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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