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February 25, 2013

The Face Behind the Demon: Ashley Bell Chimes in on Her Career, The Last Exorcism Part II

by Stephanie Dawson

The name Ashley Bell may not spark universal recognition. But horror fans will no doubt remember the poster for 2010′s The Last Exorcism featuring Bell in a back bend.

The 26-year-old actress burst onto the Hollywood scene with her role as the young, innocent Nell Sweetzer, possessed by a demon in the Eli Roth-produced The Last Exorcism. The low-budget-found-footage film earned nearly $70 million worldwide. Bell’s performance garnered her a Best Supporting Female Spirit Award nomination, an MTV Movie Award nomination, and some Oscar buzz—not bad for her first time on screen. The actress will reprise the role in the sequel, The Last Exorcism Part II, which bows on March 1st. She said, “I am a huge horror fan. I love horror movies. And it was the role of a lifetime to get a chance to play Nell in the first movie, and then get a chance to see the continuation of Nell’s story in the second film.”

Bell grew up in Los Angeles. Her mother, Victoria Carroll, was a founding member of The Groundlings, a Los Angeles improv theater company whose alumni include Lisa Kudrow, Will Ferrell, Maya Rudolf, Kristen Wiig, and Melissa McCarthy. Her father, Michael, is a voice-over artist who worked on The Transformers, G. I. Joe, and Rugrats, to name a few. From an early age, Bell loved the idea of transforming into different characters. She studied acting and directing at Cambridge University, where she received recognition for her work. Bell later graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she was mentored by Kathleen Turner.

Though her training was heavy on theater, Bell has adjusted to the big screen seamlessly. And she’s willing to do what the role requires. In Exorcism, she wore no makeup and did her own stunts, which included the now iconic back bend. In the film, a preacher who doesn’t believe in exorcism invites a documentary crew to accompany him and disprove the practice. However, Nell’s case makes the preacher question his beliefs. Bell’s performance is so dulcet and sincere that the audience immediately takes her side. But in the exorcism sequences, the actress’s ability to manipulate her voice, change her posture, and darken her facial expressions really sell the demonic possession. The film has very few shock gags or bloody kills; it doesn’t need them, because Bell, alone, makes the film quite haunting.

Her second role was far from the harmless, soft-spoken Nell. In Doug Aarniokoski’s post-apocalyptic thriller The Day (2011), her character Mary is bad ass. In the film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, Bell wielded knives, hit moving targets with a shot gun, and kicked butt. Also, her voice was an octave deeper than it was in The Last Exorcism. Her athleticism in Exorcism is what convinced the filmmakers behind The Day that she could take on the role. But don’t misunderstand—there are no clichéd catch phrases or empty line deliveries with Bell. Her physicality doesn’t outweigh the truth of the character she portrays. Move over Angelina Jolie—you’ve got competition with this female action star.

In addition to her love of acting, Bell is an animal lover and is involved with the Save Elephant Foundation. She is currently directing a documentary entitled Love and Bananas (loveandbananas.com), about the rescue and transport of two Cambodian elephants from an illegal logging facility to a wildlife sanctuary. The new filmmaker said about the experience, ” … I got a chance to work with HALO Trust and watch them explode land mines in military ordinances. Who does that? Who can say that’s an on-the-job for them—to watch these land mines explode so that they won’t harm elephants and that they won’t harm children or civilians?” Her directorial debut continues filming this year and may be complete as early as 2014.

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Bell’s schedule would put today’s most prolific actors to shame. Among her upcoming projects is a starring role in romantic comedy The Bounceback, which will premiere at SXSW in March. She also stars in Sparks, a noir thriller based on the graphic comic, which should land in theaters in May. Other projects include DVD release The Marine: Homefront, a full-on action film where Bell stars with Neal McDonough (Captain America, 2011); and the romantic epic Chasing Shakespeare, with co-star Danny Glover.

This rising star proves her versatility stretches beyond the big screen. She has lent her voice to a number of video games, including the lead character Erline in Sony’s top-selling Sorcery. And she worked with her father for the first time as a voice-over artist for the new animated series The LeBrons, starring NBA superstar LeBron James.

With just a few films under her belt, the rising star has demonstrated a depth of talent and versatility that will make her one to watch in the coming years.

posted by: Stephanie Dawson
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