Mary Elizabeth Winstead can do drama. For years, the “scream queen” wanted to be part of a character-driven indie, but she kept getting roles set in fantasy worlds like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The Thing and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Thankfully director and scribe James Ponsoldt was a fan of hers. He gave her the chance to play a “real person” in Smashed, a heartfelt indie-dramedy about a young woman with a drinking problem. We recently got the chance to talk to Winstead about why she wanted to do an independent film, how it felt to carry a movie of this caliber on her shoulders, and the worst pick-up line she’s ever heard.
What attracted you to the project?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: I was looking for anything small and performance-focused. Any really tiny indie that was well-written. And I did not expect to get something that was this good. It was so beyond my imagination. I thought maybe I’d do a little role and test out an indie. But I got the script and was just blown away because you just never read characters like this for lead female roles, ever. To get to be a full person who’s mean and funny and depressed and happy. She goes through every emotion that a human being can have. She’s unlikable sometimes, but still gets to be the one that you root for at the end of the day. All of those things you just don’t see. It’s one of the many things that attracted me to the project. But all I ever really want to do is be able to be a real human being on the screen. Being able to have that opportunity was really exciting for me.
As someone who seems very comfortable doing fun movies like Scott Pilgrim and Grindhouse, how was your comfort zone shifting into a drama that you’re carrying on your shoulders?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: It was scary for me to take it because I had never done anything like that before. For years, like most actors, I use say, “Oh, why can’t I get one of those really great parts.” But when you actually get the part you realize you have to figure out how to do it. It was scary. But just the fact that I got through it and did it, and the response has been good, made my confidence grow. I’m really looking forward to doing more roles like this. And if they’re available, I’m going to try. I feel more confident in doing leading dramatic roles now.
Did you really record yourself drunk before you started shooting?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Aaron Paul was filming me.
Did you imitate your drunk-self?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: No. I didn’t actually watch the video. Aaron did that for himself. He got drunk and filmed himself. We had a drunken night together. For me, I did that because I wanted to experience being drunk with him and what our dynamic would be like since we had to be like that a lot in the film. Also to just loosen us up because we didn’t really know each other and we had to act like we knew each other very well. It broke down a lot of barriers because we got really, really drunk. (Laughs) We saw each other at the worst. It was a nice jumping off place to be like, ‘Okay, I’ve already seen you at your worst, now we can go for it.’
Can you talk a little about playing drunk and not overdoing it?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: It’s really daunting. Even the best actors – it’s just really hard. The whole thing about being drunk is that you’re out of control. If you’re acting you’re in control because you want to know what looks right and believable. It defeats the whole purpose of making it authentic. James (director/co-writer) found a book called The Power of the Actor, which is just a great book on acting. It has an entire chapter dedicated to playing drunk.
I used the author’s method and it worked really well. It’s almost like hypnoses, in a way. You take yourself through all the steps of what it feels like to be drunk and it plays a mind trick on you. You feel loose and out of your body. It helps me let go of the fear of worrying about whether it feels real or not. I felt really loosened and buzzed for sure. One of the author’s tricks is that you pretend that your left leg doesn’t work or your tongue doesn’t work. Something about you doesn’t work and you’re trying to compensate that and hide it.
How did you prep for the role?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: I spent a lot of time at Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings. I was always invited by someone in recovery, who was regularly part of the meetings. It was great. I went to so many different ones in Los Angeles. It’s such a big city that it was a great place to do it because from one neighborhood to the next you’ll see an entirely different group of people and different backgrounds. It was great. It was so relatable. That was my first step. I realized that my character wasn’t so different from me. She drinks and I don’t drink a lot, but if you take that part out of it, she’s like me. That was my first step into figuring her out. And then I just had to figure out what the alcohol was in my life. And go through my own AA process with a different substance.
This wasn’t entirely Susan Burke’s story, but how much did you use her as a resource?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: A lot. We talked about her recovery story and things that she’d been through during her time drinking and situations she’d gotten herself into. Some were similar to the ones in the film, but not quite. Some where completely different. Also, just to talk to a young woman who got sober at a young age, which you don’t really hear about a lot was eye-opening. The more meetings I went to, the more young women I met. Some as young as 18, 19 who were already sober. They had realized they had a problem and needed to work on it.
It was so easy to relate to them and Susan. She’s such a wonderful, funny and smart woman. It hammered home the idea that that was what this character needed to be. She needed to be smart, funny, and powerful. A real good human being who just sort-of lost her path a little bit.
Is there anything you can personally relate to in regards to your character?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Yeah. When I first read it, I was in too much denial of my own problems to really relate to it. I was wondering how I was going to play this part. I felt like I had no problems. (Laughs) When I started looking at the things in my life and myself, I knew I needed to figure out what the real issue in my life is and where it stems from. Once I tapped into that, the flood gates opened. The whole movie was a breeze after that. I figure it out and it unlocked everything.
Your character has a very bizarre taste in clothes. She wears these baggy flowery dresses that don’t really match her age. Did you ever question her fashion sense?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: I loved it. I didn’t really know what they were going to go for until I showed up to my first fitting. Even then it wasn’t quite what it ended up being, but when I saw the thrift store, dollar-bin clothes I was happy. I didn’t know if they were going to go with something like a “cute hipster” or “drunk girl” kind of thing, which I was hoping they wouldn’t do. I was really excited.
When I saw the tennis shoes – James Ponsoldt and I saw the shoes and were like, “Those are the shoes! Those are the key to everything!” It just gave it the right off-quality. Her clothes were already kind of off, just in the sense that they’re so drab and been outdated, but the shoes just gave it the feeling of “This girl is not in her right mind.” It’s just not the look that a normal 20-something woman would really put together. It was great.
What do you think happened between Kate (Winstead) and Charlie (Paul) in the end? The movie leaves it open ended for us.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: I think that after that relapse scene she had to cut him out of her life completely. That’s a big deal, to be sober for a long time and then relapse like that, and have that extreme reminder that you’re not fixed yet. That your problem is still there and that you’re not doing everything you need to do to get better. The main thing she knew she needed to do was extract him from her life. As hard as it was to do. The relapse was the rock bottom she needed to hit again to let herself know that that’s what she needed to do. It was incredibly hard because that’s such a big part of her identity in her life. She loved him, but she had to save herself. Her life became the most important thing.
How did you handle the relapse scene?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: It was a rough day. It was exhausting, more than anything. We had a lot more physicality that you don’t really see on the screen. There were some things that were cut out. There was a lot more wrestling on the floor. We were both covered in bruises the next day. We had a stunt guy making sure that we were okay. It was an intense day, but it was great. I was so stressed out about that scene. Leading up to it, that was the scene that I was like, ‘Oh god, I’m going to have to do that scene.’ When it was over, it was great just to know that I had done it and that everyone felt okay about it. I just really wanted to do justice to that because not only is she drunk, she’s going through something really deeply emotional and difficult. I wanted to bring the authenticity to that.
When Smashed debuted at Sundance, the big buzz about it was you. Did you ever think, ‘God I should’ve done this sooner’?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: (Laughs) Yes and, well, a similar thought. I always wanted to go there. I wanted to get one of those indie movies where you can really get a great performance and it goes to Sundance. That’s what I wanted. I rarely got those scripts and when I did, I didn’t get the part. I just think I wasn’t meant to do it sooner. I don’t know if I would’ve been able to play a role like this five years ago. I just don’t know. Back then I would like to have thought that I could, but maybe I couldn’t. And if I tried, it might’ve not worked out as well as it did this time. The years of working and growing as an actor – it all just came at the right moment for me. I felt like I was confident enough and ready enough to do it.
What was different in your preparation for an indie?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Not just it being an indie, but it being such a complex character and such a real person more-so than anything I had played before. Typically I’ve played things that feel more like they’re in the fantasy realm in some way. The preparation was much more exhausted for this because I’m playing a real person that’s going through something real. I can’t just pretend or wing it. It just wouldn’t be respectful to the material. It was a lot more prep work.
I’m always big on preparation. I’m not the kind of person that just shows up and feels it out, but this was a lot of emotional preparation that I’d ever done before. It was a lot more preparation working on myself and my issues and things like that. I had never done that for a role. It was different but worth it. I’m glad I did it.
It’s great that they still kept comedy in this. Referring to Nick Offerman’s inappropriate comment to you, what’s the worst pick up line you’ve heard?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: (Laughs) That has to be the worst. I mean, god! Who would ever, ever say that? What’s amazing is that he gets away with it. He’s just so likable that it doesn’t turn you off to the character whatsoever. You’re still thinking he’s great, which I think is because Nick Offerman is so amazing. And also how the script was written. I love that scene, but not a good thing to say. No. (Laughs)
How was the AA cake? Delicious? Stale?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: I’m such a sweets-aholic. James made me take that cake home and I ate the whole thing. (Laughs) He told me I had to take it home. He made sure I wrapped it and carried it to my car. It was borderline embarrassing, but really good. It was from Porto’s.
Smashed opens in theaters Friday, October 12th.