Last week, actress Jessica Rothe returned in Happy Death Day 2U, reprising the role of Tree, the sorority girl who lived the day of her murder over and over until she solved the crime. The sequel found that harrowing situation repeating itself, with science fiction elements added to the previous mix of horror and humor.
“Some questions are answered that weren’t answered in the first movie; we come to learn why the time loop exists,” Rothe says. “This time, the stakes are higher, because the killer is not just after Tree, but also after her friends. There’s also a great love-story aspect, even more so than in the first one, and Tree has to make some big, difficult decisions. It was so much fun to shoot, because we took all the things that worked about the first one and amped them up 110 percent.”
Part of the appeal of the original Happy Death Day lay in watching the selfish, insensitive Tree become a better person over the course of her ordeal. With that redemptive arc complete, returning writer/director Christopher Landon takes her on a new emotional journey in the sequel. “When we find Tree at the beginning of this movie, she thinks she has everything figured out,” Rothe explains. “She has transformed from kind of a horrible bitch to a bad-ass heroine, she’s got the guy, she’s ready to have her life be a little calmer and more normal. So when she gets thrown back into the loop, needless to say, there is some frustration and anger! I got to play with not only Tree figuring out how to solve this problem again that she thought she already had solved, but also, when you’re confronted with such a giant challenge as a person, how you keep yourself from reverting back to old habits.”
Playing a character who gets jerked around in time, in a film shot out of sequence, would seem to present a particular challenge when it comes to maintaining her emotional through-line. For that, Rothe credits her director for helping her keep track of Tree’s psychological state and place in the narrative. “Chris is such a collaborative, generous filmmaker,” she says, “and he also really does his homework and encourages all of us to do ours. Before going in to shoot, he and I did a lot of work together and had many discussions about exactly how to craft that arc. We were lucky enough that we had a week of rehearsals before production began, so we were able to rough out the general sketch of how things were going to play.
“On the first film,” she continues, “we shot all my wake-up scenes on days two and three of shooting. At first, when I heard we were going to that, I panicked, because it was such an important part of the film, and I was hoping I would have more time to ease into it and figure out who Tree was before tackling such a large chunk of what makes that movie what it is. But it ended up being the best thing we could have done, because Chris and I were able to create a road map for ourselves. It was like dropping bread crumbs along the path of the film we were going to make, so we could continually refer back to, ‘OK, this is day four, and this is what your wake-up was like, and it’s following x, y and z.’ ”
Tree is especially lucky to be alive for this second adventure; the first Happy Death Day’s original conclusion (included on the Blu-ray and DVD) saw her make it out of the loop, only to be murdered in her hospital bed by the wife of Gregory, the college professor with whom she’d been having an affair. “It was a very snarky, dark ending; she finally escapes the loop, and then her past catches up to her,” Rothe says. “But it was a little too much for preview audiences, which I understand. They felt like we had taken them on this huge rollercoaster ride and asked them to root for me, and they finally did, and then my character dies.
“So we reshot the ending, and if we hadn’t done that, there would have been no sequel, or at least one that I could be part of,” she continues. “I’m so grateful not only that we had the opportunity to make another movie, but that Chris chose me to step into the role of Tree in the first place, and that I got to explore this funny, brave, ballsy, slightly crazy girl. It’s the role of a lifetime, and one that I’ll always treasure, whether this is the last time I step into her shoes or I get to play her again.”
Time will tell whether Tree has to repeatedly confront her mortality a third time, but Rothe would welcome any opportunity to jump back into the horror pool. “I really enjoy all the blood and gore and screaming. We had an incredible makeup artist on this film, Ashley Walsh, who did a great job with all the fun, bloody stuff.” When it comes to watching other people’s fright flicks, though, “I love them, but I’m the biggest chicken. I watch them curled up in a fetal position with my hands covering my eyes and plugging my ears because I get so freaked out. The first time I ever saw a horror movie, I think I was in middle school, and we watched I Know What You Did Last Summer and It at a slumber party. Everybody else fell asleep, and I stayed awake; this was back in the day of VHS, so the static came on the TV screen, and I was sure that something was going to come and eat me, and I couldn’t sleep for weeks.
“But now, my boyfriend is a huge horror-movie buff, and he and his friends really love ’80s horror films, so I’ve been watching a lot of those. We actually did a movie club last October where every Monday night, we’d watch a different film, so we saw everything from The Thing to My Bloody Valentine. I’m getting an education, which I’m very grateful for.”