Matt Pais, @mattpais
RedEye movie critic
October 16, 2012
To bond as married alcoholics for the Sundance hit “Smashed,” co-stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul, appropriately, went out and got drunk.
“I don’t know what I really learned about myself from that particular night other than that I’m kind of a lightweight,” Winstead says with a laugh. “[Director/co-writer James Ponsoldt] took us out and he had this whole bar crawl set up for us and all these cool L.A. bars he was going to take us to, and we made it to two out of like seven. Because I was just done.”
A tequila-infused night like that is a rarity for the 27-year-old actress (“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”), who grew up in a religious Utah community and is now a “glass of wine with dinner” person.
It’s not that rare for her character in “Smashed,” which opens Friday. In the film, first grade teacher Kate (Winstead) engages in a variety of increasingly dangerous drunken shenanigans that endanger her marriage to Charlie (“Breaking Bad” star Paul) and lead her to attempt to get sober. She seeks help from recovering alcoholics Jenny (Octavia Spencer of “The Help”) and Dave (Chicago-area native Nick Offerman), the vice principal at school. (Offerman’s wife Megan Mullally plays the principal.)
At the Peninsula Hotel, Winstead talked about her drunken night with Paul, teenage alcoholics and if having Michael Cera fight seven evil exes for her love in “Scott Pilgrim” made her husband feel like he had to step up and fight for her, too.
How late were you out that night with Aaron and James?
Not that late at all. ‘Cause we started pretty early. We had dinner, it was probably eight o’clock. We were only out ‘til like midnight or something. [Laughs.] Because it just went downhill so fast. [Laughs.]
That’s when you know you’re not in that mind-frame anymore.
Exactly. I don’t know that I ever really was to be honest. Although I totally can very much relate to these characters and have tons of friends that can definitely relate to it. I was always the goody-two-shoes to be honest.
Did it seem like Aaron had an easier time than you did?
Yeah, although he was pretty far (gone) too. He took me up to my house and my husband, I sort of fell into his arms. He opened the door and he was like, “Aaron was pretty far gone too.”
Was Aaron carrying you?
No, [he] and James were sort of, they had one arm each [guiding me] up the stairs to my house.
“No, you guys are the best!”
Yeah, it was very much like that. [Laughs.]
You went to AA meetings to research this movie. Tell me a memorable story or interaction from those meetings that you haven’t gotten to bring up in an interview yet.
One of the interesting things was seeing so many young women. I went to a lot of different types of meetings. Some of them were older, working-class men or some of them were older women who had been through a lot. But there were some meetings where there were a lot of women in their early 20s or even girls that were 18, 19, who were getting their one-year chip. And getting to see that and listen to their stories, it really hits home how easily that could be me or my friends had my life gone down a different road, or had alcohol been something I was predisposed to be really attracted to. It just makes you realize that no matter how old you are, if you have a [drinking] problem it probably stems from the first time you drink and it’s going to be a problem for the rest of your life. And I think that those girls were really lucky that they discovered that about themselves so early.
How much was that people who started really early or was it more, “I’m 18 and I started when I was 17 and the last year has been tough”?
It was a bit of both. Some of them had been drinking heavily since they were 12, 13 years old and had spiraled out of control by the time they were 18. They were doing things they knew they should not be doing. And for some of them it happens much quicker. They start drinking 17, 18, by 19, 20 they know, “I am one of those people that can’t drink. My life just becomes unmanageable and I’m not the person I want to be.” And I think now AA has such a different—I think when it started the anonymous thing was very important, and now it just seems so much more relaxed. You can go to AA and be proud and talk to people in your life about what you’re going through. It doesn’t really have any shame or judgment about it whatsoever. Everybody feels very open and honest and you feel a sense of pride in that they’re figuring their lives out. And you feel really really happy for them.
How much do you feel people ignore warning signs? In the film your character pees in bed and on the floor of a convenience store. At a distance you might say this person has some issues; from the inside you might justify, “I had to go and I was in a convenience store, what do you want me to do?”
I think exactly, still being in her 20s, even though she’s in her late 20s, it’s still like, “I’m young enough to get away with this. I’m still cute, right? I’m still funny!”
Yeah. And I think you see that point in the movie where she starts to realize how not funny it is anymore and, “Oh, that’s actually scary and sad and what am I doing with my life? I’m a teacher, I’m an adult, and I’m spending my nights doing stuff like this. This isn’t the picture I had in my mind of the type of person I was going to be.”
I couldn’t help but have Ke$ha’s voice in my head either during the movie or preparing for the interview. Kids hear about brushing their teeth with Jack and think, “That sounds awesome.”
[Laughs.] I know! I think my 7-year-old niece was singing that lyric a little while ago. I was like, “Whoa, what?!” [Laughs.] It’s a little scary.
That’s how people get it in their head …
Yeah, that it’s a glamorous thing to do. And our movie, it’s not glamorous, it’s not anything. It’s just what these people do with their lives and they realize that it’s a problem for them. But it’s certainly not a message like “This is cool” or “This is totally uncool.” It’s just a personal thing. Some people can drink and have fun and it’s a great thing that they do to relax and have a good time with their friends and for other people it’s scary and hugely negative.
What did you mean when you said you get somewhat childlike when you’re drunk?
I definitely do. I just get very giggly and dancey. I dance everywhere. When Aaron Paul and I--
Like ballet [Winstead trained with the Joffrey in New York]?
[Laughs.] No, like goofy, ridiculous. Go into jokey interpretive dance type thing. Whatever song is on I’ll act it out. [Laughs.] It’s ridiculous.
Do you have an example?
I’m trying to remember what Aaron and I were dancing to. At the bar when we were drunk we were like so obnoxious. We took over the whole bar as though we were only—we were almost the only people in there. I think there were only like three other people probably just staring at us like we were really strange. But we were doing like the “Dirty Dancing” thing. I was like running up to him—
Did you jump into him?
[Laughs.] It didn’t actually work. But we were going for that kind of thing. Just a childlike, obnoxious, we-are-the-only-people-that-exist-in-this-world type of attitude I think is the drunken state.
I’m sure it was a blast to be around Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally together. Tell me a conversation you overheard between them or something about their dynamic that amused you.
They’re the best couple in the world. I really think they should win some sort of trophy for it.
“Best Couple Ever in the Universe of All Time.” They’re just amazing. They’re so adorable and funny together. She has the dirtiest jokes. [Laughs.] She has the best, most raunchy awesome sense of humor. Them together, it’s just incredible. They’re so cute. Whenever Nick was working and Megan wasn’t, she would still come to set and hang out and vice-versa. They just love being around each other. They are just head over heels, and it’s kind of adorable.
Do you remember one of her jokes?
At the Q&As that we’ve been going to, there’s a scene in the movie with a raunchy joke and they love doing plays on that phrase. [Laughs.] Which I don’t know that I can really—
Go for it.
The “moist p***y” phrase. They love to just bring that up, pretty much any time. He’ll be talking about how much he loves Megan and she’ll just jump in, “Well, he does love a moist p***y, what can I say.” It’s just like, “Wow. There’s no shame there.”
I love that in the movie his character learns not to say that.
Exactly! [Laughs.] So he’s just going to go with it.
I have to imagine being in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and having Michael Cera fighting seven exes for your love may have put pressure on your husband. How much did he feel like he had to step up the romanticism?
It’s true. Well, we got engaged shortly afterward, so maybe that was his thought process. “It’s time! I’m going to fight! I’m going to fight for this girl!” No, he loved it. I had the best ex-boyfriends ever in that movie, with Jason Schwartzman and Chris Evans and Mae Whitman and Michael Cera. It was the best possible group. So I don’t think there was very much jealousy going on. It was more jealousy that I got to hang out with those guys. [Laughs.]
What’s the most extreme thing you’ve heard about someone doing to win over a girlfriend?
Did you hear about this guy who proposed? He’s a pilot and he actually made his girlfriend think that the plane was about to crash. This is a horrible story. So he’s like flying the plane and she’s sitting next to him and he starts taking it into a nosedive and he’s like, “Oh my God, get the emergency handbook out of the glove box. We’re crashing, we’re crashing!” She’s like freaking out and she opens it and there’s a ring inside and he’s like, “[Laughs.]” That’s just like the worst.
Did she say yes?
She said yes, apparently. I guess to them it was a funny, haha kind of joke. To me I would want to kill him and never speak to him ever again. I think that would be the worst possible way to get proposed to in the world.
What she wants to do with unlimited time in Chicago: “Eat! Eat a lot of deep dish pizza. I’m going to get some Giordano’s for lunch.”
Her drink of choice with dinner: “Red. Pinot noir, cabernet. Those are kind of my wines.”
On, unlike “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” the lack of vampires in “Lincoln”: “I know, right? Oh my God … It’s so weird. I think that’s a really strange choice. Because that’s like a big part of our history is vampires. The Civil War. How could you tell the story of the war without including the vampires?”
On the album she’s working on: “I’m working with this really awesome producer that I’ve been a fan of for a long time, he’s also a DJ, he goes by Dan the Automator. He’s super talented and he’s a good friend, and so it’s in his style but it’s inspired by French ‘60s pop and that whole world. So it’s a lot of soft sultry vocals and that kind of thing. Lyrically it’s inspired by those songs as well. It’s not done yet so I don’t know how to describe it until I hear it as a whole … I think we want to finish it by the end of the year. That’s kind of the goal. But after that we still don’t really know what we want to do with it. Sort of depends on how it all comes together, how much we like it. [Laughs.] Because it could be something we just sort of give out for free or if we think it really could do more we might do more with it.”
On awards buzz coming her way for “Smashed”: “It’s great. I sort of feel like, have you seen ‘For Your Consideration?’ That’s what it feels like. I feel like Catherine O’Hara in that movie where it’s like one person said it once and it just gets picked up by a lot other people … So in that sense it feels ridiculous. But it’s good. If it means the movie’s good and people like it, hopefully that’s why they’re saying it and hopefully that leads to more people seeing it, and that would be the ultimate best thing to happen.”
On Nicolas Cage following his well-regarded, hard-drinking performance in “Leaving Las Vegas” with a career as a crazy action star: “I would love to do some action stuff. I love it. I love stunts. I love action films. But ultimately I want to play interesting, complex characters. So if I can have the female Bourne film or something like that where it’s also a really strong character in the center of it, I would totally be up for that.”
Guilty pleasure movie: “I kind of love ‘Showgirls.’ I just think it’s kind of an amazing movie … Probably not on purpose. But just in that way that you’re watching it and, ‘They didn’t know this was going to be so brilliant.’ The scene where she’s talking to the girl when she just gets to Vegas and [is] eating the French fries and the girl’s like, ‘So where are you from?’ And she like throws the fries, ‘Different places!’ I’m like, ‘Wow, that was just a choice, that was such a bold choice.’ I just think it’s incredible.” [Note: Winstead later confessed an affection for “The Room” and does an excellent rendition of Tommy Wiseau’s classic line, “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!”]
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U
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