(Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)
The signs were there. In between getting her start in things like The Little Rascals Save the Day and voicing a Disney Princess (Princess Isabel in Elena of Avalor), Jenna Ortega was slowly being drawn towards darker territory with roles in things like Insidious: Chapter 2 and Deadtime Stories. She was clearly not someone who was ever afraid to walk in the shadows. “I love blood and guts. I love to run for my life,” says Ortega, now having built up her dark side cred even more with the new Scream and the titular role in Netflix’s upcoming Addams Family spin-off Wednesday – while also tackling more emotionally raw (and sadly all-too-real) trauma to critical acclaim in The Fallout.
Ortega is currently putting her love of blood, guts, and flights of terror to the ultimate test in director Ti West’s painstaking tribute to the horror and porn of the 1970s, X. Ortega plays Lorraine, a member of a film crew out to shoot an adult movie in the middle of nowhere who discover the elderly couple whose barn they’re using as their makeshift production headquarters might be more than just annoying neighbors.
Ortega initially admitted that she was “scared of the question” when it came time to name her Five Favorite Horror Films – “When it comes to movies, or music, I have such admiration for so many that, to narrow it down, I feel like I’m always going to regret it” – but in the end, she was able to name the five that have influenced her the most lately and strike a chord with her darker side.
Prom Night (1980)
This is just classic horror, but also incredibly innovative for its time. It was one of the first representations of a story where you really didn’t know who the killer is, which makes the whole thing such a worse scenario. And the editing and filming and even acting are all really very true to its time. I especially enjoy it.
Insidious was one of the first horror films that I really saw and it… There are some shots in that film that stay with me, where I feel like I can still see the red-faced demon guy wherever I go. James Wan obviously knows what he’s doing in the horror department, but watching that as a 12-year-old was traumatizing. I have a lot of admiration for that one.
I really love Possession. It was actually a recommendation from Mikey Madison, on the Scream set. Not only is it hauntingly beautiful, but also unlike anything I’d ever seen before. I love watching a film and getting some kind of adrenalin out of it — that’s when I feel it’s done its job, when a film inspires you and gives you a bunch of ideas.
The Witch (2015)
I have a lot of admiration for The Witch. Everything about it — the cinematography, storyline, the performances — it’s so high quality and so beautifully done. I think that’s a movie I thought about for weeks after I watched it. It just never gets old.
Oh my god, I’d never seen anything like that before. That movie just gave me chills all over… There’s certain shots where the two main characters’ faces are split, and I just… It’s incredible.
Eric Alt for Rotten Tomatoes: How do you prepare to tackle something like The Fallout, which is so emotional and rooted in trauma that is all-too-real for some people, as opposed to a film like X, which has more traditional horror elements?
Jenna Ortega: I wouldn’t say that I change my preparation for the roles, but there’s a different kind of caution that’s involved because, like you said, The Fallout is very real and very relevant, unfortunately. So there’s a certain sensitivity in telling a story that isn’t necessarily your own, but you still want to do it justice and maybe give people who do deal with something like this some sort of comfort or feeling of togetherness and not being so alone. It’s so unfortunate to say but I feel like there’s a whole new set of nerves and anxiety that comes with something like that. But with something like X, it’s a different kind of anxiety. I’m now working with people I’ve grown up watching or productions like A24 that I’m a massive fan of. It’s also very different from other horror roles that I’ve played. Any sort of new character is exciting and scary all at the same time, I would say.
Director Ti West is known for carefully and intricately recreating the look and feel of movies from specific eras. Did you see that painstaking process up close on the X set?
Ortega: Definitely. It was incredible. Even before I did the job, I had a nice conversation with Ti where there was just an immediate trust. I also knew that he writes and directs and edits a lot of his own work, so I knew he was very certain in his vision. He tends to do period pieces, and I’ve seen him execute it in the past and execute it well, and on this set, because it is about an adult film in the ’70s — even the equipment we were using was all authentically from the ’70s. We were speaking to people who were in the film industry from the ’70s one-on-one, and they were teaching us how to use certain things. There was a certain hands-on nature about it all. Knowing that down to even the props that we were using and the locations we were shooting in were accurate to the time really proved to us how much thought and care had gone into this project.
Obviously you’re in close quarters a lot with your fellow X cast members. Did you guys develop a camaraderie?
Ortega: Honestly, they are some of the coolest people I’ve ever worked with. I’d looked up to some of them for a while, and all of them are so talented, it’s almost frightening going to work every day. But it was also so exciting because you never know what you’re going to learn. Just witnessing them working was such an honor. But it was a super calm environment [on set], especially shooting the kinds of scenes we were shooting. I think that there’s a required level of safety and trust and respect, and that was definitely present, and I think that it provided a closeness that you don’t always have with all of your casts. The environment was incredibly professional but also very encouraging. We were supportive of one another, and that’s always a nice feeling.
Was there a scene or sequence that was particularly daunting for you?
Ortega: Not necessarily. I’m pretty comfortable with the horror stuff, and even the other subject matter I wasn’t nearly as exposed as my fellow actors, and we had an incredible coordinator and there weren’t a lot of people on set. It was just treated like work, which was really cool. Maybe I was nervous because I had never done anything like that before. But it was surprisingly easy.
Are you able to leave these terrifying or emotionally heavy roles behind when you leave the set? How do you decompress?
Ortega: I think it depends. I think on certain horror jobs, because the environment is so outlandish — you would hope some guy in a teenager’s Halloween costume isn’t stalking your family and trying to kill you multiple times — it doesn’t feel very natural or real, so things like that, it’s very easy to just leave it at work. But if you are doing something a bit more grounded or more realistic or even something that you relate to, I think that it’s harder to decompress from those. You don’t realize that it’s sitting with you as much as it is. Like, after a couple of weeks you realize, “Man, for some reason I’m really down and I don’t know why” — probably it’s the environment you’ve been putting yourself into every day. But for the most part I’m able to detach myself from work.
(Photo by A24)
It must be easier when, like you said, the threat is external, like some guy in a mask, as opposed to something that’s more internal.
Ortega: Well, the worst thing about The Fallout is that it’s work — you wrap, you go home, you do whatever, you go to bed. But that’s not the case for people like my character. What she’s gone through is not something that you can just sleep off or take a break from over the weekend. I think that’s the worst part. That project in particular, I don’t think that will ever leave me. I still think about it consistently. So I can’t even imagine what actual survivors must feel.
Between X and Scream and the upcoming Wednesday series, it is safe to say you have a dark side?
Ortega: Yeah, I think I’ve always kind of been internally drawn to that stuff, so it’s nice that my work is able to reflect that. I would also love the opportunity to be the villain. I think there’s a fun nuance that can come into play. I think I can bring some level of groundedness to something like that. But yeah, in terms of dark stuff, I think that even my humor tends to be a little bit more dark. I’m doing Wednesday and I’ve been compared to Wednesday all my life in terms of my sarcasm and dry humor, so it’s oddly fitting.
X premiered at South by Southwest on March 13, 2022 and opens in theaters on March 18, 2022.
Thumbnail images by: Everett Collection, ©FilmDistrict, ©A24