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Q&A: Mary Elizabeth Winstead on Getting 'Smashed'

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Like many a respected actress before her, Mary Elizabeth Winstead got her break running from peril — "Final Destination 3" and "Black Christmas" were among her first high profile credits — but her more recent roles have proved that "scream queen" barely scratches the surface of Winstead's repertoire.

We loved her as the untouchably cool object of Michael Cera's affections in "Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World" and a terrorized paleontologist in last year's prequel to "The Thing," but her new indie "Smashed" has industry professionals (including us) tossing around the O-word.

That word is "Oscar," if it wasn't clear.

In anticipation of "Smashed" arriving in theaters this weekend, we asked Winstead about playing drunk, her celebrity doppelganger and whether Bill Murray is her ultimate "Bill Murray figure."

So,  you know there's already some Oscar buzz over your role in "Smashed," right?
I have heard the word, sort of ... it's just crazy. When I first started hearing it, I thought, "Oh, that’s a crazy joke." I feel like Catherine O'Hara in "For Your Consideration." Especially when I allow myself to believe it for a second. I'm trying not to take it seriously at all, because I know that that's not something that you could ever count on in a million years. But at least it's gotta mean something that somebody's saying it.

It is a really great role and it seems like something that, maybe if it had a really big star in it, everybody would be like, "Oh, that’s totally their Oscar role" or whatever. But, for me, it never crossed my mind. I just wanted to do a small movie that was character-focused, which I've never had a chance to do before. It was really was just a personal thing; I needed to challenge myself, I needed to prove myself that I could actually handle a part like this. That’s really as far as I took it in my mind. The only result that I could even allow myself to hope for was that we could get it to Sundance, maybe.

Sony

For your first small, character-focused movie, there's a lot of you in it.  Your character is completely the centerpiece. You, you, you. That has to be intimidating.
It was terrifying, definitely, when I actually got it. Because it's one of those things, you get a script and you're like, "Yes! I'm going to make them consider me for this, I'm going to put myself out there!" And then when they go, "Yeah, sure, let's do it", you're like, "Oh... you sure you really want me to do this? Because I know I said I could do it but I'm not actually sure if I can do it."

This was a very short shoot for a very intense movie. Did the mood of the film bleed into your on-set experience?
We never really had that much time to break character, and that's not to say it was a heavy set or a really tense set or anything. It was super relaxed, but it just felt very natural and real and authentic. Like the environments were so real because we were always shooting in real places, it was a real school, it was a real house. We shot everything in the same neighborhood, so it just felt like we were living the lives of these characters for those entire 19 days.

Your character Kate is chilling because she's so recognizable. She's not a violent, angry drunk — she's just like your buddy who drinks a lot, only... not. It makes alcoholism seem dangerously possible. How much of that was on the page and how much was you?
I think it was a little bit of both. It was definitely on the page — I think that was part of the conception. The whole idea was Susan the co-writer, who is, herself, in recovery, was like the quintessential cute drunk girl. She was the girl who everybody loves to party with, then suddenly she would kind of go off the rails and people would start to be like, "Okay, it's getting a little weird now."  But for the most part, she was the girl next door who liked to drink. And I think they wanted to explore that. But [director James Ponsoldt] really wanted me to bring what I'm like drunk to the drunk scenes, as well. And I definitely am like the silly childlike drunk, when I drink. I'm like ten years old and I love to dance and hop around and act ridiculous and just act like a child. I think that worked really well for Kate.

And you could take the alcohol element out of it and I think it still is a coming-of-age story, an adult coming-of-age story, about growing up and learning to accept yourself and look in the mirror and be like, "Yes, I have been through a lot and I can accept that and work through it without trying to brush it under the rug. I can just accept my faults and my mistakes. And put one foot in front of the other and be an adult about it and become the person I'm supposed to be."

A few years ago, you read for Wonder Woman, for the "Justice League" movie that never quite happened.
It was like six years ago, but yeah.

It looks like the project is finally getting off the ground. Is that something you'd still be interested in?
I don't know. Even back then, it was one of those things... there was no script, you sign onto it under the cover of secrecy. I definitely couldn't do that anymore. At that point in my career, I was like, "Sure, sign me up, whatever the role is." Now I'm much more careful about that kind of thing. Especially, you know, they want you to sign up for seven movies, even though you have no idea what it is that you're going to be doing in those movies. That kind of thing is just scary for me. I very much enjoy my freedom going film to film, being able to choose what I do. It would take a lot for me to be able for me to sign on for the role.

I'm not totally sure that that's the role for me. I feel like part of me would want to do it, to see if I could bring something interesting to it, but part of me would be scared that I wouldn't be the right person for it. If I were to play a superhero type, I would want that person to be human — I'm not really interested in playing perfection. If it is to be this sort of perfect role model for the world, that does everything right all the time, that saves the day, it's just not interesting to me as an actor.

Universal

You'll be appearing soon in another movie with ["Scott Pilgrim" co-star] Aubrey Plaza — "A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III" — has it been brought to your attention that you two have a crazy strong resemblance?
Yes, actually when I was promoting "Scott Pilgrim," I had several people coming up to me going, "Aubrey, Aubrey!" They had just seen the movie and I was like, "I played Ramona Flowers," and they were like, "No, you didn't, that's Mary, you're Aubrey." I had them actually arguing with me over who I was.

Identity crisis! Maybe you should just give in and play sisters.
I think we could, I think we would be totally believable as sisters. I would love that, it would be a lot of fun.

Or twins, according to "Scott Pilgrim" fans.  Bill Murray's in "Charles Swan" as well. He seems like the gold standard of acting achievement — once you've co-starred with Bill Murray, you've really made it.
He's like the type of person where you will play an extra in one of his films just to be able to touch him and be near him. He's definitely one of those people for me, he's just incredible. And when I was on set, he was in a trailer next to me, so I could kind of hear him. He was, like, singing to himself while he was getting ready. I was like, "Oh my god, that is totally the Bill Murray voice!"  That's the voice that I grew up with. When you talk to him, he is just the sweetest guy. He's super charming and exactly what you would expect him to be. He and Tom Hanks are basically my childhood, in a nutshell.

Who is your ultimate "Bill Murray figure?" The actor you'd co-star with and know you've arrived?
It's a total total cliché, but it's another person from my childhood that is kind of just iconic, she is the most incredible actress that I have ever seen: Meryl Streep. I remember watching her tribute and just crying through the entire thing because I was like, "I will never be as good as you, how do you do it?!"  I was simultaneously so inspired but so crushed at the same time. She would be one of those people that I would steal a lock of her hair for good luck or something.

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