Here’s a fun bit of trivia for the hidden SyFy and Sharknado fans in the audience: When Cassie Scerbo signed on to the first film to play the role of Nova, a bikini-clad bartender turned badass shark slayer, the film actually wasn’t titled “Sharknado” at all. In reality, during its initial development by “mockbuster” specialists The Asylum during 2013, it was going by the much less memorable working title of Dark Skies. It was only because of a subpar, theatrically released alien abduction thriller of the same name that the SyFy project received a new moniker, and the rest is history—the term “Sharknado” exploded into the pop cultural consciousness that summer in a way that was beyond viral. The unexpected success and popularity of that made-for-TV movie has since spawned a host of imitators, along with four direct sequels. The latest, Sharknado 5: Global Swarming, arrives Sunday, August 6 on SyFy.
Personally, I know this series considerably better than most. A review of the initial Sharknado was actually one of the first freelance pieces I ever wrote for Paste back in 2013, and I’ve kept up the tradition through all of the ups (and considerable quantity of downs) since, reviewing each of the subsequent installments: The Second One, Oh Hell No! and The 4th Awakens. I’ve seen firsthand just how charmingly cheap the series can remain, even as its relative budget increases; the ultimate being the time when I got a press screener of The Second One only a week before it aired on TV, only to find that the SFX were completely unfinished. Trust me when I say that you haven’t seen Sharknado until you’ve seen it with wire frame tornadoes, because The Asylum is still desperately finishing FX work a week before the film premieres.
Along the way, Cassie Scerbo has become one of the series’ most popular faces, despite not being part of the central “Fin Shepard” family anchored around Ian Ziering and Tara Reid. Taking a role initially inserted into the first film to provide a little youth and sex appeal, Scerbo has made it her own during reappearances in the third and fourth installments. Now, on the eve of another starring turn in Sharknado 5, she chatted with Paste about the legacy of the series, her experience as an actress and where her bartender-turned-shark mercenary can go from here.
Paste Magazine: Just looking at your most visible early projects like Bring it On and In it to Win It makes me wonder: Did you have a background in gymnastics, or cheerleading?
Cassie Scerbo: Well, I guess that goes to show that stereotypes sometimes get in the way a bit, because I did play a lot of parts like that. I am athletic, but funny enough I was never really a girly athlete, I was more of a tomboy. I played soccer for nine years, and I’ve boxed since I was 17. But I had long, blonde hair and a bubbly personality, so for a long time I was getting cast as gymnasts and cheerleaders. That was the first thing I was excited about in Sharknado—that for once Nova was at least not a cheerleader.
Paste: Had you ever done any genre films? Are you a fan of horror, or sci-fi?
Scerbo: I like horror films, thrillers and psychological thrillers, but Sharknado was the first genre-type project I’d done. I was never that into science fiction until we did Sharknado and I had a chance to visit Comic Con for the first time, become immersed in the culture and meet the fans. Now I love it.
Paste: It sounds like one of the really attractive things about the project for you was that it was just so different from what you’d done before.
Scerbo: Very much so. At 22-years-old, I was so eager to branch out and do something different, and honestly at the time I figured that this shark movie was probably something that no one but my parents, friends and siblings would end up seeing. I was a little hesitant, but then I saw that Ian (Ziering) and Tara (Reid) and John Heard had signed on, and that sounded like an absolute blast to me. I had watched all three of them in TV and film while growing up. The idea of running around with them, killing sharks was so different from anything I’d ever done before; far more outrageous. I think that’s a pretty natural thing to crave as an actor—when you’re on a series, as much as you fall in love with your character, you can’t wait to do something completely different on your hiatus.
Paste: The kind of social media buzz the first movie generated is so hard to replicate. You can try to engineer it, but it almost never works. What do you think it was about Sharknado that made it a sensation?
Scerbo: This question is so difficult because sometimes the x-factor in making something go viral is so hard to deduce. There are so many other films that have tried to replicate it, and it’s just not quite possible. If it was easy to design a pop culture phenomenon like that, they would happen every day.
The name, of course, is so ridiculous that it immediately captures your attention. I remember I couldn’t believe it when they said that’s what they wanted to title the movie. I was on set with Tara, and in between a scene our director [Anthony C. Ferrante, who has also spoken with Paste) came on set and said “Okay guys, I think we know what the actual title of this movie is going to be,” because it was going under a working title of Dark Skies. When I signed on for “Dark Skies,” it just didn’t seem nearly as ridiculous, you know? There’s a difference when you’re in a movie called “Sharknado.” At the time it honestly worried me, but now it’s clear that it was a hugely important choice. After that, one person tweets it out at the right time and place, and it just catches fire.
Paste: What is it like on the Sharknado set? I always imagine it being just a breakneck pace, flying by the seat of your pants, especially in the first movie.
Scerbo: Honestly, the one thing that I’ll never forget about the first one was just how cold we all were when shooting the movie. I had hypothermia from day one of that shoot. We shot it in January, and even though it was California, it was a cold winter. My character in particular is running around in a bathing suit top and cut-off jeans, so I was freezing.
There’s this scene when April’s house is underwater. They built the set inside a pool and said “It’s going to be heated, no worries.” That pool … I don’t know how a pool could possibly be that cold. It was like ocean water imported from Antarctica. They had to get us out every few minutes and put us in front of space heaters because we’re all shaking. Our director Anthony [Ferrante] is such a great guy and was so concerned for the actors, trying to make sure we were all safe. And the cold is like a tradition of all Sharknado shoots now. We shot in Orlando in February and got the coldest streak of weather for the year that Orlando has ever had. I’m from Florida and couldn’t believe how cold it was.
Paste: The character of Nova is a little weird in the first film—she’s attracted to Fin Shepard, but then by the end of the movie she’s being set up as a romantic interest for his son, which is dropped in future installments. Did that strike you as odd?
Scerbo: Not to mention, she says something about David Hasselhoff’s character of Gil Shepard in the third film too! I was like, “Really guys? Does she need to have a thing for every one of the Shepards?” That was weird, but this is Sharknado we’re talking about. We all have learned that nothing is ever going to completely make sense in this franchise. We laugh about those things on set; it’s half the fun of making the movies.
In terms of that relationship though, I think throughout all the movies, all the writers have always wanted Fin and Nova to come back to that original spark of attraction between them. It’s always sort of teased in the background, and fans love the whole Fin/April/Nova dynamic. Of course he’s a good family man and a good husband, but there’s sort of an unspoken thing between them that will never fully go away, and April is aware of it as well.
Paste: When Nova came back for the third film, they had clearly put a lot more thought into her role. Is it safe to assume that you preferred the “veteran sharknado hunter” character that she had become?
Scerbo: Yeah, that’s the main reason I wanted to come back to the franchise. I’d spoken to Anthony before signing on to come back for the third, and I was only interested in doing it if she’d just become a super badass in the interim and had specific intentions in the story. I really wanted there to be something more to her. And they made her so fierce and intelligent, with her own theories on the phenomenon of the sharknados, it was really satisfying.
Paste: How does that evolution continue in Sharknado 5: Global Swarming?
Scerbo: This time, I thought it was so cool that we’re going global, which is something the fans have been wanting for such a long time. We got to shoot all over the world, which was an amazing experience—you almost can’t believe that this franchise actually grew out of the low budget of the first film.
The other thing that is really cool about my role in the fifth one, is that this time Nova has actually formed what is basically an underground army of “Sharknado Sisters” who have specialized in hunting and fighting the sharks. They found a way to top Nova from Sharknado 3 and made her even more hardcore.
Paste: How many more Sharknado movies do you think there could conceivably be? Where is there left to go, except for maybe time travel?
Scerbo: I’ve heard a lot of theories that I’m not allowed to speak on, where it could go or how long it could possibly go. I’ve heard up to 8, I’ve heard up to 10, or this could be the last one, so I have no idea. SyFy has really made this their summer event anchor, though. It’s something that fans get excited for every summer; it’s like their SyFy Super Bowl. So I could see it going for a while, because it’s something people love to take part in. They host watch parties for these movies; where else do you see that with made-for-TV films?
Paste: Post-Sharknado, what’s your dream role? What kinds of characters do you hope to play?
Scerbo:The most important thing for me is always breaking stereotypes whenever I can. So first, it was breaking out of that bubbly cheerleader, poppy role. After this, it will be breaking out of genre type roles, I’m sure. I’m confident that I can play any role that I set my mind to, so I’ll keep trying to step out of the box.
The greatest thing about acting is that it’s basically psychology—you learn so much about people, relationships and various walks of life. For me, whatever role I can take in this lifetime that gives me a chance to research and empathize with a new type of person is what I’m valuing.