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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Needles, Traps & Torture: Shawnee Smith Shares Memories of Playing Amanda Young in the Original ‘Saw’ Trilogy [Exclusive]

Welcome to Mask of Insanity, a recurring feature which will find the men and women behind some of the most indelible slashers and monsters in the genre chatting about the craziest times they’ve had behind latex or resin. These tales will allow readers insight into the wild world of horror filmmaking, while hopefully providing fans with a few laughs and shudders along the way.

With this installment, actress Shawnee Smith recounts her time as Saw fan favorite Amanda, the sympathetic yet unhinged protégé of series villain Jigsaw. Along the way, she discusses how she was first cast in the role, some crazy/funny times on set while making the first film and its sequels, and her ultimate feelings on the films and their legacy.

It’s a fun peek behind the curtain of an iconic modern horror franchise, and it’s one we hope you enjoy!

“My manager, Brian Wilkins, was at a management company with Mark Burg and Oren Koules,” Ms. Smith reveals, discussing how the role of Amanda came to her. “They also produced, and they financed [Saw], so it was kind of circulating. I guess James Wan was a fan of mine from when he was young, so they asked me to do it. I had just gotten through a divorce, life was kind of tough, and so I get the script and read it and it was just like … I just said, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so flattered to be asked. But I just don’t think I can live this out right now. I feel like I just lived that out. You know, I was tired.

“And they said, ‘Listen, just meet us at the office. We want to show you the scene that you’d be doing.’ Because that’s what they’d filmed, with [Saw co-creator/actor Leigh Whannell] in the jaw trap to get the movie made. So I said, ‘Okay.’ I sit in this conference room, it was me and a bunch of men at this huge conference table, and we watched the jaw trap scene with Leigh. And first of all, I was pretty flattered being there, surrounded by a bunch of men at the big conference table. Then I saw the scene and I was just like, ‘Holy shit! I want to do that!’

“You know, it was such a bitchin’ scene. The way [Saw director James Wan] filmed it, it was so wild. I said, ‘Okay, okay! I’m in, I’m in!’ They shot the whole movie in eighteen days. I filmed for one day, and I had the flu that day. I had a 102 degree temperature, and I just put it all to use in the scene. It was great, you know? I made it work for me.”

Did Smith have any inkling, based on the filming, that she’d return to the role of Amanda again and again after the first film’s success? “No, listen, you never have an idea. There have been great movies made, and they just don’t catch for some reason. Every time you make a movie, you’re like, ‘I hope people get it. I hope it’s a success.’ Especially movies like these, where you film them for a million dollars. It’s so rare, right? I don’t know how many hundreds of millions of dollars this franchise has made now. But you knew the script was good, you knew nobody knew the twist at the very end. There’s always the hope, but you never know.

“So when you shoot something like this, you just kind of love the filmmaker or the script, and you do it and hope for the best. But I could tell working with James that one day that he was the real deal. I started working when I was eight, so I’ve worked with a lot of directors, and he was like a mad scientist who was also super focused. I think a director comes to it with their shot list, their wishlist, you know? Then it’s this series of what you have to give up. On a shoot like that, sometimes you have to decide super fast. So watching his mind work at lightning speed, like what shots he could sacrifice, what he needed to get, and then still having that focus combined with that spirit … he’s just one of the best filmmakers, I think. A filmmaker who just loves this stuff. Kind of like you guys at Bloody Disgusting, you know? The best articles come from the fans. James, he makes such great movies ‘cause he’s such a crazy fan. So, it was great on the set, it had a good chance, but you still never know.

“Cut to the Sundance Film Festival. We were watching the first screening, and we were all sitting in the back row. It was the producers, James, Leigh and me. Pretty sure Tobin [Bell] was there. And that ending happened, and the room … I’ve never been in a theater for a moment like that. People lost their ever-loving minds, and we just looked at each other like, ‘Holy shit, this is happening.’ That was, to me, the most historical moment in all my experience with the franchise.”

Saw’s twist ending is legendary, though some audiences weren’t able to catch the film without having it spoiled in advance. Case in point: “I have a friend who lives in Wales. This guy got his ass kicked. There was a line of people around the corner waiting to get [into the movie theatre]. He gave away the ending, and he got assaulted. I mean, first of all, people in Wales are just tough to begin with. He was beaten to a pulp, it was no joke. You couldn’t give away that ending, that wasn’t cool!”

Without a doubt, the Reverse Bear Trap sequence featuring Ms. Smith acted as the centerpiece for Saw’s marketing. Just look at the theatrical poster, or how the sequence is prominently displayed in the trailer. As she noted, she was ill during filming, so one wonders if that presented any problems for her during that iconic scene’s making.

“No, I mean, I made it work for it. What was hard is that the thing was super heavy and crudely made, and it was loose on my head. I had to hold it in place. I mean, there’s only one way to do a Saw movie, and that’s balls to the wall. If you do any trap … I remember watching Mpho [Koaho, ‘Timothy Young’ in Saw III] on the trap where it twisted his limbs and then finally twisted his head. Watching him do that scene was just like ultimate horror film acting.

The infamous needle pit in ‘Saw II’ (2005)

The needle pit scene [from Saw II] I was dreading, coming up to it. But I knew all I had to do was just get in it and look for the key and it would take care of itself, because it was just such a horrific situation. So in a way, those scenes are easy to act. As an actor, you can always use what exists. That could be anything. There could be any material of the day going on, but if you’re smart you’ll use it all for what you’re filming at that moment.

“So I could use the being sick part, but the practicality of flinging my body around [with the reverse bear trap], which was the only way I could do it … I mean, I couldn’t half do it, being careful. We were like, ‘What are we going to do?’ So they rigged a thick tongue depressor into the back between my mouth and the back of what was in front of my teeth. I literally held that thing with my teeth. Luckily, I have jaws of steel, and that’s how I held that thing in place while I flung my head and body about. That’s how you do a million dollar budget horror movie!”

Beginning as early as the first sequel, fans could see that a hallmark of the Saw series would be its complex continuity and labyrinthine plotting. In Saw II, Jigsaw survivor Amanda is drawn into another deadly game, this time playing alongside several others while trapped inside of a house full of lethal traps. However, the now-expected last minute twist reveals that Amanda has become Jigsaw’s protégé, and will take his place once he’s gone.

“You know, the funny thing, the crazy thing, is that you can go back and watch them and just see how intricately it’s all connected. But that stuff was not thought out ahead of time. Darren Bousman had this script [The Desperate], that was adapted to fit the Saw world for the sequel, for II. With Amanda, I made a lot of choices intuitively that, looking back over all of them, it’s as if I knew ahead of time how things were going to end up. But I didn’t. So that really blows my mind how well it all does connect, and the character choices.”

One standout sequence in Saw II is the needle pit scene, which finds Amanda tossed into a hole filled with thousands upon thousands of used syringes. The scene is nightmarish for viewers, but what must it have been like filming that moment? Were there any phobias triggered by this particular scene?

“No, I just had a phobia of acting that out. It’s just the kind of actor I am. You know, when I have memories in life, some of my memories are from parts I’ve played. I mean, I guess it’s not that crazy because if you dream, your emotions go with the dream. So it feels like it’s real when you’re in a dream. I guess that’s part of … if God gives you the talent to be an actor, part of that is what they call actor’s imagination. So you kind of believe what you’re imagining. So as far as some of the senses in your body, and your memory, and your mind and emotion, it was like you lived it out. So that’s like when I read the first Saw movie, I read that scene and was like, ‘Oh man, I just, I can’t live that out right now. I’m just not ready.’ You know?

“So the phobia of the needle pit was just living it out, getting through it, getting to the other side of it. Plus, I was four months pregnant. Nobody knew except the wardrobe, our costumer. It’s funny, because that’s what informed what I was telling you. So many of the choices where you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s so cool, how they connect it all.’ It’s as if we thought ahead, you know? How I ended up with that short hair and the kind of hospital clothes and things over my wrists, I pushed those character ideas because I knew I was pregnant and I didn’t want to tell anyone, because I really wanted to do the movie.

“I wanted to really do it, and not have everybody walking on eggshells and nervous around me. Like, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that.’ I knew the baby would be safe. Obviously, I wouldn’t put the baby in danger. But, you know, a bunch of men around me … it would have been a different movie, if I did it at all. But I didn’t know how quick I might show, or what might happen to my body. So I was like, ‘I need a little wiggle room.’ [Laughs] So we did hospital clothes, and it ended up as a super cool character beat. You know, when you look back, that’s just kinda how the whole series went. Maybe in some alternate universe, it was all planned out, and lived out, and we just tapped into it. Who knows? I don’t know. But it’s a trip!”

By the time we reach Saw III, we find a fully formed Amanda, having progressed from victim to protégé, from protégé to full-on villain. Though she commits some heinous acts in the film, she’s nevertheless a multifaceted and surprisingly sympathetic character. Does Ms. Smith believe that her intuitions and choices regarding her character in the previous film more predicted or informed where Amanda would ultimately go in this sequel?

“Definitely informed, for sure. But there was something in that first line in Saw when Amanda says, ‘He helped me.’ There was something in that, their relationship … you know, we all got amped on the Shakespearian ending where everybody dies. I remember the moment that presented itself, and we were all like, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s amazing!’ In hindsight, if I could go back and redo that one, I would have continued. I thought the relationship between John and Amanda was pretty interesting, the male and the female of this one kind of killer/redeemer/philosopher.

Saw III to me was a love story. It would have been really interesting to explore that relationship, but it kind of limited things when we all died at the end of III, and I don’t know how you would explore beyond that. So I was kind of bummed.

“I remember Leigh telling me after Saw, when everyone knew we were going to do a sequel, he was like, ‘You know, Amanda should be turned into the supervillain.’ I was like, ‘I’m not that actress. I have to approach a character from the inside out, or it’s just totally painful, excruciatingly painful for me to be acting an idea, or trying to.’

“It was like when I entered in Saw III and I had to work off of Bahar [Soomekh, ‘Lynn Denlon’ in III] in that wheelchair. You know, she’s nearly twice my size! She’s super strong. I’m like, ‘…the hell am I going to…?’ I couldn’t walk in there skulking in the robe and the hood, and then dominate her with my physicality. I mean, I’m like 5’3, a hundred pounds, y’know? So I look at that acting problem and I go, ‘Okay. I don’t want to make a fool of myself, and I don’t want to feel like a fool, so how can we do this so that we get the essence of that, the vibe of that?’ So I came in wearing John’s hoodie. It gave me a hood over my head, but I was carrying groceries, I’d just been grocery shopping, but it gave the effect of skulking.

“Then I get to Bahar, I get a weapon and I have fun with it, because I have the upper hand that way. So that’s kind of how I have to approach things. In hindsight, especially after all these superhero movies that’s come out since then, I kinda wish I could go back and just be like a supervillain. It’s a fun idea. But the relationship with Amanda and John to me was the most interesting aspect. That’s not because I played Amanda. I just think a lot of people connected with that, especially a lot of young women. The young women that connect with Amanda, they connect with each other. And I love them all.”

Shawnee Smith as Amanda in ‘Saw III’ (2006)

During a key sequence in Saw III, Amanda is revealed to have been acting as an abductor on John’s behalf, clad in a red robe and pig mask. Is it hard to work with a heavy latex mask pulled over your head? “[Laughs] Well, it’s kind of hard to see where you’re going, who you’re abducting! Those were kind of quick moves, like ‘Brush the camera.’

“The real fight stuff, the fight scene … I can’t believe it, Donnie Wahlberg and me, we were totally robbed. We didn’t even get nominated for MTV’s Best Fight Award,” Ms. Smith laughs, referencing a brutal sequence involving Amanda engaging in a knock-down-drag-out fight with corrupt detective Eric Matthews [Wahlberg]. “That was the first thing I filmed on Saw III. Donnie loves his fight scenes. I mean, he basically directed that scene with the stunt guy. I remember him telling me to do it at half speed. He’s like, ‘It’s going to feel really funny, but when you watch it, you’ll see how it works.’ So sure enough, we did it, and I guess with all of the adrenaline you have going … man, we just went for it.

“We were both down for fighting, as bloody as we could get. We should’ve gotten nominated and won, ‘cause that was an epic fight scene. You have to watch the director’s cut to really see the whole thing.

“As far as filming, I think the funniest story was the last scene that Tobin and I were doing, the last scene we filmed together in Saw III. It was what he calls the initiation, or the baptism scene. You know, where he’s kind of moving in a circle around me. Very serious, and Tobin’s a very serious actor. So there’s not a whole ton of goofing around, whereas Darren Bousman is like goofball central. That was funny, watching the two of them. Tobin and I worked great together because we’re both somewhat method in our rehearsals, just spending time together walking the streets of Toronto, having philosophical conversations because we figured that’s what John and Amanda did.

“So this was the last scene, and I was trying to do a whoopee cushion/fart joke with Tobin. I had this old school whoopee cushion and it kept not firing, so to speak, the way that I was planning to do it. So Tobin, he’s looking at me like … he was so hurt. Like, where did I go? I wasn’t present with him, and that meant everything to him. Finally, he just gets close to me and he says, ‘Shawnee, where are you?’ And I just hit the floor. I just burst out laughing. I said, ‘Tobin, but I’ve been trying to do a whoopee cushion/fart joke for the last half hour, and it’s not working, so just forget it! I’m just not even going to try, okay?

“I gave up on the joke, it never worked. Then we did the scene, and I connected with him. He could care less about the fart joke. But you know, Darren was done. He was so disappointed it didn’t happen. He was pretty excited about it. He was in on any kind of tomfoolery shenaniganery.

“I got him pretty good,” Ms. Smith reveals, referencing her director. “He was so stuck up about no boiled eggs on the set. So I found a couple, and I shoved them in … you know the bag on the side of the director’s chair for your script? So I just kind of shoved them down there and got them all messy at the very bottom. So for like two days, he’s like, ‘I smell it! I smell it! Where’s that smell coming from?!’ It was like, ‘Oh, we don’t know what you’re talking about, Darren.’

“Finally, he found the rotting boiled eggs in the side bag on his director’s chair. He had that coming! You can’t tell people who want boiled eggs on a set they can’t have them!”

In wrapping up our chat, Ms. Smith reflects back on her time as Amanda in the Saw franchise, and what it’s meant to her and her career. “I just feel incredibly lucky to be a part of film history. I mean, it’s like winning the lottery, you know? If you look at percentages in a career, even though I’ve had a long one … it’s such a crazy, delightful thing to be a part of. To be a part of movie history. I’m just so grateful for that, because it’s really just luck. So I just think that’s pretty cool.”

Special Thanks to Shawnee Smith for her time and stories!


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