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Faces of the Festival:<br>Jocelin Donahue

With the '80s horror homage House of the Devil, lovely newcomer Jocelin Donahue is poised to stake her claim as a leading lady.

Wunderkind director Ti West’s House of the Devil (in the TFF '09 Midnight section) is a flat-out horror film made in a classic ‘80s style. First-time lead actress Jocelin Donahue plays Samantha, an unwitting college student in rural Connecticut. In her simple quest to make some money so she can move off campus, Samantha takes a babysitting job that starts out weird and devolves from there. It’s a good old-fashioned scary movie, with ringing (and unanswered) phones, Satanic rituals, a creepy old house, and a lunar eclipse. Tribeca talked with Donahue as she prepared to head east for TFF 2009.

What makes House of the Devil a Tribeca Must-See?

House of the Devil is an ’80s homage, so it sounds crazy to say it’s very original. But it is. It’s very sincere, but it has modern elements. It’s set all in one day and one night, and it has the rhythm of everyday life. Samantha’s experience of that one day quickly turns into a psychedelic experience.

What’s the craziest thing that happened while making the film?

Shooting in a really isolated house in the middle of nowhere gave it the ultimate creep factor. That was really trippy for me. In my experience, the basement scene was the most extreme, as it was very visceral and violent—up to that point, there’s not any violence in the film, but all this tension has built up.

What are your hopes/fears/wishes regarding Tribeca?

For me, it’s cool to be premiering in New York because I went to NYU. [She was a sociology/history major.] And Ti also went to school in New York. I live in LA now, but I know New Yorkers are the most discerning group of film watchers, so hopefully they will give it their seal of approval. That would mean a lot to me.

If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead)—who would you want it to be?

At this point in my life, I would go with Wes Anderson. I think his films are super interesting—visually, culturally, and in terms of modern storytelling.

What piece of art (film/book/music/what-have-you) do you recommend to your friends?

Don DeLillo is my favorite writer—the way he writes about New York and intellectual intrigue and the way he weaves stories together are pretty amazing. My favorite of his novels is The Names. Set in Greece, it’s about a man who’s living with his ex-wife and his son when he gets involved in a ritualistic murder. It’s about language, nomads, and international mystery.

So this is your first lead role. How did you get the part?

Well, I had lots of callbacks. Eventually, Ti and I got to know each other in the meetings, and we talked a lot about what it would take, including the emotional and physical commitment—there were three weeks straight of 13-hour night shoots. It turned out that Ti and I had a lot of synchronicity: we had worked with some of the same people—for example, I made The Burrowers with J.T. Petty, another period piece horror movie—and I also grew up in Connecticut. We ended up shooting 45 minutes from where I grew up in the ’80s.

Good. Let’s talk about the ’80s. What do you remember about that decade?

Basically, I would have been babysat by my character, so I remember Fraggle Rock and the Smurfs. But I do remember the tone of these ’80s horror movies, so I know House of the Devil is sincere, and authentically ’80s. I tried to get into character by not using my cell phone, and I tried not to use my iPod. [Smiles.]

Wow—a whole new form of Method acting!

Well, I’m probably exaggerating… Another thing is that I remember seeing all the talk shows about Satanic rituals—on Sally Jesse Raphael, Donahue—people with extreme cases of paranoia about Satanic cults. 

Fascinating! What did you learn?

I watched a bunch of Geraldo and Sally Jesse: clips of people with repressed memories. This kind of stuff was forcefed to the public—there was no proof, but hundreds of reported cases. I think this was one of the first times that the media made something out of nothing, and now that happens a lot. They took advantage of the suggestible TV audience.

Tell us about your trajectory. How did you go from a liberal arts degree to a lead role?

In New York I started working in fashion as a stylist’s assistant—I was on the other side of the camera. A couple of photographers asked me to be in editorials, and so I started modeling. When I got to LA, I used my portfolio for commercial agents, and in the first year I boked a pilot for Comedy Central. I know it sounds like a Hollywood cliché, but I realize I am really lucky.

I have been working commercially since then, mostly on student films. I don’t have any other projects lined up for now—it’s kind of a weird time in Hollywood. [Laughs.] I might have to retire after my first lead role.

House of the Devil premieres on Saturday, April 25, at 9:45 pm, with three other screenings to follow.

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