With "Smashed," Mary Elizabeth Winstead Shatters Her Own Expectations

Playing an alcoholic, the actress eagerly takes on a challenging, atypical Hollywood role.

By Scott Huver
|  Friday, Oct 12, 2012  |  Updated 5:17 AM PDT
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Child Stars Then and Now

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul in "Smashed."

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Some of her peers might have questioned actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s sobriety when she admitted she was getting bored with her job, and took on a low-paying indie "Smashed" to play a very unglamorous drunk.

After all, in less than a decade the 27-year-old actress has landed a slew of very coveted, high-profile gigs, including Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof,” Len Wiseman’s “Live Free Or Die Hard” and Edgar Wright’s “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World.” But Winstead was starting to crave a real challenge, so she decided to seek out something Hollywood wasn’t offering her.

The result is a potentially career-changing turn in the stark, occasionally darkly funny indie drama (opening Oct. 12) in which the actress plays a schoolteacher struggling to come to grips with her increasingly troublesome alcoholism, even as her cocktail-loving husband (Aaron Paul) doesn’t understand her need to change. Winstead tells how, even while successful by most show business standards, she needed to find a project to prove something to herself.

How’d you arrive at a point career-wise where you were looking for something to really test yourself?

I just had a bit of a wakeup call that I needed to do it. It's something that I had been wanting for year and just hadn't really gotten off my ass and just made it happen, because I was sort of waiting around for somebody to make it happen for me. I realized that it was just never going to come unless I got a little more proactive. That's when I kind of just went out and started actively seeking scripts – Independent scripts, independent producers and filmmakers, anyone I could meet and get to know that were doing something different than what everybody else was doing.

What made you take that leap?

I was on a set of a film – a film that I was happy to do; I certainly wasn't doing it begrudgingly. I'm happy to have any kind of work, but I wasn't feeling challenged. I was feeling a little bit bored, and that's kind of when I was like, 'I'm in this industry which is so exciting and so full of creativity, and I'm bored at work? This isn't why I wanted to be an actor. I might as well be in an office or something, if I'm bored.' Also, for a long time I felt like I was really growing and progressing and with each role was sort of learning more, and a few films had gone by where I really hadn't that felt that same progress.

How did you prepare for the hardcore partying that your character does?

Aaron [Paul] and I kind of went out and had a bit of a drinking binge together before we shot, and he filmed it because he wanted to watch himself back and see what he was like drunk – that was kind of his tactic. For me it was more I just wanted to remind myself of what it feels like to be that drunk, because it's not something that I do very often. It's like a once-in-a-blue-moon type thing, so I wanted it to be a bit more fresh in my mind when I was playing those scenes, of just what it feels like in your body to have that level of intoxication.

And you went to some AA meetings to observe? Just as yourself?

I went, invited by people in the meetings, such as Susan [Burke, the co-screenwriter] and also Alishe [Beardeaux, an associate producer on the film], who's also in recovery. So I would always go with one of them, and it was always open meetings, which are different than closed meetings. Closed meetings are private and open meetings are open to anyone who wants to learn about the program. So I didn't go in and announce, 'I'm making a movie and I'm an actor.' But I also didn't go in and try to pretend that I was an addict. If I was asked to speak I would say, 'I'm actually here just to learn about the program and to learn from you,' and they were all very accepting of that and welcoming of me.

How did the candor of people at the meetings help shape your character
?

I went to so many meetings that what started really popping up, for me, is the fact that there is no one face of alcoholism, and the fact that any one of those people could be me, could be my dad or my mom, could be my sister. So there was no otherness about it – it was very universal. Their struggles and their stories were no different from my own stories.  And of course some of them were darker than others.

They weren't all the same, but they were all completely relatable and real and human, and so for me it was just take alcohol out of the equation and I fit right in with these people. That was kind of a surprise to me, just because I haven't anyone really close in my life who's dealt with alcoholism. It's not something that's been close to me or that I've seen at really close range – it's always been something that's been a bit at arm's length. So to kind of sit down with them and realize that there's nothing that differentiates me from them was a good first step to figuring out the character and figuring out how much I related to her personally.

Have you started to feel a seismic shift in what's coming your way now, since the Industry folks have had the opportunity to see this film?

For me, I did what I needed to do – for me. It's just changed my confidence in myself a lot as an actor, because it's one of those things where for years and years, like a lot of actors do, you sort of sit around and kind of grumble about how everybody else is getting the parts that you want and why can't you get one of those great parts. But you sabotage yourself along the way, too, because you have such a fear of failing at those great parts. So when you get it, that fear of screwing it up is huge.

For me the fact that I did it and I got through it and I did what I wanted to do with it is huge. I haven't felt a shift in career yet, really, other than the fact that I've been more confident and holding off on doing something that I'm not totally passionate about and just kind of reading scripts and saying, 'Not right now. That's not the right thing.' But we'll see.

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