The actresses Alyssa Sutherland and Lily Sullivan grew up near each other in Brisbane, Australia, a serendipitous discovery they made when they were cast to play sisters in the new horror film “Evil Dead Rise” (now in theaters). Sullivan enjoyed riding motorbikes and exploring the outback. Sutherland’s mom taught her to be like Annie — “Get Your Gun,” not Warbucks.
“This is a generalization, but Australian women aren’t superprecious,” said Sutherland in a recent video call. “My mom’s always been like, Well, if a man can take a chain saw to a hedge, I can take a chain saw to a hedge — and she did, recently.”
But what about a chain saw to the head? That is but one of many bodily injustices Sutherland and Sullivan encounter in this relentlessly gory addition to the “Evil Dead” universe. In it, they play Ellie and Beth, estranged sisters who reunite at Ellie’s apartment on the night that one of Ellie’s kids reads an ancient text that summons an evil demon. Ellie gets possessed, unleashing a brutal assault on her family.
Written and directed by Lee Cronin, this is the fifth film in a beloved horror franchise that includes the 1981 original and two sequels, all directed by Sam Raimi and starring Bruce Campbell, plus Fede Álvarez’s 2013 remake. Over video, Sullivan joined Sutherland to talk about women in horror, faith in fans and gore in excess. The interview has been edited and condensed.
This “Evil Dead” is all about the lives of women. Was that a draw for you?
ALYSSA SUTHERLAND I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a character like Ellie onscreen. She’s a horrifically bad woman and that is so exciting to me. In “The Shining,” we could have a dad turn on his family, but to watch a mother turn on her family? I know that was a real risk for Warner Brothers and New Line to take, but they were behind us. I don’t get roles like that. I don’t think many actresses do, so to sink my teeth into it — I love that.
LILY SULLIVAN It was a joy to enter this primal essence and get into the animal, which is super-rare. Also, these women are completely flawed. They have a bit of grit. Tight energy that gets to explode is such a rare experience and expression for women to do onscreen.
Behind the scenes it was mostly men.
SULLIVAN Yes, and we pass the Bechdel test. But it wasn’t like, Wow, female, how good for us. Lee, when he developed the script, was like, My sister and my mom can be the most twisted people I know. It’s what Lee knows, as opposed to, Let’s make “Evil Dead” female.
How do you think “Evil Dead” fans will respond?
SUTHERLAND I don’t think any of us were looking to try to please fans. Having been a people pleaser most of my life, it doesn’t really work. But we have deep respect for the films that came before. Lily and I watched it again last night at a screening and we were laughing the whole way. My laughter at points was uncomfortable. But what Lee does so well is that he makes it OK for you to laugh.
SULLIVAN Laughter is medicine and blood is God in this film.
I’ll say. Please tell me you had fun being so disgusting on set.
SUTHERLAND I’m pretty masochistic. [Laughs] If I’ve had a really hard day’s work, I feel very satisfied. Like, my beer tastes better that night.I’m one of those people that’s like, I’ve got to earn my weekend.
SULLIVAN There were days where they were like, We’re going to dunk you in a giant tank of blood, and, Hey Lil, check out this slippery slide where it’s going to drop this ton of blood in an elevator, like “The Shining” — there were so many moments where you would be hysterically laughing. Then it becomes a very serious working environment. It’s a rare, extreme boundary to be working in, and it’s great to cross that boundary.
Alyssa, your character says and does awful things to her kids. What did it take, inside yourself, to do that?
SUTHERLAND I think a lot of women can relate to having some unexpressed rage. I’ve definitely been conditioned to self-sacrifice and abandon myself to make other people comfortable and deny my own needs. That leaves a residue inside of you. I’m tapping into rage from somewhere else to be able to say these things.
Lily, what was it like to tread inside that blood elevator?
SULLIVAN You get to genuinely act. While the elevator is filling up and there’s bleeding through the walls you’re like, It’s actually happening. You didn’t have to extend your imagination too far. But then you get to the fourth hour and you have to go to the bathroom and the resets are really intense but you want to get the shots. It was kind of a nightmare and I’m kind of claustrophobic but I love the adrenaline. It was like being at horror summer camp, having a great time.
A controversial scene in the original “Evil Dead” involves a female character being sexually assaulted by a possessed tree. Alyssa, your character experiences something similar in this film, but it’s not depicted as a sexual assault.
SUTHERLAND I’m really happy that the possession scene was different. Again, you pay respect to what’s come before. But we’re in a different place in society. Back then, that’s where we were at. You look at any movie from 40 years ago, there are things that don’t necessarily date so well. I like that we’ve moved on.
Are you horror fans?
SUTHERLAND Now I am. I wasn’t in the past just because my imagination is way too active. I have a difficult time sleeping as it is without having watched a horror film beforehand.
SULLIVAN If I’m paralyzed by the end of the film and laughing uncontrollably because it rocked me, that’s my happy place.