The Thing Set Visit Interview: Mary Elizabeth Winstead

Mary Elizabeth Winstead smiling in Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter,
(Image credit: 20th Century Fox)

Thanks to Ridley Scott and James Cameron, the bar has been set for heroines in the sci-fi genre with Ellen Ripley: She sucked the xenomorph out of the airlock in Alien and killed the queen with the power loader in Aliens - certifiable badass. Since then, there has been a long line of female heroes, from Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in The Terminator to Carrie-Ann Moss’ Trinity in The Matrix. Perhaps next in that long line will be Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Kate Lloyd.

While visiting the set of Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s The Thing this past summer in Toronto, Winstead, sporting a black tank-top and a fake cut on her forehead, sat down with us journalists to discuss her personal feelings about the original John Carpenter film, the lack of a romance, and wielding a flamethrower to try and get rid of the alien menace.

Are you almost done?

Almost, yeah. We have just over a week left. It’s a bit daunting because it feels like we have a lot to do, but we’ll do it!

Are your heaviest scenes behind you or is there some stuff left that you have to do

Yeah, I mean, we’ve pretty much— we’ve done— all of the sort of heavy acting scenes we’ve done. I mean, there’s really hardly any dialogue left. It’s all sort of capturing bits and pieces of short action pieces and stuff like that that we need to fill in.

So how’s the experience been so far?

It’s been really great. It’s a really good group of people and everybody’s really genuinely excited and really wants to make this as great a film as it can be and as great of a companion piece as it can to the John Carpenter film while being sort of our own unique and different, you know, film. And Matthijs is fantastic. He’s a real great actor’s director which has been really great for me to be doing a picture that’s considered to be, you know, a genre picture, but to have it so focused on performance has been really, really great.

What’s your personal relationship with John Carpenter’s original film?

I am a huge fan. I saw it ... five years ago for the first time? I just fell in love with it. I thought it was great. Performances were amazing. Just, the sort of tension. I thought it was a really, really great film. So when I got the script I was a little— I was excited, but a little worried, you know, because it was kind of like, “How can you remake The Thing?” So I was excited to see that it’s a true prequel; it’s really not a remake. We’re not trying to recreate the same characters— completely different people, they’re completely separate. Their own characters, but just put in similar situations and a similar world to the world the John Carpenter film takes place in.

So did they come after you or did you go after the project?

It was kind of a bit of both. They sort of contacted me and said, you know, “A lot of people involved in the project want you for the part, but there’s a couple people who aren’t so sure.” So I had to sort of go in an audition and convince some of the people who weren’t convinced on me, you know, that I should get the part. So, it turned out OK.

Science fiction has a lot of really epic female leads, like, very strong women. How does your character relate to past heroic sci-fi?

Well she’s definitely a strong, independent, intelligent character who ends up really taking care of herself in this situation, so I think she sort of fits in with that theme of strong heroines in the genre. But what’s nice about her is she’s sort of— she’s a real person. You know, she’s a scientist. She’s not a bad ass chick who comes in to, like, save the day. She sort of just has to become strong throughout this situation and become stronger than she ever thought she could be. And so she kind of has to take on this new life and become this new person by the end of the film than she is in the beginning. So, it’s a really— it’s nice. I’m not sort of, you know, just trying to be a bad ass action hero, I’m trying to play this, you know, part as true as I can.

Even though there are new characters and it’s a different film, since your character’s at the center of things, would you say that there’s some of MacReady’s spirit that’s in her?

Sure, I mean, I think between my character and Joel [Edgerton]’s character I think there’s definitely that spirit, you know, it’s definitely there. I think it’s probably more for Joel because he’s playing the helicopter pilot so there’s sort of— that personality is kind of represented in the film. Even though he’s totally doing his own performance and he’s completely great in his own way, I think that the MacReady spirit is probably a bit more represented in him. But, you know, I think, hopefully, I sort of have a little bit of it too, you know, unintentionally.

One thing that sounds nice is that there isn’t really a romantic relationship between the two characters. They’re both professionals.

Exactly, I mean ... trying to force that into the film would be a little ridiculous because things start falling apart as soon as she enters the base, so [laughs] I don’t think there’s any time for any sort of sexual tension to build or romantic, you know, feelings to start coming forth. It’s really— their connection is that they feel like they can trust each other for whatever reason. And they don’t really know why, they just feel like, “Here’s somebody I can trust, here’s somebody that, you know, I’m gonna sort of cling on to help get me through this.” And that’s really, you know, where the connection lies.

It is really interesting because in John Carpenter’s film it’s all men in snow and completely isolated. Does the film address having women in this isolated fort?

Yeah, well, I mean, we address it in a subtle way, I think, of just sort of everyone having a different opinion about her being there, you know, when she shows up and she’s sort of a young woman. And especially the character Sander, who’s the one who sort of brought her along, Basically the reason he brings her along is because he thinks she’ll be easy to control, and he’ll be able to take all the credit, he’ll do everything his way and he won’t have anybody getting in his way who’s gonna try and, you know, speak their mind, so to speak. [Laughs] He sort of thinks that I’ll be, you know, easy. So, he sort of comes to find that she’s a little bit stronger and more intelligent than he had anticipated. So yeah, everyone has an opinion about her and who she is and why she’s there and how they feel about it.

Are you a fan of the genre? Did you grow up a horror fan? Any favorites, aside from the original The Thing?

Well, I’m a fan of films in general, I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever considered myself specifically a horror fan even though I do enjoy horror films, find them really entertaining. I’ve always been a huge fan of The Shining, and Rosemary’s Baby is one of my favorite films of all time. And The Thing is one of my favorites. So I think part of the reason why I’m sort of drawn to it or it’s drawn to me or something, is just because there’s always a lot of kind of strong female characters represented as heroines in horror films. Well, not always, but often. And so that’s fun for me to play, so it’s been really great.

Could you talk about the pacing of the movie and sort of the tone of it, because I first want to sort of— it kind of slowly leads in and it sort of seems from what we’re hearing you’re off and running from the beginning of this film.

It’s actually very similar to the tone and the pace of the first. It sort of starts out— one of the actors was describing it the other day and I thought it was a really good way to say it: It starts out as a drama, sort of slowly turns into a thriller, and slowly turns into a horror film, and then turns into an action film. So that’s sort of how— you know it starts out as just these characters getting to know each other — sort of, you know, feeling each other out — then something starts going wrong and you start playing the whole “whodunit” sort of game of like, who’s the thing and who’s not. Then, you know, people start dying, and things get really sort of bloody and scary and then, you know, you’ve got to sort of take care of business and get tough and sort of get into action. So that’s sort of, you know, how it feels to me.

As an actress, is it very difficult balancing all those different things or is it fun to have all this different stuff to play with in one movie?

It’s been really fun. I mean it’s definitely— like I was saying before, it’s been a lot more performance-focused than I expected. The first couple of months of shooting were just [laughs] acting every day, which was really great, to just come in and to just talk about scenes all day long, and discuss with each other our characters and how we feel about, you know, the scene and what’s happening in each moment. I think that that’s really going to be something that sets this film apart from other genre films.

Is there an equivalent blood scene, like in John Carpenter’s version there’s— they draw their blood and touch the fire to it. Is there a scene

Yeah, I mean, there’s a scene that’s sort of less definitive than that. There’s a test that we do that sort of just separates who is suspicious and who is most likely trustworthy. So, we sort of— we have a test that doesn’t say who’s a thing and who’s not definitively, but we at least sort of separate it into two camps. Which sort of adds to the paranoia. It makes other people pit against each other and “how dare you turn against me.” It’s a great moment in the film that amps up that level of paranoia and attention.

In John Carpenter’s The Thing, it doesn’t seem like we see your character. We do see the remains of some characters and warped fusions of characters. But am I wrong, do we see your character in the original film on the destroyed Norwegian base?

Not my character. But we definitely go through and we include all of those bits. The mystery of the Norwegian base and all of those moments are definitely explained in this film.

What’s it like working with a creature? Are you getting blood and guts thrown at you all day?

It depends. Every sort of scene has been different. Every time the Thing is shown, it’s shown in a completely different way. Or it looks different or it’s manifested in a different way. Sometimes we’re dealing with a huge animatronic puppeteer creatures. And sometimes it’s only half there and the rest will be CGed. It’s interesting to see all the different ways they’ve been working this out. It’s been really great to have something there to act to, it’s not just a green screen, it’s actually moving, and something actually set on fire. So it’s been fun.

In the original there are a lot of scenes like the blood and the coil, and the defibrillator that are these iconic scenes. When you’re filming are there any scenes where you think those are the new kind of iconic moments?

Definitely. We have some really wonderful and unique actors who have just been creating moments that are just wow. You watch them back and you think that’s really wonderful, special and different. Especially having so many Norwegian actors it feels like such a special unique thing to this film. They bring such a cool energy. It’s so different from anything else you see on film. There’s one scene that is my favorite scene that we’ve shot. Where we’re all celebrating after we’ve found this creature, and we’re all drinking. And they all break out into this completely improvised Norwegian folksong. They’re dancing and they are singing different parts and harmonizing, and jumping, and sloshing their beers, and it’s all pouring out. It was so much fun to shoot. But then when you watch it back it’s actually really sad because you know that these people are going to die. It’s kind of haunting and really wonderful. So there’s moment like that where you think that this is going to have a lot of really cool stuff.

What’s your relationship been like with the flamethrower?

It’s been mostly great. It’s a little heavy sometimes, and a little rough to run around with. But it’s fun, it’ actually instantly makes you carry yourself differently. Empowering, you’ve got this power in your hands to set something on fire. Watching it back I’ve been really surprised to watch myself look that crazy. You instantly get this different look in your face when you’re burning something, like you’ve lost your mind. It’s kinda cool.

What’s been the most horrifying moment to shoot?

It’s hard to say. Every time we’ve been dealing with The Thing, it’s been really freaky. There’s one particular scene I did where was an actual person was on fire and running through a hallway, you know, on fire, it was [phew]. And they have this thing now that’s fire retardant gel, so you’re just setting their skin on fire. We have to actually set people on fire. For me, that’s a little bit terrifying. But it’s exciting to see because it looks awesome.

Speaking of the physical challenges has there been a scene or a moment that you found the most demanding in that regard.

There’s a scene where my character kind of starts to lose it a little bit. And that’s actually during the scene where they are testing people and trying to keep people separated. And that’s actually my test, and I’m sort of in charge of it. Nobody really wants to go along with what I’m doing, and they all start to try and overthrow my control and I start to lose it a little bit. That’s kind of the point in the film when everything starts to spiral out of control. Nobody knows who to trust anymore and there’s nobody to look to for an answer. It was one of the most fun scenes, but it was also really challenging because my character, for the most part, keeps it really together and is really focused. I had to figure out how to let her lose it, to a certain point, but also come back to reality enough so you believe that she can survive a little bit longer.

How much of the film is going to be in subtitles?

A lot. We did a lot of versions where we would do at the end, “OK now do an English version just in case.” I’m not sure exactly what they’re going to decide to do. But there’s definitely a lot of scenes with Norwegian. Which has been great, especially for my to not know what people are talking about. I don’t know if they’re talking about me, so you freak out a little.

So it adds to the paranoia?

Absolutely. People can’t understand each other. It adds another layer for sure.

They’ll just figure it all out in editing?

It’s the same as no do a scene without the f-word, just in case. It’s that sort of thing which is tacked in on the end just in case someone has a problem with that scene being in Norwegian. But for the most part I think it’s really cool. I think Matthijs [the director] really likes that there’s a lot of Norwegian in it. It has that feel about it I think that adds to the film feeling very European. Having a European director and a large European cast. It sort of has that feel about it. Which is very cool.

Have you had another role for which you felt that you had to be this intense for so long? And if so is it hard to come out of that after being in the zone for so long?

I will say I’m definitely ready to smile in a movie. You get used to being a character after a while. She’s somebody who is really serious and dedicated and focused, so I try to bring to her. It hasn’t been too taxing on this one because I think that everyone is so wonderful and everyone is so collaborative. It’s been a really laid back wonderful experience overall.

What’s it like working inside a spaceship?

We haven’t really gotten to that yet. We’ve got the set there but were sort of building up to. That’s going to be all next week that weeks.

How much of the movie is spent inside the spaceship?

Not much. I think that it would be spoilerish to say more than that about it. But yes, it’s sort of a reveal at a certain point.

Have you had much interaction with the creatures yet?

I’ve had a little bit. We’ve had a few big creature scenes and I’ve been involved with most of them. They’ve all been different but they’ve all been interesting.

How do you think they look, are you scared when you are in the scene?

What’s funny is they look completely different when you look at playback on the monitors, than they do doing it. Sometimes it feels maybe not quite real when you’re doing it. But then when you see it when you go and watch playback you think, “Oh my god that’s so creepy and real on film.” And when you’re looking at it in person you know it’s gel for blood and all this stuff that you know logically isn’t real. It’s been really cool to see how it translates.

Is there any chance that this movie won’t be rated R?

I can’t imagine. I can’t imagine.

Are you guys going in the direction for a hard R?

I would think so yeah. As an actor I have no control over those things. But as far as the way we’ve been shooting it, I think they would have a very hard time trying to make it anything less than an R.

Do you have the genre bug now? Do you want to keep making horror films and sci-fi movies?

I love playing characters that are strong, when there’s physicality involved. And when you get to do lots of fun challenging. It seems to be that, that’s where those sort of roles lie.

As a fan of the film, do you think other fans will be pleased with this movie?

I think they will. I think they’ll be really pleasantly surprised. I think a lot of fans immediately go, “ugggh” when they hear that someone is doing a prequel or a remake, they sort of assume the worst sometimes. So I’m really excited for them to see this because I think they’re going to be really surprised as to how sort of respectful it is to the John Carpenter version, and how dedicated we all have been to make it really cool and fun for them to see.

Your character is very much in the spirit of Ripley, is that ever daunting, do you associate with her at all?

That’s another one of my favorite films. But I’m not watching that in between takes, or anything like that. I know that one of the things that Matthijs saw in me that he liked, was he thought that I embodied that somewhat. And Alien and Ripley are big inspirations for him. They are two iconic things that are in his head all of the time. So I took that as just being flattering, that’s all I can really do. I’m hugely flattered that he sees me as being somewhat relatable to that character and I just go forth.

How is your character flawed? I think she’s a control freak. She’s flawed in tons of ways, I’m sure as I am. So I try to bring my flaws to her. But I think ultimately she’s a control freak and she thinks she knows how to do everything, and everything that she thinks is right. But sometimes it’s not. I’d say that’s her main flaw.

For full coverage of my set visit, click here to see my report, interviews and more!

Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.