I first met Chauntal Lewis on the set of The Commune, Elisabeth Fies’ award-winning indie thriller. However, it wasn’t until I had spent hours in my edit suite, pouring over the rushes from that film to assemble the first cut that I really felt I got to know her. Her performance as Jenny Cross carries that film. She is in practically every scene, slowly unwrapping herself from a spiteful, sarcastic 16-year old to a sweet, vulnerable girl just looking for some relief from her summer on dad’s creepy commune. Her scenes with co-star David Lago, jumped off my plasma screen – the chemistry adding authenticity to her performance. And just when she really opens up, just when the audience feels the most connected to her, WHAMMO!! The Commune delivers its harrowing blow. The whole film rests on the audience’s ability to empathize with her character. If Jenny isn’t believable, if she isn’t ultimately likable, the film would collapse. But Chauntal of course pulled it off marvelously, with a inner spirit that would soon define her not just as an actor, but as an inspiration for everyone.
On March 18, 2009, Chauntal Lewis was in a terrible car accident and lost her left hand. For most people, this would have been a crushing blow. For an up and coming actress in ultra image-conscious Los Angeles, this should have meant the end of her career. That is, if it was anyone but Chauntal.
Instead of looking inward and focusing on her loss, Chauntal decided to look outward and embrace others with a message of celebrating life. She started a website, Believe and Become and began sharing her story and her inspirational message with others.
And then something really cool happened. Production of the sequel to the re-boot of Toolbox Murders (the appropriately named, Toolbox Murders 2) was about to begin and the film needed to find it’s star – a woman who could carry a film on her back, and bring with it an authentic vibe. Of course, they were looking for Chauntal.
I was lucky enough to catch up with the busy lady recently, and asked her about her new role and her newfound motivation.
How did you land the lead role of Samantha Stevens?
Director Dean Jones contacted me after a referral was sent to him from a previous horror film I was in. The production team knew this role demanded a real sense of unexplainable tragedy & pain; I think considering my situation, it’s clear one cannot imagine how to endure such pain. After the read they expressed that I just “got it”. My perspective gives this a completely different take on the cliche thrasher-“killer tortures girl”.
Tell us about your character and how she is connected to the first film.
My character, Samantha Stevens, is the sister of Angela Betis character, Nell, however, we don’t really connect other than establish something interesting has happened to my sister. Samantha is a delicate young woman by the looks of her, but her strength in this film proves that it is not about a physical dominance; there is a will to survive in her that is more powerful than TBK’s attempts to destroy her. That’s the challenge unlike most horror films, not only do we see her struggle physically but we experience Samantha evolve mentally and “choose” life. The film challenges human survival limits to say the least, but there is such a powerful strength in my character that truly gives an audience a surreal vision of how capable we all are to overcome evil.
Do you wear a prosthetic arm for your role, or was the injury written into your character?
I don’t want to give away the good stuff, but it will be interesting to see how an audience interprets or how receptive they become to a leading actress with a missing hand on film. I think Dean did a brilliant job & completely succeeded in showing it can be done. I appreciate a director who’s willing to take that risk. This will be my first film exposing the new me:)
The cast includes the legendary Bruce Dern. What was it like to work with him?
Working with Bruce was quite a surreal experience. Ultimately, it was a special kind of validation any actress could appreciate. He immediately looked at me and said, “What you do is brilliant. Play the game and just dance with me. You’re magical.” From someone who’s been in the game, living publicly private on screen for decades, this was the greatest compliment in my career. He was endearing, insightful and made me remember why I started and love acting more and more every day. Regardless of the years of mastery he had in the business he said I was an incredible teammate in our mostly improvised scenes. There was a moment when I took a step back to embrace the moment after grueling, dark, long hours and say, “This is what it’s all about.” We danced!
I really liked the supernatural backstory of the first film (the 2004 remake) – it pulled together elements from Rosemary’s Baby, The Sentinel, The People Under the Stairs, with a little Dario Argento vibe for good measure. Does the sequel continue in that vein or is it a more traditional slasher film?
TBK2 is so different than the original and Tobe Hooper’s 2004 remake. It has an underlying Hitchcock feel. There are definitely original torture elements that have never been seen on film. The film will take you on a difficult and trying journey to say the least.
You have been involved in a number of thriller and horror films, what about this genre interests you?
It’s interesting, I never put much focus on the horror genre. I never really watched them growing up, by choice:) To be honest, I don’t enjoy getting shocked in a movie theater with extra loud scores just when someone opens a door to reveal nothing behind it! I feel I bring the reality to every situation I play however unrealistic it may seem to the average person. If it’s happening & I believe it, the audience will only feel what I feel. Having done a few now, it’s not the easiest genre to bring to life so maybe that’s the fun; the challenge I love. It’s interesting to see how one writer will interpret human survival behavior verses another. At the end of the day, these extremities sometimes make other every day “dilemmas” not seem so bad:) Some can do horror & some can’t, I just happen to do it well I’ve been told.
Please tell us a little about Believe and Become.
Believe and become is an avenue for people to discover what it is they want in this life, and by power of positive thought and believing “I CAN” you will become. Whether it’s health, prosperity, success, love, balance, you can have whatever you focus your heart and mind on and beyond. I dedicate my experience to inspire individuals with or without disabilities to live happier, healthier and more fulfilled lives and BEcome who you are meant to be.
Thanks so much Chauntal for your insights, and everyone be sure to keep an eye out for Toolbox Murders 2 in 2012.