoid going over the top, preferring to remain faithful to the basic facts of the “real” story and leaving it up to the audience to judge whether the girl could have been possessed by a demon or whether she had simply gone untreated for epilepsy and pyschosis so long, her body gave up.
For Carpenter, an actress with a handful of screen credits like “White Chicks” and “D.E.B.S.” on her resume, the chance to star in a movie of this magnitude was a blessing, one made possible thanks to her prior working relationship with Linney.
“I still wake up happy that I got to do it,” she declared. “Laura has been like a guardian angel to me, really, just as a friend and a support. Any time I felt like I’d lost my footing, I could always call her and she has always, always been there and I would not have seen this script if it was not for her and I will always be grateful that she said my name because I really wouldn’t have even been able to go on the audition.”
To prepare for the role, Carpenter read everything she could find about epilepsy and seizures and even looked to Japanese Kabuki theatre for inspiration regarding how to contort her face and body for the extremely physical role. One thing she did not do, she confessed, was watch “The Exorcist.” Insisting she had never seen the creepy Linda Blair flick before signing on to this film, the actress said she had no desire to see it after she started to work on it because she didn’t want it to influence her in any way.
“That movie is apparently saturated with special effects and not in a negative way, but this one isn’t, and I think that’s what’s scary to me,” she revealed. “If I hear something outside the door, it’s what it could possibly be that scares me. This script is so strong and the characters are so strong that you sort of think, ‘If something is happening this way, this is sort of what it would look like.'”
In addition to the pain, confusion and horror Carpenter must convey in facial expressions, the role also requires her to shriek and cackle manically, writhe on the floor, bang her head on walls, twist her body into extraordinary positions and attack with great force the good people trying to help her. The tall, lean woman said the fact she has been running since grade school helped her a great deal in getting ready for the part. Most likely surprising news for anyone who sees the movie is that she does not practice the body-bending techniques of Yoga in real life.
“I think the adrenaline gets going and you don’t realize you’re doing half the things you’re doing,” she admitted. “When I saw the rough cut, I was bending certain ways and I remember thinking, ‘I didn’t know I could do that!'”
Noting the movie encourages audiences to consider there could be more than one explanation for strange occurrences, Carpenter emphasized it does not champion one theory over another. That said, the actress, who now lives in Los Angeles, said she is unsure if demon possession or exorcisms are real, but confessed she is now open to the chance that they could be.
“I don’t know,” she mused. “I’m not sure. It’s a possibility. Anything is a possibility.”
That philosophy also extends to Carpenter’s view of her career, something she feels will benefit from her portrayal of Emily Rose.
“I feel like if someone asked me to play a 90-year-old man right now, I could do it and I feel like I could do it well,” she laughed, adding she would like to do more drama, as well as comedy and stage work. “I feel I have more than one trick up my sleeve. So, hopefully, the people casting movies and plays will see that, too. I don’t have a preference — as long as it excites me and, in a weird way, it chooses me, I’ll do it.”
“The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is in theaters now.