Now that she's mastered the horror and comic book realms, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is staking her claim to blockbuster fame in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Not that she’s ready to abandon the nerds, though.
This feature appears in Complex's June/July 2012 issue.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead has a soft spot for cinephiles, because, well, she is one. This past February, the 27-year-old actress visited her favorite movie theater, the New Beverly Cinema, a Los Angeles old-school revival house, to introduce a midnight screening of her 2010 flick, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, an adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s popular graphic novel series. Though it only earned $31 million, against a reported $60 million budget, Scott Pilgrim is a modern-day cult classic—as evidenced by the full house that greeted Winstead that night. “They do Scott Pilgrim midnight screenings once a month, and they’re always packed,” she explains. “It felt like I was in front of people who really appreciate me.” Read: fanboys who fancy her like none other.
But they ain’t seen nothing yet. In this year’s batshit summer blockbuster Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (produced by Tim Burton), Winstead portrays a fictionalized version of Mary Todd Lincoln, whose soon-to-be-presidential hubby, Honest Abe (played by Benjamin Walker), rids the 1800s of ferocious, bloodthirsty night creatures with a gun-axe. It’s exactly the kind of movie made for a killer midnight screening at the New Beverly. But if all goes as planned, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter should be much more than a cult favorite. Everyone involved is gunning for box-office dominance.
The historically skewed epic exemplifies Winstead’s endearing willingness to embrace out-there genre fare. That same fearlessness will be on display when Smashed, her critically acclaimed independent film about alcoholism, debuts later this year. And to tell the truth, she’s more than ready for the change. “It’s great to get a chance to do a film that really showcases what I can do,” she says. “Hopefully that will open some doors for me.” It’s time to turn the key.
There's this image of a hot woman with squinty eyes and pouty lips that has been trademarked as 'The Sexy Look,' and that's not my look. I like to think I'm sexy in my own way.
You’ve played some tough women, but you’re looking fiercer than ever for this cover shoot. Are you this intense in real life?
[Laughs.] I’m the total opposite of that. The one thing that’s difficult for me, and it’s one thing I had to bring out in this shoot, is being “sexy.” It’s weird to be told to be sexy, because I never know what that means exactly. I can never try to be sexy. [Laughs.] It’s too awkward. I don’t like to do the whole I’m-gonna-come-get-you face—that doesn’t suit me.
And everyone’s interpretation of “sexy” is different. The fans of your movies would find the sight of a cute girl reading a George R.R. Martin novel to be incredibly sexy.
[Laughs.] Exactly. It’s an issue of what we’ve come to think of as “sexy” in our culture, from the things that we’ve seen on billboards and stuff like that. There’s this image of a hot woman with squinty eyes and pouty lips that has been trademarked as “the sexy look,” and that’s not my look. I like to think I’m sexy in my own way.
No arguments here. What do you find sexy?
It’s more about a sense of humor and kindness. In a guy, that instinct to take care of another person is always very sexy to me—a guy who’s chivalrous, in that old-fashioned way.
So chivalry isn’t dead?
I like to think it’s not dead. [Laughs.] Sometimes I’ll have a door closed in my face by some guy who couldn’t just hold it for me and it feels like it’s dying. But then there are always the nice guys who pop up and remind you that there’s still a bit of chivalry left out there.
It’s easy for me to say yes—those are the kind of movies I want to see. I’m more likely to go see a horror film over a romantic comedy any day of the week.
Speaking of chivalrous men, you play the wife of Honest Abe in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. What made you sign on to such a bugged-out project?
The title, for one, baffled me. I didn’t know what to think, but I knew it had to be interesting because Timur [Bekmambetov, who directed Wanted] was doing it, and Tim Burton was producing it. When I opened the script and started reading it, I was totally blown away. I wasn’t expecting it to be such a great action-adventure piece, an epic tale that you get totally swept up in. I expected there to be more silliness and camp to it, and it’s just this straightforward journey of a complicated character. It’s like a superhero origin story.
Obviously, the characters’ backstories are flipped. What’s Mary Todd Lincoln’s role in the film’s revisionist, gore-soaked history?
The backstories are actually pretty accurate. The main thing that’s changed, of course, is this fictional element that there were vampires at that time. But everything else is historically accurate, so I got to do a lot of research about Mary Todd. A lot of elements of her personality and legacy aren’t represented in the film, because it’s the story of Abraham Lincoln. It’s not Mary Todd: Vampire Hunter.
A movie in which you slay vampires for two hours? Sign us up!
[Laughs.] Thanks—maybe some day. We focused more on the sides of Mary Todd that were witty, charming, fun, intelligent, and politically involved; all of those things that she was in real life. She was a uniquely strong woman of the period, and she had a real backbone and sense of self.
Why do you think it’s important for this film to not wink at the audience? With something like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, you either have to go totally comedic or totally serious, and it’s interesting that you’ve all chosen the latter route for this one.
I think that the story, as silly as it sounds, is very respectful of the man himself, Abraham Lincoln. Everyone involved just really loved his story, and we all wanted to take the fact that we’ve turned him into a superhero and respect that. Because, if you think about it, we’ve already done that as a country, so it was a matter of taking that idea and running with it, making him a literal superhero on the big screen.
If you’re going to do something like that, then you have to commit to it. You can’t just half-ass it and wink at the audience the whole time, going crazy with these big action scenes and then say, “Oh, we’re just joking.” No, you have to commit to it and be real with it, and if you’re going do that, then you might as well go big. [Laughs.]
It seems like a project that most Hollywood studios would laugh at, though. Especially considering how weary producers these days are of green-lighting any genre films that aren’t remakes or sequels.
It helps tremendously that it was already a successful book; that being the case, it has a built-in audience, and the studio heads can read the book and wrap their brains around how the book works.
But, then again, it’s always scary, because you never know if things that work in a book are going to work in a film—things don’t always translate that way. So it definitely takes a lot of guys to say, “We’re going to stand behind this film, even if it sounds ridiculous. We believe in it.” I think that’s what the studio [20th Century Fox] did, and it’s really brave and cool of them to have done that. There aren’t that many people out there sticking their necks out like that.
With its summer release date and huge budget, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is kind of a big deal. Is that nerve-racking?
This one has been a big surprise to me. It seemed to be some obscure thing, but now everyone’s talking about it. We all want to do films that people see, so I’m thankful to be a part of something that has legs. But it’s also cool to be in something that gains a following over time.
Some of the greatest movies have been slow burns.
Exactly, and I love discovering those kinds of films.
I remember a funny quote from Robert Downey, Jr., back when the first Iron Man came out and made a financial killing its opening weekend, where he said something to the effect of, “It feels good to finally be in a movie that people actually see.”
Yeah, it’s reassuring. Any actor who’s been around for a while has done something that you pour your heart and soul into and then nobody sees it. [Laughs.] It doesn’t negate the experience, because the experience is great on its own, but the reward is getting to share it with people. That’s what you really want to be able to do, so hopefully we’ll be able to share Abraham Lincoln with the world, and people will actually see it.
And you’ve had the good fortune of working with Quentin Tarantino, who’s a walking, talking cinema encyclopedia.
During the shooting of Grindhouse, I watched a lot of those old grindhouse films from the ’70s, and there’s one that Quentin introduced me to called Welcome Home Brother Charles. I loved it because it was so insane. It’s about this guy who kills people with his…um, penis. [Laughs.]
I have so much respect for many actresses who’ve done nudity. When you’re starting out, you have a more self-righteous view, like, 'I’ll never do that.' Once you get older, you realize those things aren’t as important as you thought they were.
Sounds like a masterpiece!
You have no idea. The best part is that the guy’s penis grows and turns into this snakelike thing, and he strangles people with it. The trailer is one of the best things ever. As crazy as it sounds, I feel lucky to have been exposed to stuff like that.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter falls into the Comic-Con lane that you’ve been working in throughout your career. Has that been a conscious decision?
It’s partly a coincidence of those being the films that I’ve been lucky enough to get to work on. The other part of it is, it’s easy for me to say yes—those are the kind of movies I want to see. It’s harder for a lot of other actors because they don’t appreciate the genre stuff as much; they don’t feel like it’s good for them career-wise. But I’m more likely to go see a horror film over a romantic comedy any day of the week.
Does your preference of horror flicks to rom-coms mean you won’t be in one of those movies that women use to make their boyfriends feel like inferior suitors?
[Laughs.] It’s just harder for me to get excited about a romantic comedy. If I were to do a really smart and funny romantic comedy... actually you could consider Scott Pilgrim a romantic comedy. That kind of thing I can get behind. But there are a lot of rom-coms that talk down to women. I don’t want to be condescended to. I want to see a woman in a romantic comedy who represents a real woman.
In terms of auditions, is it harder to sell yourself as someone who is funny?
It’s definitely nerve-wracking. I’ve had several auditions where I’ve read with really big comedic actors—“chemistry reads,” they call them. You go in and you improv together, and it’s always really intimidating. I don’t come from that world; I’ve never studied how to be a comedic actress, specifically.
I have my own way of doing comedy, and sometimes it doesn’t quite fit into certain comedy worlds that are working and getting made right now. I don’t particularly like the pressure of trying to be funny; it’s a lot like what I was saying earlier about trying to be sexy. I don’t feel like you should have to try to be one thing.
Though it's common for people to peg actresses as just one thing. Some actresses don’t like the “scream queen” classification, because they think it’s limiting. Do you feel that way?
I think it’s great. Admittedly, I will probably focus on doing other things in the future. Even within the genre stuff I’ve done, I’ve managed not to repeat myself. I like to surprise people with every film I do, so it’s hard to find a horror film now where I wouldn’t be repeating myself. But if I were to find something that breaks the mold, I’d be totally excited to do it.
In that regard, a film like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter clearly breaks the mold.
Right. I’ve always wanted to do a period piece, and I’ve always wanted to an action-adventure piece, and that’s what that is. It definitely has a horror element, and there’s a horror vein in there, but it’s so much more than just that. That’s what I can appreciate about it.
In the past, you said the one thing you’d never do is get naked in a movie.
When you’re starting out as an actress at a young age, you have a more self-righteous view of things, like, “I’ll never do that.” Once you get older, you realize those things aren’t as important as you thought they were. I have so much respect for many actresses who’ve done nudity. Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine is one of my favorite performances of the last few years. When I see something like that, I say, “OK, I totally understand why she did it.”
So you’re more open to nudity nowadays?
It’s still something that I would be hard-pressed to say yes to. A lot of things would have to fall in line. It would have to be important to the story. I’m not the kind of person who’s just going to take her clothes off casually and be totally cool with it. [Laughs.] But I am more open to it now. All I want is to be true to the character. If it’s important for there to be nudity in that case, then I don’t feel like it’d be right for me to say no.
Has taking that stance in the past limited your career in any ways?
Not a lot, thankfully. There’s certainly one or two things that I look back on from early in my career and I think, “Oh, man, if I had just been a little more open-minded, that would have been a really good thing to do.” But at the same time, it wouldn’t have been right for me to do it then, because I wouldn’t have been comfortable with it.
I definitely don’t have any regrets. Everything has to come at the right time; if I had done nudity at 19 or 20, I think it wouldn’t traumatized me. [Laughs.] And who knows how that would have damaged my career, as a result. Even if it did limit me in certain aspects, that’s OK, because I got the roles that I was supposed to get.
One of the films you have coming out later this year, Smashed, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January to rave reviews, particularly for your performance. Do you look at Smashed as a really important film for your career?
It is, definitely. When you come from doing genre films, like I’ve done, even if those films are great, as an actor you don’t really get as noticed as the special effects and all of the amazing visuals that surround you, and that’s what it should be—that’s why people go to see those films. Hopefully a film like Smashed will give me the opportunities to get more roles that are a bit more of a challenge.
There are films that I wasn't even allowed to audition for because people said, 'She's not a real actress—she's a popcorn flick actress.'
Was it difficult to get the Smashed role in the first place?
I expected it to be a lot harder. I don’t think they auditioned anybody else. I never expected them to give me the benefit of the doubt. I expected them to look at me and say, “You’re the girl who did a bunch of horror movies—I don’t know if you can handle this kind of a role.”
Has that actually happened to you?
Yeah, definitely. There were a lot of films that I wasn’t even allowed to audition for, because people said, “Well, she’s not a real actress—she’s a horror movie actress.” A “popcorn flick actress” is one of the things I’ve been called before. I’ve never felt typecast, but I’ve been pigeonholed, as far as the type of genre actress I am. That’s one thing I’m trying to break out of, because I’m more diverse than that.
Yet, to genre movie fans, you’re the coolest woman ever.
[Laughs.] It’s interesting. You go to some place like Comic-Con and you feel like a star, and everywhere else I go I don’t get the same kind of accolades. I’m always going to appreciate having that fan base, even if my career and popularity expands to other circles.
Does that make it easier to sign on to a project like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter?
Definitely, though I don’t really worry about that kind of stuff. I don’t understand why I should have to worry so much about what the reaction is going to be, because as long as I’m happy with it, then I can just be happy with it. To have a fan base that stands behind me makes me feel like I’m not making horrible choices.
To dudes who love Scott Pilgrim, you are the ultimate dream girl.
It’s great. [Laughs.] But the thing about Ramona Flowers is I’ll always feel like that’s more a by-product of the character than of me. I feel a separation there. People are obsessed with how cool that character is, and the way she dresses and carries herself. All of those things are different from me, so I certainly don’t take any of those compliments personally.
You realize you’re being way too modest, right?
[Laughs.] Hey, that’s how I see it. It’s all very flattering, though. Remember, I’m the girl who doesn’t know how to be sexy.
One thing you do know how to do, though, that people might be surprised about, is sing. At SXSW in March, you performed an original song with Dan The Automator, which is both incredibly random and seriously cool. Are you about to officially jump into music, too?
Yeah, it’s really cool, really random, but fun. We just started working together. He did a song for Scott Pilgrim, that’s how we met, and I’ve been a fan of his forever. His album Lovage is one the iconic albums of my life, so I’ve always been a fan of his.
I was really excited to meet him. I guess he saw something on the Internet of me singing, and he called me and asked if I wanted to collaborate on a song. So we did a song together, and then one song kind of turned into five, and then we just decided to make an album out of it. So we’re currently working on it, going at our own pace, and not putting too much pressure on ourselves. It’s really fun.
Is music something that you’ve always wanted to do?
You know, it is something I’ve always wanted to do, but on a really small scale. I always thought I’d sing in a movie, like I would do a musical. I don’t think I ever thought that I’d release an album. [Laughs.] So it’s really different. But I’m glad that it’s a collaboration; I don’t think I would’ve done it if it was a solo project that I’d done on my own. It’s great that I’m collaborating with somebody that I admire so much. It makes it really cool and make sense in my head as to why I’m doing it. I’m excited about it.
Do you guys have a name for the project yet, like his past projects Handsome Boy Modeling School or Deltron 3030?
I don’t know. When we were performing, we were like, “Oh, yeah… Do we have a name?” [Laughs.] We’re just so laid back about it, we haven’t thought about those things. I don’t know. I guess there’s a possibility that it might turn out to be just my name or something, but at the end of the day, even if it is that, it’s a collaboration. So I think we’ll come up with a name. We’ll see.
What kind of music are you guys making exactly?
The inspiration behind it is, like, French ’60s pop—Jane Birkin, and stuff like that. It’s kind of married with Dan’s sensibility, which is his beats and a little bit of that low-key hip-hop vibe. So it makes for something that’s very unique; it’s very lounge-y and light. It's got a little bit of a French quality.
Dan the Automator also has some really strong hip-hop roots. Are you a quote-unquote hip-hop head at all?
Not particularly. [Laughs.] Not other than Dan's stuff. Dan has such crossover appeal, from having lots of different types of fans. I love Handsome Boy Modeling School, Gorillaz, and all the stuff that he’s done that comes from the hip-hop world. So I have a little bit of hip-hop taste, but it doesn’t go much further beyond Dan’s stuff. [Laughs.]
So there won’t be any rap verses from you on the album?
[Laughs.] No, probably not. Maybe a little spoken-word, but in that French, chartreuse kind of way. Not really in the “white rapper” kind of way. [Laughs.]
WATCH MARY ELIZABETH WINSTEAD'S BEHIND-THE-SCENES VIDEO:
ADDITIONAL CREDITS: (HAIR) Rob Talty. (MAKEUP) Sammy Mourbit. (PROP STYLING) David Ross. (CLOTHING) FIRST IMAGE: Vintage Dolce & Gabbana dress from The Way We Wore. SECOND & FIFTH IMAGE: Dress by Alexander Wang / Cuff by Charles Albert. THIRD & SIXTH IMAGE: Dress by Nicole Miller / Shoes by Giuseppe Zanotti. FOURTH IMAGE: Jacket by Irina Shabayeva / Vintage Dolce & Gabbana Dress from The Way We Wore / Shoes by Giuseppe Zanotti.