There’s a hint of incredulity to the rave reviews for the alcoholic love story “Smashed.” And since its director, James Ponsoldt, made a previous film about an alcoholic baseball umpire (“Off the Black”), that slack-jawed shock is aimed at his leading lady.
Even when a critic like Lisa Schwarzbaum at Entertainment Weekly is praising her “empathetic performance of appealing transparency,” she can’t help but refer to Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the “former horror-movie scream queen.”
Winstead, who turns 28 in November, has a string of horror credits — “from “The Ring Two” and “Final Destination 3” to “The Thing.” But even the role she’s best known for, as the face that launched a string of vengeful lovers after new beau Scott Pilgrim in “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,” doesn’t suggest the staggering, confused and amused at the idea of 12 Step help young drunk she plays in “Smashed.”
“I didn’t know I had it in me, either,” she confesses.
But Ponsoldt did. It’s one thing to cast Nick Nolte as an aged alcoholic in “Off the Black.” But something in Winstead’s “Scott Pilgrim” turned convinced him she could pull off a younger version. Even in a “live action cartoon” like “Scott Pilgrim,” “she’s this cool, still, stoic center,” Ponsoldt says. “She’s like Henry Fonda or Jean Gabin or Robert Duvall. She doesn’t over-act, whether she’s playing Scott Pilgrim’s girlfriend, or the woman with the flamethrower in ‘The Thing.’ The demands were different. She was still good.”
Winstead says she wanted to “take more charge of my career, the sorts of roles I do,” in reaching out for the part in the low budget “Smashed.” But then, “Then, when I got this part, I was TERRIFIED.”
Ask any actor, she says, and they’ll tell you “playing a drunk is one of the hardest things to pull off.”
Oscar winner Martin Landau, artistic director of the west coast branch of the Actor’s Studio, agrees. “A bad actor plays drunk. A good actor plays a drunk hiding that he’s drunk.” That’s what Winstead went for.
“You try to compensate for all the things that you’re too impaired to do easily,” she says. “It’s a good tactic, playing a drunk who doesn’t want to look drunk.”
Ponsoldt’s approach to a familiar story arc — substance abuser hits bottom, seeks help, and has to deal with the consequences of the old life, and the new one — is to treat “Smashed” as a love story, with a relatable heroine who thinks she’s too young and too hip to be “one of those people, standing outside the church where Alcoholics Anonymous meets, chain-smoking.”
“Young people today take a different view of twelve step programs,” says Winstead, who attended a number of AA meetings with Susan Burke, the film’s recovering alcoholic screenwriter. “It’s a different AA now, where the religious side to it has kind of slipped into the background. Many people in it don’t take the religious stuff about a ‘higher power’ literally. That’s who Kate is. She’s making it work for her.”
And Winstead, having taken charge of her career rather than just accepting “whatever the world gives me,” supporting roles as John McClane’s daughter in the next “Die Hard,” for instance.
“You don’t know you can conquer something until you make that opportunity happen, until you get that chance. That’s what I hope to do from now on.”