Mary Elizabeth Winstead is one of the more in-demand, versatile actors working today, with a filmography that makes it clear that being pigeonholed into a type of female character was never going to happen. She’s been acting since she was a child, and began coming into view in film in such genre works as THE RING TWO, SKY HIGH, FINAL DESTINATION 3, and BLACK CHRISTMAS. In her 20s, Winstead’s commitment to genre work didn’t waiver (GRINDHOUSE, LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD, THE THING (remake), ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER and of course SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD), but she did branch out a bit into more dramatic and experimental works like SMASHED, THE SPECTACULAR NOW (both directed by James Ponsoldt), A.C.O.D., KILL THE MESSENGER, and the recently released bit of creepiness FAULTS. She’s also currently starring in the A&E series “The Returned,” an adaptation of the French hit series.
The reason I got on the phone with Winstead last week was to talk about her starring role in the indie family comedy/drama ALEX OF VENICE, the directorial debut of actor Chris Messina, which premiered at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival and begins its theatrical release this Friday in select cities. The film co-stars Messina, Don Johnson, Derek Luke, young Skylar Gaertner (who plays the young Matt Murdock in episodes of the newly released “Daredevil” series) and Katie Nehra, who co-wrote the screenplay. It’s a surprisingly moving work that allows Winstead to really show her range as an actor in ways she hasn’t before, and it’s a terrific showcase for a kind of character we don’t often see in films. With that, please enjoy my talk with Mary Elizabeth Winstead…
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Hello.
Capone: Hello, how are you?
MEW: I’m great. How are you?
Capone: Good. We met several years ago. You and James Ponsoldt were in Chicago.
MEW: Right, for SMASHED. I remember.
Capone: That’s right. Have you seen his new film [THE END OF THE TOUR] yet?
MEW: No, I haven’t. Every time he screens it, I can never make it. And I’m so frustrated.
Capone: It’s really amazing.
MEW: I’m so excited for him.
Capone: With this film, when you first read this script, what was it about Alex that jumped out at you? Was there an aspect to her life or the upheaval that happens to it that made you think, “I’ve seen that before,” or “I know someone that’s happened to”?
MEW: I think in general, the complexity of the role was really exciting to me and the reliability of it. I loved the fact that you get to see her with her sister and her husband and her father and her son, and you get to see the full spectrum of relationships and how she handles herself in each one. I am really drawn to characters who are trying to be better people and in every scene are striving to figure out what it is about their lives that isn’t working and how they can grow from that and move on and become better. So that was something that really spoke to me about this role, too, is you feel like all the way through the end she’s trying to figure out how to do this. How do I be a good sister? How do I be a good mom? How do I be a good daughter? How do I be a good wife? And I think that that is something for me that is incredibly relatable and universal.
Capone: She is many things to many people. The one thing you didn’t mention is she is also a lawyer, and we actually get to see her at work, which is something you don’t get a lot in movies. I especially liked that aspect of getting to know her.
MEW: Particularly if you’re seeing their home life, it’s usually one or the other. Either you see them at home, and that’s their story, or it’s all about their job and what they do. So that was really exciting for me to get to see both. She’s a real person. She has a home life and a job.
Capone: That’s what’s really funny about the scene where her sister tries to get her to go out with her and meet a new guy, it’s not that she’s not interested; it’s that she literally doesn’t have the time for another person in her life. You have to be a slightly different person when you’re meeting someone for the first time. There’s a complexity to that role.
MEW: Absolutely. It’s super exciting for me as an actor, because that’s just something you never see.
Capone: Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is the first time you’ve played a mother on screen. Is that right?
MEW: I think it is officially. I had done a few things when a was younger, a few bit parts here and there where I played a mom, but no real meaty role where I’m playing a mother.
Capone: Did that in any way give you pause? You hear about these young actors who have the first kiss in their life on screen. I wonder if there’s a comparable feeling for someone being a mother for the first time on screen.
MEW: That’s interesting. I never thought about it that way. I am one of those people who had their first kiss on screen.
MEW: Yeah. 12-years-old.
Capone: Oh my gosh. Congratulations.
MEW: [laughs] Thank you, thank you very much. But I never really thought of it in those terms with playing a mother. I was just really excited playing a mother, because I can’t wait to be one. So for me, it was really exciting to get to practice by pretending to be one and to see what that would be like and to see what motherly instincts would come out of me in doing so. So I was excited about that opportunity and I continue to want to play mothers for that same reason.
Capone: In the scene where George announces he’s leaving and that he feels like he’s become the housewife in the marriage, we want to be mad at him for leaving, but it’s tough because he’s not entirely wrong. The feelings that he’s having seem to be legitimized by Alex. Or is that something men are only going to think?
MEW: Yeah. And I think that was one of the key things we wanted to get across, and that was why, before we started shooting, I really wanted to inject her personality—and Chris and I talked about this—with that sense that she’s someone who’s so tightly wound that she’s just not really seeing the world around her. She’s so focused on what’s right in front of her and what she needs to do in that moment that she’s really not taking things in. So if you can understand that that’s what’s going on with her, then you can understand why he reacts the way that he does. So we didn’t want to villainize him at all. It was important to make her really complex and fallible in her own way, but obviously also still relatable and somebody who you can understand where she’s coming from. But you wanted to see why he would feel like he’s not really being taken care of in the relationship in the way that he needs to be.
Capone: There’s an interesting revelation about Alex that definitely confirms that she has led a very cautious life, and that’s that she’s only ever been with one man sexually in her life. Is there a key or a secret to playing someone like that, who is also on the verge of this much newer part of her life?
MEW: Yeah, yeah. I think that’s the same thing about her that makes her not really see what’s really going on in her life, which is she’s never thought about the fact that she’s only been with one person. She’s never thought about what that means for her in her life. She’s never truly thought about the fact that she’s only been with one person. She’s never thought about what that means for her in her life. She’s never been a truly self-reflective person, because she’s never given herself the time or the freedom, or allowed herself that time to work on herself and to think of herself and to think about in what ways she can really grow as a person.
So I think that’s another example of that, when she has that conversation with her sister, she’s like, “What? This is just what it is. What do you mean you’re surprised by it? Why would you be surprised? This is just my life.” She’s never thought about it being odd or being unusual in any way. When she has this huge change thrust upon her, it just forces her to examine herself and to go, “Maybe there are things I can do differently. Maybe there are other options for me or things that I can explore that I’ve never thought of before.” And to me, I really felt for her. I really feel for people who have never looked at themselves, because they’re scared to for whatever reason. So I had empathy for her in that.
Capone: Chris Messina, obviously a great, versatile actor, but untested as a director. When you first had your initial talks with him about his vision for the film and the character. What did he say to sell you on him as a first-time director? What gave you faith in him?
MEW: It definitely helped going into it that I was a fan of his as an actor and that I had seen a lot of his work, and I could really sense just from watching his work that he’s someone who had a real taste level, a real integrity, and was someone who was serious about his work and really cared about it. So having seen all that, I didn’t feel like I was working with a first-time director because he’s such an experienced actor. I think as an actor, when you’ve been around as long as he has, you learn so much.
It’s very different than working with an upstart filmmaker who has maybe done one short film. That’s probably scarier to me, even though it’s really exciting, and I love working with first time film makers in that way. That’s scarier than working with an actor who has done 50 films, who’s worked with Woody Allen, and who’s worked with all these incredible filmmakers. I went into it with a certain amount of trust for him to begin with. To talk with him, he’s such a warm, giving, open person, and he was so collaborative from the get-go, and that was really the tone that he wanted to set—all ideas are welcome, and it doesn’t matter who they come from. As long as it’s a good idea, we’re going to take it and run with it. I really admired that approach. There was no vanity. He was not an actor who’s going to direct something that he’s the lead in, and it’s going to be all about him. It was not that at all like that in the slightest. It was probably the opposite, actually. He wanted the least attention on him as possible. It was pretty instant, in terms of my trust in him.
Capone: I heard about these crazy long takes that he did, too. How did you like that experience?
MEW: I loved that. I absolutely loved getting to play. A lot of times he let the camera play out and see what happens, and other times he would stoke the fire. He would go behind the camera and he would just shout stuff out: “Tell her you love her. Tell her you can’t stand her anymore. Tell her you’re sick of her,” just to switch things up and see what happens. I loved that. I really loved that energy when you don’t know what’s going to happen in a scene and if something brilliant can come about that you never expected. I love that.
Capone: Did having Katie there on the set and being a part of the film itself beyond writing it, did that afford you more chances to dive into Alex’s head a little more and talk to her about where she came from?
MEW: Definitely. It also just added to the collaborative vibe of the set, because we have Katie who’s a writer and an actor, and Chris who’s directing and acting, and they’re always collaborating together, and they bring me in on that team as well. We’d talk about scene and talk about line changes or ideas or maybe the character wouldn’t behave that way. Why would or wouldn’t they? All of those discussions were so open in terms of who could bring something to the table, and I felt like I was really a part of that collaborative team, and I was really thankful that they both let me in on that. There was no, “I’m the writer; I say what goes.” It was a very open and free flowing and organic in that way. It felt very natural.
Capone: Don Johnson is phenomenal in this. I’ve seen him in quite a few things in the last few years, but usually they bring him in just for the vibe or comic relief. But here, he’s actually digging in, and just eating this thing whole. What did you learn from him just watching him work and embody this this character?
MEW: He’s a really inspiring person, because he’s just so committed as an actor. He came to it and hit the ground running in terms of wanting this character to feel authentic and doing whatever he could to get it there. He’s maybe not synonymous with a being serious actor, because he’s known for “Miami Vice” and other things, but I think when you go back to the beginning of his career, he was in acting school and alongside really serious actors. That’s always been where his heart lies. To me, I always loved watching him. And I really felt like I was getting to act along side somebody who was the real deal, who has seen a lot as an actor, and experienced a lot, and is someone I can really learn from.
Capone: Even the acting teachers he’s had were pretty impressive.
MEW: Incredible. Incredible. Absolutely. And he was in acting school with Robert De Niro. That’s pretty awesome.
Capone: Mary Elizabeth, thank you so much and best of luck with this. I was lucky enough to see FAULTS at SXSW last year, and I’m excited it’s finally out.
MEW: Oh cool. That’s awesome. Thank you. Have a good one.