Sarah Butler runs emotional and physical gauntlet for ‘I Spit on Your Grave’

If Sarah Butler is aiming to carve out a diverse career for herself, she’s doing one heck of a job so far. This former Belle (from Beauty and the Beast, naturally) at Disneyland and guest star on CSI: NY and CSI: Miami is in the lead role of I Spit on Your Grave, the remake of the controversial 1978 cult movie. In the unrated update directed by Steven M. Monroe (in theaters starting today), Butler stars as Jennifer, a novelist who travels to a cabin in the woods to finish her new book and is brutally and sexually assaulted by a group of local guys. Left for dead, a switch turns in Jennifer’s head and she goes on a torturous, Saw-like rampage of vengeance against her attackers. (One scene involves her and a pair of metal shears. I’ll leave it at that.) Butler, a 25-year-old Washington State native, was initially skeptical about tackling a film that was so intense and violent until her manager convinced her she had to do it. “I got to go through so much emotionally, and it’s a total honor as an actor,” Butler says. “That’s the stuff that we dream about, being able to go through so many live-changing experiences and come out completely different in the end.” Read below for the actress’ thoughts on Grave being released unrated, what she did in her off hours as a release, and what really scares her. (Hint: It’s one of the top-rated shows on TV.)

With so much horrific stuff going on, both to you and by you, what did you have to do to keep your mind clear when you weren’t filming?
Actually, at the end of every day of shooting I would go and try to release all of it, try to let it all go, and clear my head of it. Every day was so intense. I had no more energy left – I felt completely and emotionally dry at the end of every day. It was necessary for me to get a clean slate for the next day so I could bring my best again day after day. That goes more for the beginning of the film, where I’m the one who’s the victim. When I was the avenger in the second half of the film, I did find myself retaining the headspace a little bit more when I was away from set: spending a little more time alone and not really enjoying the camaraderie as I had in previous weeks of shooting.

So you treated it as two totally different things.
It was almost like that. It was and it wasn’t. I have Steven Monroe to thank for that. He insisted that we shoot in chronological order, and I can’t imagine trying to shoot these revenge scenes and muster up all this anger toward these men without having first gone through what I did when they attacked me.

How close is the original Grave to yours? It’s aways been controversial, and when it was released, some people considered it feminist, while other saw it as exploitation. Is this new edition less violent or more intense?
As far as the plotline goes, it’s almost completely identical. There’s one new character, so that changes up a bit, but other than that, it feels pretty true. There has been some major updating. One of the biggest updates we’ve done to it is that instead of approaching her revenge by using her sexuality as a weapon, in our version I don’t do that at all. I use my cunning and my brute force to capture and torture and kill these men. That’s a big difference. And a big reason why the original was classified as exploitation was an abundance of nudity in the film. Mind you, there is nudity in ours, but it’s definitely less gratuitous. There’s enough in there to give you the idea of what’s happening and to evoke a sense of pity for Jennifer. That was something that was brilliant on Steven’s part. I felt really safe in his hands saying, “Let’s go ahead and do another nude shot here. It would have more impact if we did this right here,” knowing that he wouldn’t exploit those shots and he would only put what’s necessary in.

Females usually get tortured more in horror films than men. Especially during the attack scenes in this, how hard was it to do those both as an actress and as a person?
It wasn’t difficult at all as an actress. All I had to do was just be there and believe that what was happening to me was happening to me. A lot of the things that were going on were real. There was a real gun involved – I knew it wasn’t loaded but it’s still scary when you have a real gun right there next to you. There was real fire and real water and my head going under water. Those are fears I really have. I couldn’t help but be terrified at the violence being directed at me. It was hard to go through that, not in the sense of an actor but it was difficult as a person to be objected to all that. I needed to feel as though I was completely trapped and terrified, because that’s what Jennfier was feeling. It was tough. There were a few times where Steven would yell “Cut” and I couldn’t cut right away. I’d have to cry it out for a little bit and reset for another take.

What was your release off the set?
At our hotel, there was hot dinner every night after we were done shooting. We’d always hit it up. That was the funny part after this long day of them attacking me and me being completely terrified and hating them, they became my friends again once we got back to the hotel. We’d hang out after – we’d go in the hotel and have a beer and have dinner together. That was how we blew off some steam. The guys would play some poker games – I wasn’t really into that. [Laughs] When I started doing my revenge, there was definitely a lot less of that. I would go into my room and I actually had a puzzle I was working on. I finished this big, huge 2,000-piece puzzle with a bunch of dogs that last week. That kept me inward, kept me feeling a sense of solitude, which was something Jennifer had gone through in the time between her attack and her premeditated revenge on these guys.

Hatchet II was released unrated, and it quickly was pulled from theaters. Are you totally in favor of your movie being unrated?
Yeah, definitely. The MPAA was requiring over 100 cuts to this film. To make the cuts an R rating would require would be like cutting the legs off this film. The whole thing that makes it unique and shocking and striking is the whole intensity of the rape, and then the intensity of the revenge. That is the film. Everything. To some people, this film seems pointless. They’re saying, “Why would I ever want to watch anything like this?” Well, there’s an audience out there for it and the original proved that. The fans of the original especially will be happy that we followed suit with an unrated release. That’s exactly a film like this requires. Why go through the whole thing of shooting a film and really committing yourself to the violence and everything, and then just go and cut it all up to pieces? It’s pointless.

Are you a horror fan?
You know, I’m actually not a huge horror fan. I’m just kind of a wuss. There was a time in my life where I would watch nonstop CSI marathons, and I would get so scared afterwards. One time, I was watching them and I was going to get ready for bed and brush my teeth, but the bathroom was way at the other end of the house and I felt so secluded. I was literally too scared to go into the bathroom and brush my teeth. I was like, “This is ridiculous. I can’t do this to myself anymore.” [Laughs] I had to censor my viewing, and I just can’t watch things that are too scary because I will never sleep.

You’ve done some CSI episodes somewhat recently. Can you now watch it and not be scared, since you’ve seen their behind-the-scenes secrets?
Yeah, a little more. And I just don’t watch them nonstop. Not all of them are really scary, but every now and then you get one where it’s like, ughh. There are so many different perpetrators and different types of people who are the bad guy. It’s like people who are afraid of clowns: Some people might find that completely ridiculous, but for some people, clowns are just terrifying. For me, it’s serial killers. Oh, gosh, it scares me to death. I can’t deal with that. I remember one of the episodes specifically. It was this young girl about my age, so immediately I identified with her, and she got a phone call in her house at night. It was this guy and he’s acting all creepy and he said something about how he could see her. It turned out he was a cable TV installation guy, and when she let him in to put her cable in, he actually moved into the attic and had drilled holes in the ceiling of each room of her house so he could watch her wherever she was. He’d been living up there for God knows how long, and that is the most terrifying thing I could ever think of in my life. So that really scarred me. [Laughs]

What was the experience of watching I Spit on Your Grave like for you?
It was cool. Well, OK, I’ll rephrase. The first time I screened it, I saw it in a provate theater with a couple of my representatives and, ugh, it was very, very disturbing. I definitely cried for a few minutes when I was being raped. I actually was able to disconnect from myself in the film and noticed that it really got to me. Then I watched it again in Montreal at the Fantasia Festival with a theater full of 900 people, and that was an amazing experience. You can watch it yourself, but you just never know how a crowd of complete strangers will react to it. It was really interesting. They all were really quiet in the first part, and then as soon as there were signs of me coming back to get my revenge, everyone in the crowd was cheering. When I’d seal the deal and I’d do a kill, there would be little groups of standing ovations here and there. People clapping and screaming and were so enthusiastic. It was better than I could have hoped for. When I first shot it, people would ask me, “What do you hope people will do when they see this film?” And I said, “I hope they’ll stand up and cheer when I get my revenge,” and that’s exactly what happened. So it was incredible.

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