Note: The below interview contains plot spoilers for The Neon Demon.
The Neon Demon is a hugely divisive film that for me was never less than a fascinating watch. Love him or loathe him, Nicholas Winding Refn takes things to extremes that most other filmmakers wouldn”t dare; in Neon Demon specifically, the late-second and third acts are full of moments both shocking in their audacity and striking in how they manage to lure us in even as they repel us. Chief among these is a scene involving Jena Malone”s makeup artist Ruby and a blond female cadaver that gets very uncomfortable very fast.
The more obvious, and equally valid, approach here would be to reach out to Refn and/or Malone to discuss the mechanics of an incredibly disturbing, button-pushing scene, and yet — as someone perpetually fascinated by those who occupy the lower rungs on the Hollywood power ladder — I was more interested in talking to the actress who played the stiff. So I did.
Her name is Cody Renee Cameron. She hails from Illinois and moved to Los Angeles in 2011 to pursue a career as a model, actress and singer (the candy-coated video for her debut single “#BDS” — i.e. “Big D**k Swagger” — is now available to watch on YouTube). Since that time she”s played roles as varied as Topless Woman (Six Degrees of Everything), Hooker in Tree #2 (Tosh.0), Mohawk Girl (Dito Montiel”s upcoming The Clapper) and, yes, even a few characters with names. But no part she”s played is as infamous as Embalmed Female Corpse in Refn”s bloodsoaked, Cannes-booed horror film, which centers on a 16-year-old aspiring model (Elle Fanning) who becomes an object of envy and obsession as she swiftly rises to the top of the L.A. modeling world.
I spoke to Cameron via phone last week about what it was like to play a corpse for one of cinema”s premier enfant terribles, why she ended the day covered in Jena Malone's saliva and what the surprisingly-competitive audition process was like (she had to beat out “hundreds” of other women for the role of a dead person). Below is a lightly-edited version of our conversation.
I think it”s a really interesting scene, and obviously a very disturbing one, and I wonder what it was like to be there, and to be in your role specifically.
Originally, the scene wasn”t even going to be all that. Originally it was just, Jena was gonna come in and uncover me and kind of touch me and kiss me. And then my hand falls down, and that”s when we cut to Elle [Fanning]. And then we got there, and — it sounds silly to say [there was] chemistry between Jena and I and Nicholas — but if it had been a different girl laying there I think it would have been a little different. Cause you know, I”m super outgoing, and I”m used to doing a lot of stuff naked, like I worked for Playboy and all these other things. So it kinda gave Jena a freedom to do these other things.
And she felt like that”s where the character was going, and Nicholas loved it. And so it just kept going further and further…a lot more than had ever been written in the script. So that was really awesome to know that I was — you know, it”s such a small part, but it was so awesome to be a part of a really intricate scene that kind of changed the script a little bit.
Was the original idea that she just kissed you and then it cut away and there was an implication that she went further, or was it literally that she stopped at the kiss?
I”m not sure exactly what Nicholas had in mind. I think it was implied a little bit. You know, like you saw a deeper part of Jena and her sexuality and the whole scene is about loneliness and that desire to feel something from somebody. You know, that you go to that extent to go get it. So it”s just really, really dark…sitting there and watching it with everybody in the theater, and hearing everybody go, ‘oh” or ‘ah!” — especially [the part where Malone] spit[s] in [my] mouth — I think everybody…got a little turned on, and realized, ‘everybody”s got a little bit of necromancy love inside of them.” [Laughs]
You think that”s why people had that reaction? Do you think that most people were surprised that it aroused them in some way?
I think it”s shocking, like there”s a shock value to it, and it”s disturbing. But I think it”s kind of like …’oh, that”s terrible,” but a part of you, your dark nature there, is like, ‘I don”t know, a part of me kind of liked it.” You know what I mean?
You”re watching these terrible things, but you can”t look away. Your human nature is intrigued or your interest is piqued.
What does that feel like sitting in the theater and hearing that reaction as the person in the scene?
That was the first time I had ever seen myself on a big screen, so there was just a lot going on for me…I was just watching it with my hands over my mouth in shock. It was really cool and exciting and it was so beautifully done. You get nervous, like, ‘oh, what”s it gonna look like?” Obviously I didn”t want it to have like a porn feel to it, and it didn”t. It was so artistically done. The cinematography is just incredible in that film.
Going back to the beginning, did you have to audition? How did you get the role?
Yeah, I had to beat out hundreds of girls to be that girl. So I went to an audition at a casting place and they had you come in in a bikini and kind of talk to you and get a feel for your personality and then they asked me to lay on the ground, and then they kind of f***ed with me. They would ike touch me and yell in my face and watch if you could play dead through all that. And then watch your breathing. It was kinda cool to know that — I feel like I”m like the best dead girl that can get f***ed with in Hollywood.
Why a bikini?
Just to show — they wanted to see your body. A lot of auditions, they don”t ask you to come in and de-robe on the first audition.
I wonder if part of that too was to show that you were comfortable enough. If you're comfortable to show up at an audition in a bikini, you might be comfortable enough to actually participate in a scene like that.
Yeah, there”s definitely a lot of conversations that go on. Different people have different levels of comfortability. And a lot of times you go to auditions for things that you wouldn”t be comfortable with. You”re just there to see…yeah, they definitely want to make sure it”s something that”s incredibly comfortable because you know, if they chose an actress that wasn”t comfortable then Jena wouldn”t have had all those liberties, you know?
There was a lot — she didn”t just spit in my mouth. She kind of spat all over me, and then obviously there was a lot of grinding. She was sobbing by the end of the scene. And it was like — the electricity in the room was incredibly emotional, incredibly heightened.
Did you get emotional as well?
Yeah. I mean, we shot that over and over and over. To get seconds worth of film, you”re shooting for hours. So I was laying on a cold steel table in the morgue for probably four to six hours. Didn”t move, didn”t get up once, to preserve exactly where I was. Yeah, she would come in and we”d shoot, and then we”d change camera lens, and we”d shoot over and over and over. Yeah, there”s so much emotion involved. And it takes you to a really dark place, I think, inside.
You mentioned the moment where she spits in your mouth. Did she tell you she was gonna do that?
As you”re shooting — originally she kind of just touches me and kisses me, and as the hours go on it gets more and more and more. So I think…I think he directed her to do that, I believe. I”m not exactly sure. But I”m pretty sure he said, ‘spit in her mouth.” I heard him say that, so I knew it was coming. And then they liked the way it looked, so then you see the spittle when she pulls back. That was a look we were going for. So it was like, let”s do this over and over…more, more, more. There was a lot of that direction going on. I mean, by the end my face was pretty wet. [Laughs]
Did you have any reservations at any point shooting this or auditioning for this, or were you all in all the way for the entire experience?
No, honestly, I have so much respect for Nicholas and the whole cast, and the way everything was handled was so graceful. I really didn”t. I knew that he would do a good job with it. So I was on board for anything.
Was he there when you auditioned?
Nope, it was just — they tape it.
What was your first experience meeting him like?
I was a little nervous. Again, that was the first big thing I”d done, and I hadn”t really — I”d been around a lot of famous people, a lot of big directors — but I haven”t worked for them. I”ve been at parties with them, I haven”t worked for them. So I was ecstatic. He”s a little intimidating, you know? He”s foreign and artistic people are kind of a certain way. I was a little intimidated. But Jena is so warm and friendly, and again the conversations we had just made — it was a closed set. So we had a conversation with just Jena and Nicholas and I sitting there, about what was gonna take place, and what everybody was comfortable with. And he just made me feel — you know, I was only on set for a day, but they made me really feel incredibly comfortable.
Did you get a chance to hang out with Jena at all before you guys went onto the set and got set up, or was it really just like on the day you were thrown into it?
I was in hair and makeup for a couple hours before that, just sitting with four people working on me, because they had to do full body makeup to make it look like a corpse, and then a prosthetic where the corpse had been cut open and then sewn back up, and she came into hair and makeup right next to me for a little bit, so I mean we got to exchange a few sentences, but that was about it. We didn”t really get to talk much beforehand at all. And then obviously in the scene I”m not talking. [Laughs]
That must have been really difficult to lie there that entire time and to restrain your breathing as the camera”s rolling, and not laugh or smile. I mean, that had to have taken a huge amount of self control.
Yeah, I actually watched a lot of YouTube tutorials beforehand on the best way to play dead in Hollywood, but when you”re actually in the scene — again, as a dead person, it sounds so silly, but you really get into your character. I took all these acting classes that teach you how to go somewhere, and I really just went to kind of a dead place. And it really wasn”t hard at all, especially because it wasn”t being called for.
And Jena…was so lost in her character that I had to do my part, otherwise her part gets lost. Like if I”m breathing or if I laugh or something, then that whole take is trash. And I have way too much respect for them to do that. So that part actually came really easy to not laugh or smile. Although after the takes cut, I definitely had some comments, you know, like ‘oh, there”s spit in my mouth, let”s get this out.”
Did you go into a meditative state when you were lying there?
Mmmhmm. That”s a good description.
How did you feel when you first saw yourself all made up as a corpse? Was that a weird experience?
Yeah, I”ve done full body paintings before and I”ve had a lot of weird costumes and makeup. But it is crazy to look down at your skin as if you were dead. I think it was really chilly, the table that I was laying on was really cold. And so that kind of makes your skin even more dead, you know, this like dead, cold feeling, like clammy.
This is my last question. It sounds funny to give notes to someone who”s playing a corpse, but what notes did Nicholas give you throughout that process, if any?
He really didn”t tell me anything. Cause again, you”re lying still and it”s sort of no problem with the breathing…he really didn”t say a lot. Jena”s character, there”s so much to say for her. So I felt the scene is all about her. I felt like I was doing my part just by staying still.
You can follow Cody on Instagram here.