Mary Elizabeth Winstead on Playing a Recovering Alcoholic in ‘Smashed’

Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Smashed

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2012.

She charmed us in “Death Proof,” “Live Free or Die Hard” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,” but now Mary Elizabeth Winstead gets the most complex role of her character to date in “Smashed.” In the movie she plays Kate Hannah, an elementary school teacher who is also a raging alcoholic. After one night where she even goes as far as to smoke crack, Kate finds she needs to turn her life around really quick. Her path to sobriety is not an easy one as it makes her question the relationships in her life, especially the one she has with her husband Charlie (“Breaking Bad’s” Aaron Paul) which appears to revolve around their mutual love of getting drunk.

Winstead did a lot to prepare for this role as she visited many Alcoholic Anonymous group meetings and talked to the people there. She was also aided by one of the movie’s writers and a co-producer who were in recovery themselves, and they made her feel like she was not coming into this project dishonestly. Hearing Winstead talk about her research ends up illustrating the diversity of one particular city in California.

“L.A. is a great place to do it, because it’s such a big city, and every neighborhood is very specific as far as the different types of people who live there,” Winstead said. “So, every meeting I went to was completely different. I went to one that was like six people, and they were all men in their 60’s, totally working class, totally not L.A. Then I went to one in West Hollywood that was a lot of industry people, and I went to a huge women’s meeting where everyone was hugging and laughing. And it was great just seeing people share and talk about themselves and talking about their darkest moments in front of bunch of people and having it be totally accepted. It was an honor for me to be a part of that and to see that and it was a big first step for me into realizing how much I related to their struggle, and how much of a universal struggle it is.”

Among the most challenging scenes for Winstead comes when her character is drunk. Now playing drunk may look easy for an actor to do, but it is actually quite the opposite. The trick is to make the act of drunkenness believable to the audience you are presenting it to, but it can be easily overdone to where you can look utterly foolish. Winstead admitted she had never played drunk onscreen before, and she was terrified that she would look terrible doing it. She and James Ponsoldt (the director of “Smashed”) ended up consulting an acting coach in order to get it down right.

“Together we found this coach named Ivana Chubbuck who has this book called ‘The Power of the Actor’ and she has a chapter specifically dedicated to playing drunk,” Winstead said. “We sat in a couple of classes, and we did one of the scenes in her class as well, so we used her method a lot for that. And that was really helpful because we just didn’t want it to feel like acting. How do you not act drunk, but not really be drunk? That’s a difficult thing to pull off.”

One thing which makes “Smashed” really unique in the annals of addiction movies is how Kate is not the usual face of onscreen addiction. Winstead described Kate as being a full character and one she could really relate to despite her ongoing problems.

“What was great about it was that this was one of the only roles that I have ever read in a script where the female lead character is such a full person. You get to see so many sides of her personality,” Winstead said. “For me, I can be all of those types of people. I have a lot of different traits to my personality, depending on who I’m around, and what the dynamic in the situation is. So, to get to play a character where you get to see every single shade of who she is, is very rare. That was really exciting to me. So, I always felt as though I was her, just different sides of her.”

What also aided Winstead in this role was how Ponsoldt made the actors feel very free on set to where it almost seems like they are not even working with a script. Winstead made clear how much of what we see in “Smashed” is in fact scripted, but there were some unscripted moments which did make it into the final cut.

“I think part of the reason it feels so real is that it felt like the camera was always rolling,” Winstead said. “We were always in character and we were always going off script and back on and off and back on. So, it never felt like: ‘Cut! We’re ourselves now.’ It didn’t have that break: ‘We’re going to go back to our trailer, see you later.’ It was never like that. We were always on set, we were always in character, and we were always working toward making it authentic.”

Mary Elizabeth Winstead admits she has struggled long and hard to find roles which are as good as the one she plays in “Smashed.” Coming out of it, she wonders if she will ever find a role like this ever again, and this is very understandable considering what a highly competitive arena show business is. Her performance as Kate Hannah, however, earned her serious Oscar buzz ever since the movie was shown at the Sundance Film Festival, and it is highly unlikely people will forget Winstead’s revelatory turn once they have left the theater.

SOURCES:

Kevin Jagernauth, “‘Smashed’ Star Mary Elizabeth Winstead On How She Learned To Play Drunk, The Emotional Rollercoaster Of The Role & More,” Indiewire, October 11, 2012.

Karen Benardello, “Interview with Mary Elizabeth Winstead on ‘Smashed,’” We Got This Covered, October 9, 2012.

Christopher Rosen, “Mary Elizabeth Winstead, ‘Smashed’ Star, On The Lack Of Female Roles In Hollywood & ‘Die Hard 5,’” Huffington Post, October 10, 2012.

Matthew Goode on Portraying Such an Evil Character in ‘Stoker’

Matthew Goode in Stoker

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2013.

Matthew Goode’s performance as the enigmatic Uncle Charlie in “Stoker” brings to mind the one Joseph Cotton gave as Charlie Oakley in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt.” Both men show a pleasant and courteous exterior, but there’s something in their eyes which tells you they are really twisted. Goode has delivered many strong performances in movies like “Match Point,” “Watchmen” and “A Single Man,” but it’s going to be impossible to forget him after seeing him playing a very frightening sociopath in this one.

Now playing a character as evil as Uncle Charlie has got to be a lot of fun for actors, but at the same time they really can’t judge a character like this too much. Once they do, they fail to portray them in a truthful way and their performance eventually rings false. Goode, in an interview with Nigel M. Smith of Indiewire, however, made it clear he was not about to fall into the same trap.

“I’m not a method actor; I think that would be rather exhausting on this sort of a project. But I don’t judge the character; I think that’s safe to say,” Goode told Smith. “You’re conning yourself between action and take. I don’t think about it too much, I just do what you have to do. You know there’s a camera in your face, and there are times when you can just get completely lost in it and the take is over. Then sometimes it’s very choreographed and you have to get your head in there to match with someone’s eye line, and I love that. I love the technique.”

“So with a darker character like this, it’s quite fun,” Goode continued. “It’s something that’s very different to who I am. I’m not a sociopath and I don’t go around strangling people. It’s just like kids playing. That’s really what our job is. We haven’t grown up.”

The other important thing to remember with a role like this is not to play it as evil. Yes, Uncle Charlie is evil as can be, but to portray just that one side of him would make for a very boring performance. You have to look at this character like you would any other and examine their wants, needs and motivations. In doing so, you will give yourself different areas to explore, and your performance will be all the better for it. In talking with Katie Calautti of Spinoff Online, Goode explained how he went about preparing to play Uncle Charlie.

“You can’t just play bad,” Goode told Calautti. “I wouldn’t even know how to start playing bad, or what that even means – it’s so two-dimensional. So you have to find some sense, despite his despicable acts, some kind of psychological truth of why. And director Park (Chan-wook) talked about bad blood and the idea that there was a predisposition within the family bloodline to want or need to commit these acts, and where does evil come from, is it nature or nurture? And for me they’re all very lonely, isolated characters. So I felt like, as much as this is a coming-of-age story for Mia (Wasikowska’s) character, Charlie’s kind of trapped in the past.”

The best scene in “Stoker” comes when Goode joins Wasikowska on the piano, and the two engage in a duet which can be best described as beautifully intense. Watching these two actors duel with one another while pounding away at those black and white keys was exhilarating, and it was the one scene from this film I wanted to know the most about. Karen Benardello of We Got This Covered was at the film’s press conference and asked Goode what it was like shooting this particular scene.

“It became liberating in the end,” Goode said. “I hadn’t played the piano in 20-odd years. So coming back into the fold of the piano, it was unbelievably daunting. Luckily, I don’t have a bad-sized hand, so I didn’t have to leap or anything like that. But it was hard work, but it was great working with Mia. We learned about three quarters of it, because some of it was just too hard, and too much going on with both hands. But we were able to fake some of that, and he was able to shoot the whole thing from whatever angle he wanted. We kind of recognized that in the vocabulary of filmmaking. When someone starts playing, you think, is he actually playing that? (laughs) He was able to dip down, and you go, they are! It’s not a trick on the audience, so it was nice.”

Hopefully Matthew Goode’s performance in “Stoker” will help burn his name into our collective consciousness because every moment he is onscreen is filled with a rising tension which never lets up. While he doesn’t let you in on all his character’s secrets, you know he is like a snake waiting to strike. He has already worked with a number of well-known directors such as Woody Allen, Tom Ford and Zack Snyder, but Goode makes it clear how a lot of the opportunities which have come his way so far have been the result of sheer luck.

“I’m not the person who’s able to pick and choose their roles,” Goode said. “But I know that Nicole [Kidman], for example, has said that she’s interested now – there might be a film in the studio system, but she loves independent film and she thinks that’s much more where her desires are, and the films she kind of likes. And so I think she is able to say to herself, ‘I like to choose projects not only based on the material but also the filmmaker,’ which is wonderful for her. And I think I just happen to have been quite lucky in the fact that the material that I gravitate towards or the people that have thought I am going to be better suited to it – because it’s not my choice, they’ve picked me. I’ve been lucky as hell, and the parts have been quite varied.”

 

SOURCES:

Nigel M. Smith, “‘Stoker’ Star Matthew Goode On the Joys of Playing a Sociopath and Working for Park Chan-Wook,” Indiewire, March 5, 2013.

Katie Calautti, “‘Stoker’ Star Matthew Goode on Evil, Parenting and, Yes, Belts,” Spinoff Online, March 1, 2013.

Karen Benardello, “Interview with Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode And Chan-wook Park On ‘Stoker,'” We Got This Covered, March 8, 2013.