Many films chronicling the difficulties of alcoholism and substance abuse depict characters so damaged that even when they’re trying to become sober, they’re not relatable to audiences. But the main character, Kate Hannah, in the new comedy-drama Smashed, co-written and directed by James Ponsoldt, is so committed to her sobriety and her husband, who is incapable of change, that viewers can certainly understand her flaws.
Smashed follows Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and her husband Charlie (Aaron Paul), whose bond is built on a mutual love of drinking. When Kate’s excessive drinking puts her job as a teacher at an elementary school in jeopardy, she decides to start attending AA meetings and get sober. With the help of the vice principal at her school, the awkward, but well-intended Mr. Davies (Nick Offerman), and her sponsor Jenny (Octavia Spencer), Kate takes the first steps to stop drinking.
However, keeping her struggle with sobriety a secret from people in her life, including her school’s principal (Megan Mullally), puts Kate’s road to recovery into question. Her increasingly troubled relationship with her mother, and the debate of whether her marriage to Charlie (Aaron Paul) is really built on love or is just a diversion from adulthood, also puts Kate’s sobriety in danger.
Recently, Winstead generously took the time to discuss the filming of Smashed with us during a roundtable interview in New York City. Among other things, the actress discussed how she prepared for the role of Kate, and what it was like working with Ponsoldt and Paul on the independent film.
Check it out below.
We Got This Covered: How did you prepare for a movie like this? You had a lot of tough, raw scenes that you had to act through, so how did you gear up for that?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: It was a lot of different layers that I had to work through for this. I started out, just trying to learn about alcoholism and recovery. I spoke to people in AA, and went to a lot of AA meetings.
But the stuff that ended up being more important was the emotional preparation that I had to do. I really had to look at my own life, and figure out how I related to the character. Once I figured it out, it became very, very clear that I had a lot to relate to her with. I just don’t drink to her level. But I have other issues that I have to deal with.
We Got This Covered: Did you find any scenes particularly challenging?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Yeah, there were a couple. One of them was definitely the big relapse fight scene. It was just emotionally exhausting and draining. It was also hard because I was really stressed out about that one. I knew that was a really big scene, and you build those things up in your head. When the day comes, you’re really stressed out about it.
Also, the scene with Megan Mullally when she fired me, because James was just sadistic that day. (laughs) He just pushed us both really far, and the takes he chose to use aren’t as far as he necessarily made us go.
He had us say really mean things to each other. We were both sobbing (laughs), and afterward, we were hugging. We felt bad, because we were really mean to each other in that scene. But it was always a lot of fun and rewarding at the end of the day.
We Got This Covered: This isn’t a role we would really expect from you. Is that something you go out looking for, and is that what drew you to the material?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: I really didn’t think about what people would expect of me, or what the result of the film would be. For me, I was at the point where I personally needed a challenge. I was feeling a little bit bored by myself and the work I was doing.
So that kind of scared me into finding something different. This was a project that I’ve said for years, oh, why can’t I find a part like that? I finally woke up and said, I have to make it happen for myself. Nobody’s going to just hand it to me.
It was crazy, as soon as I put that energy out there, I went out and started meeting people and making connections for small, performance-focused films. This was one of the first scripts that ended up coming my way. I had no idea that something this great and powerful would fall into my lap. But I lucked out.
We Got This Covered: How do you balance the more serious nature of the film with the comedy?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: I think we were really lucky that we cast the right people. All those parts were really funny people, who brought a real human complexity to the roles, as well. So we didn’t have to push for the laughs.
We all just tried playing these parts as truthfully as possible. The situations we would get into were funny. I think everyone has their own sense of humor that they brought to it, as well.
But there wasn’t like, oh, this line is a joke. We have to be aware of that. We tried not to be aware of that, and tried to play the scenes as truthfully as possible.
We Got This Covered: Did you feel like you had to play two different roles, for when Kate’s sober and drunk?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Not really. 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.
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.
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We Got This Covered: Did you know anyone in your own life who inspired your role?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: I didn’t personally know anyone who struggled with alcoholism before I did this, and now I know a lot of people who are. Our co-writer (Susan Burke) and our producer are in recovery. I met a lot of people in AA, so now it’s a much bigger part of my life. It was something that I was never around or close to before, so I couldn’t really pull anything from that, personally.
It was more pulling from relationships that I’ve been around, like co-dependency and toxic relationships. That was what I could really pull from.
We Got This Covered: What did you take from your role as Kate?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: The line where Octavia said “you really have to live your life honestly,” is what I took from the role. I really had to look at myself, and ask myself, what am I doing that’s not honest or truthful to who I am?
I discovered there were relationships in my life that were negative, that I was in just to make that person happy, even though it was making myself unhappy. Things like that I needed to work on, and figure out why I did the things that I did.
We Got This Covered: How did the look of your character influence your performance, like with her clothing? She’s disheveled at times.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: It was certainly very liberating. I loved it, I’ve never been more comfortable on a set before. There were no restrictions, just free-flowing clothing. There wasn’t any make-up, so I could look as rough as possible. It’s the total opposite of things I’ve done before.
So it was so nice not to have to think about what I looked like every second. It was the furthest thing from my mind. Coming up with the wardrobe was really fun. It was my favorite thing, especially the shoes. They were the key to everything.
We Got This Covered: There were certain scenes that were relatable to everyone, even if they aren’t going through AA. When you spoke to the director, James, what were some of the things that you spoke about to make the movie different from other films, but also relatable?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: One of the really great things about James and Susan is that they love their characters so much. There’s no judgment on anyone in this film. It was just people who make mistakes and are human and fall down and try to get back up again. We admire them for that.
So I think we all had a real life for all the characters, and a real need to show that love. So I think that’s part of the reason why they’re relatable; we wanted to humanize everyone as much as possible. We didn’t want to mock or make fun of everyone. It’s funny, but not in a mocking way. We’re all self-deprecating, and can go through life and laugh at the end of the day.
James is also so good at getting to really know everyone. That way he could talk to us, and talk about the relationships ad what’s going on in the scenes and really personalize everything. Then we could all think about what’s going on in our own lives, and bring that to our roles.
We Got This Covered: Did you have any kind of rehearsal before you went into production?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Not really. I was the only actor who was cast with any lead up time. The rest of the actors were cast right before we started. I had rehearsed with James on my own, but not with any of the other actors. We just showed up on set, and went into it.
We Got This Covered: Did you separate yourself from Aaron before you had to film something dramatic?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Not really, we were just all kind of together at all times. We shot it in 19 days, so the pace was really intense. There wasn’t a lot of time to think about how to do things a certain way. We were just working, and we were these characters for 19 days.
But it felt so authentic, it was really great. It felt like we were really living in that house, and I was really working at that school. For those 19 days, that was my life. So I loved that about it. It wasn’t about choosing to be a method actor. It was the natural effect of the surroundings, which was really great.
We Got This Covered: Was there time to do any improv, or did you stick to the script?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: We did improv a lot, but the film is almost entirely as it was scripted. Although, James would leave the camera rolling. We would do the scene as scripted, but he would never say cut. So we would have to figure out what we were doing and we would have to keep the scene going. He would do that with every scene.
Even though most of it didn’t end up in the film, it helped form the characters. The relationships became much more real, because we were always in character. The camera was almost always rolling.
We would do most scenes in one take. The cameras would always be moving; it wasn’t like, my coverage and then the other actors’ coverage. It was much more free formed. So it felt much more real that way. The line of when we were the characters and when we weren’t was blurred.
We Got This Covered: Was it difficult to act that way?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: For me, it was easier, I loved it. It was invigorating to be able to do that. With this, it demands you’re there and present at all times. It was great.
It’s much harder when you’re doing a film for five months, and you’re on set for long hours. Half the day, you’re just sitting in your trailer, waiting for your turn. By the time you show up on set, you’re like, where am I?
We Got This Covered: Can you talk about working with Aaron Paul? Were you a fan of his from Breaking Bad?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Definitely. He’s been around for awhile, and I even remember seeing him in auditions when I was a teenager. I was like, there’s that really cool guy. (laughs) So I’ve always been a fan of his.
Breaking Bad is incredible. I knew he was an incredible actor. But it was amazing to find out how lovely and sweet and generous he is as well. He’s one of the nicest people in the world.
We Got This Covered: Your character works with kids, and is wondering about the impression she makes on them. At the same time, you as an actor had that same responsibility. Did that ever factor into how you played your scenes with them?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: The kids were so great. A couple of them, the ones who had lines, had actually read the script, and they were very aware of what’s going on. I don’t know if it’s weird that I didn’t feel that responsibility. It wasn’t like, I don’t w ant them to hear these words. They were beyond that, and so cool.
But in the scene where I told them I had a miscarriage, I wanted to push that really far. (laughs) I wanted them to be her face, screaming. My character’s emotions were so delicate that she could snap at anything. But then I stepped back, because we didn’t want her look like a horrible person.
So we found the right balance on that. It was a big part of the character for me. Her lying to the kids was her rock bottom, and she became the person she didn’t want to be. That was a huge part of it.
We Got This Covered: What’s next for you-do you have any upcoming projects?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: I have a few small projects and roles in little movies, and things I did to have fun after this. (laughs) But I don’t really know now. I’m reading scripts, so I don’t know what’s going to be next. I hope I find something that excites me.
That concludes our interview, but we’d like to thank Mary Elizabeth Winstead for taking the time to speak to us. Be sure to check out Smashed when it’s released in select theaters this Friday, October 12.Previous