It’s not every actor who can say they got their signature role (and big break) from the likes of Quentin Tarantino, but looking into Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s big brown doe eyes it’s hard not to be reminded of the sweetly innocent cheerleader-turned-vengeful angel of Death Proof, where she chased down Kurt Russell’s Mike the Stuntman along with Rosario Dawson, Zoe Bell and Tracie Thomas.
She’d done a dozen or so movies before Tarantino’s exploitation schlocker, but it elevated the 32 year old into another league. Since then she’s tackled more genres than most actresses twice her age already, in everything from the Die Hard series as Lucy McClane, daughter of hero John (Bruce Willis) to the deliriously off the wall A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III with Charlie Sheen.
But her role as woman-in-peril Michelle in 10 Cloverfield Lane might be a whole new calling card for her. It’s hard not to be captivated by those eyes, but it’s what they silently express in clips from the film and the trailer that have us mesmerised.
What’s the deal with 10 Cloverfield Lane? Sequel, remake, prequel?
The idea that it’s spiritually connected is I think a really good way to put it. It’s very much in the same spirit. It’s very much a Bad Robot, JJ Abrams mystery box kind of production, they’re very unified in that sense.
Cloverfield really brought the monster movie to a new place and a very human, personal level the way it was shot and acted, and I think this does the same kind of thing. It’s a monster movie in this very small space and reinvents that genre in the same way Cloverfield did.
You came to prominence with one of the greatest directors we have in Tarantino, what memories do you have of that?
It was such an incredible experience. Even to get to audition for [Tarantino] was kind of the highlight of my life at that point. That was a huge deal.
And just even for my confidence as an actor, getting hired by somebody like that is a huge boost and vote of confidence – that maybe I’m doing the right thing, I’m on the right track, if somebody I respect that much has some respect for me and what I do.
Does it make you feel you’re coming from somewhere with a bit more authority than most actresses of your age?
Maybe. I do feel like as time’s gone on I’ve become more comfortable on set, more comfortable in my skin, and it’s much easier for me to voice my opinions and collaborate.
With every film I gain a little bit more of that confidence, and working with directors like that and just seeing how they work… they all have such different styles of directing, so getting to put that on your belt loop as another experience is always a good thing.
Any directorial aspirations after all the names you’ve worked with?
I would love to. I’m not much of a writer, and my only thing is I don’t know if I could find the material that speaks to me enough that I’d want to take on the whole project.
But it is something I’d like to do if I could figure that part out, if I could find a writer I connect with. Maybe I’ll start with a short film or something and see how it goes.
Talk about your dancing background and how that helps you as a performer.
I started dancing about the age of four like a lot of little girls in ballet class and tap class and all that. My sister was also a dancer and we just grew up going to dance class every day together. It became more and more a part of our lives and we both became very competitive with it, danced and trained with professional companies, things like that.
She actually continued, she’s a dance teacher now. Just after I went through puberty and saw my body changing, I started seeing the difference in the way the instructors were looking at you.
It just went from, ‘oh you’re definitely going to be professional,’ to, ‘maybe not.’ I could sense that even at 14 or 15 years old, so that’s when acting started to take over and become a little bit more of a passion than dance.
I started to realise dance was about playing characters. I loved being in the ballets and the performance and taking that part of it on. So it was a pretty easy switch to just go into acting. And then I felt like I could have hips and be tall and be okay.
You’re on screen a lot in the film, what were the challenges of that?
It was very challenging. I mean, thankfully it was the loveliest group of people and the most laid back environment, because when we were actually shooting it was just so intense, both emotionally and physically.
There were days when I would come home and my whole body was covered in bruises and aching and exhausted because taking on this character’s experience was just a very intense thing.
There’s large sections of the movie where she’s just doing whatever she can to survive and scraping her way out of there, literally crawling and climbing and kicking and screaming, and those aren’t the kind of stunts that you bring in a double for, and sometimes those kind of stunts are more challenging because they’re so emotional.
It’s not like I’m just attached to wires and I’m just going to sort of glide on through. I’m punching things and kicking things and putting my whole body into it. That was definitely the biggest challenge of the film for me.
You look pretty beat up in the trailer.
There were a lot of days when I had John Goodman’s hand print and bruises down my arm. It was totally fine because he was so sweet. We really negotiated with each other before the scenes, like ‘can you really grab me?’ or ‘can I really hit you?’
We both had to just go for it because we both like that side of acting. In the moment I love it because it feels so real, and it’s only the next day where I go, ‘Why? Why did I do that?’ It’s always much later when you realize you were actually hurting yourself.
Are you able to leave the character behind when you finish shooting for the day?
On some films you can go out at night and be social and everybody has fun. This was a really fun experience, but it was also a very isolated. We were just there doing the job and on the weekends I would sleep.
We were in New Orleans and I think we went out twice into a bar down the street for like five minutes. It was really, get this done and do it well and get rest when you can, kind of thing.
In all the talk about diversity, there’s a lot about strong female characters, but a staple of the genre is still a woman locked up in her underwear. How do you reconcile the two?
One of the main questions I had when I first talked to Dan was actually about that opening scene, because when you read that she’s in her underwear and strapped to a wall some alarm bells go off. In my head I worried about the potential exploitative nature of a scene like that, and he just so put my mind to rest just about how it was going to be shot and how it was going to be portrayed, who this character is.
The level of collaboration I was brought in on was pretty amazing on Dan’s part. I mean every scene was a conversation between the two of us in terms of who she is, where she’s coming from and what I was comfortable with.
And the great thing is there’s not a single moment where she’s not driving her own destiny. Even though she’s stuck in this situation she’s figuring out how she’s going to get out of it in every scene. Nobody’s coming to save her, she only has herself to save herself, so that I loved.
She’s really not a damsel in distress. She’s one of the most active characters I’ve ever played. She never stops thinking about a solution to the problem that she’s in, which as an actor is a really fun part to play because a lot of times as a woman you end up playing very passive characters who don’t do a lot to drive the story.
Is that something you hope audiences pick up from the story, or is it just a fun genre piece?
I hope so. The film is PG-13, so young people are obviously going to watch it. I think it’s always a good thing to have a strong female portrayal in films that young people watch. And I get real excited getting the opportunity to portray a character like that.
As a young actress with such a distinctive look and appeal, you’ve managed to avoid being typecast pretty well. How?
I don’t really know. I think I’m easily bored by myself, so I tend to try to change things up a lot, but I don’t seek out genres so much as I do characters and trying to play characters that are different in some way from the one that I played before, and trying to stretch myself as an actor.
So if I’ve done one thing I don’t tend to want to repeat that so much. I think that’s mainly where it stems from, is trying to keep myself excited and engaged in the work and hoping that by doing that, other people will be too.
But it’s so funny because I look so different in each thing, and I don’t even try to do that but it just happens because the characters are so different, but if I say I’m the person from this movie and that movie people are like, ‘No! No, you’re not that same person.’
It’s funny how much that affects people’s perception of you. If you play a character that’s very different in different things then people have a hard time reconciling that you’re the same person playing those parts.
But the story is important, the script is all-important, but at the end of the day the character is what I’m really living with, so that’s what’s the most exciting thing to me.
Have a favourite genre out of everything you’ve done?
Oh gosh. It’s not so much a genre but I love anything that can allow me to run the gamut of what I can bring. If I can be funny in one scene and heart-breaking in another and throw in a little action for good measure. I love to just be able to use all of my tools. So whatever kind of film allows me to do that is the one that I’m most drawn to.
Any directors, genres or styles you’ve yet to tackle that you still really want to?
There’s so many. I’ve always been a huge, huge Coen brothers fan. I would die if I was in one of their films I think. Paul Thomas Anderson’s the same. Frances McDormand is a huge hero of mine. So many actresses… I love Sigourney Weaver… there’s a lot of people I would love to be in the same room with and kind of pick their brain.
But there are so many actresses that have played really iconic roles that mean a lot to me, like Frances McDormand in Fargo – that’s what I mean by the sort of movies that allow you to play everything. She’s so funny in that and so real and human and, she’s pregnant but she’s also physical. That’s one of those roles that’s just, to me, perfection.
Is it hard to find those roles as not only a young actress but an attractive woman?
I don’t necessarily feel that way about myself. I do think I have a type of a look that can be pigeonholed if I allow that to happen. People tend to see me as a very innocent looking person, so I have had to fight for roles that were maybe a little bit edgier. So I’ve definitely felt that.
But as actresses, especially in the early days of our careers when we’re auditioning a lot, we all get told, “Oh you’re too pretty for that.” And I just always thought that was such bullshit, that’s a way of letting me off easy so I don’t complain. In reality if you have that, it’s only going to be an asset in this career.
You’re way past the point where you have to audition now, surely?
It’s definitely not nearly as much as I used to, but for the right thing, yeah I’ll audition all day.
For the Coens?