When Happy Death Day premiered in 2017, it’s unlikely that anyone predicted its massive success. The trailer sold a movie that was basically “Sorority Row as Groundhog Day” — a definitely fun concept that threatened to be quickly exhaustible — but the zany misadventures of Tree Gelbman reliving, and re-dying, the same day over and over again until she solved the mystery of a serial murderer in her college town turned out to be a total delight. It brought in strong reviews and more than $125 million at the global box office (an especially exciting haul when you consider it was made on a classically slim Blumhouse budget), and talk of a sequel was already kicking up during press rounds for the first film.
The reason for all of this is Jessica Rothe, who stars as Tree (a nickname for Theresa). Writer and director Christopher Landon certainly over-delivered on his madcap premise with the first Happy Death Day, but it’s through the force of Rothe’s undeniable charm that the story works. Even in the most absurd scenario, and even if you’re watching it play out for the third or fourth or even fifth time, Rothe has the emotional and comedic range to make you follow Tree wherever she goes — whether that’s skydiving in a bikini without a parachute or hurling herself into a wood chipper.
Those two scenarios that really do play out in the just-arrived Happy Death Day 2U, in which Tree has been tossed back into Monday the 18th yet again. But instead of having to catch a killer to set the world straight, she has to help a group of physics nerds fix the machine that caused the space-time rift in the first place. And the super-twist is that Tree isn’t exactly in the cursed day she’s memorized anymore, having been flung into an alternate dimension (yes, there is a discussion of multiverse theory) where life is different in some very consequential ways. In the lead-up to 2U’s release, Vulture sat down with Rothe to talk about the real-life reprieve that kept Tree alive for a sequel, what it’s like to star in a hundred-million-dollar success story, and to cry over her new movie’s most emotional scene.
You were talking very sparingly about the sequel while promoting the first movie. How did the final product change from what Chris pitched you back in 2017?
The thing is, when we shot the first film, we didn’t think there was going to be a sequel, because in the first movie I actually died at the very end.
Wait. Fully died?
Fully died! Like, I make it out. I make it to Tuesday the 19th. I am victorious! And then Gregory’s wife poisons me because I’ve been sleeping with her husband. So it’s kind of a very cheeky “Your life catches up with you! Wah waahh!” But when they tested it for audiences, people freaked out because they were like, “You made us care about this person. We went on this journey with her. She learned! She evolved!” So, we reshot it and we had this new ending, and it never even crossed my mind that we would make a sequel or that I would be part of it, originally. And about a month before the first one came out, when we started doing press, Chris called me, and he was like, “I had this insane idea. It’s like the first movie, plus Back to the Future, plus everything up a notch, more intense.”
He told me about the general skeletal outline and I was like, “You’re a crazy person, but you’re the only person I know who could pull this off. So if you’re in, I’m in.” I will say, the movie that it evolved into has that core of truth of what he told me about. There weren’t any huge changes at all, but it’s so much more vibrant and exciting and unexpected than I could’ve ever imagined. And I think that’s just such a testament to Chris and who he is as an artist and as a director and as a collaborator, because he’s so funny and so darkly brilliant that I don’t think anyone else could have come up with a sequel. I’m so incredibly proud of it. We really tried to use the emotional core that Chris found as the backbone of the film and hold it sacred. It turned the movie into something else, and it was really, really fun to make.
You’ve been working in this industry for about ten years now, and Happy Death Day really surprised people. How was it for you to watch the movie really jump off, especially since you’re in basically every frame?
It’s been amazing. I had no idea that the first one would do what it did, but I knew we were making something special. Every single day on set we bonded so much as a cast and a crew. Everyone brought their A game, which is something else that I think Chris is brilliant at: inspiring people to do work they didn’t even know they could do. I felt that way for sure. And we all believed in the story we were telling, but you never know how audiences are going to respond, and you never know what state the world is going to be in when your movie comes out. There were so many things that fell into place, and it’s one of the reasons I love making movies, because when you make a good one, it truly is lightning in a bottle.
Happy Death Day had so many things that at the time we were like, Oh no, no, no, no! that ended up being brilliant, so I knew it was special to me. But I had no idea that people would receive it in the way they did, and it felt so incredible for people to see and love Tree in the way that I do. We had to de-gore it quite a bit to keep that PG-13 instead of R, but we were making a film for young women, for 13-year-old girls who don’t see horror movies because they don’t like gore and don’t feel like they can connect with the protagonist because it’s either a totally unrelatable character or it’s a kind of dumb girl running around making stupid mistakes. I feel like we were able to continue that in the second film, and that was so important to me. Chris and I talked about how we put Tree in this new situation but still keep her as strong as we left her in the first one, because I don’t want her to go backward. She can encounter new problems and she still needs to ask for help, which is a very strong thing to do, but I don’t want her to regress, because she’s come so far.
So were you involved with Chris in shaping Tree’s decisions for the second film, advocating for the character as you saw her?
We had a lot of conversations like that, especially with the second film. There were a couple instances where I was like, you know what? We’re taking her agency away. Is there a way without altering the story that we can make this her decision or that we can make her less passive? Because she’s not a passive person. And the thing I will say about Chris, he’s so collaborative, and he always knows where his north star is. He knows his vision, but he’s so open. Like, I could bring joke alts to set. He wasn’t a writer who kind of would freeze up and get really defensive or territorial. We all got to pitch our ideas, and I think that it was through those discussions that either we found something better or we came to an understanding of why the first choice was the right choice, and I could endow it with more truth because I really understood what it was.
But, yeah, there were a lot of times he would say to me, “This line isn’t right. Will you help me figure it out?” And there was actually a whole scene, the scene between Israel and I where I’ve decided I’m going to stay in the alternate dimension, and he comes after me. We didn’t know what that scene was till the morning of the day we shot it, and even then we went back and changed again in reshoots because it wasn’t working right, and it was such a pivotal moment.
That relates to the big twist for Tree in the alternate dimension, which is that her mom is alive again. The reunion of your character with her mom is actually extremely emotional, and coming off of a year where I was really afraid of losing someone close to me, I just got unexpectedly overwhelmed when it happened. I wondered what you drew from in that scene.
It was a combination of things. I get emotional talking about this as well, because I lost three of my grandparents in the last two years, and even though it really was their time to go, it was really difficult. I got to say good-bye to two of them. I did not get to say good-bye to one, and on top of that I’m incredibly, incredibly close with my mother. Like, the thought of something happening to her is so overwhelming for me. Chris knows that, and I felt safe enough with him that we could talk about it a lot. And he said to me, “The amazing thing about this film is, you have the opportunity to do something that in 20 years you may look at really differently. If you lose your mom, your best friend, someone important to you, you have the opportunity to do something right now that not a lot of people do.”
So, the night before we shot it I made a list of all of the things I love about my mom on my script pages. Every single thing. Like, we got to go to Paris and on this silly trip and, like, drank tea out of silly teacups, the way she smells, and the way she would blow good dreams into my ears — silly, tiny details like that. And he was like, “I want you to hold these things in your heart when you’re saying these lines because then you will know that you lived the truth of this for your mom.” It actually, in some ways, made the scene really difficult to do at first because I was so worried. Like, Fuck! I get to do this. I get to say these things, and I don’t want to mess it up, and my mom means so much to me! At one point, Chris had to sit me down and be like, “I can see you’re spiraling. I hear you. This is big, but you can do this.” So, it was incredibly, incredibly personal, but I think above anything else, what felt important to me about this film is the message of saying those things now, because one day you won’t get to say them.
And not only that, Tree comes to realize there would always be an element that was hollow in her new life with her mom, that wasn’t real, because Tree did go through that loss, and she’s a different person because of it. So instead of running away from what made her, like she did in the first film and part of the second, she’s embracing that and saying, “You are beautiful and you’ve made me strong, and I carry my mother with me everywhere I go.” I hope that I did that moment justice, and I can only hope that people who have gone through that experience watch it and feel catharsis with it.