Mary Elizabeth Winstead captured our hearts as Ramona Flowers in 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and then scared us senseless as Kate Lloyd in 2011’s The Thing. But with her latest role, she takes us in another direction as she embodies a beloved first lady amid somewhat fantastical circumstances.
In Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, director Timur Bekmambetov’s adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s bestselling novel chronicling the 16th president’s crusade against the undead, Winstead plays Mary Todd Lincoln, a part that was equal measures research- and imagination-based. Spinoff Online caught up with Winstead to talk corsets and old-age make-up, fans’ enduring love for her Scott Pilgrim character, and why Quentin Tarantino can take credit for her burgeoning singing career.
I know you, like me, are a huge fan of House Hunters.
So is your world also shattered now that recent news has broken about it being faked?
So, so annoyed. I always had a theory that it was maybe somewhat fake, but I didn't know that it was completely just made up. That's heartbreaking. And even the International shows -- those are my favorite. And if those are fake, too, which they probably are … is Property Virgins fake, too?
I don't know, it feels like nothing is sacred now.
This is heartbreaking. Seriously.
I have a funny Comic-Con story that you'll probably appreciate. While I was working the convention last year, a guy in a Stormtrooper costume stopped me and told me he liked my Ramona Flowers cosplay. I wasn't dressed up; I was just wearing shorts with leggings under them. I told him this is how we dress in the galaxy of Brooklyn! Is Ramona the patron saint of hipsters or what?
That's hilarious! You didn't even have different-colored hair at the time?
No! So if I got that just for having a somewhat-reminiscent haircut and wearing Ramona-esque clothes, I can only imagine how often people stop you.
People are starting to stop me more, but it never happened when the movie was first out, because it didn't do well, business-wise. Nobody really knew what the movie was or who I was or anything. But it's kinda fun now to see the audience grow and to see people sort of starting to make the connection between the character and me. But it still is rare -- it's usually if somebody checks my ID or something at a restaurant, they'll be like, "Wait -- I know that name!" But its still kind of hard for people … without the wig, it's hard for people to make the connection.
I saw you in Smashed at Sundance this year, and that performance really kicks you out of Ramona Flowers mode. I'm so glad Sony picked it up so general audiences will be able to see you in the role. It's a really incredible, raw performance. Do you feel like it's helpful to explore your range with independent films like this, between the Scott Pilgrims and the Abraham Lincolns?
Yeah, I think it's important -- or at least, it's very important for me to kind of keep changing those kinds of things up, because big movies are so much fun, and you get a lot of perks with them, which is great. Especially something like this, which is just a blast. There was nothing I could complain about at all on doing the film. But you do get an itch to just feel a different energy, and something a little bit more fast-paced and a little more rough and tumble. Which Smashed was -- that was what I needed. I needed to not have a trailer, to not have a place to go take a nap in the middle of the day. I needed somebody to just throw me in the ring and let me loose.
And with a really intense subject, too -- alcoholism and its very personal implications.
Yeah, exactly. I needed that kind of, just a different kind of challenge.
Did you read Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter before you took the role?
I did, yeah. I read the script first and then the script worked so well that I was like, “Oh, my God, is the book as good as the script?”
I'm only halfway through the book right now, and when I sat down to watch the movie, by 10 minutes in it was at the point where I am in the book. It's completely different!
Right, it is! And the script changed a lot, too, from the first incarnation of it. But the fact that Seth was involved in it was really exciting to me because when I read the book I was like, “This guy knows his stuff.” He knows what he's doing. It works so well. It feels so real -- and I was really blown away by that, because you sort of think, “Oh, this is really going to be campy or it's going to be some sort of comedy horror thing,” and it was so straightforward, it really makes the history buff in you excited. It really feels like a great historical action piece.
And you had the alterna-history aspect on your side, too, because you could research the real-life person behind your character Mary Todd Lincoln.
I did, and I didn't even have to think about the vampire side of it. I really just thought about the real love story behind Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln, and I was able to focus on that. And even though I have a little bit to do with the vampires, I didn't have to think of them as vampires.
A lot of actors talk about not liking to see themselves on the big screen -- how does 3D affect that? Does it make the whole thing worse?
I haven't seen it in 3D yet! Tomorrow night will be the first time I see it. I'm curious! I'm a little nervous, because I don't know what to expect. And just the period-piece elements, too. I'm excited to see how that comes into play in 3D.
Speaking of period piece: corsets. Your costumes in this are beautiful, but they must've been painful.
Yeah, not fun. Really not fun. I mean, the clothes are so amazing and I was so excited to wear them, and when I would first put them on I would take tons of pictures and send them to my family like, “Look how pretty this is!” But then a couple hours into it you're like, “Okay, I'm ready to take this off.”
Is there any key to surviving those outfits on a long day of shooting? Breathing exercises, perhaps?
I learned to really ration my food intake. [laughs] I ate a lot on my days off, and then when I was working I didn't eat very much. Because that was the worst. The first couple days, I was just eating like normal, and then by the end of the day I felt so sick, because you have no room to expand your stomach. So I finally learned, okay, just take small snacks throughout the day, small sips of water.
I can just see you writing a how-to guide about surviving the corset dress, for a fashion magazine.
[laughs] Right?! Six small meals a day! It's like the old diet regime!
The make-up in this movie is really stunning, too; the aging effects on you and Benjamin look seamless. Though maybe I'm a little vain, but if some wiz make-up artists showed me what I'd look like in 20 years, I'd freak out a little.
Oh, I know! I'd like to hope that maybe there'll be some magic potion by then.
You still look gorgeous, though, which is kind of annoying.
[laughs] I was thinking, if this is the best-case scenario, if I don't end up gaining 50 pounds by the time I'm that age … because you never know what's going to happen! So it was like the best-case scenario to me. If all that happens is I get some crow's feet and some wrinkles through here [points to sides of mouth], I can handle that.
So you're in the new Roman Coppola movie, which is kind of like a Scott Pilgrim reunion, since Aubrey Plaza and Jason Schwartzman are also in it.
It was! It was so much fun!
Have you seen Moonrise Kingdom?
Yes! I'm obsessed with it. I want to see it again. It's like one of my favorite movies that I've seen in the theater in years.
Ditto. I think I identified better with the pre-teen romance in that than with the adult romance in most movies. Working on a Coppola set, with that insane cast, had to be fantastic. Did Francis ever breeze through?
No, I wish! But I got to hang out with Bill Murray, which to me was like -- he is so amazing. He's just what you hope he'll be. And he's just so sweet and fun and he just loves to hang out. Like, he would hang out when he wasn't working and just come and chat with people.
You're also working on some music stuff of your own. Maybe you and Roman will coordinate on a music video together.
Right?! That would be cool, actually!
We're officially putting it out there, now: Roman, call Mary Elizabeth!
It's out in the ether! The music is basically myself and Dan the Automator. He's really cool, he's a friend of mine and he just kind of asked me one day if we wanted to work on some music together and I was like, “Yeah!” So we just started writing stuff and we didn't really plan on making an album, but he just had a lot of good material that he thought would suit my voice and my writing style, and so he just keeps sending me stuff to write to and I just keep writing. So we're thinking it'll eventually be an album, but we're both busy with other stuff, so it's very slow going.
The first time you sang on camera was for Quentin Tarantino in Death Proof, right?
So the credit goes to Quentin, I guess!
I know -- it all comes back, it's true! I think that might be what Dan saw, because he said he saw something online of me singing, which is why he called and asked if I wanted to do that. So that's probably what he saw!
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter opens Friday.