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-by Christopher Stipp

I just couldn’t believe it.

One of the best parts after I get done interviewing someone is deconstructing what I think is the essence of what was talked about. Be it someone who I thought kept yammering on about nothing in particular, someone who had nothing to offer but their breath or when someone says something insightful it has always been a unique experience. This brings us, then, to Mary.

One of the very first things after I hung up the phone after we were done conversing about her new film BLACK CHRISTMAS, the one she’s starring in with Quentin Tarantino behind the lens, GRINDHOUSE, or the latest in the DIE HARD franchise, I was taken with how succinct and clear her answers were to my queries. It’s customary for there to be some gaps of silence as the person I’ve just asked a question to chews on what I’ve said and thinks about a response.

Not Mary. Quite contrary.

I had a roster of questions ready to go and she just shredded through them without even giving a moment’s hesitation. She sliced through the customary vagaries that many of her contemporaries toss out like speed bumps, usually asking me, “What was the question again?” Mary had an answer waiting for every one of my thoughts. She even schooled me on a well-known It was this extemporaneous back and forth that I so wish could happen with every interview I do but Mary deserves credit for just getting right into things, I admit that I wasn’t asking anything too personal that would cause a natural wall to go up, but I think it was her exuberance that I hope shines through in the coming exchange. From not ever hearing of her to seeing her on stage at the San Diego Comic-Con this past summer and being taken by her wide-eyed happiness it’s hard to think that she could end up being sliced and diced in this remake of a film that was filmed first by the man who would eventually bring me A CHRISTMAS STORY in 1983, a full year before Mary was even born.

Man, did that just make me feel old. BLACK CHRISTMAS opens this Monday, December 25th.

P.S. - Late breaking news. If you’d like to glimpse the wonderment that is GRINDHOUSE Yahoo! has just put up the exclusive teaser trailer on their site. Do yourself a favor, check it out.

Christopher Stipp: Well, thanks for making time for me.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Of course! No problem at all.

Stipp: Let me right to it and ask what made you want to do another horror movie after FINAL DESTINATION 3?

Winstead: It was interesting. I was actually somewhat hesitant and not because I have anything against horror movies, I’m actually a big horror movie fan, but I wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do, one horror movie on top of another horror movie. But I love Glen Morgan and [producer] James Wong and all of the crew of FINAL DESTINATION 3 so much and it was such a great experience doing that film so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go through it again with them.

I figured it would be fun…Horror movies are such great things to film because every day is high adrenaline, high energy, so I figured why not.

Stipp: That was something I was going to bring up later in the interview but since you’ve said it I’m curious to know how if there’s a difficulty to keep up that sense of dread or fear, take after take after take?

Winstead: It can be a bit draining sometimes. It’s quite challenging. I think actors in horror movies get kind of a bad rap for not being the most talented actors out there but it’s one of the hardest thing to do, generating that fear, because it’s not easy to draw from. So, for me, I had to kind of start out by being emotional and thinking about things that really saddened me, and frightened me, like death and thinking about people I love dying and just drawing from that kind of emotion that would bring me to that fear. So it was definitely draining but, at the end of the day, it was very rewarding.

Stipp: Could I ask if whether being in a slasher film like BLACK CHRISTMAS, where a guy stalks women in a sorority house, has any base in reality where some people think that this just perpetuates the notion of violence against women?

Winstead: I don’t see this as being derogatory towards women. I think that horror films, especially slasher films, can be analyzed in so many different ways and have been. There’s the whole thing with the “final girl” and it’s really interesting because I was talking to Quentin Tarantino about it a few weeks ago of all the different studies and ways of viewing that.

I don’t think it can be looked at in that one dimensional, close-minded way. So, I think it’s entertainment and it can be taken for however you want to take it.

Stipp: Right. And now you’re going to be in GRINDHOUSE… Another…

Winstead: Yeah!

[Laughs]

Stipp: I swear one of my questions was going to be whether you were going to continue down this path and possibly remake PSYCHO COP or CHOPPING MALL.

Winstead: I know!

[Laughs]

I’m not intentionally seeking out horror movies but I am not going to turn a good part down just because of its genre so I’m up for anything.

Stipp: So how was working with Quentin and his envisioning of what a horror, splatter, exploitation flick should be and your experience on BLACK CHRISTMAS?

Winstead: Quentin is really just all out fun.

A lot of the scenes were comical and over the top and crazy so there wasn’t really any real lot of fear or emotion. Most of my scenes are just filled with dialogue with Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms, just hanging out and being girls, just having fun. And then it gets sort of twisted at a certain point but it’s still in this campy, fun way. So, every day we just laughing after every take. We were just howling. So, it wasn’t as dark as the other horror films I’ve done.

Stipp: And I have to mention that I saw some of Robert’s footage during Comic-Con this past summer.

Winstead: Oh, really? Nice… The two of them together…it’s just a crazy, fun environment. I miss it, very much.

Stipp: Being there, and being in the eye of the presentation during Comic-Con where you had hundreds of geeks just screaming and roaring what was it like to be a part of something like that? Being an actress I have to believe that you don’t get many opportunities to be front and center like that.

Winstead: It was so crazy. For one thing, I was really surprised that I was even invited to be there. I figured it was just going to be Quentin and Robert, maybe Rosario, even the more well known stars of the film, so I was very excited that I was invited to even be on the panel. And, beyond that, I expected that I was just going to sit there silent the whole time and no one would know who I was. So it was really strange that I actually got questions from the audience about work I had done. That was such a shock to me. It was kind of the first time that I realized anyone out there actually knew my name and had seen my work before.

[Laughs]

It was really a fun, fun experience.

Stipp: Do you get more of that with every project you take on? A little more public recognition? With SKY HIGH, you’ve got to have a cadre of small fans who’ve probably watched that thing again and again while now you’re also cultivating a more mature audience with BLACK CHRISTMAS and later on, GRINDHOUSE and DIE HARD 4.

Winstead: Yeah, a little bit.

I see it more online than anywhere else where you can see it growing like on web sites and message boards dedicated to you, which is so strange. So, it’s still in this sort of fantasy world to me and it doesn’t feel real. It’s like, “Oh, there are some people talking about me online.” Out in the real world, no one knows who I am.

So, it’s strange to think that those are real people out there, people who have seen my work and are true fans. I have yet to meet a lot of them because I haven’t been to those kinds of conventions but every now and then I’ll get recognized on the street but most of the time it’s just double-takes from people who say, “You look familiar.” At a restaurant the other day the waiter said I looked like a girl from FINAL DESTINATION 3. But it’s not to a degree where I feel any level of fame yet.

Stipp: Now, with this being the holiday season and BLACK CHRISTMAS being a warm movie you can take the whole family to, I recently took my family, namely my daughter, for the first time to see the Nutcracker. I found out that one of the first productions you really were involved with was the Nutcracker. I’m curious to know which part you played and whether you thought ballet was the route you were going to go in for the duration of your career.

Winstead: I did, absolutely. As a child, I acted and I loved acting but ballet was my heart’s career choice. Over the years I’ve been almost every character in that production because I did a few years, I was Clara when I was 12, I was the mechanical doll, I was Chinese, Russian, I was the Snow Queen, I was everything. That was something I really loved and was passionate about it. I went to New York and did summer programs with the Joffrey Ballet School and, at one point, I just realized that it probably wasn’t going to go as far as I wanted to just because I was really tall for my age and it’s such a precise career as far as physicality…you have to fit into this mold. I didn’t want to put myself through that. I realized that the thing I loved most about it was the performance and being able to act and play characters on stage so I figured, “Why not just stick with that.”

It was a nice training background for me and I miss it. I still try and take classes whenever I can.

Stipp: Are your feet all jacked up or do they at least look good in a pair of flip-flops?

[Laughs]

Winstead: They’re nice! I think I got out of it just in time.

I had some teachers at Joffrey who wouldn’t even let you pad your toe shoes because they want you to toughen up.

Stipp: You’re kidding…

Winstead: Any more years of that and I would be totally deformed looking. But I think I got away just in time.

Stipp: Now, from GRINDHOUSE you’re hitting the screen again on July 4th of 2007 with DIE HARD 4.

Winstead: Yes….

Stipp: Lucy McClane all grown up. And I know some people will knock it but Len Wiseman did a great job with UNDERWORLD. He made that movie knowing exactly what he wanted to get out of it. Are you finding he’s bringing that same sensibility to DIE HARD 4?

Winstead: Well, it’s been fun so far. I am still working on it until the end of January. I haven’t yet gotten into some of my bigger stuff so it’s hard to say exactly as I’ve only done a few scenes here and there, I’m still just getting a feel for it but it’s been great because it has been a different experience for me. I’ve never done a big action movie. There so much focus on that [the action], and a little less on my own performance, that I kind of have to deal with that myself.

[Laughs]

As I try to bring what I can to the table with all that’s going on. There’s a lot more waiting around for the scenes to be set up because the explosions have to happen at the EXACT right time. The cars have to drive away at the exact right time. There’s so much more, technically, going on but Len is handling it so well. It would seem like it’s such a high stress type of job but he’s so calm, and so fun loving through it all. I think that’s a good sign of someone who knows what they’re doing, not letting it get you.

Stipp: On the subject of where you really got some experience in front of a camera, namely television productions, a lot of actors recently who have traditionally been in film have been making the move to the small screen. Any ambitions to ever go back?

Winstead: Not right now. I’m so excited to have been doing back-to-back films, it’s such an exciting and now thing for me, I really never thought it would happen for me because I was such a pilot kid growing up. I would come out, do a pilot, it wouldn’t get picked up, and I would do it again next year and I kind of felt like I was going to be doomed to repeat that for my entire career.

But the fact that I have been able to do film after film after film…it’s been the best year ever. It’s made me really want to try and continue to focus on that. Maybe when I get a little bit older and I want to settle down and have a little more stability I think that would be a great thing to be on a TV show, have a steady income and have a steady place where you live and work. I think that’s a real attractive idea but, right now, while I can I might as well live a little crazier life and travel all over the place doing different films. We’ll see what happens.

Stipp: Being a young actress, competing with other young actresses, is there an outside pressure to keep going at a film career while you’re able to have one, to not let this moment slip by?

Winstead: I don’t really think of other actresses as competition, just because I feel like everyone is so different and everyone brings something completely different to the roles that they play so that when I am meeting for different roles, and I see another actress there, I don’t have that competitive edge like, “Oh, I’ve got to get it over her. I’ve got to do better than her.” I think that everyone is going to be liked or disliked for completely different reasons.

But it is hard, when you hear on a pretty consistent basis, “Well, we need someone more famous. We need someone more famous.” That’s something I’ve been hearing for years but I’ve gotten to the point where now it’s, “Well, you’re almost there but not quite.” So, I’m still struggling with that but you have to keep working at it and hopefully you’ll get past that point, you WILL BE the person getting the roles and hopefully I’ll have paid my dues and deserve that moment when it comes for me.

Stipp: So then do you have some more projects lined up as soon as DIE HARD 4 finishes?

Winstead: Not yet.

I’m taking meetings and reading scripts, just trying to find the best thing and hoping to take small steps ahead with each thing as I build up my career and try to get to the next level. I’m hoping to find the thing that will take me there.

Stipp: Can you be more picky now?

Winstead: Definitely, yeah.

It’s an interesting place to be. For the first time in my career I am turning things down which I never imagined I would be doing. I would take almost anything as long as it wasn’t degrading to me as a person. If it was work, it was work and I was happy to do it. And I still feel that to a certain extent so it’s very hard for me to say no when someone wants to work with me. I’m just having to be smart about it and only choose films that are going to be a step ahead, not a step back.

Stipp: And how do you get that feeling, from the script in your hands to what you think will actually be shot? In two different hands I think you could have two different movies based on the same source material.

Winstead: Right, that’s true too. It can be very objective when you read a script and there have been scripts in the past where I thought, “That’s not a very good script. I think this movie is going to be pretty bad.” And then I see the movie and it turns out to be really great!

And so it’s hard when I turn something down because I think, “What if it turns out to be the greatest thing ever?” You’ve just got to trust your instincts and go for it because, at the end of the day, if it does turn out to be a mistake, whatever. There’s always something else waiting at the end of the road.

Stipp: And so what popped out at you when you read the script for BLACK CHRISTMAS? Or was it a pitch that began, “Stay with me, don’t laugh or say no but…it’s a remake…of a horror movie…”

[Laughs]

Winstead: Well, I really enjoyed the original BLACK CHRISTMAS. Olivia Hussey was one of the reasons I wanted to be an actress as a child because I did a school production of Romeo and Juliet and I watched her version of it everyday for almost a year and I just wanted to be her so she’s always been on my list of idols. Hence, being in a movie that’s a remake of one that she starred in was pretty cool and the character was something new for me, nothing I’ve ever played before, sort of a debutant socialite snob. I’ve always played like the Nice Girl or the Girl Everyone Likes so I thought it was different.

Stipp: Last question: It’s Christmas time. What do you have planned?

Winstead: I’m going home to North Carolina to see my family, I’ve got a big family, 5 kids in the family, and they all have kids for the most part so all of us are going to go and rent a Bed N’ Breakfast in Asheville, North Carolina. There’s all sorts of tourist-y things to do up there like crazy gingerbread house making contests and it’s just going to be nice.

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