Some psychoanalysts might look at Sara Paxton’s recent filmography—The Last House on The Left, Shark Night 3D, and Enter Nowhere—and suggest that the 23-year-old actress is something of a masochist. Time and time again, the L.A. native has put herself in onscreen situations where her character may or may not lose a limb. Her most recent foray into the macabre is the Ti West-helmed The Innkeepers, in which Paxton plays a plucky hotel clerk who must ghost bust her way through the haunted inn’s final days of operation. Here is the refreshingly candid Paxton on bed bugs, Anthony Bourdain, and her worst fears.
You’ve said in the past that you’re not really a horror movie person, but you’ve done quite a few of them. Explain yourself.
I’m not a horror movie fan. Granted, because I’ve been in so many the past couple years, I have explored horror movies, and I’m a big pansy, so they usually scare me. After The Ring I thought ‘Dude, I’m fucking done with this.’ I was afraid the girl was going to crawl out of the TV for a week, so yeah, I’m a big baby. But The Innkeepers is not quite a horror movie. There’s comedy, it’s definitely unique.
How is it different from your average haunted house movie?
Well, I think the problem with a lot of horror movies right now is that it’s just the same old shtick over and over again, which is fine, some people like that, but I think The Innkeepers is a really good movie first. Period. And second, it’s a horror-ish movie. The first half of the movie is a romantic comedy, and the characters are well developed. Because the characters are so well developed, when something bad happens to them you’re more scared because you care about them.
Ti West has established himself as an up and coming horror director. What’s it like hanging out with a guy who’s clearly got some dark stuff happening upstairs?
I love Ti, he’s awesome. I got involved in the movie because I was working on another movie, and I don’t know how it works with agents, but I guess he heard that I was working on a movie with a friend of his, and we spoke on the phone and met and we got along really well. Ti is one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked with some really awesome people that I love, but for being so young, he’s so good, he’s so specific, and he knows what he wants with everything. It just makes my job a lot easier, and we were laughing, having the best time ever. I knew every single person’s name on the crew; we all lived together when we were filming this movie. The Yankee Pedlar Inn that the movie takes place in is a real place. You can go to Torrington Connecticut right now and walk into the inn and feel like you’re walking into the movie.
What was it like living in the hotel?
When we were filming, Ti told us the hotel is really haunted, and weird shit happens there. I don’t believe in ghosts, but it was just a really weird place. It was all askew, built in the 1800s with bad seventies renovations. My door would violently fly open in the middle of the night, and there were no windows open, and my lights would flicker on and off. Everyone had this experience. The phone would ring, and nobody would be there, and there was nobody at the front desk. It was super scary.
Method acting at its finest.
Seriously! The worst part about it was we were all friends, and we were filming in this tiny ass town with no place to go. So we would just sit on the porch of the inn in rocking chairs drinking beer, and this woman came up to me and was like ‘Oh I love this hotel, and I was married in this hotel, and my son was conceived in this hotel! Great memories in room 333!’ I freaked out and just ran to Ti’s room and started banging on his door screaming, ‘Change my sheets! Change my sheets!’ So yeah, that was traumatizing.
Are you the kind of actor that gets really close with the people you’re shooting with?
Yes, definitely. It’s hard because I like to know every single person’s name, and totally joke around, and it’s hard at first because people always think ‘Oh it’s the actress, and she’s going to be a total bitch.’ But eventually they realize that I just want to hang out. All the grips gave me a goodbye card when we left; it was a picture of them in their Christmas sweaters, and I still have it. That’s the best part about my job, I get to meet cool people and hang out with them. It’s like camp all the time.
Throughout the film your character experiences some pretty grim stuff in the hotel. What’s the worst hotel experience you’ve ever had?
When I first moved to New York, I was sitting on the subway, reading the paper, and it was like ‘Bed Bugs! Taking over New York!’ and I was like “Losers! Who gets fucking bed bugs! Pussies!’
I’ve had bed bugs, but I’m not a pussy, I swear.
Well that’s the thing! Two weeks later I had bed bugs, and it sucked! We were starting to shoot in a day, and I woke up and I had welts all over my face and they said ‘You look like shit! We can’t film!’ I was hideous! So my friend got me a deal at the Thompson in the Lower East Side, and I just booked it there. I was naked, covered in Calamine lotion, crying alone. Nobody would come visit me.
You become an outcast the moment word spreads that you have them.
I was! I was in full-blown Howard Hughes mode, scratching myself, laying on the floor covered in tissues. That was pretty lonely and terrible, I know that.
In The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo Rooney Mara goes to some pretty intense physical extremes for the role. It reminded me a lot of what your character went through in Last House on The Left? How do you get yourself to such a dark place?
Well, first I think Rooney did an amazing job. I’m a huge fan of the books, so she looked just as I envisioned Lisbeth in my mind, and I thought she was really, really good. She was badass. But it’s hard because the character I play in Last House on the Left is so different from Lisbeth. For me, it felt like so much physical work every day, like running through the woods, and the assault scene, so everyday was this workout and I was exhausted. At times you have to go to some uncomfortable places, but it all works. There’s a big assault scene in the movie and you don’t even need to act. You feel uncomfortable and you don’t like it, so it all just worked for me.
What scares you in real life?
I have two big phobias. Number one is vomit. Not just me vomiting. I have a vomit sixth sense. I know when someone’s going to puke and I’ll just rush out of the building. I’ll just book it. I was filming a movie once and I was the only girl, so all the boys didn’t invite me out drinking. So it was 5 o’clock in the morning, and they had been out until 2, and we’re in a van headed to set, and my sixth sense starts kicking in. I see the guy next to me, and he’s looking green so I think ‘Fuck, this guy’s about to blow, I have to get out of here.’ But the van was moving so I started yelling ‘Can you stop the van? Can you stop the van?’ and they said ‘Nope. We have to go to set.’ and I literally jumped out of the moving van.
What is it about puke that gets to you, besides the obvious?
I don’t know. I’ve always been terrified of it, and I’ve had it since I was a kid. My other phobia is cockroaches.
I can’t even look at a photo of a spider without totally freaking out.
Dude I get it! I’m the same with cockroaches! When I see one on the street–do you know how many strangers I’ve jumped on? I’ve jumped on top of strange men. They probably liked it, but I didn’t.
Are there limits to what you’re willing to put yourself through for a role?
I think it depends. It depends on who you’re working with and if I feel totally connected to the material then no, I’ll do whatever if it takes. If I love something, and I want it to be the best, then I’ll do whatever it takes for it to be the best.
You’ve been in the business since you were a child. Do you ever feel like a grizzled veteran, or do you still get wide-eyed and excited?
It depends. Yes I’ve been doing this since I was a kid, but when I was really little, I wasn’t really doing it, it was more like an after-school activity. I would do like two commercials a year. It didn’t become this serious thing until I was in my teens, when I started doing movies and stuff. Then I quit for a while because I wanted to be a veterinarian. I was never home schooled, I got good grades, I wanted to go to college, but when I quit for a year, I really missed it and I realized it’s what I want to do. I feel like with each experience, it kind of beats you down, because it’s not this big glamorous job that everyone thinks it is. It’s funny because when I talk to people that have seen me in a movie, they’ll say things like ‘Do you know Robert Pattinson?’ and I’m like ‘No, I don’t. I don’t know if you know this, but I’m not that famous!’ So yeah, that can beat you down, but as long as I keep getting to meet unique and awesome people I’m happy.
Actors have a tendency to say they have the best job in the world. But tell me, what’s the worst part about being an actress?
Don’t get me wrong, not to be corny, but I feel blessed. I know people that would give their right arm to do what I do. But listen, I’m not really famous, so it’s not like I come into work and people are like ‘What can I do for you? Here’s your giant Will Smith trailer!’ I mean, it’s just not like that. I’m just an actress. People point and tell me where to stand and what to do constantly. So you have to be really patient and be okay with being told what do all the time. And sometimes I feel like I have to sell out and people are always like ‘Who are you? You look familiar! Are you famous?’ And it’s like, if you have to ask then no.
Do you live in LA?
I do. I’m from California. I grew up in a suburb 45 minutes outside of Los Angeles.
What do you love most about coming to New York?
I love New York. I lived here for a little bit when I was working on a television show, and we all had to move to New York and I freaking love it. I wish I could live here if I could afford it.
You could get a nice apartment in Brooklyn couldn’t you?
I would but the problem is I have a condo in L.A. so I can’t do both. If I could sell my condo and move to New York I would totally do that. I love Los Angeles, but there’s a whole different energy in New York that I love. Everyone’s walking, everyone’s going somewhere. In California it’s like ‘Hey! Do you want to meet me at this bar?’ and I’m just like ‘Ugh. I have to take off the sweat pants, I have to get ready, I have to drive.’ In New York it’s just ‘Shit! Let me get a cab!’ And the people are just a lot more awesome. A lot of my friends in New York assure me that there’s douchebags here too, but in L.A. it’s just like ‘What do you do? ‘Oh I’m an actress, but I’m a bartender, but I’m like really an actress.’ And I’m just like ‘Shit, how am I going to make friends.’
I was going through your Twitter and saw that you were enjoying yourself in Eataly recently.
Oh my god! Dude I’m such a foodie. I love love love Anthony Bourdain. I would poop myself if I got to meet him. I’ve read all his books, I watch his show whenever I can.
Have you seen his new show The Layover?
I love it. It’s awesome. It’s so great. Um, so ya. I went to Eataly with all the Magnolia Pictures people and Ti, and I was just in cured meat heaven and just rubbing cheese on my face.
If you had to pick a last meal, what would it be?
Oh God the options are endless! I think it would have to be Mexican food. I know it’s weird but my mom is Mexican, so if I’m dying I want to be comforted. And I usually cannot move afterwards, so they’ll just have to wheel me to the electric chair.