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From Muppet aspirations to psychotic thrills: A Conversation with Sara Paxton

Cheap Thrills
12 June 2014

From the producer’s of ‘You’re Next’ comes Cheap Thrills.

Unemployed and down on his luck, Craig (Pat Healy) finds himself drowning his sorrows in an attempt to forget the mounting debts threatening to tear his family apart. When a chance meeting with an old friend (Ethan Embry) leads to one drink after another; the pair find themselves drawn into an innocent game of dare by a thrill seeking couple with money to burn; Violet (Sara Paxton) and Colin (David Koechner).

As the night progresses both Vince and Craig become the victims of their own greed, as the initially fun game escalates into something far more sinister. When the money is on the table, how far will two friends go to ensure their futures?

When the offer of an interview with Sara Paxton a.k.a. the cheap thrills seeking psychopathic Violet came our way, a shiver ran down the spine. Just to liven up this introduction the stipulation was that for every question answered we had to lose a finger. As the questions exceed ten, a couple of thumbs and some toes ended up making up for the lack of fingers.


Why a career in acting? Was there that one inspirational moment?

I started acting when I was six. I was one of the lucky ones because I did have that moment where I thought this is what I have to do. When I was a kid I was so obsessed with The Muppets that I actually wanted to be one and that was when I knew I wanted to be in show business. I think I have succeeded in that [laughs]. But I had to convince my parents, and they had rules. I couldn’t be home schooled, and I had to maintain a certain GPA. If I didn’t then I wouldn’t be allowed to, and so I bribed them and I did whatever I could to act.

What was the initial appeal of acting?

I was one of those kids that was always running around trying to entertain people and make them laugh. But I loved watching movies, and I would watch the same ones over and over again. Every little kid does that. You love a movie and so you keep rewinding it and playing it over and over again. I just knew that’s what I had to do. I loved the feeling the came with watching a movie, and I wanted to be able to offer that same experience to other people, and to have that effect on them. It was just something that I had to do, and whilst I know it sounds corny, it was magical.

When we are children we are at that impressionable age that is ripe for falling in love with cinema. Creativity and childhood seem to exist in a perfect harmony.

I didn’t have any feelings that I couldn’t do this, nor did I feel embarrassed or afraid. As a kid you have no inhibitions and so you just go after whatever it is you want. Only then as you get older do you begin to become aware of the difficulties, and that’s when your inhibitions creep in, and it becomes a little scarier. But when you are a kid it’s magic, and looking back that’s a big reason why I got started.

Do we lose something as we age in the way that we experience films or is just a natural evolution in that we don’t lose anything per say, but rather the perspective of the experience changes?

I definitely think we lose that feeling that I was describing. It’s inevitable because life is hard, and for most children those are things they are not aware of. Then of course as you get older you learn to live with that. But that’s why I love my job because I am lucky enough to be one of the few people to have the opportunity to hold onto that.


Whilst writers have an opportunity to explore characters and identity, the actor’s experience of this exploration is more intimate. You become the incarnation of those characters who contribute to your multiple onscreen identities.

That’s definitely one of the best parts of my job. People always ask, “Why did you do three thriller-horror movies in a row? Is that something you like more than anything else?”

What I look at is the character, and I ask what’s different about them; have I played this type of person before, and what motivates them to behave in this way? It’s interesting because everyone does this in real life, and I myself enjoy observing people and understanding the psychology behind what makes a person tick. So that’s something I like being able to do not just in everyday life but also when I get a script. It’s that process of putting the pieces together for the characters I am supposed to play as to understand why they behave the way they do.

This was especially true with Cheap Thrills, and that’s one of the reasons why I was so eager to do the movie, but also because I had never played a character like Violet before. So what’s behind it all is fascinating to me, and Violet was no exception.

Do you find acting affords you an opportunity to explore certain aspects of your personality, including perhaps the darker aspects?

Absolutely! But it’s just so weird admitting that there is a process behind my work. What I find particularly interesting is to explore the different sides of your personality, and discover that particular piece of you in that character to make it believable. Not to sound corny, but I do feel that I have to undertake this process in order to play a character. That’s why it was so scary to play Violet, because how do you find that piece of you when the person is psychotic [laughs], and has no moral compass? It was difficult, and so I was definitely a little afraid to go there.



E.L. Katz described Cheap Thrills to me as, “A black comedy made by a horror fan.” What were your first impressions of the script?

I’d agree with him that it’s a black comedy, but only because at times the film is too much, and there are those moments when you need a release because you are frequently holding your breath. So the audience have to collectively let out some of that steam.

When I first read the script there was never a part it that I didn’t buy into. I believed that every step of the way everything that was written would happen, and that is something that comes across in the film as well.

It was the theme of the movie that made me feel gross. After I read it I felt nasty, and it even freaked me out a little. It was definitely one of those that stuck with me for a couple of days, and I didn’t know how to feel because of the thematic exploration of everyone has a price, what’s yours? It’s especially relevant in today’s society. But that reaction and the way it resonated with me was how I knew I had to do the movie. But it was also in part because of the way I felt for the Craig character, and I do feel the audience will react the same way as I did.

Would you describe Cheap Thrills as a cynical film?

Well with its theme that is so relevant to what’s going on today I would say it has a cynical tone. Colin and Violet are the one per cent; they are the corporation and so I do think it rings true with today’s culture. People can relate to that, and again that’s the reason I wanted to make the movie. Even though it’s kind of gross and at times it’s heated and scary, it felt important and so it was something that I wanted to be a part of it.

How long was the shoot?

We shot the film in sixteen days. It was crazy, but in a way it helped because we shot it chronologically, which is something I have never done before and almost never happens. It helped because we were shooting in this tiny house for most of the movie. Also it was September in Los Angeles, 108 degree weather and there was no air conditioning. Plus you had the crew of burly dudes, and as the film progressed and the tension escalated, the temperature was rising and everything just fell into place and worked out for us. It was hot and we were all on edge, but then we were supposed  to be on edge to the point where it gets crazy.

We had no time to sit and talk. It was just “Go” because we would be shooting sixteen pages of script a day and we only had sixteen days to shoot. So it was the perfect storm where everything was falling into place all at once, and it just worked for the movie.


How did the speedy shoot impact your understanding of Violet? Was it following the completion of the film that you were able to reason how you felt about her?

Even though we had no time the director would talk to us a little, and we had a rehearsal beforehand because we knew it was going to be such a quick shoot. Afterwards I think we all agreed that we felt the same way. For me personally, I needed to step away from anything involving Cheap Thrills because it was hard to go to that place every day. I think Violet is kind of a psychopath. She has no moral compass or compassion, and that’s why she does this. She does it for her husband because that’s when she can feel something, and that is the reason she’s so bored for the first half of the movie because she knows they have to go through these shenanigans to get to the real meat of the stuff. You can see as the movie progresses she’s getting more and more excited. She gets off on it, and so once we were finished I just had to get away from it because it was just too disturbing. So I definitely tried to leave it behind and I didn’t think about it again once it was done.

Violet makes for an interesting comparison to the characters you played in The Innkeepers and Static. How do you view the place Violet occupies within your body of work?

I was excited that I would be playing a character that was different from anything I had played before. But at the same time I asked myself whether I could do this; could I be that person? It was the darkest role I have ever taken on, but at the same time there was something in her that I recognised; something that I see daily. So even though in one sense she seemed so foreign to me she wasn’t. Despite the fact she is a psychopath and incapable of feeling compassion, I see a little bit of that in people on a regular basis – the woman in line at Starbucks who is always on her phone, and is bored by everything and for who nothing excites her. I just feel that I encounter people like this on a daily basis.

So when I asked how I was going to play this cold, dead eyed psychopath, there was something that I recognised in her, and I felt confident that if I could get to the bottom of her intentions I could her pull off.  I had to build a back story for her in order to make it real for me, because I’ve never played someone like this, and I’m nothing like her. She’s so different from The Innkeepers which I also did with Pat, but I enjoy playing dark characters, and it’s something I want to do again [laughs].

Do you see yourself pushing beyond Violet in the future or does she represent the extreme of your onscreen identity?

I see what you’re saying, but what was so interesting about Violet is that she is such a dark and twisted character. What makes her so creepy is that for the whole first half of the movie you’re left to think what’s up with this chick, she’s bored, what’s her problem? Then you realise that she’s the person you should have been watching the whole time, because she’s the twisted one and this is her thing. You end up asking yourself why you weren’t paying more attention. She’s not bored, she’s controlling this whole situation, and she’s the most twisted person in the room. So there are different variations of a dark character. Violet is silently creepy, and I don’t believe I’ve ever played a character who’s outright evil and loud about it. The most difficult thing for me when I read the script was that she doesn’t speak, and you immediately question how you are supposed to give off this vibe if you don’t even speak. That was hard.

If you could take away one memory from this experience what would it be?

My character is silently creepy, and so I spent a lot of time sitting back and just watching as the tensions rose. Pat [Healy] is one of the best actors out there right now currently working – he’s incredible. Also David [Koechner] and Ethan [Embry] are both so talented, and I was lucky enough to have the privilege of sitting back and watching them work. There’s one scene where they are going to cut off his pinkie, and we shot this whole scene in one take from the beginning of Pat coming back after we thought he’d left, to the argument and then to him screaming on the couch with no finger. I didn’t know what to expect because we didn’t do a rehearsal. We had no time, and it was one of the most terrifying things I have ever seen in my life. I have never been off camera before and felt like that. Every single hair stood up on the back of my neck, and if the camera had of been on me you would have seen a complete look of horror and compassion that you would never see from Violet. I wanted to start crying because it affected me so much, and so that’s my most vivid memory. I can’t recall ever doing a movie where off-screen I thought holy s***.

It was a crazy shoot, and when we were shooting the scene where he eats the dog, despite the fact it was a piece of chicken people were still throwing up. I’ve never had an experience like the one I had on Cheap Thrills.



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