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.

‘The Thing’ Prequel Should Have Been a Sequel

The Thing 2011 poster

It says a lot about John Carpenter’s “The Thing” that it could generate a prequel almost 20 years after its release. A critical and commercial failure back in 1982, it has since been justly reappraised as a true horror classic and remains Carpenter’s masterpiece. It proved even more terrifying than “Halloween,” and it also holds a special place on my list of my top ten favorite movies of all time. These days, it is even more frightening as the scenario it presents feels all too possible.

Now we have Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s “The Thing,” a prequel to Carpenter’s movie which explores the events leading up to it. Remember the Norwegian camp Kurt Russell and Richard Dysart visited which had been completely burned down? Now we get to see how it got laid waste by both the thing and the humans. But therein lies the problem; knowing the events precede those of the 1982 movie and who survives, much of the potential suspense and tension gets drowned out almost immediately.

Frankly, I would much rather see a sequel to Carpenter’s “The Thing” instead of this. His film was very effective because we never had a clear idea of who to trust. But in Heijningen’s film, we know the characters on display will eventually bite the dust, and it becomes a question of when these characters turn into the thing. After a while, it becomes more shocking when a character dies but doesn’t turn into a gooey alien. What spoils it even more is we know of at least one character who will survive what happens very early on, and all we can do is wait impatiently for him to get on the helicopter with his rifle and take shots at the wolf.

Heijningen is respectful of Carpenter’s movie and pays homage to it throughout, but I kept wondering if this was a remake instead of a prequel. Various scenes are clear imitations of the 1982 movie’s most classic moments, and I wish he had worked harder at distinguishing the prequel from it instead of just presenting us with something way too similar. He does wring some suspense and strong tension at different points, and his unique take on the blood test scene is very clever, but he is unable to sustain the tension which made Carpenter’s movie so utterly terrifying.

The special effects are very good, but they pale in comparison to the genius of Rob Bottin. Audiences are always quick to tell when CGI effects are overused. As for the performances, they are generally good even though the characters could have come out of any monster movie.

The best performance comes from Mary Elizabeth Winstead as paleontologist Kate Lloyd. Such a terrific presence in “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” and “Live Free or Die Hard,” she holds our attention throughout and is one of the best reasons to see this prequel. While Lloyd is predictably inspired by Ellen Ripley from “Aliens,” Winstead makes the character her own and more than just another tough chick which movies like these typically rely on.

“The Thing” prequel is not terrible, but it will be of interest more to those who haven’t seen the 1982 film which itself was a remake and made back in a time when remakes were rare and actually worth watching. This particular version of John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” feels like a lost opportunity, and it gets caught in the prequel trap of busily matching everything up to the film it leads into. It really sucks when you can see a movie’s ending long in advance. I did however admire the ambiguous ending shown before the end credits as it leaves you wondering if the alien really infected one of the last characters standing. Not knowing is always more unnerving than knowing, and at least the director got this right.

* * ½ out of * * * *

Grindhouse

Grindhouse movie poster

Grindhouse” is a double feature of movies written and directed by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, and it is their ode to the exploitation movies of the 70’s and 80’s which used to play in all those seedy movie theaters in New York and Los Angeles. Now a lot of those movies were poorly made and had bad acting, writing and directing, but this is not the case here as this crazy love letter to all things exploitation gets brilliant treatment from two renegade minds of Hollywood cinema. To put it mildly, “Grindhouse” was an awesome experience. How great it is to see some kick ass movies made by two guys who have such a love for movies and who love making them.

“Grindhouse” starts off with the first of four fake movie trailers. This is part of Rodriguez’s and Tarantino’s plan to immerse you in the experience of watching grindhouse movies like they did as kids; the scratched-up prints, those missing reels, the restricted ratings, the film breaking apart, and of course those insane coming attractions trailers which at times were more memorable than the movies they were promoting.

Anyway, the first trailer was for “Machete” which was done by Rodriguez and stars Danny Trejo as a Mexican framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and he ends up going after the bad guys with a bloody vengeance. This was a blast to watch and the best of all the fake trailers in “Grindhouse” as it captures the ridiculous one-liners we gleefully remember from all those over the top action movies from the 80’s. I especially liked how they had Cheech Marin playing a priest who Machete gets to kill the bad guys with him. He almost succeeds in stealing the trailer right out from under Trejo’s feet.

Then things get underway with “Planet Terror,” Robert Rodriguez’s addition to the “Grindhouse” movie. It is basically his ode to all those zombie movies which came out before we met the fast-paced zombies of “28 Days Later,” and it’s a cross between a George Romero movie and a John Carpenter movie. “Planet Terror” even features a score composed by Rodriguez himself, and he wrote and shot a lot it while listening to Carpenter’s music from “Escape From New York.” In fact, you can even hear a small part of Carpenter’s score in “Planet Terror” if you listen very closely.

“Planet Terror” was a total blast, a flashback to those go for broke action and horror movies that didn’t even try to hold anything back. It reminded me of the “Evil Dead” movies among others where everything and everybody were going nuts. Then again, with the characters running for their lives away from zombies chasing them, can you blame them?

Rodriguez has put a great cast together for “Planet Terror.” The one person who will be remembered forever from it is the ever so luscious Rose McGowan who plays Cherry, a dancer at a strip club who can’t keep from crying as she dances in front of customers. As you know from the movie’s trailer, one of her legs ends up getting chopped off and it eventually gets replaced by a machine gun which she uses to gleefully sadistic effect. It makes for some hilarious moments as Cherry doesn’t even hesitate in blowing away as many zombies as she can.

Also great in “Planet Terror” is Freddy Rodriguez who brings a total rebel quality to his role as El Wray who is a very cool customer indeed. You also have Michael Biehn playing the sheriff, Josh Brolin who plays Dr. Block whose wife, Dakota (played by Marley Shelton), has been cheating on him with another woman, and even Bruce Willis shows up as a military commander who knows more than he is willing to let on.

One of the people I was especially impressed with was Jeff Fahey who I have not always been a big fan of as he always seemed to me to be playing himself in every role he takes on. But here he is loads of fun as J.T., a gas station and restaurant owner who continually claims to have the best barbecued meat in all of Texas. It ended up making me look at Fahey in a whole new light, and as a character actor, he proves to be invaluable.

“Planet Terror” is one gory ride, to put it mildly, but then again what do you expect when you have Tom Savini playing one of the sheriff’s deputies? Have you even seen the movies he has worked on in the past? Rodriguez gets all the gross details down like body parts getting blown or ripped off in an ever so disgustingly precious fashion. Those same body parts are, as a man, the last things I ever want to lose! Ever!

After “Planet Terror” ended, we were treated to the other three fake movie trailers that “Grindhouse” had to offer. Edgar Wright, who directed “Shaun of the Dead,” did the trailer for “Don’t,” and it was endlessly hilarious as it showed us all the things we shouldn’t be doing when we’re in a horror movie. Then there was Rob Zombie’s “Werewolf Women of The S.S.” which was as funny as it was bizarre. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil this one for you as there are cameos here that are too inspired to just give away. And finally, there was “Thanksgiving” which was directed by Eli Roth, the same man who gave us “Hostel.” Thanksgiving does seem to be one of the few holidays left which have yet to be turned into a horror franchise where horny teens get slaughtered in a creatively bloody fashion.

Then we get to Tarantino’s addition to the “Grindhouse” movie: “Death Proof.” It stars Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike, a serial killer who uses a car instead of a knife to murder young women. No reason is really given as to why he does this, but in a movie like this does it even matter?

“Death Proof” has its share of gruesome moments including a car crash that is shown from different angles as you see how each person gets horribly injured in a head-on collision. Suffice to say, if you have been in a nasty car accident, you probably won’t want to see this. It also features one of the more exhilarating car chases in recent memory where Russell tries to run a Dodge Charger which is occupied by a trio of women off the road. One of these women, Zoe Bell (Uma Thurman’s stunt double in “Kill Bill”) is riding on the hood of the Charger like the insane stunt woman she is. Seeing her struggle to stay on the car makes the scene all the more frightening and exciting as a result. Tarantino clearly has no interest in throwing all sorts of CGI effects at us. He wants to give us the real thing, and that he does.

Of the two movies in “Grindhouse,” I have to say that “Death Proof” was my favorite. Although it takes a while to get to the action, the dialogue is fabulous in a way only Tarantino can come up with. He continues to come up with great lines which make the characters much more distinct than those in your average action movie filled with stock characters. One of the actresses involved with “Death Proof” said Tarantino really knows how to write for women and knows how they think. Now, this might be open to debate for a lot of people, but I think that is absolutely true as it is shown here and in other movies like “Pulp Fiction” and “Jackie Brown.”

Russell remains one of the most underrated actors working in movies today as he can go from genre to genre and from playing a good guy to a bad guy pretty easily. He is great in this role where he plays a pure psychopath who is clearly schizoid as he goes after his next trio of soon to be victims, and it resembles the kind of work he did in movies like “Escape From New York.” Russell is perfect as Stuntman Mike that it got to where I just could not see Mickey Rourke playing this same role even though he was originally cast in it. Rourke wouldn’t have been bad, but this role feels like it was tailor-made for Russell.

So overall, “Grindhouse” was a kick-ass experience that I am ever so eager to see again. I already have the soundtracks to both “Planet Terror” and “Death Proof” which are fantastic to listen to. Then again, I did actually get them before I even saw “Grindhouse” because I was pretty confident that I would not be disappointed, and I wasn’t. Although it drags a little in spots, it is never boring. It’s not going to appeal to everyone, and it is as politically incorrect as any movie in recent years, but it will definitely appeal to those who have been eagerly and patiently awaiting the resurrection of grindhouse cinema they grew up watching in the past. Many had no choice but to watch those exploitation classics on video and DVD, but with Rodriguez’s and Tarantino’s “Grindhouse,” we finally get to see movies like them again on the big screen where they belong.

* * * * out of * * * *

’10 Cloverfield Lane’ is an Infinitely Intense Thriller

10 Cloverfield Lane poster

A few hours after watching “10 Cloverfield Lane,” I found my nerves were still fried by what I had just witnessed. It feels like it has been ages since a movie made me feel that way, so that’s quite the compliment. Billed as a “spiritual successor” and a “blood relative” to the 2008 monster movie “Cloverfield,” this one works best if you know very little about it when you go inside the theater. Alfred Hitchcock would have gotten a kick out of this as the filmmakers play with your expectations and leave you in a suspended state of suspense throughout. It would be wise to see the movie before reading this review because it is that riveting.

The movie opens on Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) hurriedly packing her things and moving out of the apartment she shares with her fiancé Ben. While driving through rural Louisiana, she ends up getting into a very serious car accident which renders her unconscious, and she later wakes up to find herself in a concrete room chained to the wall. Eventually she meets Howard (John Goodman), a survivalist who tells her he saved her life and is nursing her back to health. However, Howard also tells her that a deadly attack has taken place and that everyone outside is dead or dying.

They end up occupying an underground bunker which Howard built himself as he always suspected that America was going to be attacked somehow, and along with fellow survivor Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) they try to live normally by watching videos, doing puzzles, playing board games and occasionally playing a song on the jukebox. But things are never what they appear to be, and soon the bunker won’t be big enough for the three of them.

“10 Cloverfield Lane” marks the feature film directorial debut of Dan Trachtenberg whose previous work includes a short film entitled “Portal: No Escape” which caught the eye of producer J.J. Abrams. It’s a heck of a debut as Trachtenberg puts us right into Michelle’s shoes as we come to have as much an idea of what’s going on as she does. Was there really an attack? Is Howard really worth trusting? Should they stay in the bunker until it’s alright to come out? Questions keep coming up as we try to stay one step ahead of the characters, but anything is possible and nothing can be left to chance.

Trachtenberg is also well served by a strong screenplay from Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken and “Whiplash’s” writer/director Damien Chazelle which gives us characters who are complex and easy to relate to. These three people are not cardboard idiots out to make the dumbest mistakes possible but instead complex individuals trying to navigate through their own personal issues while attempting to adjust to a possibly post-apocalyptic world. This only adds to the very palpable tension which escalates throughout as does the sharp cinematography by Jeff Cutter, the efficient editing by Stefan Grube and the pulse-pounding music score by “Battlestar Galactica” composer Bear McCreary.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead has long since proven to be a terrific actress thanks to her unforgettable turns in movies like “Live Free or Die Hard,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” and in the criminally underrated “Smashed.” She is a revelation here as Michelle as her character goes from running away from trouble to being forced to confront it head on. It’s great to see Winstead portray Michelle not as some ordinary action heroine, but instead as someone trying to stay one step ahead of those who might not have her best interests in mind.

John Gallagher, Jr. is perhaps best known for his work onstage in the rock musicals “Spring Awakening” and “American Idiot” as well as for appearing on “The Newsroom.” For a moment it looks like his character of Emmett is going to be some clichéd southern dude, but Gallagher never falls into that trap as he reveals Emmett to be a man whose best days may have passed him by, but who is not about to give up on life and those he cares about.

But after coming out of “10 Cloverfield Lane,” I kept wondering if audiences realize just what a great actor John Goodman is. He has delivered one terrific performance after another for years, but has his talent been taken for granted? After serving time on “Roseanne,” he delivered a stellar performance as the seriously disturbed insurance salesman Charlie Meadows. I was reminded of that performance while watching him here as Howard as this is a character who cannot be simply described as a good or bad guy. Goodman makes him into a complex human being and one who is driven by fear more than anything else, and this makes the actions he commits all the more unnerving.

It may still be early in 2016, but Goodman most definitely deserves Oscar consideration here. He proves what a masterful actor he is in that he never has to move a muscle in certain scenes to generate severe unease in the other characters as well as the audience. Just a glare from his eyes will have you on edge as Howard is a man desperate to control his surroundings as well as the people living with him. It’s a frightening performance as Goodman makes Howard terrifyingly unpredictable in his actions. At one point Howards seems agreeable, and in the next he finds himself in a rage. If you are not convinced that Goodman is one of the best actors working in movies today, watching him here should change your mind.

Like I said, “10 Cloverfield Lane” has been described as a “blood relative” or a “spiritual successor” to “Cloverfield.” Those descriptions are very appropriate as it differs quite a bit stylistically to the 2008 movie. None of the characters from “Cloverfield” appear here, and this one is not a found footage film which means no shaky cam. In fact, it’s highly likely that “10 Cloverfield Lane” doesn’t even exist on the same timeline as “Cloverfield.” Still, this movie does share a number of thematic elements that were prominent in its predecessor. To say just how many of them it shares, however, would ruin many of the surprises in store for the audience.

While most sequels or follow ups try to outdo their predecessors by giving us something even bigger, this follow up is instead more simplistic in its approach and shows how less can be more. Trachtenberg makes you experience every claustrophobic and nerve wracking moment to an infinite degree, and it makes “10 Cloverfield Lane” blow “Cloverfield” right out of the water.

2016 has so far given some good movies and others that will be forgotten in no time at all, but “10 Cloverfield Lane” is one of the first great movies I have seen so far in this early year. It takes you on a rollercoaster ride filled with sharp turns, and keeps you guessing all the way to the end.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016

* * * * out of * * * *

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