Sara Paxton is best known for roles in horror flicks like the 2009 remake of “Last House on the Left” and “Shark Night 3D,” as well as comedies such as the teen romance “Sydney White” with Amanda Bynes and “Aquamarine,” in which she starred as a mermaid. The critics have largely been kind, and the admitted fan of Goldie Hawn and distant cousin of star Bill Paxton, whom she has never met, has earned comparisons to Reese Witherspoon. Even so, it was her down to earth, low-key goofiness which drew the attention of writer-director Ti West for “The Innkeepers,” a surprisingly scary blend of classic ghost story horror and contemporary indie comedy. (It opens in select theaters nationwide this Friday after a month-plus run on VOD.)
It turns out that the 23-year-old Ms. Paxton was born to play the world’s cutest nerd/slacker-cum-asthmatic ghost hunter, and she does it extremely well. What attracted West was the very unglam, slightly geeky and goofy nature she exhibits in real life, which somehow seems to fit with the reality that she is, at 23, a highly experienced professional actress whose earliest gigs included contributing child voices to “SpongeBob SquarePants.” (She is also one of the child “singers” of the long-running Nickelodeon cartoon’s theme.)
And so we bring you five questions with every nerd’s dream girl: Sara Paxton.
1. There was apparently a bit of weirdness [probably not actually ghost related] happening around the set of “The Innkeepers” and the movie was somewhat inspired by creepy things that happened on Ti West’s prior film, “The House of the Devil.” What really scares you?
Sara Paxton: I’m a big baby. Ghosts scare me. If I go see a movie with killers who break into your house, that doesn’t scare me. In the moment, I am scared [because] of the suspense in the movie, but when I go home I don’t think about it. I’m not thinking, “That killer’s going to come in.” But after a ghost movie, I’m like [in a scary voice], “The ghosts are everywhere.” People think I’m ridiculous. I kinda am.
2. So you were perfectly cast for this movie! Now, you’ve done a few horror films. You’ve done some, like this and “Shark Night 3D,” that were more in the fun or even silly category. You’ve also done the kind of horror film where, if the audience isn’t actually traumatized when they walk out the door, they don’t feel like they’ve gotten their money’s worth. Would something like “The Innkeepers” actually scare you more than “Last House on the Left”?
SP: Yeah, “The Innkeepers” scared me. I watched it at South by Southwest [SXSW] in the huge theater with everyone else. That was the first time I saw it because Ti wouldn’t let me see anything, which I’m fine with. Yeah, it scared me. It scared me because it’s unlike any scary movie that I’ve ever seen. Normally, when I see a scary movie, even though it does scare me because I’m a big pansy, I know when it’s coming. I’m ready. I wasn’t ready for this, so it really scared me. I wasn’t prepared [even though I was there when it was shot]. The way he puts it together afterwards makes it scary.
3. Both of your parents work in dentistry. [Paxton’s mother is a dentist and her father manages the practice.] Can you talk about the importance of teeth in the performing arts?
SP: When I was a little kid, and I would do commercials and stuff, when I started losing my baby teeth, my mother would make me a little fake tooth. I wouldn’t get parts because of it, because casting directors would be mad. “We want real kids with [real teeth].” I never understood that. “I don’t wany to show my gap tooth.” Teeth are important, I guess you need good teeth, although sometimes they want the real deal — gritty characters with gnarly teeth.
4. You’ve said that Claire from “The Innkeepers” is probably the closest character you’ve ever played to yourself. Ti West describes you as “a charming goofball.” Is that easier or harder than playing somebody who’s very different from yourself?
SP: It’s easier. It is, because I don’t have to control it. You know what I think is the hardest thing? Playing sexy. Doing sexy roles and sex scenes — that terrifies me. Because I’m so nervous about it and so self-conscious about it that makes me not-sexy. Because I’m like [does an adorably bad quasi-Mae West impression], “This is me being sexy,” you know what I mean? I’m like “Oh, let’s do it!”…I have problems playing the [bad sexy English accent] “Come hither into my boudoir” kind of scenes. When I get those auditions, I panic.
5. You’ve been working fairly successfully as an actress since you were six. Do you ever fantasize about having a low-pressure, dead-end job like Claire in “The Innkeepers”?
SP: I wouldn’t say I fantasize about it, but some people think my job is a lot more glamorous than it is. I’m not like this big, famous movie star. Not that that’s what my goal is. At times you feel like, “Is this what I’m supposed to be doing? Should I do something else?” Obviously, I don’t because I love what I do, but it’s a hard industry to work in. It’s easy to get discouraged. You feel trampled on sometimes. When you’ve had three auditions, and you waited for them for an hour just to be treated like garbage or something, it gets too sad sometimes. But I think that it’s worth it if you love it, and I do. Just gotta keep pushing forward.