The Verge: Sarah Butler Takes on the Notorious I Spit on Your Grave

sarah_butler_spit_grave_500.jpgIn one giant, risky leap, Sarah Butler has pretty much traversed the spectrum of breakthroughs in her brief acting career to date, moving from playing Belle in Beauty and the Beast performances at Disneyland to the lead in the unrated remake of the infamous 1978 rape-revenge thriller I Spit on Your Grave.

Opening Friday, Grave updates Meir Zarchi's grungy exploitation classic with a slightly more... competent gloss. Director Steven R. Monroe still features a New York writer named Jennifer Hills alone in the woods, victimized by a gang of depraved hicks. What the new version loses in contemporary shock value (Roger Ebert famously, viciously panned Zarchi's original, which was banned in some countries for years) it gains in atmosphere and performance, anchored by Butler's tormented, traumatized young woman who gives herself completely to vengeance. Which isn't to say Monroe or Butler have tamed the material -- anything but, in fact. (If I never see a fishhook again, it'll be too soon.) But when I Spit on Your Grave isn't pushing the envelope on visceral gore, it actually is an effective, performance-based thriller across the board.

Movieline caught up with Butler recently to talk about the challenge -- and how she knew she was up to it, particularly for her big-screen debut.

So this is a big week for you. How are you doing?

Good! It's been crazy, but a good crazy.

How so?

I just have a million interviews. I have this big press day tomorrow. My publicist sent me this schedule, and I was like, "Are you serious?" It's insane. I literally think I have like 30 interviews tomorrow. But it's cool!

Is this a new experience for you? This level of attention to a project?

Yeah. This is only my second feature-length film, and the other one was straight to TV, so we didn't do any publicity. So I'm learning as I go through the process.

You've been promoting it for a while now. What are some of your favorite or most thought-provoking reactions to date?

My favorite was probably in Montreal when I watched the film with an audience for the first time. Everyone was pretty silent in the first part of the film, but when the revenge part started, they were just so vocal. Just really excited. Any sign of me, they'd cheer and whoop and clap, and as soon as came back and started torturing the guys, there would be these little bursts of standing ovations here and there -- just overwhelming applause. It was amazing to be there and see that reaction from the audience.

That's weird. I thought the whole thing was utterly horrifying -- and I mean that as a compliment. It works. But which half was harder to film?

They were both difficult in different ways. The part where I was being raped and tortured was difficult because I had to face some of my own fears. Sometimes things seemed too real. Even when Steven would yell, "Cut," it was hard to get out of that place in my mind. It was very emotionally draining. But on the other hand, the part where I'm getting my revenge was very difficult, too, because by that time I'd become friends with all my co-stars. To see them tied up in strange positions and having to be really cruel to them was pretty hard. I knew they were all really uncomfortable. A couple times I backed down a little and wasn't quite as vicious as I should been. I had to keep redoing the takes because it was coming through that I felt sorry for them -- and that wasn't acceptable for our storyline. Actually, the actor Danny Franzese all of the sudden on time just said, "Sarah, do it! So I can get out of this position!" I was like, "Oh, you're right. OK!" In this case, being cruel to him would actually help him because he would be able to get untied and get feeling back into his arms and legs. I had to bring it, but it was hard.

Yikes. So: What's your background? How did you get started?

I'm from Washington state -- a pretty small town there called Puyallup. I was really into the arts there. I sang in choirs and did singing competitions. I also did a whole lot of theater; I did high school, and then I started doing some community theater. I decided that was the kind of thing I wanted to study in college. I only had a couple of options at that point; I saw myself as a city girl all the way, so it was either New York or L.A. And I ended up getting into USC, but I didn't get into NYU, so the decision was pretty much made for me that I'd be in L.A. I think it was definitely the right thing. I love being warm and having the ocean nearby. It just suits me more personally.

But I went through a few phases here. I initially got a job at Disneyland through a friend who was working there. He said, "You would make a great princess there," and that I should audition. So I just went on a whim to audition, and I wound up getting a job as Belle, from Beauty and the Beast, at Disneyland. I did that for about a year and a half. During that time I ended up dropping out of college because I was just kind of lost; the tuition was a lot of money to be throwing away for something I wasn't sure I wanted to study after all. So I decided at first I'd take a break, and I haven't been back since. But I had my Disneyland job, and I was happy doing that. I was having a good time.

Then I decided to start auditioning for stuff. I needed to move on with my life and start striving for something; I've always been that type of person. I thought, "Well, I'm here in L.A. I should try to work in television or film. I'm an actor, so why not?" Then I started the long, tedious process of trying to get myself an agent and do all that. Finally I got so wrapped up in doing that that I had to leave Disneyland; it was one or the other. And I've been doing this ever since.

At what point did you see the original I Spit on Your Grave?

I saw it after I was cast. I hadn't even heard of it when I auditioned. They're a little sneaky about it: They cast it under the name Day of the Woman, which is even more obscure than I Spit on Your Grave as a title. Finally, when I got cast, I said, "Well, I guess I've got to watch the original." I rented it knowing full well what I was getting myself into, because of course I had read our script by then. So I was prepared, but it was still pretty strong. I kind of stuck with me for a few days.

Did you have any second thoughts?

No. I mean, when I first read the script was probably the biggest second thought I had through the whole process. I was like, "Absolutely not; there is no way I'm going to audition for something like this." I couldn't believe my manager even sent me on this because usually he's very protective of me and the material that I work on. I asked him if he'd read it, and he said he hadn't, but he'd read it that night and get back to me the next day. When he did, surprisingly enough, he was all gung-ho for it. He said I had to do it; I was going to be so bad-ass. It got my mind working: "OK, if he thinks it's good, then let me try to find the good in it for me." You know?

And thinking about it, I realized that it's not very often that an actor gets thrown a role where you have to go through so much emotionally. There's just such a huge arc here to play with, and that kind of role is really an honor to play as an actor. The fact that I get to come out victorious in the end is another plus. The more I thought about it, the more I got excited about it. There was no second thought after that initial one.

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