‘Evil Dead Rise’ Star Alyssa Sutherland on Playing Her Most Challenging Role Yet (2024)

“I have a really bad habit of looking at something and going, ‘Pfft. I can do that,’ and not really understanding the undertaking that I’m about to endure.” Although at this moment Alyssa Sutherland is speaking about her side hobby baking, she could easily be referencing her career. Over the past 20 years, the Australian actress has built an impressive résumé of credits, including Eve Copeland in the TV adaptation of Stephen King’s The Mist and Queen Aslaug in the History Channel’s Vikings. Now, she’s taking on her most demanding role to date — that of Ellie, the demon-possessed lead in the creepy, uber-gory Evil Dead Rise.

The film, which hit theaters on April 21, is the fifth installment in the enormously popular cult franchise, which was launched in 1981 with Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead. Because Sutherland isn’t a fan of horror films, she didn’t realize just how loyal the series’ fans could be. “My first real taste of it was when the trailer came out, and all of a sudden, there were reaction videos on YouTube,” she tells Shondaland. “They just started piling up. That’s the first time it really hit me, like, ‘Oh. Oh! This is a thing.’ I didn’t realize how big the fandom was until that, and it’s kind of snowballed since then.”

A big fandom is putting it mildly. Evil Dead fans are dedicated to the franchise, which includes the original trilogy of films — 1981’s The Evil Dead, 1987’s Evil Dead II, and 1992’s Army of Darkness — as well as a 2013 remake, Evil Dead, three seasons of the Starz series Ash vs. Evil Dead, the off-Broadway Evil Dead the Musical, Halloween theme park attractions at Knott’s Berry Farm and Universal Studios, various video games, collectible figurines, and a series of comic books. Though Evil Dead Rise utilizes the same horror-comedy style found in the earlier iterations, it otherwise changes course, setting the film in an L.A. high-rise instead of a remote cabin in the woods and featuring an entirely new cast of characters.

For the first time in the series’ history, Bruce Campbell’s famed Evil Dead protagonist Ash Williams does not appear on-screen, though Campbell, along with the series’ original director, Sam Raimi, serves as executive producer. Sutherland says the pair were wonderful to work with. “They were always watching, and there was guidance, but at the same time, they really trusted [director] Lee Cronin. It never felt like we had people micromanaging or controlling. It really felt like we were free to do as we pleased. I also put my trust in Lee to keep it an Evil Dead film. I had the freedom to just play and do whatever I wanted as this crazy Deadite, knowing that he would steer it in the direction that he needed to.”

Creating an entirely new lead role in this beloved horror world would be a major undertaking for any actor, but particularly for a woman, given the series’ misogynistic past. Thankfully, so far, the fans — and critics — have been pleased. Since its premiere at SXSW, Evil Dead Rise has earned a 96 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with The Hollywood Reporter saying that Sutherland “is assured as the collected older sibling, but she is even better as a demonic mother. ... For the film’s 97-minute runtime, Sutherland transforms into a maternal nightmare.”

With Sutherland’s smiling, possessed Ellie — known in Evil Dead lingo as a “Deadite” — gracing the film’s marketing materials, it might be easy for non-horror fans to dismiss Evil Dead Rise as a campy B-movie. But Sutherland is quick to point out that there’s so much more to Ellie than bloodshed and carnage. “I haven’t seen a female monster to this extent before,” she says. “I don’t think we’ve allowed women to be so messy on-screen, and I love that we didn’t pull our punches with her. I hope it allows for more of that — for more bad, messy, flawed women. We’ve seen so many men be able to do that, and I’m really proud of doing that with Ellie.”

In fact, it is the two lead characters — Ellie, a newly single mother living a tense existence in a cramped apartment with her three children, and her estranged sister Beth (played by Lily Sullivan), a guitar tech making a brief visit — who make Evil Dead Rise a more feminist version than its predecessors. With Ellie, Sutherland says, “I wanted to tap into rage. I think that a lot of women have a lot of rage just for being a woman existing in the world. ... I think [the film] is a really fun one for women. We get to be really bad and violent and aggressive and nasty, and that’s not normally the playing field for us.”

Preparing for such a role was enormously taxing, which is one of the reasons Sutherland found it so appealing. “I did a lot of different stuff for this role in prep that I haven’t done for any other character. I had a playlist of weird, dark, grimy, angsty songs that I created for Deadite Ellie, and I would create movement in my hotel room at night in the two weeks of prep that we had. I was also working with the stunt team on Deadite movement and all of the stunt sequences. In relation to the darkness in this character, I built a whole backstory for this bodiless soul that had been tormented. I think hurt people hurt people, so I created a traumatic existence for this soul that then found themself floating around for the longest time without a human to embody. And then once it possesses Ellie, it’s just a full celebration of carnage and psychosis and madness.”

‘Evil Dead Rise’ Star Alyssa Sutherland on Playing Her Most Challenging Role Yet (2)

Alyssa Sutherland attends the 2023 SXSW Conference and Festival in Austin, Texas.

Even Ellie’s vocals were complicated, requiring hours of additional dialogue replacement (also known as ADR) in post-production. “With the demon voice, I had a lot of ADR to do,” Sutherland says. “Every line of dialogue I have as Deadite Ellie I went over and did in all kinds of ways. I would go from whispering and being childlike to [speaking in a harsh, guttural voice], ‘Mommy’s with the maggots now.’ I would do this whole range of stuff with my voice in ADR so that Peter Albrechtsen, our sound designer, could layer it all together.”

Ironically, getting into character was made all the easier thanks to Sutherland’s modeling career. At age 15, she won the 1997 Bonne Belle model search and soon signed a contract with Vogue Australia. In addition to being featured on the covers of numerous fashion magazines, she appeared in campaigns for Calvin Klein, Chanel, Ralph Lauren, and Bulgari. All of it, she says now, was helpful in preparing for the hours of makeup application she would undergo for her transition to Deadite Ellie.

“Rob Tapert, one of the producers, sat me down at the beginning of our pre-production and was like, ‘This is gonna be really hard for you.’ And I was like, ‘Meh. I got it. It’s gonna be fine.’ I’m used to having all kinds of weird, crazy things done to me. As a model, most of the time, at the end of the day, everyone just leaves, and you’re left sitting in a random hotel room, and you have to get the stuff off your face and the huge pieces of glitter that you can’t get in your eye because it’ll scratch your eyeball.” She laughs, adding, “I have a very vivid memory of me sitting on the floor of a shower in a hotel room with conditioner loaded in my hair, crying and combing knots out. As an actor, you’re taken care of and respected a lot more.”

Though she’s been acting professionally for two decades, this role will undoubtedly take Sutherland’s career to the next level, and I wonder if there are particular types of roles she hopes to take on. “That’s a tough one,” she replies, “because my career hasn’t looked the way I thought it would. I’m really grateful for the roles that have come my way because they haven’t been an expected, easy route for me. Like on Vikings, I actually read for Lagertha and came very close to getting it, and then I was told at the last minute, ‘It’s not going to go your way. But we’re going to bring you on at the end of the first season, and you’re going to have a role on the show.’ And [Aslaug] was in stark contrast to the role that I had read for Lagertha. I had to do more work to understand this woman that I was playing. It stretched me, and I learned so much.”

These themes — stretching, learning, achieving, mastering — come up repeatedly over the course of our conversation, whether discussing Sutherland’s impressive baking skills (displayed on her Instagram) or her acting. Though she doesn’t know yet what her next role will be, she says she wants it to be an even bigger challenge than Ellie. “I’m really drawn to dark, angsty stuff more and more throughout my career,” she says. “I love flawed women. I want to keep playing flawed women. I’m bored by perfection and someone always doing the right thing. I mean, I’ve just come off playing the most flawed woman to ever appear on-screen [laughs]. But that’s my jam. I’m up for anything.”

Sandra Ebejer is a New York-based writer who has contributed to The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Greatist, Flood Magazine, and The Girlfriend from AARP. Find her on Twitter @sebejer.

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‘Evil Dead Rise’ Star Alyssa Sutherland on Playing Her Most Challenging Role Yet (2024)


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