Mary Elizabeth Winstead landed her first TV gig when she was 12 years old, appearing in an episode of “Touched by An Angel.” Since then, she has spent the last 20 years in films that scaled large and small, portraying a wide range of complicated, fully realized women.
Many of these performances deserved attention on the awards landscape, such as her role as a terrorized prisoner in “10 Cloverfield Lane” and turn as an alcoholic in the drama “Smashed,” though she landed an Independent Spirit nom for the part. And it’s still puzzling how her turn Ewan McGregor’s crafty fiancée in the third season of “Fargo” managed to elude more attention.
Now, Winstead is back on the big screen with another bold turn in “All About Nina,” the feature debut from writer-director Eva Vives. So about Nina: She’s a caustic stand-up comedian who exudes confidence onstage but is less in control of her personal life. The indie feature gives Winstead a chance to do it all: prowl the stage as a comedian, reveal vulnerability in scenes with a tentative love interest played by Common, and even show off her imitation of Bjork.
“When I read it, it was absolutely the most intimidating role I’d ever read. It was an easy yes for me obviously, because the role was so incredible,” Winstead admits. Only later did the fear sink in. “The closer we got to shooting it, the more scared I started to become.”
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But the actress confesses that such doubts are normal for her. “I go through that all the time. Later, I have the realization: ‘Oh yeah, I do this every time.’ I start to freak out I don’t know who the character is and I don’t know what I’m doing. I go through a period of terror that goes into a kind of release, which is around the time I start shooting.”
Terror might be a good thing — asked if she’s ever been completely confident in a role, she remarks, “Yeah, and those are usually the most boring experiences and the least interesting work! So you look for the scary ones.”
Perhaps most daring is the film’s refusal to smooth out any of Nina’s sharp edges. Not long ago, it was an open secret that many in the industry don’t want to see women on screen who might be “unlikable.” There was also a faction that firmly believed women aren’t funny. Nina/Winstead looks to shatter both those concepts. “For me, it would be really boring to play characters who aren’t struggling with someone and trying to figure themselves out,” Winstead says. “As the movie’s going on, she realizing she needs to try and move forward in a new way. And that’s always really, really interesting to me.”
Most frightening to Winstead was the idea of performing standup, even if in character. “We talked a lot about how Nina is so confident onstage. I knew how to do that as a character in front of a camera because I know how to tap into that confidence,” she says. “But strip all that away from me and put me at an open mic night somewhere, I just would have bombed. I would have been terrible.” It helped to have comics in the film, such as Jay Mohr, and Jamie Loftus, who served as comedy consultant. “I was nervous, I would come in early on the days we shot those scenes and work with Jamie,” Winstead says. “By the end, it actually started to be really fun.”
“All About Nina” was shot in 21 days, but Winstead – who has appeared in big-budget blockbusters like “Live Free or Die Hard” – says she actually prefers the breakneck pace. “I love it,” she raves. “It’s difficult for sure but in terms of the energy, the frenetic, intense energy, it’s easier to get that on a short shoot.”
She’ll soon be experiencing another large-scale production, having recently signed on to the DC comic-book spinoff “Birds of Prey,” in which she will play Huntress.
And though playing Nina could be a difficult headspace to be in, there was also plenty to admire. “I tend to take on certain things anytime I play a character I get really into. I feel like I dress more in black and wear red lipstick than I did prior to making the movie,” she says with a laugh. “And maybe I have a certain swagger and confidence than I had before. I try to keep the positive aspects and let go of the self-destructive parts.”