Every year, Sundance provides a massive career boost to a handful of people. Sometimes it’s a total newcomer — think of Carey Mulligan or Elizabeth Olsen in recent years — who suddenly find themselves on every casting wishlist around. And sometimes it’s a more established performer, who gets to show a different side of their abilities, and suddenly find themselves with more opportunities than ever before — of late, Mo’nique and John Hawkes come to mind. And this year in Park City, one of the names that seems to be on everyone’s lips is Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
Best known for her roles in “Death Proof” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” Winstead has been a familiar face for some time, but has often struggled to break out of the genre bracket she landed in after debuting in “Final Destination 3.” But the actress is drawing rave reviews for her lead turn in “Smashed,” from director James Ponsoldt, in which she stars as a schoolteacher who finally decides to confront her alcoholism, only to find her relationship with her husband (Aaron Paul of “Breaking Bad“) put to the test. The film, and Winstead’s performance, has been one of the best received of the festival (including our A-grade review), and we managed to sit down with Winstead at the festival to talk about the project, her process in playing such a dark role, and her upcoming films, which include Roman Coppola‘s “A Glimpse Inside The Mind Of Charles Swan III” with Charlie Sheen and the summer tentpole “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”
This role, coming on the heels of “The Thing”…
It’s a little different!
Yeah. It’s incredibly intense. How did you get your head space to align with the character?
Well, I collaborated with James [Ponsoldt, the director] a lot. He was fantastic, and really wanted to help me figure it out. I’m used to figuring out things on my own, so it was nice. We had a couple of weeks leading up to the shoot, got together every day and we just talked about the character and about my life. We found through hours and hours of talking all of the ways that my life and Kate’s life match up, even though on the surface they seem nothing alike. Bringing as much of myself to her as I could, and the fact that James really wanted, that was really exciting for me. He really wanted for me to bring my problems and my faults and all of the things that were good about me and everything to it.
Speaking of bringing your personal baggage to the role, Aaron he mentioned that you and he were both encouraged to bring personal items on the set. What kind of stuff did you bring?
I brought an old blanket from my childhood that has ballerinas on it. It’s like pink and purple. The house was so mismatched, as far as set design, that it kind of worked having these weird child-like objects in there. I brought old books, knickknacks, mostly things from my childhood that meant something to me.
I was gong to say that must have evoked a very disorienting kind of sense memory.
Even just holding onto something that means something to you, or seeing somebody that means something to you, can bring up a lot of emotions, and things that are easier to connect to, then having nothing there from your actual world.
One of the big things I find fascinating about the role is the dynamic with your character and your AA sponsor and your fellow teacher, Nick Offerman’s character. How did you research that kind of thing? How did you get into the AA circle?
I was really lucky that the film was co-written by someone who is a recovering alcoholic and is in AA, also one of our producers is as well. So I was really welcomed into that world. I went to AA meetings with them, and saw lots of different kinds of meetings, and heard lots of different kinds of stories. It’s something that if I hadn’t gone with them, I don’t know if I would have gone, because I would have felt like a fraud coming in and listening in on these people’s really personal stories. They assured me that it was fine, and I was welcome there. There’s a lot of young women in the meetings that I went to, and some that I totally related to and were talking about things that were totally similar to things in my life, and you kind of realize how an alcoholic is not so far different then yourself. That’s what we wanted to do in the film, make it relatable.
Did you find it difficult to relate to that kind of addictive personality?
At first. When I first signed onto it I was really scared because I don’t have any experience with that. My family, my parents have never had a drop of alcohol in their lives. I’m not a big drinker, no one in my family is. I grew up in Utah, I’ve never really been around in that lifestyle very much. So I thought, how am I going to tap into this? So I really focused less on figuring out how to play an alcoholic and figuring out more, focus more on my own addictions or my own things…the things that I do in my life that are toxic to me.
I mean they’re too personal to talk about, but it could be anything. it doesn’t have to be a substance, it could be a person that you can’t cut out of your life. A relationship that you know is toxic and you keep going back to, things like that.
You just mentioned that you’re from Utah, so you must be kind of used to the temperature here in Park City?
No. Of course I’ve become kind of a pansy because I’ve lived in LA for so long now that it is a shock to my system coming back here. The altitude and the snow and everything. I’m totally not used to this anymore.
You’re working with Roman Coppola on his new film?
I did, yes, a few months ago.
He’s only made one feature [2001’s “CQ”] and it’s a knockout, but what’s the movie like? How would you describe it?
I spent a few days on it, it’s such a tiny part, but it’s such a great group of people that I would have done anything on this film. He’s really close to Jason Schwartzman, who’s a friend of mine, and Aubrey Plaza, and we all kind of just did it because we’re friends and we wanted to work together. So I can’t say that I know a lot about how the film’s going to turn out, because I didn’t see a lot of it, but it’s a crazy imaginative script. It kind of felt like being on a movie set in the ’70s, it had that vibe. He kind of keeps things really fun and exciting. People dressed up in different costumes on the beach, and things that felt really surreal and fun, and I’m excited to see how it turns out.
What’s it’s like taking direction from Roman? He’s always the second unit guy for people like Wes Anderson, he’s rarely the first director.
He’s really enthusiastic and fun and really sweet. He always makes sure to compliment you before he gives direction. It keeps you excited to keep working and do better, because you feel like you’re on the right track and kind of working together to find the right rhythm. He was a really sweet guy and great to work with.
Do you find that his vision is very specific in that way? He has an exact idea in mind or is he more open about taking ideas and going with them?
I guess it’s a little bit of both. I think he would get a couple of takes in that were really specific, and then he’d be open to throwing in other things, even improvising to a very small degree. So he was definitely kind of rolling with the punches and having fun with it, and not being too strict.
Did you work with Charlie Sheen in that movie?
A little. My part is very small. I have a small exchange with Charlie. But most of my stuff was with Kathryn Winnick. He was great, though, totally what I would imagine him to be like throughout his career. Just like a really cool, suave, confident guy. And he was really fun to work with and really professional.
Back to “Smashed,” on the one hand you’re trying to break through to the mainstream, and on the other hand you’re very much interested in exploring this kind of more personal project. Mixing it up, is it easy or difficult to mix and match?
You know it’s been really difficult for me a long time. I got my start doing studio films so I’ve worked my way backwards in a way because I always wanted to do independent films but I got my start in these genre horror type things, and those were the people that noticed me.The independent world didn’t really notice me, so it’s been a real struggle trying to break into this sort of thing. I spent years being told by independent financiers that I wasn’t a big enough name to put in their films. I finally woke up one day, and I was like those aren’t the only kind of independent films that are being made, there are just people out there who want to make good films. And they don’t care how big the names are. It was during Sundance last year that I made that realization. And I finally made some calls and said introduce me to people at Sundance right now, introduce me to people because I want to be here next year, and it’s kind of amazing how it worked out. The first person I met was Jonathan Schwartz who produced the film and it all worked out. Last year, he produced “Like Crazy” and I was like okay, I want to meet those people. And luckily he slipped me the script, and I did a tape, and I eventually met with James and I just feel really grateful that I was able to put this goal in front of me and it was realized. It’s kind of crazy.
What’s next for you?
I have another big action film coming out in the summer, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” It’s going to be a blast. It was so fun to make. I’m Mary Todd Lincoln. It’s totally unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It’s something crazy and fun and I can’t wait to see how it turns out.
— Interview by Simon Abrams