From Robert and Michelle King (creators of The Good Wife), the new CBS comic-thriller BrainDead, set in the world of Washington, D.C. politics, follows Laurel (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a young, fresh-faced Hill staffer who discovers that the government has stopped working and that bugs are eating the brains of Congress members and Hill staffers. After having been pulled back into the family business when her brother, Luke (Danny Pino), the Democratic whip Senator from Maryland, needs her help running his Senate office, Laurel finds herself in a very unexpected situation where she must work to stop the infiltration of tiny other-worldly creatures, in order to save the world.
During an exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead (who plays the daughter of a Democratic political dynasty that has dreams of becoming a documentary filmmaker) talked about what made her want to be a part of BrainDead, putting her faith in the Kings, why this show could be very cathartic for viewers, and the whole bug thing. She also talked about the wealth of opportunities she’s had on TV, being drawn to really weird projects, why she wanted to be a part of Swiss Army Man, and teaming up with her husband, Riley Stearns, again for The Art of Self-Defense.
Collider: This show is just so much fun!
MARY ELIZABETH WINSTEAD: It’s definitely an experiment, of sorts, but when you’re experimenting with these talented people, you’re in good hands. It’s the way to do it.
The idea of this show must have sounded so crazy. What was it that actually sold you on it?
WINSTEAD: It was brought to me in a way where I wasn’t really given all the details, which may have been smart. One of the producers on Mercy Street, David Zucker, is also a producer on BrainDead, and he started dropping hints to me that the Kings were doing a new show and that it was just going to be 13 episodes, and that it was going to be this interesting thing and I should read it. So, I started hearing about it, and then I got the official offer from my agent, who just said, “It’s from the Kings. It’s this new show that’s kind of a crazy concept. Just give it a read.” I didn’t really get the full pitch before I read it. I just knew it was this new show from the Kings. That was maybe the best way to go, going in, because I didn’t really have a lot of preconceived notions, in terms of this crazy sounding idea. I just read it and thought, “This is so much fun. It’s so weird.” It’s such an unexpected departure for the Kings. From that perspective, to me, it just seemed like such a risque thing for them to do, and so few people really take risks. It just seemed like the kind of thing that I was ready to do. And I was specifically looking to do something fun, after the last couple of shows that I had done. They were great experiences, but I was ready for something different.
Was the tone of this something that you really responded to, or did you have some questions about just what the Kings wanted the feel of this show to be?
WINSTEAD: The tone, in terms of what they wanted Laurel to be, was very clear to me, and I was really excited to bring that character to life. I felt like I knew what they wanted for her. But in terms of the rest of the show, I’m just putting my faith in them, that they’re going to be able to make this a cohesive thing that works. For me, it worked on the page, but I know from experience that that doesn’t always mean that the execution is going to make sense. But on the page, it really popped with this life, energy, fun and sweetness, in the midst of this political satire, which I thought was just a really fresh take on the whole thing. I was so relieved when we got on set and the Kings knew exactly what they wanted for every detail. That’s when I started feeling really excited. I didn’t feel like people were figuring it out as they go. They know, very clearly, what this is meant to be, and that was clear from the get-go.
A political series in the middle of a crazy presidential election could either bring lots of viewers to it or make them hesitant to tune in. So, since this show is very different from what people would expect from a show set in the world of politics and very different from what the Kings have done, what should people know about this show?
WINSTEAD: Well, the show is pretty insane and absurd, but so is the current political race. There’s definitely times where it feels like the reality is more satirical than satire. Sometimes our show feels eerily tuned in and plugged into what’s really happening currently that it’s uncanny that the Kings have their finger so on the pulse of what’s happening politically and culturally. I think it will be cathartic for people to tune into this show and see these absurd things happening against the backdrop of our real, current political climate, and see these politicians do and say these insane things and have these bugs crawling into their heads and eating their brains. There’s something cathartic about seeing something like that come to fruition. In some parallel universe, it could be a real explanation for what’s happening politically, right now. You get to live that out.
It would definitely be nice, if there were an actual excuse for why politicians act the way they do.
Are you someone who personally keeps up on politics, or were you thrown into this show, in the same way that Laurel is thrown into her job?
WINSTEAD: I definitely relate to Laurel, in that sense. We met up with the Kings, a couple weeks before we started shooting, and were talking about whether or not we should do research, or if I should have somebody brief me on this world. I was like, “This may sound like I’m being a lazy actor, but I think it’s good for me to be thrown into this and figure out how all of this goes because that’s what Laurel is doing.” The first few episodes are a real fish-out-of-water story for her. This is something she grew up around, but she rebelled so far against that she’s become a total outsider. She started as an insider, as a kid, but made herself an outsider, so she really doesn’t know the details about how things work. I relate to her in the sense that the issues that are important to me, I follow and I’m passionate about, and the representatives and candidates who care about the things that I care about are people that I connect with and follow. But beyond that, I don’t find it fun to follow politics. It’s not something that I’m excited about. It’s something that I feel like is more of a necessity, just to know what’s going on. I feel like Laurel and I have a similar level of interest, in that way.
There’s a fun interplay between your character, Laurel, and Aaron Tveit’s character, Gareth. What will that dynamic be like, and how will that evolve?
WINSTEAD: It’s a lot of fun. We’ve had a lot of fun playing these characters, especially the way that our scenes are written. It’s very throwback to 1940s romantic comedies, like It Happened One Night or His Girl Friday. That’s how it feels. It’s just so fun, every time we have a scene together, to step into that witty repartee. They have a real intellectual connection, despite the fact that they are on opposite sides of the line, politically. They can’t help but feel a pull towards each other. They really admire each other for how hard they both work and how smart they are and how much they believe in their ideals, even though those ideals differ from one another. Every episode takes it in a bit of a different direction. You think it’s going one place, and then something happens and it goes in another. That push-and-pull continues in various ways, as time goes on.
Your character quickly realizes that something strange is going on around her. What does she think is going on, compared to what the actual reality of the situation is?
WINSTEAD: She goes through a lot of different possibilities. She’s a skeptic for awhile. She teams up with a couple of characters who don’t come in until the second episode, but they become a big part of the story. They’re played by Nikki James and Johnny Ray Gill. Johnny Ray plays this scientist and Nikki is the daughter of the man whose head explodes in the first episode. She’s a doctor and she has some ideas about what’s going on. There are a lot of ideas that come up, and Johnny Ray is the one who has the crazy ones while Nikki and I are trying to keep our feet in reality. We think of a lot of different things, like maybe there’s some sort of virus going around and it’s a total reasonable explanation. There are a lot of different things based in the real world that come up before the possibility of aliens.
How will all of this craziness going on affect the relationship between Laurel and her brother (Danny Pino)?
WINSTEAD: Oh, my god! With every episode, I’m like, “How is this girl still standing?” She’s pulled in so many directions. She’s got the bug thing happening, she’s got her love life, she’s got her brother, she’s got the work she’s trying to get done. Luke and Laurel have a really interesting dynamic. There’s a lot of history there and a lot of love, but he’s cheating on his wife and Laurel has a lot of feelings about that, that go back to their childhood, growing up. There are a lot of complexities there that play out, throughout the episodes.
The Kings are great at creating flawed female characters that are so fun to watch because they are so imperfect. What most excites you about working with them, and what do you think they bring to a project that makes it that much more special?
WINSTEAD: I really do think that they’re geniuses. They never stop thinking. They never stop working. They live to tell these stories. They live to do what they do. And I have such admiration for that. They’re also just incredibly good people and an incredibly lovely couple. Their energy is so warm and calm and soft and open. They know what they want because this is what they love. They know how to delegate, as any great director or showrunner does, but at the end of the day, it’s their vision and I love, as an actor, knowing there’s one person, or in their case one couple, who has the vision for the entire thing. They know what’s going to happen. They know what the couch in my character’s bedroom looks like. From the biggest macro ideas to the tiniest micro things, they’re so involved in every detail, and I love that. I think that’s so important to have a real visionary at the helm of a project like this.
You went from The Returned to Mercy Street to BrainDead, and you’re doing Season 2 of Mercy Street, and whatever movies you did in between. Are you just a workaholic, or have you just had an embarrassment of riches with characters that you couldn’t say no to?
WINSTEAD: That’s how it’s been, ever since I opened myself up to the idea of doing TV. It’s been so exciting for me because there’s just been this wealth of opportunity, in terms of great roles. It’s tough, in the film market, to really find female leading protagonist roles where you get a real arc and you get a real active story, and you get to be really involved and pushing the story forward. So, once I started really stepping into TV with both feet, it’s just been really exciting and kind of exhausting, but in the best way. And the people have been so lovely to work with. I feel like I just keep getting really lucky, and one thing keeps leading to the next. I just want to keep the ball rolling.
You also have Swiss Army Man coming out, which is another project that sounds crazy on paper and might look even crazier with the trailer. What sold you on being a part of that movie?
WINSTEAD: I know! I tend to be drawn to really weird projects. I like people who are doing things that are different. And I love The Daniels, the directing team of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, and I had been a fan of theirs for awhile. They’re another team who are visionaries, and they’re completely unique in the way that they tell their stories. I think that’s what I’m drawn to. You want to collaborate with those people, but at the same time, you want to just be in their hands. That’s just another case where it was a completely insane script and storyline, but I know that they know how to do that, and make it feel really special and strangely profound, at the end of the day. When you’re dealing with boners and farts, that’s not an easy thing, but they know how to do it.
Faults was such a great film, and it’s so exciting to hear that you and your husband are teaming for another movie. What can you say about The Art of Self-Defense and the character that you’ll be playing?
WINSTEAD: I am really excited about it. It’s still in the rewriting phase, so I don’t want to say too much about it. It’s slowly coming together. We’ve got a producer on it, and we’ve got people who are really excited to make it work, but it doesn’t really have its funding yet. It’s still in the very beginning stages, but it does take place in the martial arts world and it is a very dark comedy, in the vein of what Faults was. And I’m excited to take center stage for this one. I was the antagonist of Faults, in a lot of ways, but in this one, I’ll step into the other role. It’s another two-hander, but this time it will be two women going head-to-head. I’m excited. There’s so much I want to say about it, but I can’t say too much, in case it changes. We’re hoping that it will turn out to be this feminist martial arts movie, if it works out to be what we’re trying to do with it. But, we’ll see.
BrainDead airs on Monday nights on CBS.