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.

Exclusive Interview with Toby Regbo about ‘U Want Me 2 Kill Him?’

Toby Regbo in U Want Me 2 Kill Him

In “U Want Me 2 Kill Him?,” Toby Regbo gets one of his biggest and most memorable roles yet. The movie is based on a true story which was chronicled in Vanity Fair about a 16-year old schoolboy who gets arrested for attempted murder. His explanation was he was working under orders from an MI5 agent, but the truth of the matter ends up revealing something far more shocking.

Regbo plays John, a lonely boy who gets picked on at school and is later befriended by one of the most popular students there, Mark (Jamie Blackley). The friendship comes about because John’s sister Rachel (Jaime Winstone), whom Mark has developed an online relationship with, asked him to look out for John. But when Rachel is found murdered, both John and Mark in their devastation vow revenge against the person who took her life. What happens from there is not worth giving away, but it resulted in one of England’s most shocking crimes and showed us all how much of a threat the internet can be.

I got to speak with Regbo over the phone about his role back in 2013. During our conversation we talked about how his role reminded him of his years as a teenager, how much time he spends on the internet, the challenges of playing a character based on a real life person, and he even gave me an update on “Maleficent” which he was cast in.

U Want Me 2 Kill Him poster

Ben Kenber: Were you aware of the Vanity Fair article or the true-life story this film was based on before you got the script for it?

Toby Regbo: Not before I got the script. I read originally for Mark, the other character that Jamie Blackley ended up playing which is a good thing the roles ended up that way. But no, I didn’t know anything about it until I auditioned for it, and then once I got close to getting the part then I started looking further into it. I read the article and I also had some information that wasn’t in the article. I met the journalist who wrote the Vanity Fair Article (Judy Bachrach). In fact, she came to the set. But once you know the story, you want to know as much as possible about the case. It’s so mental that this happened.

BK: What appealed to you most about the role you ended up playing in the film?

TR: It’s hard to talk about the film without giving too much away.

BK: Yes, that’s true.

TR: I guess the interesting thing for me was trying to play the scenes in the movie without giving any tells to the ending. That was the key for me, trying to create something that was believable enough that you don’t see it coming I guess, at least for not a long way away.

BK: Yes, that must have been tricky because you read the script and wonder how you can keep from revealing everything. That must have been a challenge for everybody involved.

TR: We did a lot of rehearsals which is great. It’s the most rehearsal I’ve ever done before starting a film. Andrew Douglas, the director, and his wife Lenore sort of coached us (me and Jamie) through the movie. We did three or four weeks of rehearsals beforehand and working everything out. It was about just trying to keep them real, trying to find out exactly what motivated them. We did a whole bunch of work with sort of character objectives. We used this book called Ivana Chubbuck’s “The Power of the Actor” and we worked out what motivated our characters.

BK: Do you prefer to do a lot of rehearsal before you shoot a movie or does it depend on what movie you’re working on?

TR: It just depends on the whole vibe. I do like rehearsals, but at the same time the best stuff that ever happens is stuff that you don’t plan for. You can do things to death, but you just got to get out and do it for real. I’m doing this TV show and we’ve been shooting for like ten months now, and I’ve never shot that long before. It’s like a different process. You shoot like 8 pages a day, you get scripts like a couple of days beforehand, there’s not much preparation time and you just got to sort of go with it. It’s great training as an actor.

BK: I agree. The chemistry you have with Jamie Blackley onscreen is terrific and you two come across as very down to earth and really good friends. This makes the eventual unraveling of their friendship all the more painful to witness. How did you two develop that chemistry?

TR: It came to us naturally. Jamie is one of the easiest people to get along with that I ever met in my life. And also at the same time, when we started filming we both had fallen in love with girls at the same time, so we had that camaraderie on set. We were always talking about how long we should wait until we say I love you to a girl, so we both had that commonality. It worked out for Jamie, it worked out for me.

BK: Before you made this movie, did you spend a lot of time on the internet and in chat rooms?

TR: I’ve never been in a chat room before. There was a time where we used to go on MSN Hotmail a lot when I was like 14 which was a fucking nightmare. More than anything else, the social media revolution has helped kids talk shit about each other at an exponential rate. It’s been a lot of fun on there talking about who kissed who and what boy did what, and that was a great fucking waste of time for a couple of years. I’ve sort of grown away from it now. I thought I go and do a lot of other things than just waste all this time online.

BK: Were you able to do a lot of research on the person your character was based on? We find out at the end of the movie that a lot of information can’t be revealed due to certain laws in England.

TR: Yes, and I think that’s for the best. The character that I play, I based it on the script which was based on the Vanity Fair article. But I felt very distant from whoever this unknown boy, now a man, is. I don’t know the name, I don’t know who he is, I have no connection with him at all and I think that’s the way that it should be. On Demand on my TV earlier today I saw the trailer for the “Diana” movie. The story is about Diana and how the press ruined her life and how they like ended it. However you want to look at it, it was this terrible event that happened and now she’s dead, but they’ve made a fucking movie about it. I mean the hypocrisy of like saying oh look how terrible it is that the media ruined her life, and then they’ve made a movie about it. That doesn’t seem to make any sense. But I did feel a responsibility playing someone who is real. Although they did a very terrible thing, they shouldn’t have to have this film on their shoulders for the rest of their lives. It based on a true story, but there is this creative license in it.

BK: It’s interesting because with certain movies that are based on true stories, many actors feel the need to learn as much as they can about the real person they are playing to the point where they fall into the trap of impersonating them. I guess knowing less about the person your character was based on was probably more freeing for you because you weren’t shackled to that.

TR: Yeah, I mean I think for some actors they love that. They really want to get inside the heads of the real person, but I find it very, very strange to try sort of mesh this other person over the top of you especially when it comes to your voice and like doing an accent and that sort of thing. I think its dangerous territory where it can become an impersonation. I would always approach playing a real person with extreme trepidation, but in this case I felt like I was playing the character that was written on the page rather than this actual boy who is out there in the real world.

BK: I imagine you’re not far from the age of the character you play in this film. Did playing this role bring back any memories of being a teenager for you?

TR: I was 19 when we filmed it and I’m 22 now. Bringing back memories of a teenager would’ve only been one year. To be honest, being a teenager is fucking shit most of the time. Kids are really, really horrible, and I totally understand escapism that both of these boys are sort of trying to pursue through the power of the mundane inanity being a teenager growing up in the suburbs trying to have the “mad life” as Mark would put it.

BK: I see that you were cast in Disney’s “Maleficent” as the young Stefan. Can you tell us anything about that movie?

TR: Well I can tell you that I’m not in it (laughs). I worked two weeks on that and there was some studio nonsense. Basically they wanted the character that I was playing to be younger, much younger. We were doing this prologue to the film and they wanted 10 rather than 16, but they waited two weeks into filming before making that decision. I’m still glad that I got to be on that set. I’ve never done anything like that before, and I hope that it turns out well. It’s amazing what they are doing there, and I never been in something with such a big budget. Just the level of detail… There were these chests on the set, these like fairy chests or whatever, and you open them and they are like filled with all these intricate gilded swords and beautiful linens and stuff. The level of detail was amazing. I’m sad I’m not a part of it.

I want to thank Toby Regbo for taking the time to talk with me. “U Want Me 2 Kill Him?” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.