It's fitting that in an election year, a former first lady is generating Oscar buzz for playing a drunken party girl. And Mary Elizabeth Winstead wouldn't have it any other way, as she exchanges Mary Todd's silver stake from "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" for a troubled young wife's corkscrew in "Smashed." It's a swap that has her soaring up the polls on the strength of a performance winning favor with audiences and critics alike. And it's all catching the willowy North Carolina beauty a bit by surprise.
"It's just such a weird thing to deal with," she said of the sudden adulation, "because I'm just so not used to it. I've read nice things in reviews before, but to have so many is kind of overwhelming. I didn't even look at it as a kind of Oscar-baiting role."
Obviously, the 27-year-old is too young to realize that few love drunks more than Oscar. The little gold guy can't seem to get enough of them, with stars as diverse as Elisabeth Shue and Paul Newman picking up nominations for picking up a bottle. Now, it could well be Winstead's turn, as the actress best known for playing Bruce Willis' rebellious daughter in the "Die Hard" pictures takes her best shot - or should I say shots - at breaking into the big time, playing a lush struggling to get straight in "Smashed." In the film, which opens next Friday, Winstead plays Kate, a dazzling, energetic first-grade teacher by day and a fall-down boozer by night. It's a vicious cycle that Kate strives to break free of after tossing her cookies during spelling class. But the one person holding her back is her equally intoxicated husband Charlie, played by "Breaking Bad" Emmy-winner Aaron Paul.
Unlike "alcoholic" movies of the past, "Smashed" freely laces dramatics with humor, resulting in a tonal balancing act that places the onus on Winstead to be both funny and believable as a woman viewing life from the bottom of a glass. And the film's writer-director, James Ponsoldt, says no one was more perfect for the role than Winstead.
"I've been a fan of Mary's for years," Ponsoldt said during a stopover in Boston with Winstead to promote the movie. "But I really loved her (as Ramona Flowers) in ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.' It's like a live-action cartoon, but at the core of it you have Mary, who is so still. She reminds you of an old-fashioned movie star like a Henry Fonda, where there's craziness, but she's always pretty stoic, and strong and intelligent and never fragile, never weak and never a hint of her being a manic pixie dream girl."
Not only was Winstead flattered by Ponsoldt's interest in casting her as Kate, it also gave her an excuse to try a little method acting.
Page 2 of 3 - "Certainly, I drink and have a good time, but it's not that often that I'm as drunk as Kate and Charlie are on a regular basis," Winstead said. "So before we started shooting, I wanted to go out and get really drunk to kind of remind myself of what it feels like. So I allowed myself one crazy night out."
The results are sobering, yielding a performance that's as funny as it is wrenching, but never histrionic (I'm talking about you Nic Cage) or pandering. You hate Kate one minute (when she urinates on the floor of a liquor store), and admire her tenacity (when she takes the initiative to join A.A.) the next. But even more impressive is the ease in which Winstead and Paul interact, realistically portraying two people deeply in love, but each other's worst enemy when it comes to enabling.
"Aaron is so intense, so talented, and he brings so much to the roles he plays," Winstead said of her costar. "But in this, I was so surprised, because I've seen him play such dark characters (like on "Breaking Bad"). I didn't expect him to be so light and sweet and earnest and friendly and warm. Just really lovely to be around. And I felt so lucky to have that. I felt that I could humiliate myself; I could go as far as I needed to go, that I could do ridiculous things in front of him and he would not judge me for it -- ever. And that was great." Hollywood clearly agrees, judging by the attention "Smashed" has brought upon Winstead.
"I've already met a lot of interesting filmmakers who've responded to it and people who just really loved the film," Winstead said. "It's definitely given me the confidence to hold off on jumping into something that I'm not super, super passionate about, because (with ‘Smashed') I feel like I went out and found something that I truly loved, and it worked out. So it's given me the confidence to sort of take things into my own hands and try to craft my career for myself, as opposed to letting someone else do it for me."
The sudden acclaim, however, may bring to an end the title of Hollywood Scream Queen, an honor amassed over years of starring in such horror pictures as "The Thing," "Black Christmas," "Final Destination 3," "The Ring Two" and, of course, "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter."
"I think it's funny," she said of the Scream Queen designation. "I don't mind it necessarily, although it's certainly not something I was seeking out. I just consider myself a working actor who's tried to find good work as much as I could. Horror films just seem to be a recurring theme mostly out of coincidence, but also because I really do enjoy horror films. I've never been somebody who thinks less of them than other genres."
Page 3 of 3 - She is, however, a bit miffed that Steven Spielberg didn't seek her out to reprise the role of Mary Todd in "Lincoln," the Abe biopic without the vampires.
"I mean, did he not see our film?" she said with a hearty laugh. "Did he not know? Did he not check IMDB? Yes, that's right, I played Mary Todd first."
Well, at least she can take solace in knowing that the role went to a two-time Oscar winner in Sally Field. And if things continue going Winstead's way, it might not be long before she, too, has one of those golden statuettes to call her own.