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Seeing Stars: Mary Elizabeth Winstead

The former scream–queen's powerful turn in bittersweet booze flick Smashed has made her a dark horse for the Oscars. Here she tells us why she feels right at home in the indie world

This interview and shoot is taken from the January Issue of Dazed & Confused:

Actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead has the clear, fresh complexion of someone who has never really abused her body. Yes, she’s been drunk several times in her life, but she has never been the type to get hammered. Except for that one time, when she got super wasted in preparation for her latest film, Smashed. It’s a movie about Kate and Charlie Hannah, a sweet, young married couple who love nothing more than pounding beers and propping up the bar every night, until pounding beers and propping up the bar devolves into wetting the bed and accidentally smoking crack with a homeless lady. Winstead is better known for her screamqueen roles and for nerd-friendly fare like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Grindhouse and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, so taking a role in a tiny, booze-drenched indie film was a career move that might have left more dollar-motivated Hollywood types scratching their heads. But, for Winstead, it represented the meaty, dramatic female lead she was ready for. Even if her liver wasn’t.

“James was handing us tequila shots – I don’t even know how many tequila shots,” says the 28-year-old, describing how director James Ponsoldt took her and co-star Aaron Paul (Jesse from Breaking Bad) on an epic bar-crawl to help them get into character ahead of the 19-day shoot. By bar number two, Winstead was already waving the white flag. “I remember being in the bathroom throwing up, and Aaron was holding my hair. Then we had to pull over on Hollywood Boulevard and Aaron was rubbing my back and holding my hair back some more. Aaron is pretty famous so I was like, ‘Imagine if the paparazzi were following us?’”

Whatever method-acting magic occurred that drunken night must have worked, because Winstead’s performance was so electric it’s inspired almost universal critical acclaim for the movie, which won the US Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Excellence in Independent Film Producing at Sundance, and is even getting Oscar buzz. “It was such a small movie I don’t think any of us expected that all this attention would happen,” says Winstead. “The fact that people have responded so well is beyond exciting.”

Many films have tackled the tragic dynamic of an alcoholic couple, such as classics Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Days of Wine and Roses. What’s different about Smashed is how it explores “the program”, aka Alcoholics Anonymous, from the point of view of someone who isn’t a down-andout, Everclear-guzzling drunk, merely a girl who likes to party down. You know, like the average, fun-loving 20-something. “With Kate it was like ‘Okay, I’ll give AA a try, but I don’t really think I have a problem,’ and then it slowly dawns on her that that is where she belongs. That she is an alcoholic. And it’s her personal discovery as opposed to someone coming into her life and saying, ‘You need help.’”

Los Angeles, where Winstead lives, is as well known for its AA culture as its party culture. Happy hours, pill-popping, rail-snorting and scenemaking are deeply embedded in the fabric of Hollywood, as evidenced by the town’s many, many drug casualties, from Lindsay Lohan to John Belushi to Tatum O’Neal to Whitney Houston to Drew Barrymore to Anna Nicole Smith to Michael Jackson to Marilyn Monroe. The list is pretty much endless – and those are just the famous fuck-ups. Don’t forget the out-of-work actors, the party-hard rockers and those emotionally sensitive types who simply find themselves in a town where the calendar revolves around
which glamorous party to crash that night. “Doing Smashed made me realise the universal struggle of it all,” says Winstead. “Some films try to make alcoholics an extreme sort of ‘other people’, these crazy messes. But Smashed shows it could be anyone.”

She’s got a point. Think about your friends who drink every night. The ones who might have just a few white wine spritzers, and then end up in the back of a van having weird sex with some random creepazoid. “You see young women drinking all night and then passing out and it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s cute,’ and everyone laughs it off,” says Winstead. “I have friends like that too, who you can’t help but worry about even though apparently they’re just being young.” Smashed explores a 21st-century youth culture in which alcoholism has become an acceptable identity to assume, in which being the fun drunk party-girl can be totally okay. Maybe even when you’re wetting the bed once in a while. “The question is, at what point do you start picking yourself up and being an adult?” says Winstead. “Seriously, that line is very blurred. You can be 40 and still be living that lifestyle, and it’s no big deal.”

But, she adds, Smashed goes way beyond being a critique of the party lifestyle. “It can be anything. Pot. Sleeping pills. A toxic relationship. Any cycle you’re in, but can’t stop. Hopefully it’s one of those films that makes everyone think about their lives in some way.”

It certainly did for Winstead. Not because she decided to become sober, but because researching the tools that alcoholics use to maintain sobriety introduced her to notions of living an honest life. “That was something I could really relate to, looking at my life and the ways I’m not living my life honestly,” she says. Her statement is an interesting one, because Winstead strikes you as a very honest kind of person. She has wide eyes that hold your gaze, a calm and assured voice and a humility and affability that seems underpinned by a strong awareness of who she is. She may be a distant relative of screen legend Ava Gardner, but Winstead exhibits a lack of pretension that comes from growing up in small towns in North Carolina and Utah, and she’s happily married to writer/filmmaker Riley Stearns. So how, exactly, is she not living an honest life? “Well, like a lot of actors, it starts with being an extreme people-pleaser,” she explains. “My whole life, I’ve often made decisions based on making other people happy and trying to avoid conflict. So I’ve been trying to shake myself out of that. Like, what do I want? I started realising how rarely I thought of that.”

Indeed, the whole process of making Smashed has, in some ways, been about Winstead starting to be true to herself. As a studio actress, she has already achieved what so many actors in Hollywood dream of – a decent paycheck. In Hollywood, if you have any tendencies towards auteurishness or “being European” in your career choices, you’re pretty much guaranteeing yourself an anorexic bank-balance. Luckily, she isn’t in it for the money. “People say you’re exaggerating when you say you didn’t get paid to do a project, but after taxes and lawyers and agents, it’s like you literally didn’t get paid,” she says. Winstead had always felt a little out of place, she says, like the indie girl plopped in the mainstream film. Now, finally, she’s the indie girl in the indie film. So, paycheck or no paycheck, she feels very at home there for now. Her next role, in Roman Coppola’s surreal fantasy A Glimpse into the Mind of Charles Swan III opposite Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Patricia Arquette and Charlie Sheen, should further solidify her indie-drama cred. “For some people acting is about achieving a level of power and success, and they are really great at being a ‘star’,” she says. “But I never thought I would be a star. I knew it was time my sensibility matched up to the films I was doing. And in that sense, Smashed was my dream come true.”

Smashed is out on December 14

Photography by Renata Raksha
Styling by Sara Paulsen