THE INSIDER: MARY ELIZABETH WINSTEAD
the truth about young hollywood—and why it’s harder to play drunk than you think.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead has been tagged a scream queen (for her roles in The Thing and Final Destination 3) and the thinking man's pin-up (she won over more than just Scott Pilgrim's heart with her head of shocking-pink hair), but ask the actress and she'll tell you that she'd rather just be known for her talent. "I really do hope that people see me in a different light now and that people will trust me to carry more complex roles on my shoulders and play different kinds of parts that they might not have thought I could do before," she explains, large chestnut eyes expressing the depths of her conviction. If any film could do that, it's her latest film, Smashed (in theaters today). In it she plays Kate Hannah, an elementary school teacher who happens to have a big drinking problem. Like, gets so drunk she wets the bed, vomits in class, and does crack with a crew of homeless troublemakers. Smashed has the potential to come off like a PSA announcement, but instead Winstead (who is joined onscreen by Aaron Paul, Megan Mullally, Nick Offerman, and Octavia Spencer) makes it a believable portrait of a woman going over the edge--and then figuring out if she can make it back. The actress spoke to NYLON about just how tough it is as a young woman in Hollywood--and why playing drunk isn't as easy as you'd think.
Smashed is pretty intense--does it make it harder to talk about now than, say, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World?
It's actually fun to talk about it because I have a lot to say! It's nice to be able to talk about that, and it's rewarding that people actually want to hear about it. But then sometimes I end up totally breaking down, because it's all so very emotional--so that can be kind of embarrassing. Because I'll be answering a question and then all of a sudden tears start to come and I'm just like, Oh God, stop, stop, stop!
So it was an emotional movie to make?
Everyone was there for the same reason: because they wanted to make this movie really great. So there was good energy. But it was just really emotional for me--you know, the journey I had to go on in order to figure out how to play this character was very emotional and personal. So it ends up feeling like a diary almost for me when I watch it, because I know what I was thinking about during the scenes, even though the audience sees it as a character. For me, there's a lot of personal stuff happening. I mean, just as an actor there's a lot of personal things you bring to [a role] and substitutions that you use. But I don't think I've ever dug as deep as I had to for this character, so it had never gotten to this level.
How hard is it to act drunk, exactly?
It's hard! For just about any actor it's one of the scariest things to do, because it's so easy to not get it right. No matter how good of an actor you are in every other way, it's kind of separate from that. We figured out a way to do it in which it wasn't so hard, but it was terrifying to take on a role knowing that I was going to have to play drunk in so many scenes. I read this book called The Power of the Actor that has a chapter dedicated to playing drunk--it's all just exercises and mind games that you play with yourself to make you feel like you're actually drunk: You close your eyes and take yourself through every single step of what it feels like to be drunk, starting with the physical stuff of feeling it hit your tongue, feeling it burn down your throat, feel it rushing through your body. And then you go through the emotional stuff: I feel so strong, I feel like I can conquer the world because I have this amazing substance in my body that makes me feel like I am the perfect human being. Things like that…it's almost like an out-of-body thing. But it worked really well for me.
Besides Smashed, what other projects are you working on?
I just did a string of little movies with mostly little parts. I was just having fun with friends with people who I've always wanted to work with that I could learn from. So that was kind of what I wanted to do after this movie because I knew that I wasn't going to be able to jump back into doing a big studio film; the experience of working on something so small was exciting for me. But I also knew I probably wasn't going to find a big, leading role that would live up to this [one in Smashed] right away. So I'm still sort of in that mode of trying to find that role that's going to be as complex as this one--and it's really hard and very rare!
Why is that? Is it hard to find a good role in Hollywood if you're a woman?
It's incredibly hard. I'm amazed that they didn't search out every single girl in Hollywood for this part because that's what usually happens. I'm the only person who auditioned for this role, and I just got incredibly lucky that they put that faith in me. Any other time there's a really great, leading female role, every talented woman in Hollywood wants her shot at it because they're just so rare. And they all should want their shot at it because we all want to have those roles; we all want something that can challenge us. So it's just very hard to get your foot in the door when there are so many talented women and such few good roles for them to have.
Does it feel like you keep seeing the same actresses over and over at auditions?
Yeah. I definitely see the same girls. And it's also the same girls on another level who are kind of beyond, who get their first pick at everything, too. So if they want to do it, then you don't even get a shot at it. You at least want to be considered! So that's the point where I hope to get; I hope that I can at least throw my hat in the ring, and be given a chance at some of the bigger, meatier roles.
If there's any movie that could do that, it's Smashed. Besides being a great actress, you've also got great taste in music--every interview I read with you you're mentioning amazing new bands. What are you listening to now?
I'm listening to a lot of electronic stuff right now. I go through phases--I either listen to all retro '50s and '60s all the time or I go through really modern phases, and now I'm in one of my more modern phases. A lot of Grimes and Chairlift and St. Vincent …a lot of female singers. I just got Spotify, which is fun. So anytime someone mentions something cool, I can just look it up right away. I also try to keep on top of the interesting music videos that come out, which for me has been a good way of discovering new music because it seems like the really good music always has really cool videos as well. If I follow those, it leads me to the good music.
That's your next project: being cast in a music video.
I know, I would love that!