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Mary Elizabeth Winstead on ‘Birds of Prey,’ Working With All Women and ‘Passions’

Mary Elizabeth Winstead has been working steadily in film and on television since 1999, when at age 14 she got her first regular gig, on the fantastical NBC soap opera “Passions.” She thought she was signing on for “a daytime version of ‘Dawson’s Creek,’” Winstead says, but then the show’s campily supernatural heart revealed itself. “Every day was just sort of, like, what is happening? It was very strange!”

Since then, Winstead has starred in “Death Proof,” “10 Cloverfield Lane,” and the “Fargo” TV series, among many others. On Feb. 7, audiences will see her as Huntress in Cathy Yan’s “Birds of Prey” — the first superhero movie of 2020 — wilding out with Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn.

What did you know about Huntress before you signed on?

I had a vague awareness of her. Once I heard about the project and I started researching her, I found her to be a really interesting, mysterious kind of character. Then I met with Cathy and Margot. And I became more and more interested in the world that they were building — of all these really quite intriguing women.

What parts were the most fun to shoot?

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She’s a bit of a loner, and the closer that she comes to the other women in the film, the more fun I had. Once we started really getting to do scenes together — fight scenes together, and training together — it’s such a fantastic group. And we had a ball. Especially Rosie Perez. Anytime I can hang out with Rosie Perez is a good day!

Why, what’s Rosie Perez like?

Whether she’s in a good mood, a bad mood — whatever’s going on, she’s a blast. She’s just such a great storyteller. She’s so funny. She’s vivacious. She’s seen it all, you know. And she’s also so lovely and sweet and endearing and vulnerable.

You made “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” almost 10 years ago. Did you think back to your fight training for that movie during “Birds of Prey”?

Absolutely. It was kind of crazy to think that it had been that long since I had done any real sort of martial arts, physical training. I was thinking, “Oh, yeah, I’ve done this before! I’ve got this!” And then I was like, “Wait a second. It’s been 10 years!” But thankfully, it all came fairly naturally to me. It was really difficult, that’s for sure. And a little bit addictive, I think.

“Birds of Prey” has nearly all women leads, a woman director, a woman screenwriter, women producers — does the industry feel different from how it did a few years ago?

Absolutely. Just stepping onto the film set and realizing how liberating it was to be surrounded by so many women in positions of power was an incredible feeling. But it also makes you realize how little you’ve ever experienced that before. I think we all bonded, all the cast on this, over the fact that we’ve all been doing this for a really long time, and the experience we’re most familiar with is the one of being the only woman in the room. You know, I think we were all really familiar with what that experience feels like. So to come into a set and have it be the opposite of that, I think you realize how hindered you were before. How there were all of these little barriers to break through in terms of communication that aren’t there anymore when you’re surrounded by women who see you and understand you for who you are. So it was a really liberating experience.

You’ve been in a lot of male-dominated action movies. Tell me more about the difference between “Birds of Prey” and your experience on those films?

I’ve been very lucky, I’ve worked with wonderful people throughout my career. And so the men that I’ve worked with have certainly been lovely and great men and talented and thoughtful. But even the talented and thoughtful men are not women, you know what I mean?

There’s always a discussion that needs to be had in terms of why they’re not really seeing your point of view. And usually those discussions in my case have been very friendly and easy, but I’m always ready for them. I was telling this to Jurnee [Smollett-Bell] the other day, I said, “I didn’t realize until I did this movie what a defense I’ve had up my whole career.” I always walk into a situation on a set or in a casting room with my defenses up a little bit, ready for a polite fight. I’m always ready to say, “No, I’d rather not do it that way. I’d rather do it this way.” Or, “No, I don’t think my character would do that, I think she would do this.”

So to walk onto a set where I didn’t need to have those defenses up, everybody already got it — there were no discussions that needed to be had in terms of trying to make someone explain how a woman would do something, we were just already on the same page. It was an amazing feeling.

What are some ways you feel like you’ve been treated differently as a woman in this industry? 

I think it’s just the feeling that there’s an expectation that you’ll always be quiet about everything. That you’ll always be quiet about any sort of mistreatment that’s come that comes your way. There’s an expectation that the women — particularly the young women, or the women who aren’t so famous — would never speak up about it. Because our places within the industry are too fragile for us to risk that. And that expectation is changing.

Thank you for that answer. Now I’m going ask you some silly questions! You’ve been in a lot of scary movies. What’s your favorite scary movie you’ve been in besides “10 Cloverfield Lane”? Because that’s the easy choice.

Oh, gosh, besides that? Somebody might have to go through and remind me of all the scary movies I’ve been in. I really love “Death Proof,” you know? Because I loved the experience of working with Quentin Tarantino. And even though the scenes I was in didn’t really feel so much like a horror movie, it felt more like a little arthouse Tarantino movie, it is quite a scary movie in its own right.

Speaking about auteurs, I was at the Sundance premiere of “Swiss Army Man” in 2016, the one when lots of people walked out of the Eccles. What was your experience of that premiere?

I loved it so much. I think that was my first time seeing the movie, if I remember correctly. And I was so blown away. I just was so moved by it, even though it’s this weird little fart movie. I thought it was so beautiful. And I was so impressed that these guys could take those elements — a dead corpse and flying farts, and all this stuff — and make something profound. I just was blown away. And I thought it was great that people walked out. I thought it was fantastic. I was, like, “Yes! More people walk out!” 

I did not walk out, for the record! I stayed. You were in “Sky High” with Nicholas Braun. He is so tall! Do you watch “Succession”?

No, but I’ve heard so much about it! I want to. It also has Kieran Culkin, right? Who is brilliant, and who I’ve worked with, and I love. He was in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” He was the roommate. So yes, it’s on my list for sure. 

How old were you when you were on “Passions”?

I was 14 years old. It was my first time coming to Los Angeles, and I ended up on the crazy soap opera. So that’s how that happened.

Were you aware of how utterly batshit it was as you were filming it?

I had no idea. As I was filming it, I certainly became more aware as the days were going on, and as the scripts were coming in. But when I signed on to it, I had no idea what I was doing. They didn’t give a scripts or anything. It was just like, “Oh, there’s a new soap opera. It’s gonna have lots of teenagers and young people. It’s going to air in the summer.” We all just went, “Great. Sounds awesome!” And it was. I mean, it was great.

You thought you were signing on for a normal soap opera, and then it was “Passions.”

Absolutely. I thought it was going to be like a daytime version of “Dawson’s Creek” — that’s how it was described. And then it just became, you know, hell was in my basement, my next door neighbor was a witch, she had a doll that came to life. Every day was just sort of, like, what is happening? It was very strange! 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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