The indie dramedy Smashed follows Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Charlie (Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul), a young married couple who prefer to drink than deal with their own demons. But, when Kate’s drinking puts her job as a school teacher in jeopardy, it scares her into wanting to join AA and get sober. Directed by James Ponsoldt, he film also stars Octavia Spencer, Megan Mullally, Nick Offerman and Mary Kay Place.
At the film’s press day, actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about why she wanted to make an independent film, what attracted her to this specific project, the research she did for the role, finding the awkward humor, and how important it was that her character did not just have an easy road to recovery. She also talked about re-teaming with Ponsoldt for The Spectacular Now, what attracted her to A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charlie Swan III, and going to Budapest for A Good Day to Die Hard. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
Collider: How did you come to this film? Were you sent the script and then pursued it, or were you offered the role?
MARY ELIZABETH WINSTEAD: It was a unique situation. I knew, at that point, that I really needed to do something small. And I had been saying, for a long time, that I wanted to do something small, but it’s one of those things where it’s not really heard unless you say it really loudly. You don’t make any money, so people aren’t actively trying to find you those projects, unless you come out and say, “This is what I want you to do. This is what you have to do.” So, that’s what I said to my team. I was like, “I’ve been having a lot of fun. This has been great. But, this is what I have to do now. I want to do something small and intimate. Just send me those scripts for awhile because my next project has to be something like that.” And this was one of the first scripts that I got.
It actually started with a meeting with Jonathan Schwartz, who’s one of the producers. That was a couple days after I had called my agent and was like, “Just introduce me to somebody who’s doing something small and intimate,” and he just introduced me to him. He didn’t know what projects he had, he just knew he was that type of producer who was working on some new things. So then, Jonathan sent me the script and I just flipped out over it.
I didn’t think I would even have a chance at being cast because it just seemed like one of those roles that some big actress was going to want to put her name on. But, I wanted to do whatever I could to at least get my foot in the door, so I immediately called him and said, “What can I do?” So, I did an audition tape and did pretty much every major scene in the film. It was a pretty long audition tape. And, amazingly enough, they saw it and they didn’t audition anyone else. They just cast me, off of that. They were put a lot of faith in me, which was amazing ‘cause that never happens. It was really nice.
Were you nervous, waiting to see how it would all come together and who else would get cast?
WINSTEAD: It just went above and beyond my expectations, entirely, every step of the way. It was a really small film when I signed onto it, and it still is a very small film, but I had no idea so many big actors and talented actors were going to sign on to it. I thought maybe somebody interesting would take Charlie ‘cause that’s a really good role, but I still didn’t expect someone like Aaron Paul to come on and just be so incredible. And then, with every subsequent role, it was like, “Wow, these people who are incredible actors love this script enough to take a two or three scene role and make it into something really powerful.” That was amazing to me. It just kept making the project more and more exciting. And the fact that, with them being a part of it, it meant that people were probably going to see it. With just me, I thought maybe it would just be this little thing that I did, just for me, to prove to myself that I could do a role like this. But, once more actors started signing on, it became very real that it was a real movie that people were going to see.
What was it like to shoot some of those great moments that you have with Megan Mullally?
WINSTEAD: She was so excited to do a dramatic role. She really is so talented, and she doesn’t get to show that side of herself, very often. So, to see someone who’s so seasoned and who’s won awards, but still feels like there’s something they haven’t yet shown the world and are really excited to do, was really a pleasure.
Did you do research or talk to people to understand where your character would be coming from?
WINSTEAD: I did. I talked to a lot of people in recovery. I talked to our co-writer, Susan Burke. She was the first person I talked to a lot. From there, one of our producers is in recovery. They both not only talked to me a lot about themselves and their own experiences, but took me to AA meetings and I was able to speak to a lot of people at those, as well. That was the first step into relating to the character and seeing into her world. And then, after that, it became a lot more about looking at myself, personally, and figuring out my own demons and issues, and working through those as Kate is working through her own stuff.
Was it nice to have Aaron Paul there to go through this with?
WINSTEAD: Absolutely! He’s exactly what I was hoping to have, in that role. You just have to go to so many dark places, playing a character like this, in a relationship like that. You just hope you have an actor who’s really open and giving, and who’s going to make you feel really comfortable and not embarrassed to try anything. And he was just so open and giving and so warm that it was really easy to just fall into that relationship with him and for that love to really be there. He’s such a good person.
Were you aware of the delicate balance of humor?
WINSTEAD: For me, I didn’t want to think about the humor, so much. I knew that the script was funny, but I really was against playing anything for laughs or to try to be comedic. I just relied on my own sense of humor and hoped that that would come through. If something is meant to be funny in the script, you just hope it comes through as funny. I just played the reality of the situation and didn’t worry about whether or not people were going to laugh. And it turned to be funnier than I thought it would, to be honest. As funny as I knew it was, it wasn’t something that was on my mind, so when I saw it the first time and heard people laughing at so much, I was like, “Oh, wow!” It actually made me realize how funny it really is. For me, I was so focused on the emotions and the dark pain that she was going through, that I almost didn’t realize how funny some of the moments really were.
With this kind of heavy subject matter, how was the mood on set?
WINSTEAD: I don’t think that we tried to set a tone for any certain purpose. I think it just turned out to be a very light set, just because of the people who were involved. It was a really relaxed, low-key, fun set to be around. It was the type of place you would want to hang out, all the time. It was really great. Even when it was dark, everyone was so respectful that you were still having fun, but in a more quiet, low-key way. Everyone was respectful of the actors going through their process, which was great. Sometimes when you’re on really fun sets and you’re trying to do a serious scene, you’re like, “Oh, my god, you guys, give me a second! I don’t want to joke around right now!” But, it was a really nice balance because everybody understood what we were trying to do. It was very easy for everyone to understand each other’s emotions, and to know when it was time to joke around or when it was time to be a little more quiet. It just felt like a really comfortable place to be.
Was it important to you that this character stumble a bit, in her recovery, and not just have an easy road with it?
WINSTEAD: Yeah, I think that was important for all of us. When you get sober, life becomes more challenging, in some ways, because all of your problems become very clear and you have to deal with your pain. You can’t just drink and forget about it and pretend it doesn’t exist. At that point, you have to actually face it, head on. Life, at least for a certain period of time, becomes harder and you have to work through that to get to the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s an ongoing thing. Any addict in recovery would say that it never becomes perfect. Your life is better, but that doesn’t mean it’s easier. That’s the key thing that James [Ponsoldt] and Susan [Burke] wanted to make sure was kept in there.
Did your experience on Smashed lead you to want to work with director James Ponsoldt again for The Spectacular Now?
WINSTEAD: Oh, for sure! I would want to work with him on everything, if I could. He’s just so easy to work with and he approaches things from a standpoint that is very easy for an actor to understand and relate to. His directions, when he’s speaking to you, make so much sense. Sometimes, with directors, you have to take what they say and translate it in your head, into something that makes sense to you, because you’re speaking two different languages. With James, he speaks the actors’ language, so it’s very easy to interpret and it makes it very seamless. Working with him was a true collaboration. It was fantastic!
Have you already finished shooting that?
WINSTEAD: Yeah. He shot it over the summer, and I went in for a week and did a few scenes. It was great. It reminded me how easy it is to work with him. It all just falls into place because we communicate so well with each other.
What attracted you to A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charlie Swan III?
WINSTEAD: Everything! It was such a great group of people, ultimately. It was just so fun. Jason Schwartzman was the one who recommended me for it, to Roman [Coppola]. And then, when I heard Bill Murray, I was like, “These are my dream people to work with.” It was a no-brainer. It’s a really fun part. It’s a small role, but she’s really a ball-buster of a woman. It was a fun part to play.
Are you also in the new Die Hard film, A Good Day to Die Hard?
WINSTEAD: I am, yes. It’s another brief supporting role, but it was also fun. I got to go to Budapest and hang out with Bruce [Willis] for a couple of days. It was nice.
Is it fun to get to be a part of such a big franchise, like that?
WINSTEAD: Definitely! It’s always been a lot of fun for me, just to be in films that people see and they connect to, bit or small. The big ones tend to reach a wider audience, so it’s exciting to feel like you’ve got fans in countries, all over the world, who are watching what you’re doing. That’s really great! The older I get, the more I’m drawn to the smaller films, but I still hope to keep those bigger films in my repertoire. It’s just maybe going to be a shift in focus, but I’ll definitely still hopefully be kicking around in those.
Smashed opens in theaters on October 12th.