You've probably never heard of Jennifer Carpenter. But starting this weekend, people everywhere will be talking about her.

Carpenter, 26, plays the title character in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, opening September 9. Her performance as a demon-possessed young woman is so convincing, one of the film's producers said that people on the set nervously joked that perhaps she was really possessed. Director and co-writer Scott Derrickson said Carpenter's act was so realistic that "she was, in and of herself, entirely terrifying."

Jennifer Carpenter with director Scott Derrickson

Jennifer Carpenter with director Scott Derrickson

The film is based on the true story of Anneliese Michel, a German college student who died during an exorcism in 1976. Her parents and the priests who carried out the exorcism were later convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six months in prison.

Emily Rose, likewise, begins with the same premise: A young woman dies during the course of an exorcism, and an ensuing court case explores the fundamental question: Was she truly demon-possessed, or merely manifesting mental illness and/or epileptic-like episodes? The movie flashes back and forth between courtroom scenes, the tormented life of Emily (played by Carpenter), and scenes of the exorcism.

At the trial, the defense (Laura Linney) tries to convince the jury that Emily really was possessed, while the prosecution (Campbell Scott) argues that there's a scientific explanation—rather than a spiritual one—for Emily's disturbing behaviors. In the end, it's essentially up to the audience to decide who's right—and who's wrong.

We recently caught up with Carpenter on a day when she was promoting the film.

Why did you want to play this role?

Jennifer Carpenter: I wanted to play this role because I thought the story was so incredible and so fascinating that it's almost unbelievable, which is exactly why I wanted to help tell it. I liked the idea that Scott [Derrickson] wasn't thinking of using a lot of special effects, which was sort of a brave call nowadays. And I liked the idea of being invited to make something new, something that hadn't been made before. In fact, Scott said very early on that if we can't come up with something new, it's not going to make it into the film.

She portrays a tormented soul in the film

She portrays a tormented soul in the film

Scott said you were so convincing and scary, they didn't need many special effects. And [producer] Tripp Vinson said people were joking on the set that maybe you really were possessed. What exactly did you do to be so convincing?

Carpenter: I know it looks really crazy and loud and messy, but believe it or not there's a method to the madness. And I don't know if that's a scary thought or not. I didn't have a lot of lines to memorize, but there was a constant dialogue going on between my character, myself and supposedly the six demons that were inside. So, it all made this weird sort of sense to me at the time, moment to moment.

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So what was this method then? Do you mean it came from the dialogue?

Carpenter: Yeah. I did all the research I could. I tried to build a strong case for the prosecution and the defense. I looked at tapes on epilepsy and seizures. Some of the physicality that came out of the seizures were things I'd never seen before, and I tried to thread those into what a possessed state might look like. And each idea fed the next. So it kind of unfolded to me at the same time it was unfolding to the camera and Scott and everyone involved.

Was there some physical preparation for the role too? Did you have to work out? You're doing some pretty crazy, athletic things in the film.

Carpenter: I've always been a runner, since I've been in grade school. So I knew I had the endurance to make it through the 12-hour days. But it's amazing what adrenaline will do. And when I saw the rough cut of it, I was surprised that my body was bending the way it was bending. I don't do yoga so I don't know how exactly that happened.

Also, since she dies in the end and her body is so worn out, I talked to the costume designer about how can we make me look smaller and worn out. I had been working hard, so I think I looked exhausted. It kind of worked in my favor.

Was there kind of a recovery period for you when it was all over?

Carpenter: I went home from Vancouver for Christmas to my family in Kentucky. I said to my family, "Just give me two days and I'll come to you." It was almost exactly that: Two days later I just sort of kind of snapped out of it, and I was back to being myself and glad to be home with my family.

Snapped out of it? Was it a mental fatigue kind of thing?

Carpenter: No. I think it was just packing up a room after a month or so was exhausting. But yeah, you sort of have to say goodbye to each job as you finish, say goodbye to each character. I had become friends with Emily by the end of it.

Scott Derrickson said the tone of the film is more like The Exorcist than other demon movies that show giant devils with horns and fire and a lot of CGI special effects, blowing up stuff. He wanted this to be more realistic.

Carpenter: I think it kind of worked in my favor that I've never seen The Exorcist, because I know that just seeing the word "exorcism" in a title, people would probably think of that film. I think it takes two different kinds of courage to watch these two movies. Part of that is this one's not saturated with special effects. I mean the scariest moments in my life have been like when you hear something outside making a noise, and you start running the list of possibilities of what that could be, do you know what I mean? I think that's sort of how this movie operates.

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Carpenter's performance might just make audiences scream

Carpenter's performance might just make audiences scream

Because it leaves open those options of what it could be?

Carpenter: Possibilities, right.

What are those two different kinds of courage you mean?

Carpenter: I mean there are people who are afraid of scary movies, and there are people who might be afraid to ask certain questions that they've been avoiding in their lives. And this movie might ask them to hurry up and start thinking about it.

What are some of those questions this movie brings up, and did it bring up questions for you in making this movie?

Carpenter: It did. I think it asks you to look at your own beliefs—your beliefs in religion, your beliefs in science, and your beliefs in the judicial system. It causes you to ask how much room you've left for new information, new possibilities. I thought I had to answer all of those questions before I started working on this film. And then I realized whatever answers I come up with aren't relevant. Whatever people come up with belongs to them and it's their business, not mine.

That brings me to another question. [Actor] Campbell Scott was asked if his spiritual beliefs changed as a result of working on something this intense. And he said yes, to a degree. What about you?

Carpenter: I think I've put a lot of pressure on myself at times to find a name for what it is that I feel spiritually. And if anything, this has sort of taken that pressure off. Part of my spirituality is that if I'm acting with good intentions and with honesty, the rest should take care of itself. And so yes, it has changed me.

I read a quote from you where you said you tried not to let your own point of view get in the way of your performance. Now that you're done, what is your point of view. Do you believe this stuff is real?

Carpenter: I think that we're all kind of the sitting jury when it comes to this movie. And just because I was there when it was being pieced together didn't make me any more of an authority on the subject. So, I did try to come to it in a neutral state and not have any opinions one way or another as to how I think the trial should be handled. Which I think kind of helped in the telling of the story.

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But I was having dinner with a friend in a totally unrelated conversation and I suddenly thought, oh I know, I know what I think happened. But again, it doesn't matter what I think. It matters for whoever has the courage to see it.

Carpenter wants the audience to decide the verdict for themselves

Carpenter wants the audience to decide the verdict for themselves

How do you feel that the depicts Emily Rose—as someone with a mental illness or epilepsy, or as someone who is truly demon possessed?

Carpenter: I think the film does a really nice job of presenting as much information as it possibly can, and keeping the audience on the fence as long as possible. I feel that, because it kept me that way, in that state. So it's not trying to champion one cause.

So it's just kind of laying facts out there.

Carpenter: It's just telling the events and leaving it for you to decide how you feel about it.

How do you think the audience will respond to Emily? Will they be creeped out, or will they have sympathy for her?

Carpenter: I think it will make people stop, because I think they'll realize that Emily was someone's daughter and someone's friend and someone's sister and girlfriend. And because it's not going to be riddled with special effects and green screens, it might actually hit them a little harder.

What else do you want viewers to take away after watching this movie?

Carpenter: It's so hard to say because I didn't come into it trying to do one certain thing. I just want people to see it and be a part of it. As long as they do that, then that makes me happy. Because all of this work was done for them. And for Emily Rose's character.

After all this heavy talk, let's wrap up with a lighter question. Any memorable lighter moments on the set?

Carpenter: I had a birthday while we were shooting. And Josh Close, who played my boyfriend in the movie, gave me a shirt that I absolutely love. It says, "I do all my own exorcisms." I think everybody got a kick out of that.

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