Jessica Rothe and Her "Badass, B*tchy, Messy" Journey in Happy Death Day 2U

Back in late 2017, Happy Death Day stormed into theaters with its fresh and thrilling take on a well-worn story device: one person living the same day over and over again, à la 1993's Groundhog Day. Not long after the film's release, we were delighted to learn that, like Tree, we'd be remaining in this strange universe. Writer-director Christopher Landon already had an idea for a sequel by the time he finished the first film, and shortly thereafter, he was given the green light. Even though it feels like the blink of an eye, Happy Death Day 2U is about to hit theaters. And luckily, I had the chance to sit down and speak with the big star, Jessica Rothe.

While chatting with Rothe about the film, she presented more as the fully realized Tree, who has been through some serious sh*t and is kind, gracious, and open-hearted because of it. We sat down, and I immediately commended her for adding so much depth to a lead female character. Such a complex and three-dimensional character can be hard to find in Hollywood in general, and that's especially true for horror films, comedies, and horror-comedies. Tree isn't a hapless first victim, a prop, an easy kill, or a sex object. She's not just one thing: she's not the mean girl, or the girl next door, or the final girl. She's everything; she's the hero of the story, and she goes through an incredible emotional arc that really makes you care about her.

"I love that this is a girl who sees the killer, and instead of running away, picks up an ax and runs toward him screaming."

When I mentioned to Rothe how impressed I was by Tree's incredible journey (and range!), she really commended writer-director Landon. "I'm still amazed every day that Chris wrote and created such an amazingly vibrant, complex, three-dimensional, badass, b*tchy, messy, lovable human being. And that arc is something you don't see — not only in genre, but in movies for young women. You don't really get to see women start out despicable and then transform into their own hero . . . I love that she is her own hero. I love that this is a girl who sees the killer, and instead of running away, picks up an axe and runs toward him screaming."

This kind of "no f*cks" Tree is dialed up to 100 percent in Happy Death Day 2U. In one hilarious montage, Tree has to die a bunch of times in order to figure out what the hell is going on. This leads to that one unforgettable scene in the trailer, in which Tree jumps out of a plane in just a bikini. As it turns out, that was Rothe's favorite death to film, and it was pretty complicated to pull off. "It was a trust fall. Because I was just up in a plane shell, and they had mats below me, and I just had to not scream too much." Then, of course, they had to shoot her landing separately.

Everett Collection

You don't see Tree "stick the landing" in the preview, but it basically culminates in this slow-motion shot of our fair lady, grinning and flipping off the camera while plummeting into the ground at a deadly speed. "I couldn't be on a harness because I was wearing a bikini, so the only way they could get me to do it was by building this platform," Rothe recalled. "I was on it, and they had to drop me. They had to almost dunk tank me off the platform. But in order to get the pose, I had to strike it before they dropped me, even though I was being dropped seven or eight feet. So I had to tense my body, and flip off, and make a crazy face, and then they'd count three, two, one and the floor would just drop out from under me, and I'd land on a bunch of pads, but it was oddly difficult."

Going back to that whole thing about being emotionally invested in Tree, Rothe also revealed a shocking fact about the first film: Tree was supposed to straight-up die at the end. Like, for realsies. "I die. I make it to Tuesday the 19th. I wake up — it's on the DVD extras. I filmed the scene. I wake up, and everyone's at the hospital with me, my dad's there, I'm super happy, and then Gregory's wife comes in and poisons me because I was sleeping with her husband, and I die," Rothe told me. Test audiences were furious because they had grown so attached to the character. "They were pissed. They were like, 'You made us care about this person. You can't do this. We went on this journey. We love her.'"

HAPPY DEATH DAY, from left: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, 2017. ph: Patti Perret. Universal Studios/courtesy Everett Collection
Everett Collection

But here's the best part of that story: Landon decided to change the ending so audiences wouldn't have to endure Tree's permanent death. During that editing process, he had an epiphany about the sequel. "We changed it. We reshot it, and then about a month before the first one came out, Chris called me and was like, 'I have a crazy idea for you,' and he told me about it. I said, 'You're insane, but you're also the only person who could pull this off. So if you're in, I'm in.' And that's where it came from. And Chris didn't know; he said until he was in the editing bay and then he would pick up on certain little things in the film and be like, 'Huh. I wonder what a fun way to explain this would be.'"

Of course, I don't want to give away the big twist. But just know that there really is a moment in the first film that directly correlates to the secret! And so, the second film was born. And shot. And reshot. And edited. And finished. After two rounds, I wondered if Rothe was sick and tired of shooting the same thing over and over again. As a matter of fact, the opposite is true: she lives for it. "I'm a perfectionist. So, I love it. It scratches this deep itch inside of me. I would even tell Chris, I'd be like, 'I need one more take,' and he'd be like, 'We've got it.' I'd be like, 'No, but just one more,' and he'd be like, 'You're going to do this 70 more times. You don't want it.'"

Then again, Rothe wasn't the one repeating her own actions over and over again. Tree does all kinds of crazy sh*t while everything else stays the same. Rothe simply had to replicate Tree's sleeping pose. "The only thing that I experienced that was super, super technical was the wake-up on the pillow. And it was even down to like, 'OK, you had this curl in front of your eye, and we need more drool on the pillow, and your lips were pushed up a bit more, and tilt your chin.' We really tried to match stuff," Rothe told me.

This is the part where she dropped another shocking tidbit: "Chris never reused a shot. So, everything you see in the film was shot new. It's not like he was like, 'Oh. We did Carter's wake-up once. We'll just use that forever.' It's different every time." It's that kind of attention to detail that really makes the film seem so special in the first place.

HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U, (aka HAPPY DEATH DAY TO YOU), 'Babyface' (center), 2019.  Universal /Courtesy Everett Collection
Everett Collection

And finally, the obvious question I know you wanted me to ask: what about Happy Death Day 3? Oh, it's more than a possibility at this point. Of course, Universal Pictures has to green light it first. "It's very dependent on how this one does, so go see the movie!" Rothe said to me with a laugh. Then, she gave up the goods, saying Landon has definitely been marinating: "I think he has the whole idea in his head, but he's keeping it close to the chest. All I know is, whatever I'm expecting, it will be completely different from anything I could ever imagine, but I also know and trust that it will be the appropriate bookend to this wonderful journey we've gone on with these crazy people."