Taking on the mantel, the jacket and the flamethrower of Kurt Russell’s main character in John Carpenter’s The Thing would seem like a heavy load to bear for anyone, but Mary Elizabeth Winstead shrugged it off rather easily in the prequel. For her it was the same universe but in no way a do-over, and that approach informed her character and her approach. We talked about the movie, the reshoots and some spoilers in our talk. Check it out…
I’ll start with the pacing. This is a really kind of slow-paced movie. How did that sort of change your acting style? Were you comfortable with it?
I don’t know that I really thought of the pacing so much as an actor, but it was great just to have the awareness that it was okay just to really be in the moment and react in a real way rather than just react fast. It was okay for things to be subtle.
A lot of the paranoia and the suspicion in the movie comes from you. You’re standing in for the audience and did you pick specific moments when you were going to question if someone was an alien, or how you were going to question it differently for different people?
I think the main thing is – since you film out of order – keeping track of the timeline of when she’s discovering things and how far into her discovery she is, because you don’t want to jump the gun and say “oh, she knows already at the beginning of the film.” So it’s about knowing that she always has a suspicion but she doesn’t understand it at the beginning, she just has more of like a sixth sense.
You get the jacket and the flame thrower, but did Kurt Russell’s performance in the 1982 film inform your performance at all?
Not really. When I first signed onto it I was like okay, I need to like make this character funny or something, because it’s like MacReady, and then I was finally like no, it’s not MacReady. It’s nothing like MacReady. And just because she’s sort of the lead of this film doesn’t mean she has to have the same personality traits as the lead of the Carpenter film.
So it informed it by not trying to be that.
By just letting it go, because I realized that it just wasn’t. I mean he’s a blue collar guy, she’s an intellectual paleontologist. They’re very different types of people so I accepted the fact that this is a woman who’s very serious about what she does: she’s strong, she’s smart, she’s just trying to kind of survive when all this stuff goes down and trying to play someone who’s relatable in that way and not some girl who’s trying to be bad-*ss or anything like that, just trying to be a strong woman.
Is it fun to get your inner Ripley on?
Definitely. Ripley’s one of the best examples, especially in the first Alien because she ends up becoming bad-*ss, but in the first one she’s a smart woman who knows what’s going on. Who’s trying to convince everyone else that there’s something bad happening, and reacting. Someone strong, independent and really put together, in that sense Kate is similar. I didn’t try to copy her performance, but she is such an iconic character that you can’t help but have it in the back of your mind.
Did this feel more take charge than say Scott Pilgrim or Live Free or Die Hard?
In Scott Pilgrim, Ramona was more like a doesn’t-give-a-sh*t type, sort of, so she’s take charge, but really just for herself. Kate is more empathetic, she’s trying to survive but also trying to like help as many people as she can. For me she’s more relatable than a lot of other characters I’ve played. She was fun.
Those kind of characters usually are played by men, so it’s not very often that we see a strong woman. That has to be nice.
It was refreshing for me when I read it. There’s like no romantic sub-plot, there’s no shower scene. I kept waiting for something to happen at the end, where she walks in and starts undressing, but it just never occurred. These people are in this situation trying to fight for their lives, and the woman is no different than the men.
Was it an interesting dynamic on set, because you’re one of very few female characters, and you’ve got this huge male ensemble cast.
I think I worried a little that it would be a boy’s club. I didn’t know what to expect, but because I was kind of the lead, people treated me like I was the leader and I didn’t expect that. The guys would come up to me and ask advice, and the director would ask me advice on everything. There wasn’t any misogynistic attitudes or ego trips or power trips at all.
What did you think of the angle of going as prequel to the original as opposed to just remaking the original?
I love that. If it was a straight up remake it would be harder for me. It would have been strange. I felt like the producers know who to hire, the directors and writers, who’re going to make it come together in the most intelligent and interesting way, and I felt like that’s what they did. They were so knowledgeable about the Carpenter version and they were so passionate about it, and so passionate about making this a companion piece for that film, rather than a retread.
What were the creature effects like?
On set it was great because there was a lot of practical stuff. It was so grotesque but beautiful and the designs that they created were so interesting and very much in the Carpenter world but with a little bit of a new spin on it. And then it was enhanced in CGI. Just a little, we wanted it to have that 80s feel but also didn’t want for it to be jarring for audiences that are just seeing this for the first time and aren’t aware of the Carpenter version.
We had people in suits running around with these crazy tentacles and things chasing us and stuff like that. It sometimes looked sort of silly, but then when you would see it on the monitors it would look awesome.
How was your flame-thrower training?
Did they just put it in your hand and say go?
Pretty much. Before we started shooting, we went to this warehouse where all the guys that do all the burn effects work, and they showed us how to use it, and they’re good. You can go. So it was a very brief training process, but really it’s just “here’s the safety precautions, here’s the button you push.” There’s not a lot more you can do. Flame on. It was a lot of fun to use, you just feel so powerful.
Were there moments when you were trying to access this horror and fear but you kind of wanted to laugh?
That always happens in horror films, because there’s always things that happen that are hilarious but you have to stay in the moment and act like you’re terrified. When people are splashed in the face with fake blood and it goes in their ears and their nose, it’s hard to keep a straight face. But I guess I’m used to it at this point.
Was there any scenes that were too difficult because of that? Did you break?
Usually it would be the Norwegians who were so loveable and fun that when doing scenes with them it was hard to be afraid, you wanted to start laughing, because—and they have like these great reactions. It would almost take you out of the moment.
Were there scenes that were left out?
We ended up reshooting a lot of the end sequence so it’s actually a bit of a blur in my head. There was like a sequence where there were going to be pods in the ship with different creatures in them, different types of life forms that they had mimicked at different times. But that didn’t end up in the finished film. We recalibrated the whole ship idea.
Did you ever question what she was doing and go you know, why would you do this and this particular point?
All the time. This film was one of the first films where I felt comfortable doing that, normally I’m like “whatever you say.” There was a lot of like collaboration. It’s hard, because as an actor you never want to ever do exposition, you’re always trying to get out of that, but at the same time you do need to let the audience know what’s going on. But you have to, because I was the eyes for the audience, I move things along and let the audience know what was happening.
There seems to be room left open for a sequel. Is that something anybody’s talking about yet?
No. I think it’s all about your interpretation. To me, things are wrapped up. But if something’s successful enough, they’ll find a way.
The interesting thing is the ending now can, your character could go either way.
Exactly, it’s all interpretation.
Did you come to a decision? I’m not asking what that was.
Yes. I did. And I think most of us were all pretty onboard with what the decision was, you know, we had the same conclusions.
I’m asking what it was.
She’s dead. She’s in the snow. That end shot is “okay, I’m going to die.” There’s a Russian station out there somewhere, but what are the odds that I’m actually going to make it there before I run out of gas? There’s always another, more optimistic point of view, you know.
Well, another interpretation would be that she’s turned.
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Which is cool. I like that too, yeah.
The Thing opens October 14. Keep watching the skies.