“Spring Breakers” is the most unexpectedly buzzed-about film of 2013 so far. And there’s a pretty good chance you have no idea what to expect from it.
“If they’re expecting one thing, they expect just a party movie,” star Ashley Benson told me during a recent interview. “From the trailer, certain people said it was a waste of time to see because it was just like a ‘Girls Gone Wild’ movie. So, when people actually go see the movie, they’re completely taken aback. I don’t think they quite know what they’re watching.”
And there’s really no succinct way to describe it. One part art house film, one part action movie, one part pop culture documentary, “Spring Breakers” is a crude, sexual, offensive, violent assault on your face, like an R-rated “Sugar & Spice,” but slickly stylized with shades of Nicolas Refn’s “Drive” and a pinch of Michael Bay’s scatterbrained cinema sensibilities.
The film follows four college girls (Benson, Vanessa Hudgens, Rachel Korine and Selena Gomez) who rob a diner full of patrons at gunpoint to collect funds for their spring break trip to Florida. Upon arrival, the girls quickly sink into the sun-kissed muck of sex, drugs and alcohol, until they find themselves on the wrong side of the law. When the bikini-clad quad is rescued by an enigmatic gangster rapper named Alien (James Franco), they unknowingly, yet excitedly, choose sides in a deadly turf war.
“It’s very dark. I feel like people kind of thought it was gonna be more of a lighter comedy,” Benson said. “And it’s not that at all. It’s the exact opposite.”
Keep scrolling for more of my chat with the 23-year-old actress, best known for her roles on “Days of Our Lives” and “Pretty Little Liars,” and read about the surprising inspiration for her first big-screen stick-up.
David Onda: How should audiences approach these four girls? Do you have to embrace their misguided absurdity to “get” the movie?
Ashley Benson: I think that a lot of people can relate to these girls – not to what they do to the extreme. They can relate to them being from a small town, going to college, not really getting out anywhere, not really seeing new things. When they go to spring break, they go crazy because they lived in more of a conservative town. I think that they can relate to this because the girls are looking for something new, something exciting, something to shock them. And they find that in spring break. In the film, it’s so colorful and so vibrant and so crazy and wild. All those people that were in the party scenes were real spring breakers. That was so great, because we got to interact with real people. It made the movie almost seem like a documentary sometimes.
Onda: Were there elements in the script that made you apprehensive at first?
Benson: No. When I read the script, I called my agent and I told him I wanted to get this role. I had never read anything like this, and for it to be my first movie, I said, “I just have to get this part.” There wasn’t a lot of dialogue in the script, to be honest. It was more visual. It was so different and so raw and I had never read anything like this before.
Onda: Were there any downsides to spending weeks on end in a bikini?
Benson: No. I mean, I never wear bikinis in my personal life. It’s because I don’t go to the beach, I don’t care to. Before I did this movie, I was just like, “Oh, I don’t wanna get in a bathing suit.” Now it’s just, “Whatever,” because I spent two months in a bathing suit. But we weren’t the only ones. We were surrounded by a ton of people on the beach… everywhere you’d look there’d be girls in bathing suits and guys in bathing suits. By the second day, it was just kind of normal.
Onda: What skills did you learn for this movie that you hope to never use again?
Benson: The guns. I was super nervous, actually. You can actually see, in one part of the movie. The first time that you see us shooting a gun, I kind of jump backwards.
Onda: Is it when you’re firing out into the ocean?
Benson: Yeah. [laughs] It’s so embarrassing. I was very, very scared, because I didn’t know how to handle a gun. I don’t know, I was just very uncomfortable. So, it’s funny that Harmony [Korine, the director] kept that take in there. The last scene I filmed for the movie was the shooting scene with Vanessa. By that time, I had gotten very confident with the gun, and I had been filming this movie for a while, so I got confident in myself just being the character. So, that’s what I learned, and that was actually the most challenging for me.
Onda: I heard that you took inspiration for the diner robbery scene from Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight.”
Benson: I read the scene over and over, and I was just trying to get a grasp on how they would enter a restaurant and how they would intimidate people and get their attention. And I just remember that scene in “Batman” being so – it stood out to me so much – and Heath did such an amazing job getting their attention and scaring the [expletive] out of people. So I would watch that over and over from the moment that he entered the room – he fired that gun and it is like, “Whoa, this is serious.” It was just so amazing, the way he worked the room. And I remember telling Vanessa, “I’ve been watching this scene, so let’s go to lunch and let’s watch it and let’s study it.” And we did. It was so helpful for me. I wanted this scene to be like that, and to leave an effect on people. And when you see the flashback, when we recreate the scene for Selena’s character, and you actually get to see what happened inside [the diner], it’s very scary and it was kind of animalistic in a way. It could have gone either way – two white girls coming in there with guns – it could have been silly, so we really wanted to intimidate and scare people.
Onda: You had no time to rehearse with James before filming, so you were giving natural reactions when you saw him as Alien for the first time. Was it hard to keep a straight face?
Benson: It was so amazing. We were so fascinated by him. When he walked on set, he wasn’t James, he was Alien. Right when he walked in, it just took the movie to another level. He does such an incredible job. We never broke character once, because you just didn’t even know what to do. He would go on these rants and make up these speeches and make up these amazing monologues. It really made the scenes where they’re just mesmerized by him and they kind of fall in love with him – it just made it so real, because these girls really did. They were just like, “Wow, he’s amazing, he’s everything we wanted to be.” Me and Vanessa would pretty much stay in character the whole time while we were on set, just because it’s hard to get out of that. We always had to constantly be – not partying – but we would listen to rap music and we would just be in character and be in their mindset, because they were so hardcore and they were so different than Vanessa and I. Especially when James was around. We really did have to stay in character because he was so intense.
Onda: Do you have a favorite Alien line?
Benson: God, there’s so many. Every line in the bedroom scene is just fantastic. When we first meet him and he’s talking, I ask him how much money he has and he says, “[Expletive], I’m made of money. Look at my teeth.” That’s great. But I think every line in the bedroom scene is just amazing. That scene was actually about 1 ½-2 pages in the script with very little dialogue and Harmony let us play around. When we first started filming it, he called “cut” 15 minutes later. He just let us do whatever we wanted in that moment, and we created such an amazing scene. James did so much and made it really comedic in the beginning, and then Vanessa and I turned it around and made it super dark. That was all improv.
Onda: The scene that is getting the most buzz is the sex scene with you, Vanessa and James in the pool. As an actor, do you set ground rules before filming something so intimate?
Benson: There actually wasn’t much talk about it. We kind of just did it. We talked a little bit with Harm beforehand, we talked a little bit with James beforehand, but the more you talk about it, the more of a problem it becomes, the more nervous you get. And it’s me and Vanessa’s first sex scene ever, so with that, Harmony did not want to stress about it. For James, he’s done this a million times, so he knew how to act, he knew what to do, so it wasn’t a big deal. You just can’t make it a big deal, or else it won’t come out naturally.
Onda: Do you have a craziest spring break moment in your own personal life?
Benosn: I’ve never been on spring break before. None of us had. It was so crazy – the things that I saw. I was shocked. I don’t think I’d ever go on spring break in real life, cus I’m not really like that. I’m the complete opposite of my character. We definitely experienced the ultimate spring break that anybody could.
“Spring Breakers” is now available with XFINITY On Demand. Click here to begin the ordering process.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.