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Mary Elizabeth Winstead: scream queen moves on

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The rising star of gritty drama Smashed talks to Stylist about her latest role as a recovering alcoholic

Interview: Sophie Haslett

If the age-old tale in Hollywood is true that you have to ‘go ugly’ to be taken seriously as an actress, then Mary Elizabeth Winstead isn’t doing anything to dispel the myth. In her latest release, Smashed, she plays an alcoholic primary school teacher, all seaweed-slicked greasy hair and ill-fitting tea dresses. It’s quite a departure from her previous reputation as the film world’s scream queen (in films such as Scott Pilgrim, Final Destination and Die Hard). What drew her to the character of recovering alcoholic, Kate?

“I was craving the role,” she tells Stylist. “There aren’t actually that many roles out there for women and while I’ve had a lot of fun flying around in horror films I was getting sick of the niche and reputation I was becoming known for. When I saw the script for Smashed I didn’t think that I would be considered for such an incredible part. For one thing, I’d been having a hard time even getting meetings for smaller independent films because people thought I was too nice and not interesting enough. But once you’ve had a part like Kate, and once you’ve finished filming, I think it’s understandable that you don’t want to go back to playing the girlfriend or the wife.”

Smashed is without a doubt Mary Elizabeth’s most meaty role to date. In the opening quarter of an hour alone she wets the bed where she’s sleeping with her alcoholic boyfriend, Charlie (Aaron Paul). She then disappears into the shower with two bottles of beer before downing a hip flask before teaching a primary school class. “It was pretty scary acting all of that,” she says, candidly. “Alcoholism is not something I’ve had any direct experience with, either personally, in my family or in my close friendship circle, so I knew I’d have to find a non-literal way into the part.”

This manifested itself in several months of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, where she met and befriended many addicts, as well as an examination of herself and her own issues.

“I’ve always been a massive people pleaser – someone who tries to keep a happy face and put a positive spin on everything,” she says. “I’m very aware about that fault in myself and I know that I paper over certain things that aren’t so great in my life much in the same way that Kate does with her addiction. Seeing that in me helped with Smashed, though, as it gave me some degree of insight into what Kate might be going through.”

There was one other way in which Mary Elizabeth got into character, and it’s perhaps this way that makes the chemistry between her and her onscreen boyfriend, Aaron Paul, so realistic. “Yes, Aaron and I went out and got drunk together,” she laughs. “Aaron filmed himself for ‘research’, which was hilarious, but I just needed to experience getting drunk with him, as I don’t even drink on my own that often.”

Perhaps inevitably with a film of the calibre of Smashed, there is already a smattering of whispers about future Oscars and awards for Mary Elizabeth. “I can’t buy into any of the Oscar hype,” she says, and a faint degree of concern crosses her face. “It’s such an outside chance and completely not what I was seeking from the role that I prefer not to even think about it. I think often in Hollywood there can be two types of roles for women – the strong and the sexy – and because I’m definitely not the sexy I was always more likely to be cast as the strong. Hopefully the more vulnerable side of Kate’s character, the side which makes the audience love her, will mean that I can move in a slightly different direction, though.” Time will tell.

Smashed is released nationwide on 14 December 2012. Watch the trailer, below

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