This year at the Toronto Film Festival, some of that early groundswell surrounded Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who's started hearing Oscar buzz thanks to her eye-opening turn as Kate, an alcoholic elementary school teacher, in "Smashed." Together with her co-star and on-screen husband Aaron Paul (of "Breaking Bad" fame), Mary's is a big, commanding performance in a relatively smaller indie movie -- just the sort of thing that should make Hollywood (if not audiences) take notice, whether the prognosticating comes to pass or not.
But for Winstead, who might be more familiar to audiences as Michael Cera's dream girl in "Scott Pilgrim" or John McClane's daughter in the latest "Die Hard," going indie was a welcome change of pace, regardless of what happens come Oscar season. Moviefone sat down with her during TIFF, where we talked about actively seeking out smaller films, dealing with fans, and the trick to playing drunk.
How have you enjoyed the reaction the movie's been getting so far? It's been amazing. I mean, I don't think I've really heard a negative reaction yet, which I know I will. I'm ready, you know? [Laughs] Because somebody's going to hate it. But it's been so lovely, everybody's been so warm and kind. And there's been a lot of people coming with their own personal stories of recovery. It's been just amazing to hear their stories, and to hear everybody's reactions to it.
What drew you to the movie? It was kind of a no-brainer. It's so rare to read a script with a female lead who is so complex, and so layered, and so real as this character. For me, it was like whatever I could possibly do to even be considered to play this part, I have to get in there and do it. So I was amazed that I didn't have to fight as hard as I was expecting to have to fight to get the role. They welcomed me to it. And it was really amazing for them to put that trust in me to play such a complex part.
Were you actively looking to do sort of a smaller film, an indie film? Definitely. For some reason, it's surprisingly hard to find. [Laughs] Unless you really just stop everything and say, "OK, I'm not going to do anything else until I find something like this." And that's what I did.
I had these back-to-back-to-back big films, and they're great and you know, I'm having fun and everything, but I haven't done the thing that I've been saying for years and years that I want to do. I told everyone that works with me, that for a little while I just want to focus on getting something small, performance-focused. I want to be introduced to people who are making stuff like that, and just try and meet anybody interesting who's interested in doing the same kinds of things as me. So that's where we shifted our focus, and it worked out really well. The first people I met were the people doing this film, so it worked out great. [Laughs]
There's less sitting around, I'm guessing. Yeah. Which is also great. No trailers, half-an-hour lunches. Which is great for me, especially playing a part like this, I can't imagine doing it and, like, sitting for three hours in between set-ups. It would be just impossible, I think. Because you just would be so confused on like, wait, am I just like checking my emails, or am I going through alcoholism recovery? What's happening? [Laughs] So it was great to be constantly on that [quick] pace.
How much does a role like this stay with you afterwards? Did it change your drinking habits at all? It definitely stayed with me, the message of it stayed with me. But alcohol's not something that ... I mean, I can barely have more than two drinks. It's just never been something that's been a vice for me at all. So it didn't really make me think about that so much. It more made me think about other things in my life that I do have issues with, and it does make you think about what you're not accepting, what you're covering up, or trying not to accept in yourself.
It's interesting you say you don't drink much, because I think playing drunk is one of the hardest things for an actor to do convincingly. So what's your trick? Is there one? James [Ponsoldt, the director] and I, that was a big, big worry for both of us going into it; we don't want this to be bad acting. Like please, even good actors can be bad at playing drunk. So it's a scary thing to take on. So we found this book called "The Power of the Actor," which was written by this really great acting teacher named Ivana Chubbuck. And she has like a whole chapter dedicated to playing drunk. And we ended up finding her in LA, and going to a couple of her classes, and talking to her.
And it was really weird, it's almost like putting yourself under hypnosis, kind of. You talk yourself through every single step of getting drunk, and how it feels to get drunk, starting with taking the first sip and how it feels on your tongue, and imagining it as it goes down your throat. And you really imagine it so clearly, and it goes on for so long, that by the time you open your eyes, your eyes are kind of glazed-over and you feel really out of it. So we were so stoked that it actually really worked. [Laughs] But then of course, it's still so challenging, because on top of all that, you have to act the scene. And she's in so many different emotional states every time she's drunk. So it was nice to have something that I could turn to so that the drunk part of it wasn't such a worry anymore and I could focus on being the character and playing the scene.
I'd imagine having someone like Aaron Paul to do some of those scenes with helps too. You're not just getting drunk alone. Yeah, absolutely. Everybody in the cast was perfect, so kind and warm and open, that it was the best possible situation. I never felt uncomfortable, or I never felt like I couldn't just do whatever I felt like doing at any moment. If I wanted to just grab Aaron and throw him across the room, he would've been totally cool with it. Or like, punch him in the face, he would've been like, "Yes!" So it's just great working with actors who are so in it with you that they're willing to go anywhere with you, and they'll take you anywhere. It's so much fun.
There's a great moment in the movie where you say that what you used to consider adorable or embarrassing is now scary. Where you able to draw on anything that helped you relate to what Kate was going through? I think thinking about becoming an adult, and having to face up to your problems and face up to your insecurities is difficult for everybody. I see it in myself and I struggle with it myself, so I could very much relate to it. But I also have a lot of friends who I could look at, and when I'm saying those words, you know, we've all seen it before. Especially I think being in this industry, and hanging out with everybody in this industry all the time, it's really hard to know when it's time to grow up sometimes. [Laughs] Everybody goes out drinking every night, we don't necessarily have set schedules, there's no real model for how to be. So I think to look in the mirror and say this isn't me, this isn't what I said I want, is a big deal.
How about the public aspect? You're also on Twitter, right? Do you interact with fans much on it? I do. I try to. I don't respond well to people kind of yelling at me over it. So I don't really respond to that stuff if somebody's like "Tweet me!" or "RT me!" Sometimes I feel bad, because people get upset when you don't respond. But there are some people who are kind and seem like genuine fans who have something interesting to say, then I like to start a dialogue with them, and be involved. And that's really fun. You just have to wade through a lot of the craziness sometimes. [Laughs]
I'd guess that's not just restricted to Twitter either. Oh yeah. I mean, I certainly don't have it as much as [some people]. I mean, man, when Aaron was here a couple days ago ... his show is taking off so much. He just gets swarmed everywhere he goes, and he handles it so well. He takes pictures with everybody, he's like "Yo, bitch!" And he really plays it up. And some people are just really good at that. And that's something I'm not sure if I would be good at or not. You just don't know until it happens to you and you see how you handle it.
Do you find yourself taking notes on how he does it? I do, yeah. I'm amazed by it. I guess you have to make the choice to either constantly be terrified of it, or you can embrace it and have fun with it. And I think that's the way to go. I think that's what he does. Everybody who seems to do the best with it seems to have that mindset. So if it ever does get that way for me, I definitely am going to try and do that.
"Smashed" has a limited release in North America on October 12.