In last year’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Mary Elizabeth Winstead was challenged with playing a young woman intriguing enough that she’s worth battling seven evil exes to be with. She accomplished that considerable task handily, thanks to an effortless combination of brains, beauty and mystique – all of which is further being put to the test in The Thing. A companion piece of sorts to John Carpenter’s 1982 classic, the film replaces its male protagonist with a young academic, played by Winstead, who finds herself trapped at a remote outpost with a handful of scientists and explorers, as well as with a shape-shifting monster that can make itself look like anyone or thing. And as with her previous film, she manages to convey strength without sacrificing vulnerability, and vice versa.
Movies.com sat down with Winstead at the recent Los Angeles press day for The Thing, where the young actress detailed the process of bringing the film’s iconic beast back to life. Additionally, she offered some updates about a few future projects, and talked about how she tackles each new acting challenge, both before and after she’s finished each film.
Movies.com: What did they tell you about this movie, because it is sort of a remake, reimagining, and companion piece to the 1982 version, all rolled into one?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: When I was first approached about the project, I was just told, “we’re sending you a script, and it’s a prequel to The Thing.” I was like, enh, what is this going to be? Because you get to a point where you kind of assume with remakes and things that they’re going to be a sort of schlocky rehashing in a modern way of the great original – which is kind of what I was expecting. And I read it and it was so smart and so respectful of the Carpenter version; it was in that world very much, but with completely different characters, and new elements that brought something really intriguing to it. And also, it dovetailed so well into the Carpenter version that it kind of felt like fans of the Carpenter version might be into this. And then I met with the producers, and with Matthijs, and they were so intelligent and so passionate about keeping the key elements that were what made the Carpenter version so great. And it was like, okay, I think this is in the right hands – I don’t think this is going to get pushed into bad horror territory. They’re really going to keep this as something adult and mature and keeps that psychological element alive. And I felt like, yeah, I was really excited to jump on board.
Movies.com: How much inspiration did you take from the original, and how much did you want to distance your performance to make sure it and the film were not just derivative of Carpenter’s film?
Winstead: I think as far as inspiration from the original, it was really just tone and understanding the world that we were all living in, because it really was the world that John Carpenter created that we were living in in the movie. As far as my character goes, there’s no character like that in the original, except for Wilford Brimley, maybe [laughs]. Being a young woman who was an intellectual, an academic, there wasn’t anything really from MacReady I could take because they come from such different backgrounds, and there’s just really no similarities between them. So I looked at stuff like that initially, but I realized that they’re just two different worlds, the one my character comes from and the one from the original – which was great. Because then I didn’t have to worry about taking inspiration from one specific character or trying to give nods to a character or anything like that. I could just create something from scratch on my own.
I have a pretty scientific family; my older sister is a doctor. And once I started working on the character, and especially once I got into this mode of no makeup and very serious and minimal fashion, I sort of started feeling like I looked like her. And I was like, oh yeah – this is the character. This is who she is. She’s someone who’s really focused and passionate about what she does, really smart, really take-charge, and so I kind of based it in a lot of ways on her.
Movies.com: Is it more important to fulfill the demands of what a movie needs from your character, or to infuse a less interesting character with certain qualities in order to keep yourself challenged or interested?
Winstead: Yeah. I mean, I feel like I have to bring all of myself to the character, and then whatever else the character would be given their background and et cetera. But as far as their level of emotion and their level of compassion and empathy and all of that kind of stuff, I have to be able to bring as much of that as I can to the table in order to make the character feel like a full, real person. And especially with female characters, if you make her just like the tough chick, or just the fragile girl who’s falling apart--I would so much rather see a woman who has all of those qualities combined. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep doing roles that allow me to do that.
Movies.com: Last year there were some well-covered reshoots. Although most movies have to do some reshoots, how much did you participate and what exactly was involved?
Winstead: I feel like this film has definitely been scrutinized more than other films would be – as I think we all expected, because [its predecessor] is such a cult classic. Every film I’ve done basically has had reshoots, so it’s funny that everybody was like, “it must suck!” when Scott Pilgrim had reshoots, and everyone I know loves that movie. So it was sort of surprising that everyone raised the red flag, but when we were making the movie initially, we were all such fans of the original that we sort of forgot we had to explain things to audiences who haven’t already seen that movie and don’t already know what’s happening. I had to be reminded by watching the John Carpenter version that there is exposition in that movie [laughs].
We would be on set and we’d go, we’re cutting all of this dialogue. We don’t need any of this exposition. The audience knows what’s happening. And Matthijs was like yeah, we want to convey everything just with the emotions and the tone, we don’t have to let them know what’s happening. So then we see the movie and tested it, and people were like, "What the hell is going on? We don’t know." So we had to go back and add some scenes where my character is going, “guys, this is what happens,” which is one of those things especially in a horror movie that you do have to clue the audience in on – where things are headed, and where we are at different places in the film. Those are the main reasons for the reshoots. We also did some reshoots on the end sequence. We just made the very end bigger and crazier and longer.
Movies.com: What else is coming up for you?
Winstead: I’m just getting ready to start shooting this tiny little indie with Aaron Paul and Octavia Spencer and Nick Offerman and a bunch of really great actors that’s basically about alcoholism and my character trying to get sober. My husband, played by Aaron Paul, is still a big drinker, and it’s pretty dark, but it has moments of comedy. So it’s going to be fun.
Movies.com: There have been recent discussions about Die Hard 5, and the series has been pretty liberal about saying, “we don’t need everybody back from the last one.” Have they talked to you about it?
No. I think that they’re just trying to bring something new to it by bringing in the son aspect. No daughter in this one! But that’s okay.
Movies.com: At this point, what is your barometer for success or enjoyment from each film you work on? Scott Pilgrim is a great movie, for example, but obviously it wasn’t seen by as many people as I know you would have liked.
Winstead: That was a huge learning lesson for me, because that just goes to show that you have no way of predicting what’s going to happen with the movies you do. I mean, all of us involved was like, “oh my God – this is going to be huge!” and we were preparing each other, saying, “do you realize your life is going to change when this movie comes out?” And of course, the movie comes out, and it’s like crickets, which was totally fine. My life was great before the movie, my life is great now, and it’s an awesome experience that I will never forget, and I cherish it – I cherish being a part of that movie because it was so great. And I think that now, going forward, that’s how I’ll look at everything: it doesn’t reflect the film in any way, how many people see it or how big it is or how much money it makes. It’s really all about the experience of making it. And so far, every experience I’ve had has been really great and really worthwhile, and as long as I keep that up, I’ll be really happy.