Matt Pais, @mattpais
RedEye movie critic
12:00 AM CDT, April 9, 2014
Opening Friday, "Cheap Thrills" is filled with disturbing behavior as Craig (Chicago native Pat Healy) and his old friend Vince (Ethan Embry) earn cash in a series of escalating games overseen by a wealthy couple (David Koechner, Sara Paxton). Yet the film's most quietly unsettling moments might be the expressions on Violet's (Paxton) face as she watches what these guys are willing to do for money. She's never horrified; rather, Paxton ("The Innkeepers," "The Last House on the Left") gives Violet a spectrum of cold delight, blankly enjoying others' suffering and descent without entirely lacking a moral center. (She loves puppies. Though who doesn't?)
It's the latest proof that the 25-year-old actress, who called from L.A. after auditioning for another horror/thriller, should be a bigger star.
Put these items from your movies in order of what is the most and least scary to you: Sharks (“Shark Night 3D”), sorority girls (“Sydney White”), mermaids (“Aquamarine”), haunted hotels (“The Innkeepers”), home intruders (“The Last House on the Left”), psychologically disturbed daredevils (“Cheap Thrills”).
[Laughs] No. 1 I’m going to go with sharks just ‘cause I’m so scared of sharks. [Laughs] I’m scared of a lot. I’m kind of a p***y; I’m not going to lie. I keep getting cast in all these scary movies and I’m either running from a ghost or I’m an evil psycho bitch, but I’m a big scaredy-cat. I get scared even while we’re filming. I did a movie called “The Innkeepers” and the director, Ti West, kept hiding the ghost girl in different parts of the hotel to freak me out. And I would like pee my pants every time. Second I have to say sorority girls. Oh, third [psychologically disturbed daredevils] or whatever, that one, and then mermaids last for sure. Because mermaids are like unicorns. I’m not afraid.
Is it more twisted for someone to present the "Cheap Thrills" game or to take advantage of it?
I definitely think it’s more twisted to present this kind of game. Especially when you’re the one with a bunch of money and you don’t give a [bleep]; you’re doing it for pure entertainment purposes. As least Pat and Ethan’s point of view, they desperately, desperately need the money. I’m sure we’ve all had those kinds of thoughts—reading the script, it really put me in that place where I was like, “Wow, what would I do if I had a child and I was going to be evicted and I was fired?” I don’t know what I’d do. When a person is [offering them] that money. They’re taking advantage of how desperate they are. I think that’s more [bleeped] up.
Do you think there’s also a level of people wanting to challenge themselves? I was imagining if the characters didn’t need the money but still might say, “You know, let’s play along. This sounds kind of interesting.”
I guess normally I would say no, ‘cause I don’t understand that, but with reality TV being so big and the big thing in our culture right now, maybe they would! People go on TV and eat bugs and do crazy things and, yeah, earn a cash prize, but it’s like, is it worth it? I guess to some people in certain situations it is. I don’t think there’s a prize for eating a cockroach for me. I just don’t think that I could do it. It’s my number one fear. I don’t know if there are people that would be willing to do stuff like that just for fun. I hope not.
Is it fair to assume you never watched “Fear Factor” or anything like that?
Oh, God, no. I can’t do it. I can’t do it.
Would you then rather have to lie in a box of cockroaches than have to eat one?
I couldn’t do any of it. Anything involving a roach—I can’t even look at one. If I see one on the street I freak out, and I jump like 20 feet in the air and become paralyzed.
Why is that the one thing that does that to you?
I don’t know. It’s a totally irrational fear. It’s not like they can hurt you or anything. I know it’s weird, but it’s just this weird phobia I’ve had my entire life.
Despite the movie’s sick challenges and behavior, I thought some of the most troubling moments were your facial expressions. As you were preparing for the role, did you ever look in the mirror to see how disturbing your expressions were?
No, I never practiced in the mirror. This is going to sound so corny and actor-y I guess, but I think that I was so scared to play this role that I spent more time trying to figure out why she is that crazy and [bleeped] up. I was trying to get inside of her head and then not worry about so much what the outcome of my facial expression would be. I was just trying to understand her because she’s so horrible and such an unfeeling psychopath. I was just trying to figure her out inside of her head. And so I guess those evil expressions [Laughs] came on my face, but I was really worried about it. I was really terrified. Pat and I go way back, and we’re friends. Pat was the one that called me and was like, “You should do this; I think this could be really great.” That gave me the courage to take the leap. But it was very scary! It’s scary playing somebody so awful.
So did it surprise you the first time you saw the film and you saw the chilling looks that come across your face?
Yeah! I mean, it’s hard for me to--no one likes watching themselves, obviously, and I think that every person is their harshest critic. So I didn’t watch it and was like, “Oh, thank God, it’s really great.” But it makes me feel really good whenever somebody tells me that it was really creepy or chilling. That makes me feel good that I accomplished what I set out to accomplish.
Do you think it’s scarier to encounter someone who’s loud and disturbed or more quiet and unsettling, like Violet is?
I personally think that Violet is the creepiest person in the movie because at first you think you know who she is. And you’re watching the movie, you’re like, “Oh, she’s just this young, blonde trophy wife who’s texting on [her] phone.” I live in Los Angeles, so that is everywhere. It wasn’t hard to portray that; I see it all the time. And as the story goes on it slowly dawns on you, like, “This girl is [bleeped]!” Like you said, her expressions. And then for me I feel like her real moment is when she’s fixing up Craig’s face and she’s talking about how when she was a little girl she saw a skateboarder break all of his bones and she giggles as she’s saying it. And you’re like, “What the [bleep], bitch?! You are so crazy! Normal people don’t have that reaction to these situations!”
And as it goes on and on, you’re like, “She’s sick. She is actually sick and twisted.” And she’s the one controlling the game because Koechner’s character—he’s equally as [bleeped] up. They both have no moral compass. That’s why they are probably drawn to each other; that’s why they’re a couple. He’s doing it for her. If you think about it, David Koechner’s character and Pat’s character are really similar because Pat’s doing all this [bleeped]-up [bleep] because he loves his wife. Koechner’s doing all this [bleeped]-up [bleep] because he loves his wife and it’s the only thing that makes her happy.
I read that you felt like you had to cleanse yourself after this movie. You’ve done some other pretty disturbing work; did you ever have that feeling after filming before, or was this the first time it really stuck with you that way?
This was the first time that before, during and after I felt gross. I think that’s why it was so easy—not easy, but I think that’s why it was doable to actually feel that feeling from her, that dead inside feeling because the writers did such a good job of making you feel that feeling while you’re reading it. After I read it, I was like, “I have to take a shower! I don’t feel right.” I’m like, “Ahh, humanity, we’re all [bleeped]!” And then during it, because it was such a quick shoot and we couldn’t really joke around and let off some steam really … whereas other movies that I’ve done, I did a movie called “Last House on the Left,” and we all lived in the same hotel and we would go out and get drinks afterwards together. That was a three-month long shoot. With this there was just no time. So you’d go home and feel nasty, and after we finished I definitely had to not think about it for a while. It just kinda made me feel gross.
You said that while watching “Cheap Thrills” you felt disgusted but were also laughing. What’s something else gross that you find funny?
Um, farts? I don’t know. Poop? Yeah. Burps? What else is gross that’s funny? I’m not very easily disgusted to tell you the truth. Obviously licking a subway pole, that’s [bleeping] gross to anybody. But I don’t really care if people burp and fart and do stuff. It doesn’t gross me out. I don’t care about talking about it. I could even talk about it while eating food. I just don’t care. My friends and I sometimes like to fart on purpose in public situations when we shouldn’t be farting. I was thrown out of a yoga class once because OK, when I was in high school I hated P.E. and I was really bad at sports. So you could go to a community college, take a yoga class and have the credits be transferrable or whatever so it would count. So I did this with like half of my class and in the middle of class I’m upside-down, like my legs are over my head behind me and we’re all doing this, and I look at my friend and I’m like, “I’m going to fart right now.” She was like, “No, don’t do it. It’s so quiet.” I’m like, “No, no, no. I’m going to do it. I think it would be really funny.” And she was like, “No!” And then I did it. It was so loud, everyone starting dying laughing. And the teacher kicked me out and failed me right there and then.
For farting! I can’t control it!
It’s just natural; you shouldn’t be failed for that.
I guess it caused a ruckus in class. But still; what if I hadn’t done it on purpose? She didn’t know I did it on purpose. So basically with me everything that is gross is funny. Except for barfing. I can’t do barf. I can’t do it.
Also: Sara Paxton plays "Would you rather?"
Go bungee jumping or wrestle an alligator
“Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh, God. Oh, God. Is the alligator in the wild or is it at an alligator farm/zoo?” (I say in an alligator farm.) “I think I’d rather wrestle an alligator. [Laughs]”
Eat a pigeon or lick a subway train pole
“Oh my God! Oh my God. Oh, god. Oh, God. Is the pigeon cooked?” (I say partially.) “Partially, what?! That’s disgusting. That’s so gross. OK, I think that I would rather—how much do I have to lick the subway pole? Is it like quick little tap or what’s going on?” (Just for a second.) “I think I’d rather lick the pole. Is that [bleeped] up?”
Shave your head for a year or get a tiny, cute tattoo on your face
“Oh my God! I think I’d rather shave my head for a year.”
If she’s rather have a legendary night that’s somewhat good, somewhat terrible, or a forgettable, average one: “Legendary, obviously. Yeah. Legendary. Look, it doesn’t take a lot to impress me. So legendary could mean a lot of things. Legendary could mean that there was no line at Pink’s Hot Dogs, and I ate a chili dog with no line. ‘This night is legendary, whoa!’ I’m pretty easy, so it couldn’t be that terrible. Legendary.”
If Paxton, who was working on an album years ago, will ever release one: “Um, I don’t know. I really love music; I love making music. I also have terrible stage fright, so that holds kind of a problem. I wouldn’t be opposed to it. I also [don’t think] I’m very good so maybe that’s something holding me back. But yeah, maybe. Never say never.”
Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at noon on NBC.
Want more? Discuss this article and others on RedEye's Facebook page.
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC