Roundtable Interview: Mary Elizabeth Winstead Talks The Thing Prequel, Unleashing Her Inner Ripley and More!
In the upcoming Universal prequel The Thing (review here), Mary Elizabeth Winstead portrays paleontologist Kate Lloyd, who's recruited for a research expedition in the Arctic after a team of Norwegian scientists uncover an alien life form and its spaceship frozen deep within the icy terrain.
After the creature escapes, Kate discovers that the alien is some kind of parasite that has the ability to become its prey, and soon it's up to her and US helicopter pilot Braxton Carter (Joel Edgerton) to put an end to the alien before it escapes and has the ability to infect the entire world's population.
Dread Central sat down with Winstead during the recent press day for The Thing at Universal Studios, where we chatted with her during a roundtable interview about the upcoming prequel, getting in touch with her "inner Ripley" and her thoughts on whether or not this will be the last time we meet "the thing."
Question: Let's start with the pacing. This is a really kind of slow-paced movie; how did that sort of change your acting style? Were you comfortable with it?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: I don’t know that I really thought of the pacing so much as an actor, but it was great just to have the awareness that it was okay just to really be in the moment and react in a real way rather than just react fast. I learned that it was okay for things to be subtle.
Question: A lot of the paranoia and the suspicion in the movie comes from you. So because you’re standing in for the audience, did you pick specific moments when you were going to question if someone was an alien, or how you were going to question it differently for different people?
Winstead: I think the main thing- especially since you film out of order- is keeping track of the timeline of when she’s discovering things and how far into her discovery she is because you don’t want to jump the gun and say, “Oh, she knows already at the beginning of the film.” So it’s about knowing that she always has a suspicion but she doesn’t understand it at the beginning, she just has more of like a sixth sense.
Question: So you get the jacket and the flame thrower; did Kurt Russell’s performance in the 1982 film inform your performance at all?
Winstead: Not really. When I first signed onto it, I was like, "Okay, I need to make this character funny or something" because I originally thought she was like MacReady, but then I was finally like, "No, it’s nothing like MacReady." Just because she’s sort of the lead of this film doesn’t mean she has to have the same personality traits as the lead of the Carpenter film.
Reporter: So it informed it by not trying to be that.
Winstead: By just letting it go because I realized that they were not the same. I mean, he’s a blue collar guy and she’s an intellectual paleontologist. They’re very different types of people so I accepted the fact that this is a woman who’s very serious about what she does: She’s strong, she’s smart, she’s just trying to kind of survive when all this stuff goes down and trying to play someone who’s relatable in that way and not some girl who’s trying to be badass or anything like that. She's just trying to be a strong woman.
Question: So was it fun to get your 'inner Ripley' on?
Winstead: Definitely. Ripley’s one of the best examples, especially in the first Alien because she ends up becoming so badass. But in the first one she’s a smart woman who knows what’s going on who is trying to convince everyone else that there’s something bad happening and reacting to that. She's someone strong, independent and really put together- in that sense, Kate is similar. I didn’t try to copy her performance, but she is such an iconic character that you can’t help but have it in the back of your mind.
Question: Did this role feel more take charge than, say, Scott Pilgrim or Live Free or Die Hard?
Winstead: In Scott Pilgrim Ramona was more like a doesn’t-give-a-shit type so she’s take charge but really just for herself. Kate is more empathetic- she’s trying to survive but also trying to help as many people as she can, too. For me she’s more relatable than a lot of other characters I’ve played. She was fun.
Question: Those kind of characters usually are played by men so it’s not very often that we see a strong woman. That has to be nice.
Winstead: It was refreshing for me when I read it. There’s like no romantic sub-plot, there’s no shower scene. I kept waiting for something to happen at the end, where she walks in and starts undressing, but it just never occurred. These people are in this situation trying to fight for their lives, and this woman is no different than the men.
Question: Was it an interesting dynamic on set because you’re one of very few female characters and you’ve got this huge male ensemble cast surrounding you?
Winstead: I think I worried a little that it would be a boy’s club. I didn’t know what to expect, but because I was kind of the lead, people treated me like I was the leader and I didn’t expect that. The guys would come up to me and ask advice, and the director would ask me advice on everything. There weren't any misogynistic attitudes, ego trips or power trips at all.
Question: What did you think of the angle of going as prequel to the original as opposed to just remaking the original?
Winstead: I love that. If it was a straight up remake, it would be harder for me. It would have been strange. But I felt like the producers knew who to hire, the directors and writers, who was going to make it come together in the most intelligent and interesting way, and I felt like that’s what they did here. They were so knowledgeable about the Carpenter version and they were so passionate about it, and so passionate about making this a companion piece for that film, rather than a retread.
Question: What did you think of the creature effects used in The Thing?
Winstead: On set it was great because there was a lot of practical stuff. It was so grotesque but beautiful, and the designs that they created were so interesting and very much in the Carpenter world but with a little bit of a new spin on it. And then it was enhanced in CGI- just a little, though, because we wanted it to have that 80s feel but also didn’t want for it to be jarring for audiences that are just seeing this for the first time and aren’t aware of the Carpenter version.
But we had people in suits running around with these crazy tentacles and things chasing us and stuff like that. It sometimes looked sort of silly, but then when you would see it on the monitors, it would look really awesome.
Question: Were there moments when you were trying to access this horror and fear but you kind of wanted to laugh?
Winstead: That always happens in horror films because there’s always things that happen that are hilarious but you have to stay in the moment and act like you’re terrified. When people are splashed in the face with fake blood and it goes in their ears and their nose, it’s kind of hard to keep a straight face, but I guess I’m used to it at this point.
Question: Were there any scenes that were too difficult because of that? Did you break?
Winstead: Usually it would be the Norwegians who were so lovable and fun that when doing scenes with them it was hard to be afraid. You wanted to start laughing because they always had like these great reactions, and it would almost take you out of the moment.
Question: Were there scenes that were left out?
Winstead: We ended up reshooting a lot of the end sequence so it’s actually a bit of a blur in my head. There was like a sequence where there were going to be pods in the ship with different creatures in them, different types of life forms that they had mimicked at different times. But that didn’t end up in the finished film. We recalibrated the whole ship idea.
Question: Did you ever question what Kate was doing and go, "You know, why would Kate do this and this particular point?"
Winstead: All the time. This film was one of the first films where I felt comfortable doing that because normally I’m like, “Whatever you say.” There was a lot of collaboration going on while shooting. It’s hard because as an actor you never want to ever do exposition- you’re always trying to get out of that. But at the same time, you do need to let the audience know what’s going on. So you just have to do it, and because I am acting as the eyes for the audience, I need to move things along and let the audience know what is happening.
Question: There seems to be room left open for a sequel. Is that something anybody’s talking about yet?
Winstead: No. I think it’s all about your interpretation. To me, I think things are wrapped up, but if something’s successful enough, they’ll find a way.
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