Cult Projections: You’ve been acting since the age of ten, but made your feature film debut in The Human Centipede at the age of 25, what were all those years acting on the stage like? What was the most important technique you brought from the stage to the screen?
Ashley C. Williams: When I was a young girl my goals were very different. I wanted to be a musical theater actress on Broadway. I was singing and dancing in musicals and playing lead characters like Annie, Tiger Lily and Anne Frank. But I had no technique yet. Then I went to acting school and they ripped me out of all the habits I had developed. I had to start with a clean slate. Being at acting school in NYC, I actually understood that I wasn't meant for musicals. I started developing a certain depth, technique-wise, that I found fascinating and was able to really achieve in a believable way. This began the process of realizing my new goals. After graduating school I did a lot of underground theatre which actually propelled me into wanting to do film. A few times I worked with renowned Italian director Dario Di’Ambrosi at the La MaMa Theatre in the East Village. Those days were incredible because that's where I really learned to let go and expose my darker side. If anyone knows his work you'll know what I'm talking about. Dario loves playing around with the deeper, darker, psychological behaviors that are naturally in the human condition and I became fascinated with that. Dario directed me in a very experimental piece of theatre where I played a schizophrenic girl. Somehow working in a tiny intimate theater, being as exposed as I was combined with the type of character I was playing, I developed these tiny nuances that are really great for the screen. With theatre everything has to be big and overdone so that the audience can hear you and see your movements. I found it just too unrealistic for me. I wanted to be apart of storytelling that captured these real intimate moments, what's happening in the eyes (which i think is what I bring to the screen) and the simple movements of body language etc. The depth you can achieve with this type of medium is quit compelling. Audiences don't get to see that on the stage.
CP: What was it like working with Tom Six? Did you have any idea The Human Centipede would become the cult favourite amongst horror fans that it has?
Ashley: Working with Tom was very easy. It was a collaborative process. Even though the vision was his, he really let us have a lot of freedom to explore what it really would be like for someone to be in that situation. I had no idea the film would be so globally recognised. All of us were very surprised. We were just hoping it would get into some festivals.
CP: Had you been much of a horror movie fan before The Human Centipede? If so, what are five of your favourites? What have you seen of late that impressed you?
Ashley: Yes. My favorites are The Shining, Jaws, Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth and Orphan. A couple smaller arthouse films I've seen recently that I thought were pretty original but almost too artsy for me, were A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Under The Skin. Both had very interesting, original concepts and were almost like a meditation while watching them. Really beautiful films with great acting. But other than those two I have not liked any horror films that have come out recently. It seems that everything just keeps being remade. No original stories anymore.
CP: Tell me a little about the casting of Julia. Were you sent the screenplay? Did Matthew C. Brown contact you directly? What was the audition process like?
Ashley: Yes, a whole package was sent to me including the screenplay. It was sent from a former management company of mine Zero Gravity who just so happened to be producers on the project. The casting director sent me the materials and said that after I read all of it, if I was still interested, the director would like to meet with me that very night. I was very impressed with the script and his work in the short films he had done prior. So I met with him and we worked for about 3 hours at the production office. We read from the script and because the DP and makeup artist were already in town they did a screen test and i did some improvising with the director. I could tell right away that he was someone I would want to work with. We instantly connected.
CP: The Human Centipede was one thing, but the role of Julia is an incredibly demanding one to undertake, physically, emotionally and psychologically, and in a more realistic way. Did you find it daunting at all? How did you make it a positive experience, when it’s such a dark place to go?
Ashley: Honestly, I just had to throw myself in it. I knew it was going to be difficult, but I was really ready for a role like this. I think through all the darkness I had to conjure up, somehow I was able to really enjoy the journey as the actress and as Julia. Working with Matthew and the rest of the team was the positive side of all of it. There was an incredible energy on set. Probably cause we were all so cold and numb that we were forced to just work hard and get through the day. No but really I think it was just a common love of the material we were all creating together. It was a very magical time.
CP: What was it like working with Matthew Brown? Did you rehearse much? How was it returning to New York City?
Ashley: No, there was no rehearsing. I was cast 3 days before production started. Working with Matthew was like working with a part of myself that was not yet exposed to the world and I felt vulnerable at first, but soon realised that I needed to let myself be taken over, if that makes any sense. He has a way of bringing stuff up in me that's not damaging but perhaps more healing than anything. We had some private chats about personal things that I've gone through in life and he used some of those to talk me through dark bits that I needed to get to. He was incredibly protective of me too, which felt really nice considering all that I was going through on set. I was still living in NYC when we shot this film. But it was nice getting to know certain parts of Brooklyn that I had never been to before. Especially the small China Town in Brooklyn where Julia lived, it really opened my eyes to a different kind of beauty.
CP: Had you seen many of the Asian gangster/revenge movies that inspired Matthew? Did he make you watch them all?
Ashley: No, I had not. I didn't have a lot of time to watch them. Especially since some of them weren't available on Netflix etc. at the time. But I knew what kind of style he was going for. He mostly had me listen to hardcore underground techno in prep for scenes and he gave me Jean-Paul Sartre's Saint Genet to read. Which really opened my eyes to realizing the beauty in the “evil” I was doing and really owning who I was becoming as Julia.
CP: Your character is in most of the movie, but doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, how challenging was that as an actor?
Ashley: I actually had a lot of help from the director on this. He talked me through a lot of the moments that had no dialogue. There was something about his voice that really propelled me into it. I used what he was doing as if it was almost like my inner self, this other voice; my subconscious. But it wasn't as challenging as some people might think. There were other deeper challenges like getting into the mindset of a "killer".. But even then it wasn't about her being a killer but about her awakening to her true self. Finding a place in the world she fits into that makes her feel alive.
CP: You share an intense on-screen sexual tension/chemistry with Tahyna Tozzi, what was it like working with her?
Ashley: Tahyna was a gem to work with, very professional. We didn't have a lot of time to get to know each other before shooting so we had just dive into it. She's also very beautiful and strong, so the chemistry for us came naturally I think, which of course helped in creating the tension we needed for the film.
CP: Rape-revenge movies (when made well) are a powerful horror movie sub-genre, but they tend to polarise audiences. Have you seen many? Do you think there are areas that are still taboo in horror movies, or do you think the darker the material the more interesting (providing the script and direction is intelligently handled)?
Ashley: For me, I prefer the darker, realistic, more intelligent material. I don't really know much about the “rape-revenge genre” so I can't really say much on the subject. I've only seen a couple. But it is something that divides audiences. Some people can't handle it especially if it's done in a realistic way. There are some out there like Irreversible that really shook me to my core. There is a ten-minute rape scene in there that's shot in one set up in real time. It's really gruesome and I remember silently crying and shaking while watching it. But then that scene was over and the movie was beautiful and really cleverly done. But that being said this is something awful that happens in every day life so filmmakers should be a bit sensitive to it. In Julia's case it's not really about the rape, it's just a component of what propels her into the woman she was inevitably going to become anyway.
CP: What are the elements about Julia – the movie – that make it so compelling, so cinematic, so memorable?
Ashley: I believe that the soul of the film comes out in the dark enigmatic style and imagery from what Matthew created and also what his cinematographer, Bergsteinn Bjorgulfsson, captured. The darkness paired with the light, the ecstasy and the journey that you go on with Julia. Also how much you care for her, the music that just pounds into you making you vibrate in your seat wanting more. I feel that each scene spills out this cold, dark edgy cinematic ecstasy that just flows and doesn't stop until the credits role.
CP: Thank you for your time!