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'Exorcism' cast, filmmakers emphasized LGBTQ themes

From left to right, Ryan Simpkins, David Hyde Pierce and Chloe Bailey star in "The Exorcism." Photo courtesy of Vertical
1 of 5 | From left to right, Ryan Simpkins, David Hyde Pierce and Chloe Bailey star in "The Exorcism." Photo courtesy of Vertical

LOS ANGELES, June 20 (UPI) -- The cast and director of The Exorcism, in theaters Friday, said post-production delays allowed the filmmakers to re-edit the film to emphasize LGBTQ themes.

Russell Crowe plays an actor playing an exorcist in a movie who begins to exhibit signs of possession. Joshua Miller directed and co-wrote the script with M.A. Fortin.

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"We really wanted to keep that queer storyline in there, being queer filmmakers," Miller told UPI in a recent Zoom interview. "Some people were thinking it wasn't as addictive."

In the story, Anthony Miller (Crowe) is estranged from Hollywood and his daughter, Lee (Ryan Simpkins). Anthony gets a second chance to star in a film, and redeems himself with Lee after his drug addiction caused them to become estranged previously.

Lee has a relationship with another crew member (Chloe Bailey), and it is the queer girls who end up performing the exorcism. Fortin added that women exorcizing a man is a reversal of traditional exorcisms between a male priest and a female subject.

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"If we're going to play around with Catholic dogma, we're not going to be slaves to Catholic dogma," Fortin said. "That was something we weren't really willing to bend on."

Simpkins, who came out in 2020 and goes by they/she pronouns, said her character's queerness drew her to the role.

"One of the key themes of the movie is this younger woman working her way through this patriarchal system and making sure she stays true to herself," Simpkins said. "Being a young queer woman in the film industry was also something I related to."

Simpkins said she struggled with whether to come out, worrying that it might limit the roles in which she would be cast. Since coming out, Simpkins said, the opposite has been true.

"I think gender is a performance, and I think it has only let me go further into that performance," Simpkins said. "I get to play queer characters. I've played men since then."

One subplot that fell by the wayside in the final cut is that of Father Conor (David Hyde Pierce), the Catholic adviser to the film within the film. Pierce said he hopes an extended cut of The Exorcism one day restores his full storyline.

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"This is not the first time he has found himself confronting this kind of evil," Pierce teased.

Even in the final cut, Conor is the most skeptical when people suggest Anthony is possessed.

"For quite a while, he doesn't buy it," Pierce said. "They're getting caught up in the story that they're filming, and they think these real things are happening, but it's very rare that this stuff happens."

Pierce did not have a priest consult on his performance like Crowe's character did. Instead, Pierce remembered Episcopal priests he knew growing up.

In one scene, out of habit, Pierce recited an extra verse from the Episcopal version of The Lord's Prayer. He made sure to advise his director to cut before that verse.

"So I said, 'Don't include these words in the film because a Catholic priest wouldn't say that,'" Pierce said.

The Exorcism is the second film directed by Miller, and 25 years apart. Miller was a child actor in the '80s and '90s in horror movies like Near Dark and comedies like Teen Witch.

Miller's father, Jason Miller, played the young priest Father Karras in The Exorcist, who Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) mentors. Miller said The Exorcism is less an homage to his father and more of a tribute to his mother, who died before he and Fortin wrote it.

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"There was that moment of wow, she's still gone," Miller said of his realization after completing the film. "To put that expectation on the process of making something, it's going to somehow heal you, I think, is hard."

Along with the film's themes, the cast had to deliver when it came to the exorcism scene. Crowe performed as a man possibly possessed.

Pierce had to play the traditional priest role, including offering his body to the demon.

"It's challenging learning the language if you're speaking a lot of Latin," Pierce said. "You also have to have great confidence in your director and in the special effects people because you really go out on a limb as an actor."

Simpkins said she auditioned with the exorcism scene. For them, it was easier to rise to the moment on set than in her Zoom audition.

"I was just screaming to a computer screen in my bedroom, which was really hard," Simpkins said. "When you're there staring at Russell who was dressed as a priest covered in blood, it feels more real."

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