In Ti West’s homage to 1970s slasher films, X, Jenna Ortega adds a retro twist to her growing résumé as a scream queen. She steps into an ode to artful gore as Lorraine Day, the seemingly naïve girlfriend of a young director (Owen Campbell) who invites her to help him shoot a low-budget project — without telling her it’s a porno. Lorraine, dubbed “church mouse” by the movie’s producer (Martin Henderson), becomes beguiled by the group of porn stars turned amateur filmmakers as they shoot on a rural Texas farm. Gradually, the sexually curious Lorraine decides she wants a starring role in the project, but her adult-film career is cut short as the crew’s elderly hosts turn murderous.
Ortega herself is not scared by much, not even being chased by a very old man who wants to chop off her fingers. The actress, who has starred in horror films like Scream 5 and The Babysitter: Killer Queen, is now used to running for her life on set. Later this year, she’s also set to star in the titular role of Tim Burton’s Netflix series Wednesday, the horror-comedy she auditioned for while shooting X. On a break from filming the show in Romania, Ortega spoke with Vulture over Zoom about learning how to use ’70s film equipment for X, her burgeoning reputation as a scream queen, and the possibility of returning to You.
In X, your character Lorraine starts out quite naïve, but is ultimately drawn to being in the X-rated film. How did you grapple with making that transition from “church mouse” to being more provocative?
Lorraine was like nothing I’ve ever done before. At the beginning of the film, she’s thrown in with a group of people that have a different background than her, and she’s not comfortable. It’s easy for her to seem judgmental, rude, or self-righteous in the way that she thinks she’s better than them. But that’s not entirely the case. As the script goes on, you realize that it’s not really her being judgmental, but more curious about, or, like you said, naïve to the situation. You get to know her, and she’s actually a cool, open-minded individual. That was a cool line to play in terms of being able to flip the script midway and change your mind about something completely.
Things change when Lorraine decides she wants to be in the adult film herself. Everyone supports her but her boyfriend, who initially accuses her of being a prude. It’s a blatant moment of sexism. Why was that scene so powerful?
RJ dragged Lorraine to this farmhouse to shoot this porn film without her knowledge. It’s not even about her differences or values, but more so communication and [RJ] giving her no heads up about what they were heading into. I view that as disrespectful, and I understand her being upset. She’s actually eager to participate and wants to become more involved. To pull that away from her just because you’re uncomfortable, as if you didn’t put her in the situation yourself? I think it’s very easy to side with Lorraine and see where she’s coming from. Since everybody else is so welcoming of Lorraine, it makes RJ look like an idiot.
How happy were you that you didn’t have a murderous old woman cuddle you in bed while you were sleeping?
I was very excited about that. Personally, I don’t see that ever being something that I want to participate in. And I commend Mia for handling it so gracefully.
X takes place in 1979. Since the movie recalls ’70 slashers, how much of the movie was done with old-school and practical effects? What was it like to work with them?
It was great for me just because I play a boom operator in the production of the adult film. So the equipment that we were using were actual cameras and sound equipment from the ’70s. They actually had old boom operators, camera operators, and DPs come and speak with the cast operating the equipment. Owen Campbell and I would go in on certain days to learn how to rewind the tape, how the proper boom stick goes on, how you start and how you end, how you change the battery. As somebody who has a deep respect for antiques, it’s kind of the best of both worlds.
Was there anyone you drew inspiration from for the character of Lorraine?
No. I grew up Christian. I feel like I know enough of what that mind-set is. It was [also] a period piece, and it was time to experiment and have fun.
You’ve gradually become known as something of a “scream queen,” having now starred in Scream 5, The Babysitter: Killer Queen, and now X. What’s drawn you to the horror genre?
Being a big fan of gore and horror myself, I developed a fascination with it when I was younger. The more horror sets I work on, the more I fall in love with them. People who work on horror sets tend to be fans of the genres themselves. I feel like everybody’s excited about what you’re making. They’re dedicated and willing to put in the effort to make everything work, especially since it tends to be very practical and at times dangerous. But I think I’m most comfortable when I’m doing horror and running and screaming for my life.
What are your favorite horror movies?
I love The Witch, Prom Night, the original Scream, Insidious, and The Birds. That’s what I’m going to say for now.
How do you think you’ve put your own spin on the trope of “scream queen”?
It feels wrong to even take that title because I think I have a few more projects to go. I need a good cult classic or something. It’s been interesting because I haven’t always been the “final girl.” Sometimes I die, sometimes I live. You’re just gonna have to wait and see.
There’s a scene in X where you get your fingers chopped off through the basement door by the old man. What was filming that like?
I didn’t rehearse it at all. I just wanted to see what happened. I was locked in this little closet with our camera operator, and we’re shooting this already broken-through door. Take one, I screamed for the first time and I felt pretty confident with it. I didn’t change it. We shot it out pretty quickly, in literally less than an hour. It’s kind of funny to say, but the more hysterical or chaotic stuff feels almost easier to film because you just fully let loose. It’s an authentic reaction to have when someone is trying to kill you, so I wasn’t too worried.
Do you envision yourself working in horror again? If so, what ideas would you like to explore?
It’s something that I’m always going to gravitate toward. As long as my horror projects are different, and there’s a different type of killer, I want to keep switching positions. I don’t always want to be the same person. I try to avoid that now, and I look forward to hopefully avoiding that later.
Next up, you’re set to star in the horror-comedy Wednesday. What was your audition like? Did you audition for Tim Burton directly?
So, we were shooting X, and they told me that Tim Burton wanted to meet with me. Netflix had thrown my name out for the possibility of this character, and I remember I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go back to television again. But Tim, obviously, is somebody that I have immense respect for, so to even take a meeting with him might be interesting and nice. I remember that when I spoke with him, I almost wished that I hadn’t. I had just been up for over 24 hours and I had a cut on my lip from prosthetics and stunts that I had been doing on the X set. I was so tired and felt like I barely knew my sides. But he was super-sweet and it didn’t take very long. I remember calling my mom and telling her, “I blew it. He is so unimpressed. He’s never gonna want to work with me.” She was like, “It was a show. You weren’t even sure that you wanted it, right?” I was like, “No, but now I want it [since] I messed it up.” But he wanted to see me again, and I really liked what he had to say about the character. We’ve formed a nice collaborative relationship. I’m pretty lucky — not all directors are like that.
What material did you use to audition?
It was only one or two scenes. There was a scene with Pugsley, and there was a scene with Thing. They were very small, very short. It was just one-liner joke after joke. The actual series isn’t like that, but the audition sides were.
Are there plans for you to reprise your role as Ellie on Netflix’s You since she is alive, as far as we know?
I actually would love to. That’s one of my favorite sets I’ve ever been on. I’m still a fan of the show. I almost did a bit more with the third season, but there were scheduling issues.
What do you think Ellie is doing now?
The hell if I know. My hope for her is she would still be making movies and writing scripts. I would hope that she films something that gets successful enough or puts her in a place that she wants to be. But unfortunately, I feel like she’s still in Florida.