“I thought for a long time, we could never make this film. We couldn’t cast it,” Friedkin said. “We threw out a net for about 2,000 young girls. And we couldn’t find anybody who could even handle the subject matter.”
From his office at 666 Fifth Avenue in New York (an ironic address if ever there was one), Friedkin and Blatty had given up and started auditioning actresses who were in their late teens. Then 13-year-old Linda Blair and her mother came in without an appointment, hoping to get a shot at the part.
At that point, most of Blair’s experience had been modeling clothes for advertisements.
“She sat down with her mother, and I said, ‘Linda, do you know anything about The Exorcist?’” Friedkin recalled. “She said, ‘Yeah, I read the book. It’s about a little girl who gets possessed by the devil and then does a whole bunch of bad things.’
“I said, ‘Like what? What kind of things does she do?’” he said, testing her.
She told him: “‘Well, she hits her mother across her face. And she pushes a man out her bedroom window. And she masturbates with a crucifix.’”
This was the moment in the story that caused more angst than any other, and remains a deeply controversial part of the movie (even though the scene is shot from behind, so a stand-in could be used.)
“I look over and her mother is smiling,” Friedkin says. “I asked, ‘Do you know what that means?’ She said, ‘Yes, it’s like jerking off, isn’t it?’”
When the director took a deep breath and asked if she even knew what that meant, she replied: “’Sure. Don’t you?’”
“She was the only one of all the young girls I felt would not be destroyed by this experience,” Friedkin says.
Still, he says, he tried to keep the set light and jokey during her most intense scenes, to alleviate any residual weirdness for her.
“If she was bothered by it during production, the rest of the cast couldn’t function and nor could the crew,” he said. “In the dailies, you’d see after every take, where she’s saying the most horrific things, I’d say cut, and then one of the prop men would hand her a milkshake and she’d be laughing. The whole thing to her was a game.”