Since SXSW 2011, Detention has been going viral. Director Joseph Kahn’s passion project spoofs torture porn horror movies, ‘90s nostalgia and self-referential movies themselves. Newcomer Shanley Caswell leads the film as Riley Jones, a social outcast who nobody believes is being stalked by a killer from a popular movie. She joins Josh Hutcherson as cool kid Clapton Davis and Dane Cook as the school principal. You may have seen her in episodes of “Bones” or “CSI: NY” before. Detention hits theaters in 10 cities April 13, and we got an early interview with Caswell while she was shooting a new James Wan horror movie in North Carolina. That film is under the working titles The Conjuring or The Warren Files. Taking a lunch break from the film’s farmhouse location, the new breakout star told us about her films, her background and her unique name.
CraveOnline: What is it like to do your first press junket?
Shanley Caswell: Oh, I’m still getting used to it all. The interviews are hard for Detention because it feels like I did it so long ago. I’m learning. I’m learning and I’ve got some great peeps helping me out.
Did your costars Josh Hutcherson or Dane Cook give you any tips for handling this?
No. I’m sure Dane would probably say, “Good luck, kid.” Josh would just say, “Hey, it’s no big deal” because he’s just so naturally charming.
I’ve seen Detention three times. How many times have you?
Once at SXSW, once for cast and crew and then once at the Fantasia Film Festival, so three times. We’ve seen it the same amount of times.
How did you hear about auditions for Detention?
They just called me in. They called me in to come in and audition for Riley. I actually had a little bit of food poisoning that day so I couldn’t go in in the morning. I had to go in in the afternoon and I was the last person. Joseph was about to leave and I did my audition and he’s like, “Oh my God, you’re Riley.” I was like, “Oh, really?” Because sometimes you go into an audition and you’ll do what you think the character is, and then if they agree then it’s awesome and you’ll book it maybe and you’ll live happily ever after. But sometimes they don’t agree. It was cool for him to be like, “Oh my gosh, you’re Riley” because what I had chosen was exactly what he was thinking too so we both agreed on it.
When you say they called you in, had your agents heard about an open call for the film?
They were holding auditions for Riley and the casting directors put it up on a website. Then the agents say, “I have this girl who’ll be right for the character.” Then the casting directors look at my picture and say, “Yeah, we’ll bring her in.” Then they call my manager, my manager calls me and then I have the audition.
How many times did you have to read the script?
Two times before I kind of got it.
Did you get every little joke and reference?
I didn’t. I have to admit I still don’t get all of them. I’m working on it. Slowly.
What is your personal level of ‘90s nostalgia?
Since I grew up in the ‘90s, I have the kids’ references. I know all the cartoons of the ‘90s, I know all the teenager references but I wasn’t an adult in the ‘90s so I have to go back and look up a lot of stuff.
You know Hanson though, right?
No, I knew Hanson. Hanson was my thing. Hanson was my jam.
What was the most complex technical setup that Joseph did?
A really hard thing that I knew of was the hanging scene where I hang myself. That was not complex camera-wise. That was just complex because it was a complex stunt. Everything that Joseph did was pretty complex. He didn’t really have any basic shots. It was always tied into other things and cool lighting techniques and stuff like that.
Was that a big education?
Oh yeah, it was. It was for sure. I’ve worked with directors before but he’s a music video director. He’s very visual. It’s the first time that I ever noticed anything about lighting. I never even thought about it before that but it’s really an art form.
Does that change the way you perform when you know the subtleties of lighting?
I try not to think about any of the production side of things. If you do you tend to get unfocused and distracted. I just try to think about the character and the scene and what I’m doing.
What is it about Riley that just makes us root for her the whole time?
Well, I think that everyone sees a little bit of themselves in Riley. Everyone went through that awkward stage in their lives where they’re just figuring themselves out. And she’s just constantly being beaten down throughout the whole movie and then at the end she rises up and kind of becomes the champion. I think people can relate themselves to her. They’re happy she gets to that moment where she’s the triumphant heroine.
When Josh got The Hunger Games did you start bragging that you kissed Peeta?
[Laughs] Well, I actually don’t kiss him in the movie. No, I didn’t. I was very happy for him. He’s such a great guy and a great actor, if anyone deserves it, [he does].
Did you get to go to the premiere?
No, I’m in North Carolina so I didn’t.
Have you seen it yet?
Mm hmm. I did see it this past weekend. It was very good and he did a very good job.
I can’t believe I saw it three times and I thought you had a kiss.
No, that’s what you want to see.
In my personal director’s cut of Detention there’s a kiss.
Yeah, talk to Joseph. Maybe in the sequel.
What were you like in high school?
I had a weird high school because I graduated early when I was 16. I moved out to California but I was only there for freshman and sophomore year and I was a bit of a brainiac. I spent most of the time doing schoolwork and then when I graduated early, I came out to California and there were all these really cool people out in California so I kind of had to step up my game. I spent a lot of my time outdoors and I liked being at the beach and being in the water. So I hung out with people who like that as well.
Were you an acting kid in high school?
I wasn’t actually because I was going to and from California. When I was a freshman I didn’t have that much time for extra-curriculars so I didn’t do any theater stuff. Actually, I didn’t do it with my school. I did theater with this thing called Teen Source. It’s a traveling teen theater company where we have plays about teen issues, drinking and driving, drugs, teen pregnancy, abuse, all that stuff. That’s what took up most of my time, that and coming out to California took up most of my time.
It seems like you really did the episodic circuit on big shows like Bones and CSI: NY. How has that experience been?
It’s been great. It’s always weird when you go on as a guest star to a show because you’re like the odd one out. So there’s some shows that the actors and crews do a really good job in welcoming the guest stars and other shows that don’t do it as much. But it’s a great learning experience because you get to play a lot of different characters and you get to meet a lot of really, really great actors and so I’ve learned a lot.
Are you in school at UCLA now?
I am, I am going to UCLA. I had to take this quarter off to film this movie but I’m starting up again in April though.
What will your degree be?
It’s a bachelor of arts in anthropology.
Will that help you as an actor having that background of humanity?
I think that it definitely could. There’s a lot of reading and writing and learning about other cultures and people, but I think the reason why I wanted to do it was because working in the film industry in L.A. you tend to just think about the film industry and just think about what you’re working on and your characters. You tend to be very introspective a lot, so I wanted to gain some perspective of the world and open my mind and so that’s why I really enjoy anthropology. I think it’ll be a lifelong thing.
Do you still get a chance to get outdoors?
Yes, I do. I do as much as I can. I go hiking, I go camping, I go outside, rock climbing. Anything that can get me outside and into the water, anything like that and also traveling is great too.
What is the origin of your name?
Shanley is actually my mother’s maiden name. My mom’s name used to be Patricia Shanley and they didn’t have a man to carry on the family name so they named me.
Are you the only person with Shanley as a first name?
I wish I was the only person in the world but there some other people. I’ve actually never met someone with the first name but there are many other people who have it as a first name. It’s nice. I never got to have one of those license plates that you get at souvenir shops with your name on it but that’s okay.
Honestly, it’s kind of hard to find Fred at those too.
Really? I don’t believe it. It seems pretty normal to me.
There’s all this talk about Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman. Are you actually in a third Snow White film?
No, that’s my twin. That’s a twin of mine who looks a lot like me, has the same name as me but is not me.
So that’s false IMDB listing. Your next film is The Warren Files/The Conjuring?
Yes, I’m shooting it right now. I actually just saw a teaser trailer for it. They showed the cast and crew right before lunch and it was really scary. It’s really freaky. James Wan knows what he’s doing.
What kind of character do you play in that?
What happens in this movie is my family, the Perron family – and it’s based on a true story, we just met the Perrons the other day – they start experiencing paranormal activity in their house. It gets to a point where it’s just so messed up they can’t do anything about it so they need help. They go to Ed and Lorraine Warren who are actual paranormal investigators. We met Lorraine Warren as well. They’re demonologists. That’s what they do. They come to the house, try to help us out and creepy stuff happens. That’s all I can say.
If you noticed all the lighting techniques Joseph Khan used, what technical things do you notice about James Wan?
Joseph is a lot more very solid shots, quick cuts and very, very visually appealing, very visually kinetic. This one is different. James is more handheld, more raw. It’s more real life than Joseph normally does. So the two styles work for the films that they do, because this story is just eerily creepy. It scares you in the night and feels so real. With Joseph, it’s quick cuts and kinetic to get your heart racing so it’s really different styles.