Growing up in Mormon country, Mary Elizabeth Winstead never saw anyone take a drink, let alone fall down drunk. That changed dramatically when she moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting and fell in with young women in the industry for whom imbibing was a way of life.
“I only see them when they are drunk,” she said. “It kind of makes you wonder what they look like when they are sober. What is it like when they go home and wake up the next morning?”
Answers to these questions took on more relevance when Winstead was cast as Kate, an elementary school teacher descending into the deepest reaches of alcoholism in the new movie “Smashed.” It’s a bravado performance in which her fresh-scrubbed looks make her appear an unlikely candidate for this disease. Even at rock bottom, she manages to look wholesome.
Being considered a serious actress is something Winstead has long craved, and she is luxuriating in the attention. It took a long time to get there. She graduated from the NBC soap opera “Passions” to a series of horror and slasher films that netted her a nomination for Scream Queen at the 2007 Scream Awards — but no respect.
“I was pretty desperate. I reached the point where I just could not work the way I was working anymore,” Winstead recalls, twisting her hands in a gesture of frustration.
She announced to her agent that she would not do any more horror movies or any more studio movies in general.
“I wanted to dedicate my time to finding something small and just performance focused,” she says.
As fate would have it, “Smashed” was the first script her agent received after Winstead chose her new direction, and she was the only actress asked to read for the lead role.
“I am still kind of baffled by this,” she says. “I don’t know how they came to that decision so easily, but I am very thankful for it.”
Alcoholics and the Oscars
A film lover who remembers movies playing in her house night and day, Winstead is aware of the number of actors who have won or been nominated for an Oscar for their portrayal of alcoholics. The list includes Nicolas Cage (“Leaving Las Vegas”), Ray Milland (“The Lost Weekend”), James Coburn (“Affliction”), Lee Remick (“Days of Wine and Roses”), Anne Baxter (“The Razor’s Edge”), Jessica Lange (“Blue Sky”), Jane Fonda (“The Morning After”), Marsha Mason (“Only When I Laugh”) and Susan Hayward, who collected three Oscar nods for playing a lush (“Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman,” “My Foolish Heart,” “I’ll Cry Tomorrow.”)
Afraid of unintentionally mimicking these actors, Winstead didn’t watch their movies until completing “Smashed.” She found Remick’s character in the 1962 “Days of Wine and Roses” to be the most similar.
“The fact that she is just spiraling and spiraling down, and she is not stepping up to the plate the way Jack Lemmon’s character does. He wants to get his life back. Our film has that same sort of sense. You really hope that Charlie can kind of figure things out at some point,” she says, referring to her onscreen husband, an addictive drinker played by Aaron Paul of “Breaking Bad.”
Watching the 1995 “Leaving Las Vegas” again, she caught that Cage’s character, mired in the final stages of alcoholism, is a Hollywood writer. “That kind of gets close to home,” says Winstead, who is married to TV writer Riley Stearns.
Part of her research for the role included attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings all around Hollywood, accompanied by Susan Burke, a co-writer of “Smashed” who loosely based the character Kate on her own experience as a recovering alcoholic.
“I would just sit, and if someone asked me to speak, I would just say, ‘I’m here to learn,’ and they would accept that. I definitely never said, ‘I am an alcoholic,’ “ Winstead said. “I didn’t want to be dishonest. I didn’t want to come out and say, ‘I am doing a film,’ but I also didn’t want to make out I was anything I wasn’t. So I was just very quiet.”
The thread that ran through all of the AA members’ testimonials was “just how relatable they were to Kate’s story,” Winstead says.
“Nobody is telling them to be there. They are there because they need to do this for themselves. What they are going through is such a positive thing. So that was big for me in playing Kate and making it a triumphant role instead of a downer.”
To relate to Kate, Winstead felt she had to focus on something with the potential to rattle her equilibrium. Alcohol isn’t a problem for her, but there are “other things in my life I needed to worry about — what I do to cover up my pain,” she says.
“A lot of it had to do with being the ultimate people pleaser. When I looked at myself, I kind of realized that this was a big part of my life, keeping everybody else pleased even though certain things about that were making me really unhappy. So that was a big eye-opening experience.”
Winstead has a few more small films lined up, including “A.C.O.D,” co-starring Adam Scott and Richard Jenkins.
But no matter the size of the film, she says, “I just want to find something that speaks to me.”
"Smashed", which is rated R, opens Friday at Sundance Cinema.
Ruthe Stein is a freelance writer.