Sara Paxton: Girl Next Door, All Grown Up

Film | By. BlackBook | March 12, 2009
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Sara Paxton is an eye-catching personality in this age of hand-groomed, cookie-cutter starlets. Paxton commenced what looks to be a very promising career with tween silver screen sensations such as Aquamarine (think: Splash for an under 18 audience) and Sydney White (opposite Amanda Bynes). Her evolution into thespian maturity has her becoming a determined dramatic ingenue with the Wes Craven-produced remake and adaptation of Last House on the Left (released Friday, March 13th). Paxton plays Mari, a young girl on vacation at her family’s lake house who gets caught up with some folks from the wrong side of the tracks and kidnapped. In an odd twist of fate, the grimy gang of kidnappers takes shelter at the home of Mari’s parents, worried sick about their missing child. Mom and Dad proceed with necessary — and inevitably gruesome — action. The cast includes: Monica Potter, Garret Dillahunt, Martha MacIsaac and Spencer Treat Clark. The suspense thriller was shot in South Africa, where Paxton acted until it hurt and made her share of humanitarian contributions along the way.

What encouraged you to make the jump into the suspense genre? When the script came to me, I (of course) knew who Wes Craven was, but I hadn’t heard of the original Last House on the Left. I read the script and it was really intense. But, I loved the character Mari, and I’d been looking for something to challenge myself, and a change for quite a while. I went in to audition, and I didn’t think they liked me or that I was going to get the part. It was really hard [for me] to get roles like that because of doing Aquamarine, and Sydney White. I actually left the audition crying, because I was like, “No one’s ever going to want to work with me like this!” It was just so frustrating. And then, an hour later, my manager asked, “Why are you crying? They just called and they love you, and they want to meet with you.” I was thrilled and shocked that they actually wanted me for the movie.

Why did you wait until after shooting to watch the original? I didn’t want to have any preconceived notions of how to play the character, or how the movie should be. None of us were going to watch the movie beforehand, because we all felt the same way. We didn’t want the remake to be copied page by page. We just wanted to bring new life into the story.

Were you surprised by the original? Was it different from how you envisioned it? Definitely. It’s always different when you see the quality of the picture that we have now, compared to 1972. The camera’s shaking and it kind of looks like a porn film. It’s hard to get into it when the footage looks like that because it [sometimes] feels fake. Whereas, when you’re watching this Last House on the Left, it feels very real. But, I thought the original was more disturbing, in a way. There’s a scene where the main guy makes Mari pee her pants, and it’s just…really disturbing.

Was it your first trip to Africa? It was. At first I was really shocked that they were going to film there. It’s supposed to be in Oregon, or Middle America, or something, but, the minute Dennis [Iliadis] had all the actors set foot on the set, I knew right away why we went there. When you’re reading the script and you envision this perfect, peaceful place—this lake house—literally, when I saw the actual set, it was the exact same thing from my vision.

Was there a different reality outside of the set? It was also really hard living there, because you get there and at first you’re like, “Oh my gosh, it’s gorgeous!” And then, there’s something that I’ve never seen before, that completely changed my life. When we were pulling up to the marina where we were staying, I saw the townships. I was so dazed and confused from the flight. I’m looking out the window and I was like, “What is that? Are those homes?” And then, I looked closely, and it was just miles and miles of land covered with these little, tiny—you can’t even call them homes—they’re just literally like a dumpster. And a family of 12 lives in there with no electricity, and no running water. Seeing that up-close was really, really shocking. Every weekend, a couple of us would go to this orphanage, and we would take care of some of the kids there. We would be nurses for the day. And I would change diapers, play with the kids, read stories, feed them. They were so sick, and so many had AIDS. It was really rewarding, and it changed my life to go over there and deal with that. We lived there for 3 months, and you can’t drive by there everyday and not feel something, and not think, “I’ve got to do something while I’m here.”

What was it like filming the scene in the car, where Mari and Page are kidnapped and driven into the woods? I loved filming that scene. I think that was our first day on set. We were all piled into the car, and it was actually kind of funny, because Dennis , the director, was in the trunk the entire time in that scene. Jonathan [Craven] and Cody [Zwieg], the producers, were like, Dennis, you don’t have to be in the trunk. You can be on the flat-bed with us, watching the scene from the monitors. But Dennis said, “No, no, no. I want to be close to my actors.” And I also got injured in that scene. To get the cameras in the car, we had to move the backseat row back a few feet. There were these nails sticking up where the seat used to be. And so, as you see in the scene, we’re fighting, we’re rolling around, having a little tussle in the backseat, and I landed on one of the nails, and it went into my kneecap. I screamed out, and Dennis was like, “Cut! Print that! That was amazing! Sarah, that was so real! How did you do it?” And I was like, “It was real! I’m bleeding!”

Were there any other substantial injuries? Everyone had something that happened to them. All of our legs were purple. Just bruised and scratched everywhere. Aaron [Paul], who plays Francis, had to wear a prosthetic nose, when his nose breaks in the film. So, while he was wearing it, he kept saying, “You guys, my nose really burns. I don’t know what it is.” At the end of the day, they take off the nose, and his nose had expanded. It was huge, and red, and puffy, and he was screaming. His nose was messed up like that for weeks. We felt so bad for him. No offense to Aaron, but it just looked horrible.

The rape scene in this film is incredibly gut-wrenching. How did you prepare for that? I was nervous about that from the moment they said, “You have the part.” We were flying out to this new place where I’d never been before, that is so far away from anybody who could give me emotional support. I started freaking out a little bit. But then, when I got there, and I met everybody and we all started bonding, I realized that they had become my family away from home. Getting on set that day, I was so nervous. I was in my room and I was feeling so sick, and thought I was going to barf. My anxiety level was through the roof. And then Garret [Dillahunt] and I had a talk, and he really calmed me down. We decided that we were going to get through it together, and just go full force, and we completely trusted each other. And I felt like everyone had my back, so I felt like I was able to open up and kind of do things that I didn’t think I would be able to do at all. I felt safe.

After the scene was done, how did you recover from that? We did that scene for 17 hours. I would have loved to be at the craft service table in between takes, goofing off, and joking like how we normally were—I really just couldn’t that day. Once you lose that headspace, once you go out of it, you can’t go back. I had to stay in that dark place all day. So once they called cut, this weight just went away, and I immediately could just breathe and smile and be happy, be myself. I immediately ran up to Garret [Dillahunt]. He’s really protective of me, and I think it was really hard for him.

Did you guys go out that night? We were all staying at the same hotel, and so, every night after filming we would all go to the one restaurant in town, and hang out, eat, talk and unwind. We would talk about the day. And it really helped a lot to kind of release the energy. I think I would have gone insane had I just gone back to my hotel room and just sat there alone, thinking about the day over, and over, and over again. And Aaron’s nose was still all puffy and red, so we laughed about that.

Now that you’re back in LA, what are some of your favorite places there? Restaurant-slash-club, I really like to go to Apple. For a steak, Maestro’s is good. I like the Century City Mall, because they have everything. There’s Pinkberry, and movie theaters, and Wetzel’s Pretzels. I just like to go to the mall to eat food.