A few months ago I got to visit the set of The Thing (the prequel to the classic John Carpenter film with the same name) with a few other online reporters. As I said in my set report, I think the prequel is going to surprise a lot of people because director Matthijs van Heijningen is making a movie that should tie seamlessly in with the original. If it all comes together like the way they told us on set, you should be able to watch both films back to back and they’d feel like they belong together.
Anyway, while on set we were able to speak with Mary Elizabeth Winstead. In the film, she plays a paleontologist named Kate Lloyd and it’s through her character that we journey to Antarctica and meet the rest of the crew. During the interview she talked about how she got the part, who she plays, what was it like to walk around with the flamethrower, what was it like being the only girl in the film, when did she first watch The Thing and what was her take on it, how is filming a horror film different from other movies, how did she prepare for the role, and a lot more. Hit the jump to read or listen to what she said:
Since I know some of you like listening to an actor talk rather than reading a transcript, you can either click here for the audio or read the complete transcript below. The Thing gets released April 29, 2011. The trailer should be online soon.
And here’s the official synopsis for The Thing prequel:
Antarctica: an extraordinary continent of awesome beauty. It is also home to an isolated outpost where a discovery full of scientific possibility becomes a mission of survival when an alien is unearthed by a crew of international scientists. The shape-shifting creature, accidentally unleashed at this marooned colony, has the ability to turn itself into a perfect replica of any living being. It can look just like you or me, but inside, it remains inhuman. In the thriller The Thing, paranoia spreads like an epidemic among a group of researchers as they’re infected, one by one, by a mystery from another planet.
Paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has traveled to the desolate region for the expedition of her lifetime. Joining a Norwegian scientific team that has stumbled across an extraterrestrial ship buried in the ice, she discovers an organism that seems to have died in the crash eons ago. But it is about to wake up.
When a simple experiment frees the alien from its frozen prison, Kate must join the crew’s pilot, Carter (Joel Edgerton), to keep it from killing them off one at a time. And in this vast, intense land, a parasite that can mimic anything it touches will pit human against human as it tries to survive and flourish.
Question: So was this a part you fought for or did it sort of come to you? How did you get this thing?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: It’s interesting. It’s kind of a mix of both. I auditioned for it but I think a few people involved at certain levels thought I was too young for the part. I had to come in a couple of times. I read with Joel to kind of see how we would look next to each other and to see if we looked like we were on par as far as our level of maturity and what not. Also Matthijs and the producers fought really hard to have me and made it clear that the character was young and just starting her career. I’m not trying to play someone who is a veteran scientist or anything like that. I’m playing someone very close to my own age.
How awesome or scary is it to walk around with a flamethrower?
Winstead: It’s mostly awesome. I’ve had a couple of scary moments but overall it feels pretty cool. It adds a natural bad ass kind of component. It’s nice.
How much training did it require?
Winstead: About half an hour.
Winstead: Yeah. Before we started shooting we went to the stunt guy’s studio and they showed us how. You stand there, you put it on your back, you shoot the thing.
What’s the rush like the first time you do it?
Well, I still have yet to burn an actual person [laughs] but we are doing that. The stunt people have this fire retardant gel and so they’re not even covered. It’s their own skin and but they got this gel on and you’re burning them. So I’m a little bit nervous about that, but kind of excited.
How often do you get to blow somebody up?
Winstead: I know. Really. It’s pretty special.
I want to go back to when you got the role. What kind of audition did you give to make them think that you’re a scientist?
Winstead: I come from a pretty scientific family. My sister is a neurologist and my brother is an engineer. So I kind of just thought about them and their personalities. The way they carry themselves and the way that they speak. I sort of tried to carry that in with me. There’s nothing you can do other than try to convey a certain intelligence and that’s all I really could do.
Is there a lot of testosterone on set? I know you’re not the only female but it’s mostly a bunch of male actors.
Winstead: Yeah. It’s mostly like Viking-like men too. [laughs] They’re great. They’re so much fun and so much energy. Also, of course, Joel and Eric and the other non-Norwegian male cast members are all fantastic as well, but the actors from Norway are just really awesome to have around and it feels like a really cool and unique experience to get to work with them because it’s so rare to have such a diverse cast. It’s been really fun.
You learn any new words?
Winstead: I learned a couple of lines in Norwegian from the script that I would throw out to just kind of throw everybody off but for the most part I just know “nei” and “ja”, which are “yes” and “no”.
Is Sigourney Weaver an inspiration for you when you do a role like this?
Winstead: I think that character is so iconic that it’s almost impossible to not have that in the back of your mind sometimes. Alien is one of my favorite films and I know it’s one of Matthijs’ favorite films. So I think she’s kind of the tent pole for future woman action characters in general. I definitely respect that performance and admire it a lot. Although I haven’t watched it in forever and I’m not watching that movie and coming in and trying to emulate her or anything like that.
We’ve asked a bunch of people where they were when they first saw The Thing. You weren’t even born when it came out in theaters. So when did you first experience it and know about it?
Winstead: I bought it on DVD probably about four years ago or so. That was the first time I saw it and I was blown away. I was just like “How have I not seen this movie before?” and I’ve never even heard of it before that. I thought it was so good and so legitimately scary, which being around horror stuff for awhile it’s pretty hard to scare me, and I was really frightened and really creeped out by that film. I thought the performances and everything about it was just really great.
What popped into your mind to get the DVD?
Winstead: My boyfriend actually. It’s one of the films he loved so we bought it and he wanted to show it to me and, yeah, it was great.
I know in terms of horror movies you’ve done Final Destination and Black Christmas. How is this one different not only tonally but as an experience filming it?
Winstead: It’s been very different. It’s really collaborative and it’s really focused on performance, which has been really great. Matthijs is all about authenticity and just doing what feels right from your gut. If you’re saying a line of dialogue and it’s coming out sounding cheesy and false then we change it. You know, you come up with ideas and use your own intellect, mind, and creativity as an actor and say what you think and what you think would work better and those ideas are actually heard which is pretty amazing and sort of a rare experience to have on set.. So it’s been really fun.
On every movie there’s always a little bit of the wardrobe and what you get to wear. I’m assuming on this one this is the not the clothing you are planning on taking home.
Winstead: [laughs] I don’t think so. I might burn this by the end of it. It’s hot and I’m in a parka every day, but it’s good. It works for the movie and I’m glad that they didn’t try to go any other route with the female character.
Having seen the original movie and being one of the few women in this one, what do you think this brings to the dynamic and makes this movie different?
Winstead: To me, I think it’s a good thing because it sort of puts it out there that we’re not doing a remake of the John Carpenter movie. It sort of says out in the open that these are different characters and different people in a similar scenario, but it’s not the same film. So I think having a woman brings that different dynamic from the get go. It’s kind of an interesting thing I think to have, in 1982, a young girl coming into this scientific environment in Antarctica and the way that they would all react to her. Everyone would have an opinion about her being there because it would be a rare and different thing for them all to have a woman coming on to the base.
Is there a kind of hostility that greets you when you come here?
Winstead: I think everyone has a different view of each other, which is one of the interesting things about the film and the cast, because we all know sort of off the bat who we feel we might be able to trust and who we feel is a little bit off and that all kind of seeps into when the thing starts invading and we feel like we instantly want to attack certain people because we feel that person can’t be trusted and in the end it’s all just paranoia taking over.
The thing with the original movie, it started with a helicopter chasing a dog. We kind of met the characters as we went along. With this one, will we get to meet your character beforehand or is it a matter of you coming into it just as it’s all going to hell?
Winstead: We did do a scene that sort of sets up who she is and where she comes from. A brief scene before we get into the base in Antarctica. Which I think they just wanted to have to give the audience an idea of who she is and why she would be coming there and make it all make sense for them. So we do have that but other than that, everyone is introduced at the base.
So this is Matthijs’ first feature. He’s coming from Europe. Have you noticed things that he brings that are a little different than other directors?
Winstead: Well, I definitely have never worked with someone who is so open and collaborative as he is. I don’t know if that’s a European thing or if that’s just who he is but he’s always willing to hear what you have to say and if you say “I don’t really feel comfortable with this scene”, it’s going to change. He wants to do whatever makes you feel most at ease, most comfortable, and happiest. That’s the way he is with everybody across the board so that has been a really wonderful experience and I’ve really loved working with him.
Can you talk a little bit about your rehearsal process or how you got ready for this film? Were there certain films that you watched? Were there certain things you studied? Did he suggest doing certain things?
Winstead: We obviously watched the original film a bunch of times. We also watched Encounters at the End of the World , the Werner Herzog film. Certain things like that trying to get a feel of what it would be like and what kind of person would come to this remote area and give their lives to this kind of job. I spent a lot of time with this young paleontologist who lives here in Toronto. I kind of got to know him a little bit and got to see his lab and how they work. Just things like that and trying to get into her headspace as to why she’s so passionate about what she does in hopes that would help me figure out who she was.
Having done this a few times, can you just turn on and off the fear?
Winstead: [laughs] I guess it can come rather quickly. I certainly have to get into a different headspace, but I’m certainly am not somebody that’s going to spend all day in that frame of mind. I got to have some peace in between.
Does it get easier with each film to get into that space?
Winstead: Yeah. When I first started out I would listen to my iPod all day and I would just get into these moods and stuff. Then you realize that there is so much downtime on a set that you’ll just kill yourself if you go about it that way so you have to learn a little bit of technique to back up the real emotions.
Can you talk about seeing these creatures for the first time and interacting with them?
Winstead: It’s been pretty cool. I was really excited that we were working with a lot of practical creatures and getting to actually react off of stuff that was really there. Obviously, we aren’t doing that today, but we have been. I’ve done a few things where you are reacting to only a green screen, a mark, and a tennis ball, and you’re just supposed to be freaking out and you have no idea what anything looks like. What we’re doing here is going to be married with some CGI to sort of make it a bit more than it is, but even as it is now, a lot of it looks so cool and so terrifying and creepy. It really kind of boosts the morale when you feel like “oh, this is looking awesome” you know? You really want to keep doing a good job and putting all of your efforts into it. It’s great.
Are you planning on running for mayor of Toronto now?
Winstead: [laughs] Maybe I should actually. That’s a good idea.
Is kind of like a second home for you now?
Winstead: It is. Yeah. I think I’ve spent about 10 months here in the past year and a half.
So is it in your rider that you need to film in Toronto now.
Winstead: Surprisingly not. It’s just so coincidental and crazy that I’ve done back to back films here but I’m happy. I mean this is the coolest town I could possibly hoop to shoot in so it’s great.
Can you talk a little bit about the character dynamic between you and Joel’s character because obviously you’re the leads. So is there a romance or any sexual tension? Or is it just strictly “There’s the thing. No time for that…”
Winstead: No. I really can’t imagine fitting in any sort of romantic element into this kind of environment. It would just seem really forced and odd. Their connection is that they find some sort of level of trust within each other and that’s just one of those things where you meet someone and you feel like you recognize something in them that you find you can trust. That’s really all it is. They form this bond and are able to stick together through the whole thing where everything else is starting to fall apart. But, yeah, no sexual tension. If anyone finds any sexual tension, it’s completely imagined by them. [laughs]
Winstead: Yes. Absolutely. That’s one thing I loved about it when I read it. This girl, similar to the Ripley part, could be played by a guy. You could change the name and it doesn’t have to be a girl. There’s no feminine characteristic about her other than that she is a woman. That I really like. I like that I’m not “the girlfriend” or I’m not “the mistress” or I’m not these kind of roles that you can get pigeonholed in as an actress so it’s great.
You guys are filming in anamorphic widescreen. Do you pay attention to that kind of stuff? Are you looking at framing and seeing how it’s all playing out?
Winstead: I do a little bit. I love how it looks and I’m really happy. I think the lighting and everything is beautiful, but I can’t really. I’m not the type when I’m working that can focus too much on that stuff. I’ll look and make sure that everything looks ok…maybe. Or most of the time I don’t even look because, I don’t know, it kind of messes with your head a little too much. I’ll rather stay focus on my job and trust that they do theirs.
Do you like watching playback?
Winstead: I do. Yeah. I like watching it, especially when it’s looking good, because then it’s kind of cool and makes you excited to be at work and to know that people are doing good work but I don’t tend to look at dailies or anything like that. I enjoy watching that stuff but people are usually weird about showing actors things so I don’t ask.
We are going to run this interview after this summer but I definitely want to ask about going to comic-con. Are you planning on going? Are you sort of prepared for promoting a certain big film that comes out in August? And are you going to be promoting this thing too?
Winstead: Yeah. I’m definitely going to comic-con. I think I’m going to be there for several days doing different panels and there are several things planned. I’m really excited. It’s really fun to go out and promote a film that you’re really excited about and that you’re proud of. I have no idea what’s going to happen this summer as far as how crazy it’s all going to be but I’m prepared for all of it and excited.
You didn’t go to comic-con for Final Destination or Black Christmas, right?
Winstead: I went for Grindhouse and there was this Final Destination thing there as well so it was a kind of duo thing. I imagine its going to be crazier this time around.
I don’t know if you keep in touch with Edgar Wright, but does he get a kick out of you appearing in The Thing?
Winstead: Yeah. Definitely.
For More Coverage on The Thing:
And look for more on set interviews later this week