Hitting rock bottom isn't always the climax of a grand calamity. For Kate in "Smashed," it's an evening that starts in a bar, continues with offering someone a ride home, and ends with her smoking crack and sleeping outside that awakens her to the fact that she might have a problem. When she arrives home, she doesn't have any physical scars, and the night otherwise seemed enjoyable, but it's the shame and fear of where her life could go that shakes her up.
Led by a revelatory turn by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, James Ponsoldt's "Smashed" is a Sundance sensation turned Oscar contender thanks to her performance. The film follows Kate as she tries to navigate a path to sobriety, while wrapped up in a relationship with her husband (Aaron Paul) that has largely revolved around the bottle. We caught up with Winstead at the Toronto International Film Festival last month to talk about the movie. For what is arguably the most complex role she's had in her career, Winstead delved deep and studied hard in order to do the subject matter right.
"I was lucky in that our co-writer as well as one of our producers, they're both in recovery and they're both in AA, and they would take me to AA meetings, and I didn't feel like I was coming into it dishonestly," she shared. "L.A. is a great place to do it, because it's such a big city, and every neighborhood is very specific as far as the different types of people [who live there]. So, every meeting I went to was completely different. I went to one that was like six people, and they were all men in their 60s, totally working class, totally not L.A. Then I went to one in West Hollywood that was a lot of industry people, and I went to a huge women's meeting where everyone was hugging and laughing. And it was great just seeing people share and talk about themselves and talking about their darkest moments in front of bunch of people and having it be totally accepted. It was a honor for me to be a part of that and to see that, and it was a big first step for me into realizing how much I related to their struggle, and how much of a universal struggle it is."
And while observation and participation in AA helped in building the role, so did good old fashioned studying and workshopping, an endeavor she undertook with Ponsoldt. And in particular it helped with one of most difficult, key aspects of the character: playing drunk. "I think we were both really scared about the drunk scenes because it's so easy for that to be just terrible. It's a really hard thing to do, and I've never done it before, so I had no tricks as far as how to make it work," Winstead candidly revealed. "So together we found this coach named Ivana Chubbuck who has this book called 'The Power Of The Actor' and she has a chapter specifically dedicated to playing drunk….We sat in a couple of classes, and we did one of the scenes in her class as well, so we used her method a lot for that. And that was really helpful because we just didn't want it to feel like acting. How do you not act drunk, but not really be drunk? That's a difficult thing to pull off."
But it wasn't just Winstead's commitment to the part, it was the strength of the script as well, and the equal drive by the director that allowed the actress to get comfortable and really tap into Kate. "We really just worked on making the character me in a lot of ways. Instead of changing the character to sort of fit me, we just worked out in every scene how each scene related to something in my life," she explained. "I think it was just such a well written script and the arc and the journey was so well crafted, that it all just made sense. Once I figured how I related to her, I just went 'Oh, this is my journey, this is my life.' And it all just fell into place really beautifully."
And Winstead took all those lessons and insights and ran with them. The character of Kate carries the picture, and in turn, so does Winstead in "Smashed." Calling the part "exciting," and a rare one that allowed her to go on "a complete emotional rollercoaster," the actress acknowledges that the buzz is already opening more doors for her, and giving her more confidence to chase down or audition for parts she might not have before. And the tools she used on "Smashed," she plans on bringing with her for whatever she does next.
"There's are a lot of things I have done in the past just that are acting 101 type [roles], something that every actor who takes acting classes would do and would learn," she reflected. "But there's a lot more specificity and a lot more prep work, like a lot of writing work that you do and character-based stuff that you do [when preparing for a role like this]. And it's the kind of thing I want to continue to do for everything, even if it's a small part, or even if it's a part seemingly not as complex as this one, because I think it just really helps to make it very, very specific and I really, really enjoyed that."
"Smashed" opens in limited release on October 12th.