When horror-movie vet Mary Elizabeth Winstead decided to stop waiting for fame to give her clout, she landed a career-changing role as an alcoholic in the indie "Smashed"
Mary Elizabeth Winstead may be best known for a string of roles in horror flicks and fanboy favorites: "Final Destination 3," "The Thing" and "Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World," among others. But a very different Winstead is on display in the low-budget indie "Smashed," in which she plays a young wife and schoolteacher who gets drunk every night with her husband (Aaron Paul), with increasingly disastrous results.
Shot in only 19 days on a budget of less than $1 million, "Smashed" is an appealing but disquieting drama that feels true and honest, and Winstead shows a range and depth never even hinted at in her best-known previous work. The Sony Classics release won raves at Sundance but may need some breaks to be noticed during awards season, though its lead actress certainly deserves to be part of the conversation.
"Smashed" producer Jonathan Schwartz says he sent the script to the 27-year-old Winstead after hearing from her agent that she was looking for meatier roles – and less than two hours later, he got a call saying she loved the script and would do whatever it took to land the part. That included making an audition tape of many of the film's crucial scenes – a tape that was so good, said Schwartz, that he and director James Ponsoldt immediately tabled their thoughts of casting bigger names.
Winstead picked up the story in an interview with TheWrap.
I've heard Jonathan's side of the story – but how badly did you want this movie, and what did you have to do to get it?
I was really determined to at least be considered for it. It's not like I've even had the opportunity to read many scripts with roles this complex and interesting. And when I do read them, I rarely get the chance to audition. So I didn't think I would even be considered unless I was really on top of this.
There's just so much competition when it comes to actresses – so many great actresses and so few great roles. It's a difficult pool. It's great because there are so many talented peers of mine, and I'm inspired by them all the time. But at the same time, it's like, man!
They may be your peers, but they're also your competition.
Yeah. So I thought, it's time for me to take it into my own hands and demand to be seen and be noticed. And then it turned out that I did an audition tape and they hired me. It was really easy. It was so not what I expected. I expected to do the audition tape, and then have to come in like eight times, and show them every possible angle of what I could do. But they trusted me from the get-go.
Had you made a conscious decision in your career to look for a different kind of role?
Yeah. I had kind of a wake-up call. For most of my career, I was just really happy to be a working actor and have a job. I felt lucky to have work at all. But at the same time, I was thinking, well, if I can keep working and I can keep building up my name, at some point I'll be a big enough name that I can have control and do the kind of films that mean something to me. I can really kind of craft my career in my own hands.
And then one day I woke up and I realized, I've been doing this for a decade now and I'm not famous, so why am I relying on that to take me where I want to go? I don't even care about being famous, so there's got to be some way to get to where I want to go without waiting for some sort of name value or fame.
I thought, okay, I'll do what I have to do: I'll start writing my script, I'll do something. And "Smashed" came along very quickly after I made that proclamation that I was going to take things into my own hands. It was great validation that I could actually make this work, that there are people willing to give me a chance if I go out there and say, "This is what I want."
Is the performance that you gave on your audition tape similar to what you did in the movie?
I don't think so. James will contest that he's still blown away by that tape. And I obviously must have done something right, because I got the part. But when I think about what I did, it seems so amateurish compared to the place I was pushed to get to on the film. I feel like I was just acting like an alcoholic, approximating what I thought the character would be. I don't feel like it was really good, but it was good enough.
What changed in your understanding of alcoholism between the time you did the audition tape and the time you shot the movie?
Once I had the part, it became very clear that I needed to make it authentic. And in that sense, it needed to be a very personal story. So I needed to figure out what my own problems and issues were, and tackle that head-on.
I've always thought of myself as very normal, and not very Hollywood. I don't really drink, and I've never done drugs, I never really felt like I had any big problems per se. So doing this film kind of forced me to look at myself and realize that even though I might not have any obvious problems, there's certainly some deeper-seated things that I'm in denial of, that I needed to look at and pull out in order to put a mirror in front of me and see that I'm no different from this character.
You went to a lot of different AA meetings?
I did. I went to a lot, always went with somebody who was a part of the meetings. That was the first step in realizing how much I could relate to every single person I met. They had backgrounds and childhoods exactly like mine, and had similar issues and pain that just comes from being a human being and living life. We all have ways of kind of hiding that pain and dealing with it, that is often unhealthy and often covering up instead of dealing with the problem. And so the fact that alcohol is what they choose to cover the pain, that is just sort of the symptom, as they say in AA. I just had to look at what my symptoms were.
I hear that one night you and Aaron did go out and get falling-down drunk.
We did, for a few different reasons. One being that our characters are drunk together so much that it felt natural to figure out what our dynamic really is when we're drunk. And also, because I'm not a big drinker, I wanted the memory of what it feels like to be completely out of control and out of your body to be a bit fresher. I wanted to remind myself what it was like to be smashed, so to speak.
And what was it like?
It was horrible. James was our designated driver, and he had this whole bar-crawl around L.A. set up, but I think we only made it to two bars. They had to take me home.
But it was good in a lot of ways, because it brought Aaron and me close immediately. After meeting only once before that, we both saw each other at the lowest level that we could see one another. And we just jumped into being a couple, and those boundaries had been crossed.
In many ways, the character refuses to celebrate or congratulate herself on her sobriety. She has one moving speech where she essentially says, "Don't tell me how great it is that I'm sober, because there are ways in which this isn't as good."
Totally. She says several times in the film that she has just as many problems as she did when she was drinking. In some ways she has more problems, because those problems become clearer all of a sudden. When you're drinking, you can drown them in alcohol and pretend they don't exist. And when you're not drinking it's like, oh, okay, I'm messed up. You're constantly aware of all the different problems you have, and you can't just numb it anymore. You have to deal with it. That's a pretty tough way to live, especially when you're used to glossing it over.