Photo: Sony Picture Classics
Actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead has a massive fan base from roles in "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," "The Thing," and "Final Destination 3." She has more than 52,000 Twitter followers and counting. Just check out @M_E_Winstead. But the North Carolina-born brunette, 27, was thirsting for a greater challenge than scream queen or love object. She found it playing a co-dependent alcoholic first-grade teacher in James Ponsoldt's Sundance hit "Smashed" opposite "Breaking Bad's" Aaron Paul. Her performance is so contemporary, raw, and fresh, there could be a best-actress Oscar nomination in the wings. Hint, hint.
Thelma Adams: In the course of this movie, your character, Kate, discovers she's more than a party girl; she's an alcoholic. Do you have any addictions?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: The Internet and television and social media. I'm always on my cell phone. At home, my husband and I both have our computers out, and we have the TV on, and our cell phones, and we're constantly using all three at the same time.
TA: Do you still talk to each other?
MW: We do. We're together and we're constantly commenting on what we're reading on the Internet, what we're seeing on TV, our correspondence. I'm always saying I want to find a place somewhere where I can take off for a week and not take any of it, but he's a little less inclined. He doesn't have problems with it.
TA: You have a twitter handle: @M_E_Winstead.
MW: Yes. I read my feed constantly. I follow a lot of film blogs and film news. And all my friends are on Twitter. It's how we communicate with each other now.
I'm a big retweeter. I try to answer fans when I can, when they're actually asking me something interesting and not just berating me, like "Answer me, follow me back. Retweet me." If a fan asks me a credible question, I try to always answer.
TA: How do your fans feel about "Smashed"?
MW: They're excited. I have a couple of fan sites and they follow my every move; every single photo that comes out ends up on their websites. There's nothing stalkerish about it. They know this is a passion project, so they're all really excited about that for me.
[Related: Adams on Reel Women: Jennifer Lawrence, Sienna Miller, and Newcomer Alicia Vikander Take the Hamptons]
TA: Why is "Smashed" such a passion project?
Photo: Jason Kempin/GettyMW: I searched for a part that was going to stretch me as an actor and force me to become better. I was becoming a little stuck. I thought I was going to have to work my way up to something like this, I was going to have to do a couple of smaller roles, in a couple of smaller indies, and prove myself in that world. After I auditioned for this part, I thought, "Well, at least I've auditioned for these people now. I've made an impression. Maybe when they make another movie they will look at me." The fact that I got the part was above and beyond.
TA: Once you got the role, what did you tap into emotionally from your experience?
MW: I never knew anyone who drank really. We were a dry, religious household. It wasn't until I started really living in Los Angeles that I was surrounded by drinkers. And I was personally never close to someone who was an alcoholic, although now that's changed.
TA: What did you glean from observing Alcoholics Anonymous meetings?
MW: It was clear how much I related to everyone in those rooms. I felt at home in this environment. Their stories are similar to my stories. Pain is pain. We all have it. We all deal with it in different ways. Some people are alcoholics. If you take alcohol out of the equation, then I fit right in. Alcoholism isn't my vice, so the meetings were a great first step toward relating to the character. It allowed me to look at myself through the lens of AA and look at what my own issues are.
[Related: Indie Roundup: 'Seven Psychopaths']
TA: Would those issues include the desire for people to like you, and the pressure to play familiar, likable roles?
MW: That's a huge part of it. It goes deeper than the actress component. It's more me as a person: the need to be liked and the extremes I've gone to in order to make that happen. I've always been a huge people pleaser, trying to make everybody happy -- my agents, my family -- trying not to do anything that would make anybody unhappy.
TA: That tension recurs in the movie, nowhere more than when this lovely but horribly hung-over first-grade teacher is talking to a class of eager students and suddenly she interrupts the lesson to barf in a nearby trash can.
MW: For me, people talk about what moment was Kate's rock-bottom moment. Maybe the smoking crack was the rock bottom. Or urinating in the gas station was the rock bottom. For me, the rock bottom was with the kids because that is her life and that is her dream to be a great teacher, to be a mentor to these children. That's the person that she wants to be. And that's the moment where it really clicks for her that "I'm not that person, I'm doing things that are not lining up with the person I want to be and it's because of this addiction." Standing in front of those kids and telling them this monumental lie that could mess them up for life...
TA: After she vomits, her excuse is that she's pregnant...
MW: If the truth comes out and confuses the kids, they could have issues because they're so fragile and innocent and young.
TA: But what I think the scene captures is not the kids' fragility but their honesty: You can't BS kids.
MW: Nothing gets past them. So trying to lie to them, you just feel so wrong. You know they can see right through you.
TA: On another front, outside of elementary school, it seems that there's a point after college when people realize who was actually addicted and who was just a partyer. This movie captures that.
MW: That's why I feel it's very much a coming-of-age story about becoming an adult as much as it is about alcoholism. It's about the moment where you realize you need to grow up, and you can't just party your life away and you don't want to. You want to be a responsible human being. It's an interesting dynamic between Kate and Charlie...
TA: Your character's husband, played by Aaron Paul...
MW: Because he's sort of one of those people you look at and you don't know if he has a problem or if he's just being an irresponsible, immature guy who doesn't want to grow up and is just clinging to his youth and trying to hang on to that party-going a little longer. Whereas with Kate, she has to look at herself in the mirror and go, No, I can't drink, I should never drink, no matter how old I am, or young I am. I am just one of those people, I can't do it.
TA: What was Aaron Paul like?
MW: So great! He's amazing. He's so talented, which everybody knows now, but he's also one of the sweetest people who you could ever hope to work with. He's so open. He's so giving.
TA: Was it hard to do that wicked sex scene with him?
MW: [Throaty laugh.] It was fun. It was fun because he so wants to go there all the time. He's like hit me really, really hard. He's got that puppy energy. He's got those puppy-dog eyes. He wants to play. He wants to go further. He wants to do more. I love that.
TA: What's next for you?
MW: I'm very spoiled at this point. This film spoiled me. I'm reading scripts and trying to find something that inspires me in the same way that "Smashed" did.
See the trailer for 'Smashed':