Over the course of her relatively short career (she’s only 27), Mary Elizabeth Winstead has turned in a string of solid supporting turns in films that never really merited her talents (“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” anyone?). That changes this Friday with the release of her Sundance hit, “Smashed.”
In the indie drama, Winstead finally takes the lead in a performance that’s been earning awards buzz since its debut earlier this year in Park City. Directed by James Ponsoldt, “Smashed” centers on Kate (Winstead), a married elementary school teacher, who also happens to be an alcholic. The film charts her road to recovery (while her husband, played by Aaron Paul, watches on from the sidelines), following an incident at her school that forces her to lie to her superior.
“It’s one thing for an actor to convey drunkenness by merely stumbling around the set and slurring words,” wrote Eric Kohn of her performance in his review of “Smashed.” “Winstead does more than that. Her eyes are always darting forward, not quite there, searching for clarity about the world that constantly eludes her. The character is a mess of arms and legs jutting forward, sometimes enraged, elsewhere grasping for the correct response to each barrier placed in front of her. Like the onscreen alcoholics before her, she makes the case that this particular disease exists within the nuances of behavior.”
Indiewire sat down with Winstead in New York to discuss the breakthrough performance, her Sundance experience, and what she makes of all the industry chatter.
You’re from Salt Lake City. Sundance must have been quite the homecoming for you.
Yeah. I grew up in Sandy, which was kind of just outside Salt Lake City. So that was always a big dream of mine, to go to Sundance. I would go as a teenager and just kind of walk around and look at the outside of the theater and stuff, when people were there for the festival. And it was always just a huge, huge goal of mine to have a film there, so that was big. I remember getting the call that we had gotten into Sundance and I was just screaming and jumping all around my house. It was a very big deal. It’s just such a weird, emotional thing. When the opening credits came on I was already crying. I cried through the whole film and cried through the Q&A. I was kind of a mess.
What was it like to go to Park City with this film in particular? The film features what is, no doubt, your toughest performance yet.
It was huge, because it was such a personal film for me. Figuring out how to play the character and sort of going through that was very personal. Showing it to the world you feel like you’re showing everybody your diary or something. It’s kind of an emotional thing, so yeah, it was a big deal. And just hearing the audience respond to it the way that they did — because I had no idea if people would like it as much as I did — was a huge deal. There were people who had actually been through AA or people who were in recovery that stood up and who were like, “You just told my story on screen.” That was huge.
Did you feel like you had to prove something in taking “Smashed” on?
I felt like I had to prove something to myself, because I think like a lot of actors I sat around for years and years going, “Man! If I could just get that role that showcases what I could do, then everything would change.” But I was so complacent about it. I wasn’t really doing anything to make sure that happened. So by the time this time in my career rolled around, I was ready to just go out there and do it for myself. It wasn’t really about showcasing something for other people anymore. It was just to the point where I wasn’t feeling good about what I was doing. Not that I wasn’t happy to have the jobs that I had, and the work that I had — I was very grateful and happy to do it — but I wasn’t feeling like I was stretching as an actor, or growing as a person, so I felt like I needed to do something just for myself. Just to prove that I could stretch beyond my perceived limitations.
And what gave you the confidence that you could do it?
Oh my god…Taking it on was really scary. Once I read the script, I was like, “I gotta get this part! This is the thing I need to do.” And then when I got it, it was really scary, because I actually had no idea if I could do it or not. I really didn’t. So, just working with James, and having him be so open to my ideas — he was a total collaborator with me on everything and that really made me feel like he trusted me. He trusted my ideas, that they were good ideas. And I had so much faith in him as a director and the fact that he had faith in me made me feel like, “OK, if he’s putting his trust in me, it must be for a reason. I’m just gonna kind of trust my instincts and go with it.” And, yeah, the fact that I did it, and that I was happy with the outcome has boosted my confidence a lot.
Did you have to audition for the role, or did he just offer it to you?
I did. I did a tape. I sent in a tape of just a bunch of different scenes from the film. And I was very lucky, because I was the only person they saw for it, and they just sort of hired me off of that, which was an incredible thing. I was very prepared to be put through the wringer. Because any time I’ve auditioned for a big role in a film, it’s like, they want you to audition, and come back in different wardrobe, and come back again like this, and come back and read with this person and this person. And they do it like eight times before they realize that, “Oh, never mind. You’re not right for the part.” So I was much more expecting something like that.
Especially with a role of this nature. I can imagine so many actresses vying for the part.
Of course! I still can’t believe that they didn’t sort of say, “Well, she’s good, but let’s just make sure we cover our bases and see what else is out there.” They just went, “We like her. Let’s do it. Let’s make a movie with her.”
There are so many challenging aspects to the role, but no doubt the most diffcult must have been playing drunk. How did you pull that part of the role off?
Yeah. It’s scary. And when I did it for the audition, luckily I did it well enough that I was able to get hired off of it. But I still didn’t feel like it was quite right.
Did you take any shots prior to shooting the tape?
I didn’t. I can’t even remember what I did for the audition. I acted drunk, which, you know, I guess I approximated it well enough to get the part. But it still wasn’t quite where it needed to be for me to do the film. So James had read this book called “The Power of the Actor,” by Ivana Chubbuck — who’s this great acting teacher in LA — and one of the chapters in the book is about playing drunk. So she has some really great exercises for it. So we really just kind of relied on those acting techniques to do it. I’m just really lucky that it turned out well. Because it’s just so so easy to screw up.
What was the one that worked best for you? I interviewed Isla Fisher for “Bachelorette” and she said that Kirsten Dunst recommends standing in a spot and spinning.
Yeah. I did that, too. Her exercises are almost kind of like hypnosis, like, you close your eyes and you take yourself through every single step of what it feels like to be drunk, starting with taking the first sip of alcohol. And you can’t skip anything. You have to go through every little detail. And then once you’ve gone through it, you open your eyes and you feel very off balance. Very loose and kind of buzzed a little bit. It’s just sort of like a mind game that you play with yourself.
And then on top of it, to stay in it, I would do physical things like that. I would spin around in circles. I would look at the ground and spin in circles all day long. Or I would just do crazy things like roll around on the ground and jump up and do kung fu moves. I just wanted to feel sort of insane, you know? Just feel like when you’re really drunk and you just do ridiculous things for no reason. I would just do stuff like that. And Aaron and I would do stuff like that together in between takes. We’d be on the ground wrestling each other and hitting each other — acting like seven-year-olds, basically.
About you and Aaron — you two have amazing chemistry in the film. What did you two do to get to there together?
Well we didn’t have a lot of time, which was kind of scary going into it, because you want to bring a history, and so ideally I think we would have spent a lot more time together leading up to it, but we actually didn’t have that. So we got together one night before we started shooting — and James was actually our designated driver — and we went out drinking together, because we wanted to sort of forge that bond and get that dynamic going of what this couple is like when they’re drunk together, and what we’re like when we’re drunk together. And it was only our second time meeting, but we got sort of plastered (laughs).
Yeah, it was just one night of it, and then we were able to sort of set that aside and just act the rest of it. But it was a good way to sort of break down all the boundaries of getting to know a person because we saw each other at our worst right off the bat. I think we immediately felt pretty close after that and we were able to just kind of go into it open, like, we are this couple, we’re gonna sort of be there for each other as actors and be open to anything at all times. I think we both went into it with that same mindset and it helped us make it very real to us.
Since “Smashed” played at Sundance, you’ve been courting this amazing wealth of buzz. Has it had an effect on your career? Do casting directors see you differently?
I think it’s slowing shifting. People are slowly seeing the movie, but not everyone has seen it yet. I mean my hope is that a lot of young filmmakers will see it and be inspired to make more films like this and, you know, will want to work with me, because that’s really who I want to work with — kind of new interesting people who are forging their own vision and want to sort of go on their own road in this industry. That was why I took this film to begin with, was to try and get in that world.
I feel like the industry is sort of changing and there’s got to be a sort of revolution happening, and I want to be a part of that. I’d like to do a lot more small, performance focused films.
I know it seems silly to even talk about it, but what do you make of the Oscar talk surrounding your performance?
It’s so funny. I mean it’s fantastic. I think it’s beyond what any of us expected or were thinking about when we made the film. I mean, certainly for me, when I did it, I wasn’t really thinking about my career much at all. What I did think was, “Well maybe I’ll finally start doing indie films.” So that was really all I expected to come from it. Or, “Maybe I’ll actually get to be at Sundance.” Never in a million years did I think it would get Oscar buzz or anything like that. That’s so far away and above what I imagined. At this point it’s already better than anything I could have hoped for, so I’m just gonna have a good time. Just having that word uttered is an amazing thing. I’ll take that.