Thanks to films like "Death Proof," "The Thing" and "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" -- plus tweets like this one about "Looper" -- Mary Elizabeth Winstead has become something of a geek icon over the last five years. It's her performance in the indie drama "Smashed," however, that could put her in the same breath as perennial Oscar contenders like Charlize Theron, Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley.
In "Smashed," Winstead stars as Kate, an elementary school teacher who also happens to be a raging alcoholic. After a particularly lengthy bender with her husband (played by "Breaking Bad" star Aaron Paul), Kate decides she needs help, and the film tracks the ups and downs of her recovery attempt. Directed and co-written by James Ponsoldt (who worked on the script with Susan Burke, a recovering alcoholic herself), "Smashed" is not a typical addiction drama, thanks in part to Winstead's full-bodied portrayal of Kate, a tragicomic figure with relatable demons and concerns.
HuffPost Entertainment recently sat down with Winstead to discuss "Smashed," the paucity of good roles for women in Hollywood and what fans can expect from "A Good Day to Die Hard."
One of the first things that stands out about "Smashed" is that Kate isn't the normal picture of onscreen addiction. Was that one of the things that drew you to the role?
Absolutely. Even if you take the addiction part away, just having a character who is so fully imagined -- who is a lead female protagonist -- who is messed up, but likable and real ... just that alone was totally different than the typical thing I read.
Is that frustrating for you as an actress?
Yes. Even now, it's scary because I'm like, "Will I ever find a role like this again?" It comes along so rarely, and when it does come along, there's so many great actresses who are looking for that. The competition -- and not to put it in competitive terms, because I love all the incredible actresses -- but it becomes very competitive and very hard to wedge your foot in the door. I never imagined I would get this part. When I read the script I was like, "Every Oscar winning actress is going to want this!" And I'm the only person they auditioned. It was this incredible thing that happened -- I feel so lucky.
So, how did it all happen?
For whatever reason, I was one of the first people who read the script. I think they had actually envisioned it with someone who was more of a comedian when they were writing it. But I had met with Jonathan Schwartz, who is the executive producer, and I had been really trying to meet people who were doing small, independent films and discovering new voices and directors. I was trying to get into that world very badly. I just met with him and said, "Whatever script you have, please send them to me. Please let me read them. Please let me audition for them." He sent me a couple of scripts and one of them was "Smashed." I read it and immediately called him and said, "Tell me what I should do to be considered." I had no idea, but James Ponsoldt was already a fan of mine from "Scott Pilgrim." I took a meeting with him and we got along really well. It was an incredibly simple, wonderful thing that never happens. [Laughs.]
The film casts a lot of funny actors -- Nick Offerman, Octavia Spencer, Megan Mullally -- in fairly serious roles that still have moments of levity. Was it hard to keep that balance?
For me it was scary. Because it is such a serious subject matter and the script is very funny, and that's something I loved about it. As an actor taking on a role, however, you can't think about the comedy. It has to just play out in a natural way. It has to work naturally without pushing for the laughs. It's not like a sitcom where you're like, "OK, I'm going to play this beat and then this beat is going to be like ba-dum-bum." It just had to be something that magically worked in the audience response. That's what you hope for. I didn't know if any of the comedy was going to play or not. Luckily having the people around -- having such fun, funny voices around me all the time, sort of helped all that click. I'm amazed it all plays so well.
There's a very naturalistic feeling to "Smashed." At times it feels like you and Aaron aren't even working with a script.
It was all very free. James wanted us to say whatever we felt like saying. For the most part what he did is he left the camera rolling the whole time. So most of what you see in the film is scripted -- there are maybe a couple of lines here and there that snuck in -- but I think part of the reason it feels so real is that it felt like the camera was always rolling. We were always in character and we were always going off script and back on and off and back on. So it never felt like: "Cut! We're ourselves now." It didn't have that break: "We're going to go back to our trailer, see you later." It was never like that. We were always on set, we were always in character, we were always working toward making it authentic.
How much research did you do for the role?
There's so much AA in the film, I felt like I really needed to see what that's like. Luckily it's co-written by someone in recovery, so I had a resource there. Also one of our producers, Elise Salomon, has been in recovery for many years. I had both of them to take me to meetings and to welcome me in -- to open meetings, always. It was great. My first couple of weeks researching the character were a lot of AA meetings. That was a great first step to figuring her out and figuring out how much I related to her. If you took alcohol out of the equation, I fit right there in those rooms and my stories could be the same as their stories.
"Death Proof" is a perpetually underrated Quentin Tarantino film, and it's also one of your first breakout roles. How was that experience?
It was amazing. That was a huge deal for me. I had only done a couple of films before that and they were mostly in the genre territory -- but a different kind of genre. To have Quentin Tarantino even know I existed was a huge deal. It was a great confidence booster for me at the time, because he loves actors so much that he will take you aside and go, "Here are all the things that are great about you as an actor." And you're just like, "Oh my God! You just made my entire life!" It was wonderful and he was amazing to work with and so much fun and so passionate about film. It will always be a highlight of my career, forever.
You're also reprising your role as John McClane's daughter in "A Good Day to Die Hard."
I'm in it, yeah. I loved that part when I played it. I really felt connected to being John McClane's daughter. So, it's fun to revisit it. I'm in "A Good Day to Die Hard" very briefly; there's not a lot I can say because I wasn't really there for most of it. But it was really exciting. It's great to be part of the McClane family tree.