"I attended a lot of AA meetings. I met a lot of people who've acknowledged that we're not perfect and they're willing to live their lives in the open."
Mary Elizabeth Winstead first came to LWLies' attention in 2007 when she starred in Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof. Since then she's racked up an impressive list of quirky supporting and leading roles – most notably as Scott Pilgrim's love interest, John McClane's daughter and Abraham Lincoln's wife. Now, the 28-year-old actress is going straight for her most demanding part yet, as a first-grade teacher battling with alcoholism in James Ponsoldt's poignant indie drama, Smashed. LWLies sat Winstead down recently to get the skinny on her sobering performance.
LWLies: It's been almost a year since Smashed premiered at Sundance. How has it been following the film around since then?
Winstead: It's been great. It's really interesting doing a film this small because I end up doing so much more press for it because it's an ongoing thing; you go from festival to festival and it opens in one city and then it opens in another... You don't just have this one big blanket opening like you do with a lot of the bigger films. So it's been really fun just being a part of this slow, trickling process. And also because it's a film that I really, really like, which always helps.
Yeah, something that was just a bit more character focused without all the special effects and grandeur that comes with doing something bigger. It's just about the people and their story. I honestly didn't expect something like this to come my way though, this was really beyond anything I had really imagined in terms of the character and how perfect it was for what I was looking for.
Do you generally try to keep a balance in what you do?
Well, I think I was really happy doing those films for a really long time but after a while it just wasn't enough of a challenge to me. It feels good now that I've broken into the world of independent film, but I know I can still go back and do a bigger blockbuster film and have fun and just let loose. As long as I can fall back and do something small and intimate where I can actually challenge myself and grow a little bit more.
Are you a fan of horror films?
I do really like them but I feel like I've reached a saturation point with them. I probably won't do one for a little while, unless it's with a filmmaker that I'm obsessed with and just have to work with. There's only so many different types of horror film you can been in, I've done sci-fi-horror, I've done slasher-horror, I've done B-movie/dark comedy-horror, I've done fantasy-horror so there's really few more places to go with it I think.
How much of Smashed is about more than alcoholism to you?
In terms of me relating to the character and finding my way into the film, everything was all about the idea of living your life honestly and that can mean a different thing to anyone. It's about recognising your flaws and embracing them and learning how to live with them instead of trying to push them under the rug every day. That was ultimately what the film is about to me. And also about love and relationships and trying to be faithful to the person you love.
How important was it for you to convey alcoholism in a sensitive yet authentic way?
Ultimately we just made the choice to make every moment incredibly personal and real, I worked a lot with James on creating Kate's back story but then also melding it with my own so that everything would be linked up with something from my own life and my past. It was real, it wasn't me pretending to be in Kate's world, it was me being in both mine and Kate's world. That made it really relatable, I think. It was important because she's quite an obnoxious character at times and we didn't want the audience to be turned off.
Did you have a lot of fun on set?
Yeah, we had a blast. Even when the cameras weren't rolling, we wanted to stay in that state because if we fell too far out of it then it would be really hard to get back into it. So we would just be running around in the backyard acting like little kids, just being really obnoxious, I'm sure, to all the crew members.
And the more emotional scenes, did the silliness stop then?
There were some days and some scenes where it was like, 'Okay guys, nobody talk to me because I really have to try to stay in this emotional space.' But generally it was really relaxed and surprisingly silly. Sometimes the humourous stuff, the funnier scenes were daunting to me because it's such a serious subject and I didn't know how some of the comedy would play. I think having our co-writer be in AA and be in recovery and having the story be loosely based on her experiences allowed me to trust in the script because we were always aware that it couldn't slip into a callous or insensitive territory.
Did you attend any AA meetings?
I did, yeah. I attended a lot of meetings and met a lot of alcoholics and it was amazing to be around these people struggling with it in different ways and at different points in their lives. It was pretty obvious that there wasn't one type of person or one type of story related to alcohol addiction. Everyone was unique, these were people who've acknowledged that we're not perfect and they're willing to live their lives in the open, fully accepting of that.
What do you love about movies?
Man... Such a simple but such a hard question. I just love, this is going to sound trite I think, but I just love that they make you feel something. No matter what it is, you will feel something watching a film, even if it's a bad film. It will take you to that place but ultimately I love being able to connect with something and be moved by something.
Smashed hits cinemas 14 December. Don't miss Mary Elizabeth's Guide To Acting Drunk.