Mary Elizabeth Winstead became very famous, at least among certain geek circles, for playing the dream girl who can also hold her own in an action scene in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, in which she played the bright-haired, elusive beauty Ramona Flowers. After that she bolstered her action chick reputation with The Thing, a prequel to the John Carpenter classic of the same name, in which she proved her serious dexterity with a flamethrower. So in a movie like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which casts the 16th President as a secret destroyer of the undead swarms, you'd figure Winstead as Mary Todd Lincoln would get her chance to drive some stakes into some hearts, right?
Well, not quite. Despite one glorious moment near the end, Mary Todd stays out of the action throughout most of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter-- and Winstead admits that it was hard hearing about the elaborate action sequences staged by director Timur Bekmambetov, while she'd "just sit back in my hoop skirt." But the movie also gave Winstead the chance to work with some of the best old-age makeup you've ever seen on film, as her third large-scale film in a row, it was the push she needed to take on the lead role in the challenging indie Smashed, in which she plays an alcoholic struggling to recover. That movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year with strong acclaim for her performance, though Winstead says that now, while on the Abraham Lincoln press tour, she's got the itch to make a giant movie once again.
Below you can read my entire conversation with Winstead, in which we talk about the weak female roles she auditions for but doesn't get, the secret to aging from age 19 to 45 in a two-hour movie, the secret CGI used on her face, and how Scott Pilgrim continues to bring her new fans. You can see her in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter this weekend.
You seemed really excited about the aging up in this movie. What made you so excited to do that?
It was just such a challenge, just the thought of having to progress a life from age 19 to 45 or so. Especially her life, going from a car free young socialite to someone who goes through the death of-- in real life, 3 children-- and the Civil War and all this darkness. To progress from that point to that seemed like a really unique challenge.
And the old age makeup is really, surprisingly great. Do you know what they did that made it so good this time around, when it's usually so bad?
I don't know. We got the best people-- Greg Cannom was the head special effects makeup artist, and he did Benjamin Button. Any time you've seen it done really well, it's been done by him and his team. It was incredible to see him work and see how he does it. I had several prosthetics, and I also had stuff called stipple all over my face, where I would scrunch my face up, and when I relaxed it all the wrinkles would be there. And then for me they digitally enhanced it slightly. It's really mostly the prosthetics. On set, Timur hated seeing me old. He was always like, "I don't know! Less, less!"
Because he was worried it would be over the top?
I think. It was just trying to find the balance of what was the perfect aging. It looked great on set, but on camera it didn't pick up quite enough for the later scenes. I can't even tell when I watch it, it just looks so good. It's amazing to me, because that can also look really bad, digital effects on peoples' faces. The fact that they blended that in a way that looks so realistic is incredible.
Is there any vanity involved in that for you? Especially since it's in 3D. Can you handle seeing yourself old like that?
Maybe not yet. Maybe a little down the line that might become more of a scary thing for me. For me it was just more fun and exciting to see myself in a different way. It feels more like the character than me. That's something I enjoyed, not seeing myself reflected back.
Timur has this really distinctive style of action, and a lot of that is in scenes you're not in, but I wonder how much you know while you're shooting. What do you know about how the scenes will turn out?
I wasn't there for any of the action stuff. I have one moment at the end, but it was all in camera, it's just one stunt. That was really as much action as I saw. But i can definitely relate when I hear the other actors talk about it. It sounds a lot like what we did for Scott Pilgrim, where everything is taken very slowly. You've got one punch, then cut. Every movement is very laborious and slow because you're trying to get everything perfect. That makes it very difficult to know what anything is going to look like, because it's all pieced together so slowly, that when you see it fast paced, it looks like something totally different.
Did Scott Pilgrim give you the itch to do more action like that, or were you glad to have the break?
Well I was glad to have a break t first, because right after Scott Pilgrim I did The Thing, which was stunt-heavy, a lot of running and the flamethrower. I was just kind of tired, physically. So I was happy to take a break. But once I was there and I saw people doing stuff around me, and I wasn't able to be a part of it, it did get a little difficult for me to just sit back in my hoop skirt and not get into the action.
Where did this fit in with shooting Smashed?
This was just before.
So was this like a palate cleanser before that, where you're not the focus of the story and you're part of a bigger thing?
Well, this for me was a fun character and such a fun movie, but I was still itching to do something tiny. So Smashed I found right after I finished this. Now it's funny because I've been doing little movies for a year now, and now I'm ready to get back and do a big one. Especially promoting this and remembering how fun it was.
Did you have to fight to be considered for a movie like Smashed or to get it made?
Before I even made this, I started giving a clear direction to my agents that, if there's a great big movie that comes my way, I'll do it, but I really really need something small and character focused. It was hard. There were a couple of auditions I couldn't even get in the room for. I was lucky that my agent set me up with the producer of Smashed, and i think he just saw how serious I was about doing a film like the ones he produces. It's kind of amazing how if you really put yourself out there like that, people respond to it. It was kind of a learning lesson to me to go after what it is you really want.
Scott Pilgrim famously didn't do nearly as well as it should have. but everyone I know saw it, and i feel like everyone in the industry saw it. Did that changed the way people see you, or the roles you were being offered?
It didn't change much for me, surprisingly. I think the more nerdy people in the industry saw it. But the people who are the powers that be-- they see what makes money, and that's what matters to them. I got a lot of fans from it, and I got a lot of phone calls from producers and directors who were like "I love that movie!" And then it's, "Bye! Don't have a job to give you!" It didn't really unfortunately, turn into anything else. But I feel like now, the audience for it is growing so much more than it was when it came out. I get recognized for it more often, and people I have meetings with say they saw it, so it's growing more.
Being the age you are, there are a lot of roles for women that can be kind of nothing roles, and you haven't fallen into that trap. It's interesting to see someone avoid that. What's the secret?
That's one of the key things that I look at when I'm choosing films, and I cannot play an overly sexualized girl who's just eye candy. The most I did that was in Death Proof, but that was so tongue in cheek that it worked for me. I've definitely auditioned for those types of roles, I just don't get cast in them. And I get feedback that's "You're a little to strong, can you come back in more of a tank top with a push up bra?" And I just say no. If I'm going to come in, I'm going to play it the way I would play it, and it's not that type of character. A lot of people don't like the way that I present myself, but enough people do that it works out, so I don't have to change myself, which is great.