Mary Elizabeth Winstead On Getting 'Smashed' With Aaron Paul — Both On and Off Screen
Mary Elizabeth Winstead needed to prove herself.
After years of hopping from genre to genre, she wanted to shed her Scott Pilgrim vs. the World dye job and bloody Final Destination 3 history and find a complex role that would be a game-changer for her career.
Luckily, the stars aligned and landed her in front of Smashed director James Ponsoldt, where she not only impressed him enough that he didn’t audition anyone else for the role, but she also helped him cast her leading man, Aaron Paul.
Mary Elizabeth sat down with Movieline ahead of the film’s Oct. 12 release to talk about crafting her recovering alcoholic character, Kate Hannah, preparing for the role without meeting anyone first — except for one wild night with Aaron — and sharing her modest, yet poignant, reaction to all of the well-deserved Oscar buzz.
And as for all of those big blockbuster roles she’s been “passed over for” throughout the years? She spills about that, too, opening up about the truth behind failed negotiations and what she wants her career path to look like after Smashed.
Smashed is a departure from your previous roles, including comedies like Scott Pilgrim and bloody gore like Final Destination 3. Was it refreshing to play such a dynamic, dramatic character?
Yeah, I mean it was such a change of pace. It was almost like changing careers because it was so different. It was great, and it was what I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I’ve needed to sort of prove myself in this capacity for a long time — I needed to show, at least to myself, that I could carry a really complex role, so I knew that I needed to do it for me. The fact that people are actually responding to it is sort of above and beyond what I even was hoping for.
How did this role come to you? Did James [Ponsoldt] say, ‘Hey, I want you for this role?’ or did you audition?
I had been seeking out smaller scripts. I had been really trying to find something small and intimate, so I had a meeting with Jonathan Schwartz, who is the producer of the film. I didn’t know what he was producing at the time, but I just wanted to meet him because I knew that he had some scripts in the pipeline. After he sent me this script, I just flipped out over it and called him immediately and was just like, ‘Please let me know what I can do to just get my foot in the door and be considered for it!’ So then he set up a meeting with me and James, which went really well.
After that, I just sort of took it upon myself to do an audition tape; I taped probably like seven, eight scenes from the movie and sent it to James. And after he and the producers talked it over, they cast me, which was crazy! I expected them to sort of see every actress in Hollywood and go through that whole process, but they didn’t. They didn’t see anyone else. And so it was really, really, amazing.
It’s hard to imagine anyone else but you in the role — you embodied Kate to a T. How did you prepare? Is there anything you did in the audition tape that made it into the film?
Luckily whatever I did in the audition tape was enough to get me the part, but from my perspective, in retrospect, I feel like it’s terrible! [Laughs] I did so much more work on the character by the time I actually shot it that to me it’s like night and day. When I look at that audition tape, I feel like I’m acting, and I feel like I was able to get to a place by the time I shot the film where it wasn’t acting anymore.
I was sort of scared, even after I did the audition tape and got the part, because I still didn’t feel like I had a handle on it at all. So it was scary to me almost to get the part because I was like, ‘Ooh, but I don’t know how to play this!’ So I worked really hard. I really wanted to make sure I did the part justice, and I did whatever I could. I spent a lot of time in AA meetings, I spent a lot of time with James just really carving out Kate’s backstory and becoming really, really specific about that. And just spending a lot of time on myself and my own issues emotionally. It was a lot like, just, therapy. Working through my own stuff. That ended up being the most important thing, the thing that connected me the most to the character — sort of relating my struggles to her struggles and my issues to her issues, and sort of linking those two things up. It was an amazing experience.
Is there anything from Kate’s backstory that we didn’t see that you worked together with James on?
We talked about her entire life. There are hints at it throughout the film — you see her relationship with her mom, you know there’s probably a lot of pain there, especially childhood pain. And so we fleshed that out quite a bit with her dad leaving and what age, what age did she start drinking and why, and what age did it become her identity to be the fun drunk girl, and how that became so much easier to be than to be herself. How it became easier to be the drunk girl than to be the girl with all of these problems. So that was the thing that we really focused in on.
You said you went to some AA meetings to prepare. Was there anything else that you did? I’m sure you didn’t go on any drinking binges to get into your character...
Yeah, I went on one! I went on one with James and Aaron! [Laughs]
I hope you weren't on a bike.
No, not on a bike. James was our designated driver. And it was in part to get into character, but it was mostly for us to feel the dynamic with each other — what we’re like when we’re drunk. Because the couple is like that so much; it’s how they spend their lives together, is drunk. So we wanted to kind of start off with that. And also it helped because Aaron and I didn’t have any rehearsal time. We had only met each other once before. It was a good way for us to get to know each other really fast. You know, when you sort of go out and get drunk with someone, you become close pretty quickly. [Laughs] It was a nice way to sort of expedite that process. And by the time we showed up [on set], we felt close enough to be able to go to those places together.
Was Aaron cast before you or after you?
After me. Everyone was cast after me. It was like a total shock. It was so crazy. I had no idea that the supporting roles were going to end up being these incredible actors. I mean, that really took it to a whole new level. I knew it was an incredible script, I knew it was an incredible part I was dying to play, but I sort of thought it was a tiny movie, that it was probably going to be all unknowns, and we were kind of just going to try to get people to see it and do our best. And then when they started telling me who was going to be playing the other roles, I was like, ‘Oh, people are going to see this! This is a real movie! This is really happening!’ [Laughs] So, yeah, that was incredibly exciting.
And you mentioned that you and Aaron had only met once or twice before. Did you do a chemistry read together or did you meet at all?
No. I kind of knew that Aaron was everybody’s favorite. He was my favorite, he was everybody’s favorite. [Laughs] We had talked about a lot of people for that part, but he was the only one that everyone agreed on. We’d come up with other names, but it would be very polarizing. Like, one person would be like, ‘That person would be great!’ and another person would be like, ‘No! Definitely not!’ [Laughs] But Aaron was the first name that came up that everyone went, ‘Yeah! That would be great.’
I still wanted to meet him, just because I didn’t know him personally. I knew he was an incredible actor and I had such admiration for him, but I also knew that I needed to work with somebody in that role who was going to be really open and who was going to be someone I felt comfortable with, because you have to go to a lot of humiliating places doing a role like this. You don’t want it to be someone who you feel like is going to be closed off or is going to be too cool to really give anything back. From the moment I met him, he was so open and warm and genuine and lovely, and just the sweetest person. And now I feel like everybody else knows that he’s the sweetest person in the world, but I’m like, how didn’t I already know that? [Laughs] I shouldn’t have even had to have met him to find that out. But it was great, and after I met him, I sort of told everybody that he was perfect, and then he came back.
Honestly, your chemistry reads like you’ve known each other for years. Although their love story is far from perfect, If you take the alcohol out, could you see their relationship continuing?
For me, having learned a lot about alcoholism and AA from researching the character, I’m very much of the feeling that they can never be together, as heartbreaking as that is. Just because no matter what they have that co-dependency that they’re naturally going to want to fall back into. And it would be such a struggle for them to have a normal, healthy relationship that it would make them both really tempted to go back to alcohol. And I think as an alcoholic, you have to really keep yourself in the most healthy of environments at all times. So I think for her it would just be a mistake to put herself back into that really unstable place.
But I do love the fact that the end is so hopeful for him; that he is going to figure his life out. And that one day, I do think that they could be really great friends. I think there’s a lot of love there and they will be able to be in each other’s lives, but I don’t see them ever being a couple.
The craziest part for me was that you don’t really see how damaged Kate’s life is until she really hits that downward spiral.
That’s the thing. It certainly isn’t a message movie by any means, but we are kind of making a point that even if you stop drinking, it doesn’t mean your life suddenly becomes easier — it actually becomes harder in a lot of ways because you have to deal with your pain. It’s better, but it’s hard.
It felt like a very realistic portrayal of alcoholism, especially with Kate’s two split personalities. How did you balance the dynamic of both opposing sides of her persona?
What’s great about it is that it just felt like, for the first time to me, that I was playing a really whole person. Because we all have so many different sides to our personalities, but you just never see that on screen. I think that’s why it’s so surprising that it feels so different, because we’re not used to seeing people on screen show so many different sides of themselves — we’re not usually really allowed to since characters are usually more one-dimensional.
So I loved that; I loved being able to do that. I felt like I was able to bring all the different shades of my own personality to her, and there was nothing that I had to shut off.
Your chemistry with the entire cast — including Nick Offerman’s offbeat character, Megan Mullally as your boss, and Octavia Spencer as your sponsor — was incredible. How did you form that dynamic?
I think it was just luck, and James casting the right people. We didn’t have any rehearsal time — we didn’t even meet! Aaron was the only person I even met before we started working.
Did you all even do a read through together or did you just jump into it?
No, we just showed up and just did the scenes! It was just one of those lightning in a bottle things where everything just comes together and everyone was so wonderful. We were very lucky.
The most surprising part was that most of the cast were comedic actors playing straight. What was that like, both in and out of character?
It was just really lovely. It was such an amazing group of people who are all just lovely human beings. They’re all super funny, but not in that way that they have to constantly be telling a joke or constantly getting attention — not in that way at all. Just lovely people to be around. So it was a comfortable, relaxed environment, and it was sort of like the film. We would go from laughing together to talking about more serious things. We just felt like a family. It just felt like a place that you could really be yourself, which was the ideal environment for a film like this.
Now that you’ve done such a big drama, what’s next? Rom-com? Adventure? I know you’ve seemingly been passed over for some of those big blockbuster roles, including Cobie Smulders’ role in The Avengers. But if you took that role, do you think you would be where you are now? And do you have any hopes to be that big blockbuster star?
Yeah, I mean, it’s funny, because some of those roles — well, the majority of them, I was just plain passed over for them [Laughs] — but some of them I actually chose not to do as well because I don’t really just want to be the blockbuster star, and I don’t necessarily want to sign onto seven films in a role that I’m not really passionate about. That’s actually happened several times as well, where in the news it sort of seems like, ‘Oh, she lost the part,’ but in reality, it just falls apart in the negotiation process and you realize that this isn’t really something I’m passionate enough about to agree to ‘X, X, and X,’ and sign the contract on. [Laughs]
So that’s happened a bunch, too. Because I do really want to do films like this. That’s the majority of stuff I want to do. But unfortunately, you don’t get paid to do films like this! [Laughs] You get enough to go to a nice dinner. That’s basically the money that you get paid. So you do have to think about your career and making a living and how you’re going to do that. Going forward, I would love to work with directors like Rian Johnson and Joss Whedon; people like that who are doing big films but do have really independent voices. That’s kind of what I want to focus on, is always working with people with at least an independent point of view, even if it’s not an independent film.
Well, on that note, congratulations! For this film, you already have a lot of Oscar buzz. What, in the perfect situation, would you like to happen next whether you win an award or not?
I think for most actors, because we sort of have to tell ourselves this, we always say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t mean anything to win an Oscar!’ It certainly isn’t a goal that you want to set yourself up for, because then you’re just setting yourself up for disaster. Because how many people actually win an Oscar?
So I would certainly never imagine that for myself, but the thing about those kind of awards are that they are completely life-changing. You’re given a power that so few other people in the industry have. And so that’s the thing, that I would sort of just want to use … for good! [Laughs] I sound like a superhero. But to help make good movies. I would love to be in the position where my name is a name that is large enough in some capacity to make things happen in the industry. To be able to fund a small film or be able to discover a new voice and give them a platform. That’s something I would really love to to do.
Smashed hits limited theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Oct. 12.
Alyse Whitney is an editor at Wetpaint Entertainment. You can follow her on Twitter @AlyseWhitney.