In a low-budget film financed by Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, Mary Elizabeth Winstead memorably portrays a young alcoholic.
'Smashed," opening in the Twin Cities area Friday, features a career-making performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Kate, a girl-next-door alcoholic. James Ponsoldt's indie drama boasts an impressive ensemble, with "Breaking Bad's" Emmy-winner Aaron Paul as her drinking-buddy husband, Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer as her Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor and "Parks and Recreation's" Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally as well-meaning co-workers at the grade school where she teaches.
But it's Winstead's portrait of a charming, impulsive, manipulative drinker taking baby steps toward sobriety that gives the film its power.
After winning fanboy fame in such genre fare as "The Thing," "Final Destination 3" and "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," Winstead, 27, wanted to prove she was ready for complex, potent drama. A distant cousin of legendary screen beauty Ava Gardner, whose career faded with her allure, Winstead understood the importance of taking control of one's own acting career.
She read the "Smashed" script and sent producer Jonathan Schwartz an audition tape of the movie's key scenes, eclipsing the better-known actresses the filmmakers had pondered casting.
As they prepared to shoot the film in Los Angeles in just 19 days on a budget under $1 million, Winstead took a monthlong crash course on alcoholism. Born in a non-drinking religious community in North Carolina, raised in Utah, where liquor laws are strictly enforced, and no partier in college, she had little direct experience with the culture and consequences of heavy drinking.
"When I came to Los Angeles, I would sort of leave the party when it comes to drinking," she said by phone last week. "I thought I would be out of my element. But there's a lot more to it than just hard drinking."
In recovery, no room to hide
Talking to a lot of people in Alcoholics Anonymous, Winstead found her way inside the character by examining her own insecurities and connecting with her character's urge to take shelter in drink. "She's just like me, or your sister or your daughter or your girlfriend. She's human, very flawed, but able to look in the mirror and admit her weaknesses while trying to be better.
"It's all about how we handle our pain," she continued, "and I don't always handle my pain in ways that are healthy for me. I wasn't always living my life in the most honest way. I really admire people who are struggling with this disease because they have to live with their pain and their weaknesses every day. They have to be fully open and acknowledge them constantly to become the people they hope to be. Most of us, I think, hide that on a regular basis. If you're in recovery, there's no room for that."
The other big revelation for Winstead was that the AA meetings she attended, while raw, were also often "a great deal of fun. That really gave me license to have fun in the film and let the comedy play out, because these people do know how to laugh. There's really no other choice, sometimes."
As part of their preparations, Winstead and Paul spent one night deliberately drinking to excess while filming themselves. "I wanted to remember what it's like to be in that state. While I drink socially, I'm not the type to get flat-out drunk, so I wanted to see what my body feels like, what changes come over my personality."
Winstead saw Kate reverting to childhood as she drinks, doing anything to get the candy she craves -- smiling, acting cute, stamping her feet or screaming. "I feel I get younger, giggly, silly and childlike when I drink. James and I saw Kate as someone who started early, latched onto the identity of the fun drunk girl and remained there so long."
"Smashed" is part of a slate of modestly budgeted films produced or written by Schwartz that have been co-funded by his cousin, Vikings owner Zygi Wilf. Their other projects include the Jennifer Lawrence romance "Like Crazy" and the upcoming adultery drama "Nobody Walks."
"People like them are so incredibly exciting. There are so few people who are willing to go out on a limb for new filmmakers who are trying something different," Winstead said. "They're really inspiring to me. More films like this will get made if there are people willing to help us make them. They're not trying to hobnob with anybody. They're just trying to build up this business in a way that's more creative. And I think that's fantastic."
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186 On Twitter: @colincovert