Thanks to the abundance of stories about feckless twentysomething guys and the women they fetishize, the manic pixie dream girl is almost a prerequisite archetype for any romantic comedy made these days. But as Ramona Flowers, the object of the title character's desire in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is given a lot more to do than change her hair color, look gorgeously wounded and watch her co-star flounder around at her feet. And it's her substance, her character's actual own problems, that not only distinguish Ramona from her manic pixie counterparts, but highlight just how talented Winstead is as an actress.
Cinematical recently sat down with Winstead at the Los Angeles press day for the film, where the actress shed her character's Technicolor hair for classic brown. In addition to talking about bringing dimensionality to the woman who drives Scott Pilgrim to battle seven evil exes, Winstead discussed the challenges of finding real and substantive opportunities as an actress, and reflected on the possibility of becoming part of the pop-culture benchmark that Scott Pilgrim promises to be for its attention-deficient, hopelessly romantic generation.
Cinematical: Scott Pilgrim has an incredibly muscular visual style and an approach that's pretty specific pop-culturally. Was that something you had to take into consideration at all in terms of knowing how big to play scenes or evoke a certain reference, or was that sort of all Edgar Wright's purview?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: I think as far as the pop-culture references, I didn't think about it too much because it all kind of made so much sense to me. I guess I just got it really quickly, and after reading the books, it really spoke to me and I understood it and I got the tone – especially after seeing Edgar's Spaced. I sort of really thought that they were similar, and I was a huge fan of that show, so I kind of tapped right into that, and yeah, I guess we all kind of trusted in Edgar to kind of bring it all to life in the perfect way.
Cinematical: Ramona is kind of the quintessential manic pixie dream girl. When you came onto the film, did the script provide you with a pretty complete portrait of her, or were the books more extensive? Or did you have to do a lot of work yourself to flesh her out?
Winstead: When I read the books, I was trying to figure out what made her the way she is and why she is seemingly a bit cold at times, and why she's so guarded. I think there was a lot in the books that helped me, but I think the most helpful [things] were the ten sort of facts that Bryan Lee O'Malley gave me, that were sort of more about her history and her childhood and her family life, some really sad things that she had been through that made me kind of go, okay, now I really get Ramona and I get sort of why she carries that weight with her all of the time. There seems to be a sadness, even in the drawings, just in her eyes and her face, there seems to be a sadness to her all of the time, and that was something I wanted to bring to her. I hoped that was the kind of humanity that would be enough to kind of shine through the harsh exterior.
Cinematical: In other interviews you described her has having a sort of uncertainty how she feels in a given moment. When you're playing that in a scene, do you have to know for sure what she's thinking and feeling, or is it better to simply be in the moment and discover it as you're acting?
Winstead: I think the main thing was having certainty but having it change from scene to scene. Like at certain times, she was like, "this guy is such an idiot," and other times she was like, "he's kind of adorable." It's always sort of knowing what she feels about him at different moments, but changing it up constantly so that at the end of the day you don't know what she's thinking because you can't really track it in a clear way. Because she's always sort of flip-flopping and changing her mind, she's impulsive and she has a hard time sticking to one thing; she's always trying to get away from herself and her own reality.
Cinematical: Is connecting the dots difficult between all of that potentially contradictory behavior, or at the risk of making a generalization about your gender, is that a feminine attribute that you found easy to tap into?
Winstead: Yeah. I don't know if it's just a feminine attribute, but I feel like when you're dating someone and it's just starting out, I think everyone has those moments of not knowing whether or not you really like that person. I think it's rare that you kind of meet someone and you go, oh this person's perfect! Oh my God – I hope I'm with them forever! It's like one moment, you're going, oh, that's really cool what they just said – I kind of like that, and then the next moment they do something really stupid and you go, oh my God – am I really hanging out with this person? So I feel like that's just a real sort of portrayal of what it's like when you just start dating someone, and I think that it kind of gets misperceived, like, oh, they fall in love and they go through this journey together, and it's not really like that. He's fighting these exes just as they're starting to date and figure out how they feel about each other, and he just knows that he's interested enough to keep things going, and she knows that means something to her.
Cinematical: How did the pacing of the movie translate to the on-set environment? Was it equally fast given the volume of stuff you had to do, or was there plenty of time to immerse yourself in each scene and discover it naturally?
Winstead: Admittedly there were some long days that felt a bit tedious, but it certainly didn't move as fast as it does on the screen when we were shooting it. We had to get everything perfect and every head turn and every eye flick and every body movement had to be just right, and it was such a long shoot – for many reasons. There was all of these huge action sequences so of course it's going to take a while, but also we would spend days and days working on two lines of dialogue because there was a certain camera movement or a certain visual that was going to be incorporated. So it definitely moved a lot more slowly than you would think, but that's one of the most striking things to me when I see it, how fast it moves, with such whip-speed like lightning, and that was really amazing to me to watch, and exciting.
Cinematical: Obviously Scott is sort of the main focus of the story, but you and Ellen have observed that the film is a sort of coming-of-age for all of these characters. Do you think about the arc of your character, or where she needs to be in the story, or is it better to be spontaneous in those moments?
Winstead: I think in preparing for it, I thought about it a lot, but in the moments of the scene, I'm not thinking about the overall arc. I'm definitely thinking more about what's going on in that specific scene at that specific moment. That was one of the main things that I tapped into about Ramona, how she sort of has treated people thoughtlessly in the past and how she's trying to get away from that – trying to figure out how she can stop doing that, and not knowing if she can. Is she destined to be the bitchy girl who dumps all of her ex-boyfriends in this heartless way? How can she get away from that? So that's something I thought about a lot in playing her.
Cinematical: Do you tend to intellectualize your process as much as people like me do? Are you pretty intuitive, or do you do a lot of research to make sure you know the character inside and out?
Winstead: I guess – it's certainly a mix of both. I mean, certainly when I read reviews sometimes, I'm like whoa – I never thought about it that way! But I definitely do analyze scenes moreso, and it's more about trying to get the performance and really understanding every line and the purpose of sort of every single moment, what she's thinking and what's the thought behind everything. I think that's the most important thing for me, so I guess I don't usually analyze the films as a whole until after they're done and I've seen them, because I'm usually thinking more about the character in the context of that world.
Cinematical: At the risk of drawing a weird parallel, Ramona's path in the film seems like it could be a metaphor for an actor or actress trying to escape their past. Have you felt like you were a prisoner of the success you've had in the past playing certain roles or working in various genres?
Winstead: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I get offered horror films all of the time. People think I do a lot of horror films, but I don't do nearly as many as I've been offered (laughs). But when people see me in a film like this, like when some people saw me in the trailer, they were like, "I can't believe you did that! I had no idea you could do that." It's surprising to me, because I'm an actress, and I didn't feel like it was that much of a stretch. But yeah, it's interesting; I'm hoping that I can kind of continue to do things that are completely different and extreme from one another and then hopefully people won't see me in a certain way anymore. I feel like most of the parts I've done have been different, but it just depends on what people have seen. Like if people have seen Death Proof, they think I'm a ditzy cheerleader hottie or something, which is just so not me at all. Or then if people have seen [Live Free or] Die Hard, they think I'm like this tomboy, so it's interesting to see the different perceptions people have of me that are all kind of true and untrue in their own way.
Cinematical: Do you have to strategize at all to make sure you have enough different opportunities, or have you mostly had the freedom to do what you want when you wanted to do it? For example, if another Die Hard-style movie came along, that might give you the visibility to get a wider variety of roles after that.
Winstead: Well, that certainly has been a thought in my career. That's something that every actor thinks about – okay, I've got to get a big movie so I can get a name so that I can finally get the parts that I want to play. But I really lucked about because the big movie I got also happens to be an awesome movie, so I feel incredibly lucky that I didn't really have to go and do a film that I really hate because it's going to make a lot of money. Hopefully, Scott Pilgrim will make money – I'm hoping people will go see it – but I do feel like this is the film that's going to make those changes for me that I've been going after, regardless of how much money it makes. It's also something I feel more passionate about than anything I've ever done, so I feel like I kind of got the best of both worlds with this.
Cinematical: We talked about the specificity of the pop culture references earlier, but do you think this will connect with people even if they aren't familiar with all of that language?
Winstead: I think so. I certainly hope they can look past their sort of [concerns] like "oh, that's too young for me," or "I don't get those references" or whatever. Because to me that's all just kind of the periphery of what's happening in the story. The story is the important thing, and that's what really hits you and you connect with – and it kind of comes out of nowhere with this kind of emotional wallop. I think if you just kind of tap into that and go for the ride of what everything else is, you're going to love it, no matter what age you are. So I think you just have to let got of the perception you have of what it might be, and enjoy it.
Cinematical: Is it at all important that this film may be emblematic of a certain generation of people, or a symbol of a specific moment in pop culture history?
Winstead: Absolutely. I think the books, when I read those I had a similar sort of feeling of like this really hits on so many things I relate to and my friends relate to. And then I think seeing the movie, that kind of hit home with me even more; I think the cast looked at each other and were like, this is something that could really be a film that is remembered for encompassing a generation and sort of what we all stand for or what we all are in this moment in time. It's a really amazing feeling; it's hard because it's this comedy and it's this over-the-top action and it's so kind of zany and crazy, and yet Ellen [Wong] and I keep getting teary-eyed talking about it in interviews because it means so much to us to be a part of it. Because it's really a special, unique thing.