Jessica Rothe on ‘Forever My Girl’ & a ‘Back to the Future’-Esque ‘Happy Death Day’ Sequel
From writer/director Bethany Ashton Wolf and based on the novel by best-selling author Heidi McLaughlin, Forever My Girl is a story of romance and inspiration that follows what happens when country music superstar Liam Page (Alex Roe) returns home and reunites with his high school sweetheart Josie Preston (Jessica Rothe), after leaving her at the altar eight years prior. As he tries to rebuild the bridges that he burned years earlier, Liam reconnects with his small-town roots, the girl he left behind, and the daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson) he never knew he had.
At the film’s Los Angeles press day, Collider got the opportunity to sit down and chat with actress Jessica Rothe for this 1-on-1 interview about why she found Forever My Girl so appealing, what she most enjoyed about playing Josie, and the great chemistry she had with her co-stars. She also talked about how thrilled she was with the final outcome of Happy Death Day and the reaction from audiences, along with how excited she is about the possibilities for the sequel, as well as the Valley Girl remake and the role that ‘80s music will play in it.
Collider: This is a really sweet movie!
JESSICA ROTHE: It is! But it doesn’t feel saccharin, either. It’s grounded and truthful and real and heartbreaking, but it makes you feel good. It’s not only about love and falling in love, but also about family and communities and people, and their ability to change and grow and learn. Change is hard. A lot of times, at the end of films, even if they’re amazing, I look back and I’m like, “I don’t think anyone changed,” and that’s an important thing to see.
Even though this is a second chance romance, Josie has to have that moment where she lets Liam know how much he hurt her, when she punches him, because how could she not?
ROTHE: Yeah, of course! You need to realize that there are repercussions for your actions. Also, who doesn’t want to throw a killer right hook, in the middle of a movie? I was so pleased that they kept that moment. I think it’s important.
It makes Josie a little bit of a bad-ass.
ROTHE: Yeah, right?! She drives a trunk, can punch, and drinks beer. All the good stuff.
What was it about this character that most interested you?
ROTHE: I think it was how complex and complicated of a person she is. But really, the biggest thing that drew me to her was her strength. She is such an incredibly strong, smart, intelligent, fiery woman, who underwent such heartbreak, early in life, but didn’t let that define her. She not only has forgiven herself and forgiven him and moved past that trauma, but she’s built an amazing life for herself. She’s an incredible mom. Her daughter is wonderful and spunky. She has a thriving business. She lives in a community that may be small, but they’re supportive. She has everyone’s back and they have hers, and I think that’s really important to her. So, when Liam comes back, it’s him that needs to prove himself to her, and not the other way around. So often, in romantic comedies or romance films, it’s the woman chasing the man. Even if the lesson at the end is that she was enough all along, she feels like she’s trying to change herself. Josie never feels that way. Josie is very confident in who she is, and I think that’s something important for young women to see.
When you tell a story like this, you don’t know what the child actor is going to be like. What was it like to work with Abby Ryder Fortson, while she stole every scene?
ROTHE: The thing is that I didn’t mind. She was a gift to me, not only because she’s incredibly talented and sweet and intelligent, but because Josie’s first thought is always, “Is Billy okay? Where is Billy? How does Billy feel about me and Liam? Did she go to school? Did she get a good grade?” Josie wants Billy to be at the center of attention. That was the thing that I always fell back on, if I was unclear about what I was doing in the scene or what my motivation was. If the answer was that Billy was okay, then I could move on to the next question. If Billy is asleep, then maybe I can deal with Liam, but if she’s not, then that’s my first priority. It ended up being such a gift and I think it really helped out dynamic on set, with the three of us in the film.
The three of you have such a natural chemistry together. Did you get to spend any time together, prior to this shoot?
ROTHE: Alex and I have mutual friends. We had never met each other, so we met up a couple of times before we left for Atlanta. And I went to a juice bar with Abby and her mom, a couple of times, just so that she would feel comfortable around me. Once we were in Atlanta, we had some rehearsals. Alex and I had about two weeks where we were rehearsing and we just spent a ton of time together, getting to know each other, talking about what we thought Josie and Liam’s relationship was before he left, what the things they love about each other are, what the things they hate about each other are, and just being comfortable with each other, in the same room. We had to fast track that very intimate closeness that they had from knowing someone your entire life. I was very lucky that both Abby and Alex were kind, sweet, talented people, and that Alex and I have a very similar work ethic and way of working. Because I respected him, it made it a lot easier. If he hadn’t cared, I think it would have been a lot more difficult for me because I’m a stickler for doing my homework.
Happy Death Day took a lot of people by surprise.
ROTHE: I know, right?!
I think people went into that movie thinking that they knew what it was, and it was so much more than people expected. How pleased were you with the final outcome of the film, and with the way it was received by those who saw it?
ROTHE: I was thrilled with the final outcome. It’s very rare to watch a movie and think, “That’s the movie we shot!” So many things happen, with edits and things getting cut out. Chris Landon, our director, was one of the most talented directors I’ve ever worked with. He’s so, so smart and so deadly funny, which you see in the film because the movie is him, to a T. It was a huge testament to him, but we put in a lot of work. We shot the movie in five weeks, which for how much there was, was a lot. Tree’s journey and her transformation is pretty epic, and I felt so lucky to get to do that, to go from this narcissistic villain to this bad-ass heroine. That’s not something that a lot of people, and especially women, get to do in Hollywood. So, I was thrilled with the outcome. I felt very much like, “Okay, I really like the movie, but you can’t control what other people think, so just remember that you can’t control what other people think.” The response was so thrilling. I knew we had made a good film, and I’m delighted that people received it in the way that we intended them to. Also, we came at the right time for people to receive it that way. Two months earlier or two months later, it might not have hit people in the same way. I feel very, very lucky, but that movie will always have such a special place in my heart.
Before the film even came out, the director said that he had and idea for the sequel. Did he ever discuss that with you?
ROTHE: He did. It’s great! I like it because a lot of times with horror movies, if there’s a sequel, it’s almost a repeat, with different actors and slightly different storylines, but it worked, so you do the same thing again. Chris has done this incredible thing where the sequel, the way he described it to me, elevates the movie from being a horror movie – and I wouldn’t even say it’s just a horror movie because it’s a horror, comedy, rom-com drama – into a Back to the Future type of genre film where the sequel joins us right from where we left off, it explains a lot of things in the first one that didn’t get explained, and it elevates everything. I was really pleased to know that we weren’t just gonna be pushing all the buttons that people loved the first time, over and over again, ‘cause I think that gets old. I’m really excited to see if it comes to fruition and, if it does, what the final product looks like. I hope we get to do it! I had a ball!
It seems crazy not to do it!
ROTHE: Exactly! Thank you! I think that if all things work out well, we’ll do it.
You also have the Valley Girl remake coming out this summer. Did you know what that was when that came your way?
ROTHE: I did not know. I auditioned for that movie a year and a half before they cast me in it. My relationship with that movie started back when I was shooting La La Land. My name had been put on a shortlist of, “Girls who could do a musical.” So, I went to go meet the heads of MGM, and then suddenly I had the script and I had to put myself on tape that night. It all happened really quickly, and then it fizzled out for awhile. But the moment I read the script and saw that it was a love story with ‘80s music and ‘80s hair, I was in. I was like, “This is everything I want!” I grew up on musicals and I love them so much. Also, I love ‘80s music. I love power ballads and the earnest lack of irony and emotion that exists in ‘80s music, along with synth guitars, of course. I was just in, from day one. And so, when I finally was offered the role, I was ecstatic. Shooting it was hard. We shot it in six weeks, which for a musical was bananas. There was a roller skating sequence, a dance sequence on a beach and a giant opening dance sequence in a mall, and I’m not talking with just the four main girls. I’m talking about a hundred extras and 80 dancers.
And you have to be really careful not to get hurt.
ROTHE: Exactly! It’s making sure you take care of your body, but also are doing all of the different things you need to do. We had a month of prep for that movie, so I would wake up at five, do the stuff that I needed to do at home, go to dance rehearsal for four hours, go to voice lessons, go to acting rehearsals, and then come home and do it all again. It was a definite lesson in endurance, but I think we might have captured something really special in that film. Josh Whitehouse, my co-star, is absolutely brilliant in it. He steps into Nicolas Cage’s shoes very nicely, I have to say. I feel very, very lucky to have been a part of that film, and I’m so excited to see how the movie turns out and how people respond to it. I think people are open to musicals again and I think it’s a really fun, grittier take on that.
What can we expect from the music in the film?
ROTHE: Here’s the thing, no one’s ever gonna sing “We Got the Beat” better than the Go-Go’s. That’s just impossible! You’re not gonna do it! That was the first thing I had to accept. I was like, “I’m going to do a great homage. That’s what I’m going to do.” Our music director, Harvey Mason, who did Dreamgirls and Sing, did an incredible job taking these songs and making them sound fresh. It’s not even that they sound poppier or [more current]. They still sound like ‘80s music, but they sound new. I felt so fortunate to work with him and figure out what the tone of the film is. Back in the ‘80s, that’s how people were introduced to new songs. The reason “Melt With You” became a huge hit was because of Valley Girl. That’s the first time that song ever played. So, I hope that with this movie, teenagers nowadays will hear these songs the way we sing them, but then go back and listen to the originals and fall in love. I don’t care if it’s our version or their version that they listen to because it’s such an incredible canon of music. I listen to it, all the time. I turn on ‘80s stations in my car and I’m like, “Pat Benatar, take me home!” I really hope that the movie brings a new audience and a new love for this music.
With Forever My Girl, Valley Girl and Happy Death Day, clearly you’re all over the map in the roles that you’re doing. What are you looking for in a project?
ROTHE: Stuff that’s completely different. Stuff that I look at and go, “I’m scared of that because that would be a huge challenge.” I want to do stuff that scares me, excites me and makes me uncomfortable. I want to work with people that are more talented than me, that will push me and challenge me ‘cause that’s the only way I’ll get better. And I just want to continue exploring. Whether that’s in a big Marvel universe and getting to experience what that would be like, working with green screen, or it’s a gritty indie, or it’s a period piece, I just want to do it all.
Forever My Girl is in theaters on January 19th.