It’s just nice to talk to someone who has a firm grasp on things.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead is starring as Lucy McClane, all grown up and ready to become a target for Timothy Olyphant’s crazed masterplan, and is heading into summer that has already seen her starring in Quentin Tarantino’s GRINDHOUSE and now she’s a part of a franchise that has earned Fox hundreds of millions of dollars as one of the most financially profitable film franchises in action movie history.
Much could be made of the tabloid exposure surrounding Bruce Willis’ personal life or how the filmmakers have decided that PG-13 is the way John McClain will be coming into your life but, at the center of it all, there is an actress who is just stepping onto fresh ground as she tries to do her job, and do it well, with those same millions at stake. If she felt any kind of pressure to perform better than usual or is still reeling from being thrust into world of wire cable stunts and maximum violence you won’t be able to read in between the lines here. What does come into view, though, is that Mary has one of the most insightful heads on her shoulders of all her peers even after weathering the Internet scorn of hundreds who think that Yippie Kai-Yay should be followed with a few explicatives and that Death Proof wasn’t as good as Planet Terror.
To hear Elizabeth say it, there’s just too much to be learned when you’re on the set of a big budget bonanza like LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD but there is something to be learned regardless. When you hear of other young actors unable to conform to simply arriving on the set on time Mary just thinks about the part as any other person should: a job. A job that could or could not be there soon after the director has said cut or just as the confetti at last week’s premiere at Radio City Music Hall has been swept away. Mary has nothing to be worried about, however, as she starts work on her leading role in MAKE IT HAPPEN, set to start filming later this summer.
Her role as Lucy McClane can be seen in LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD, which opened on Wednesday.
CHRISTOPHER STIPP: The more I read about your part as Lucy McClane the more I hear that your part was on the verge of not even being part of the movie. What changed?
MARY ELIZABETH WINSTEAD: I’m not really sure. I know that there were some people who really against having that character in the film and then there were a couple of people, including the director, and a couple of the writers who really pushed for there being some family member in peril; that’s what McClane’s about. He’s not necessarily about saving the world. He’s about saving his family, his loved ones, so if you don’t have that then what’s he doing? I also know Len Wiseman really pushed for the character to be in there and…I’m glad he did.
I got a job.
STIPP: And that job, if numbers are to be believed, made you a part of a billion dollar franchise. While you were making this project what made you realize this wasn’t your average independent feature?
WINSTEAD: It was entirely different for me…just the whole feel of the set was intimidating. It just felt like this was a big movie. There was so much going on all the time and also there wasn’t that sense, like on a smaller movie, that kind of intense pressure to get it done, get it done on time and get it in a small number of takes. Whereas this felt like we’ve got all the time in the world. “Let’s make it perfect if it takes forever.” There was pressure to get everything right but not so much the time crunch pressure.
There were a lot of days of just hanging out in the trailer, hanging out on set and maybe not even shooting anything until the very last hour of the day. It was a very different environment.
STIPP: I would’ve guessed the exact opposite considering that there was a finite date you had to get this movie out by, July 4th, and even then the movie is opening earlier than originally intended.
WINSTEAD: You would think so but it all worked out. They did it. At times it didn’t seem like anything was getting done because it was such a slow process, like when you have all these action sequences mapped out and if anybody thinks something’s off then…you’ve to go home and rethink it. You just can’t change one piece because then everything else falls apart. It was definitely an interesting process to watch.
STIPP: Bruce mentioned this film having a more old-school stunt kind of feel to it. Were you privy to see how Len went about pulling this off?
WINSTEAD: Yeah. I wish I had been there for some of the bigger sequences. I know I didn’t get to be around the bigger stunts because I was in the smaller parts because in the movie I’m kidnapped and trapped in a small space. But really it was so cool to see him in action and see how he works. He really pays attention to every detail and he really liked to make sure that everything that happened in the movie, and every decision was made, every move, was something John McClane would do.
STIPP: And of course, now that I’m thinking about it, what kind of discussion nowadays would be complete if we didn’t discuss how that feeds into Internet nerds crying fowl over the fact that the movie is PG-13.
STIPP: A lot of people, who were probably all dudes in their teens and early 20’s, got real heated over this.
WINSTEAD: You know, I understand…part of the initial appeal of DIE HARD was that kind of edge that it had to it. Where it was almost un-P.C. in a way, this character who would say things and do things that were almost shocking, heroic in a way. But I think that he still has that. He still says things that shock you a little bit. And there’s even a scene where he and Maggie Q are fighting to the death…and watching him beat this woman…
It’s not a fluffy thing. It’s kind of hard to watch. You’re going, “Wow, this is kind of intense. I’m not sure if I should even be rooting for him at this moment.” He’s beating up a girl. You have to take a moment and wonder if it’s something that’s really P.C. So I feel like that’s all something that’s kind of in the DIE HARD spirit. John McClane is going to do whatever he’s got to do to protect his family and it works. For the people who have seen it, even though it’s PG-13, they’re saying, “I get it. I get it.” You can still make this kind of movie without the F-bomb. And that’s all that’s missing, really, to me. He just doesn’t swear as much. For me, that doesn’t take anything away from the film because I’m not sitting there going, “Man, he should’ve used the F-word! It would’ve been so much better!” You just don’t think of it that way.
STIPP: Even Willis decided to drop your name in an interview recently. To quote Willis: “Mary Elizabeth Winstead really did her homework on the character, and not only shows up with that kind of ‘fuck you’ attitude, she gets some laughs with it.” I’m curious to know…did you really show up and bring it with that ‘fuck you’ attitude?
WINSTEAD: I was really…I was cast at the last minute. I didn’t even really meet anyone beforehand: Len, Bruce or anybody. I was just sort of cast from a tape. I went in and saw the casting director months beforehand and suddenly they had seen some of my work and decided they wanted me for the role but I really didn’t know what they wanted. The script was very different from when I initially auditioned. The character was very different and it was a much bigger part. I was unsure of what they saw in me, it was a different casting process, but I knew that I couldn’t be some whiny, teenage daughter. It would have been really uninteresting.
I went back and watched all the other films. I just paid attention to Bruce’s mannerisms and that kind of Jersey attitude and the way he talks and moves. And his smirk, that sparkle in his eye. I knew I couldn’t do all of that. I couldn’t be John McClane but I thought it would be pretty cool if I could incorporate some of that into this young girl character and give her some of that tough, wise-ass attitude. I tried to do what I could.
It’s cool if people notice it because it wasn’t something that we talked about too much beforehand but it’s cool that it came out that way.
STIPP: When you went back to watch the movies…much in the same way that there were popular folk heroes of the 19th century…What has made John McClane, the impetus for so many rip-offs in the 90’s, such an endearing and enduring character in action movies?
WINSTEAD: There’s just something so entertaining about a character that he created. I think part of it is that he’s the reluctant hero and that, while he’s in the midst of everything, is just really angry that he’s having to save the day, that he’s having to take care of people, that he’s having to kill people. He wasn’t born to do that. It’s not his job but he’s put into this position where no one else is doing it and he has to step up. I also think there’s something entertaining about watching this hero that’s sort of hating it all along the way. Being a wise-ass…it’s just a more real character than the typical heroes that we see in action films who are so perfect and they always seem to be bouncing back effortlessly but when he gets knocked down it’s really hard for him to get back up. You can see his pain and you can see, even in this one, he’s getting older and it’s getting more difficult. You see all that and it kind of makes you root for him even more.
STIPP: The learning process on the set. I have to assume that this being one of the biggest films you’ve ever done, and there are some actresses who get soured on the big budget blockbuster once they do them, but what did you take away from the experience.
WINSTEAD: It was kind of overwhelming while I was in it.
I didn’t see the big picture of it all. I was focused on doing my job and trying to do it well because there was so much more happening on that film than I even understood. It was kind of outside of my realm of understanding. I just had my little part to do and do it well and that was really all I could focus on. Now that I’ve stepped away from it and I’m part of this great…huge…film that everybody is really loving and going to the premiere and seeing the reactions of the fans and how much they love it and how sort of proud they were to be a part of the premiere. It’s just so amazing to be a part of a film that reaches so many people and excites them so I definitely would love to continue to do a movie every now and then that’s of that kind of stature and scale because it really is an amazing feeling when you get to step back and see what kind of big deal it is.
STIPP: Did Bruce impart anything worthwhile that you could apply to your own acting?
WINSTEAD: Watching him work was amazing to me because he’s incredibly subtle but it seems so much when you watch him on the screen. He’s so charismatic and it conveys so much with just the look in his eyes and that little smirk on his face…that sort of deadpan delivery. It’s amazing how effortless it is for him. And then, at the premiere, he would give these small tidbits of knowledge and wisdom. I was really overwhelmed, all I could do was take deep breaths and just say “This is insane”, and he just kept telling me to just take it in and appreciate it because you never know when you’re going to get another experience quite like that…and go back to your normal life the next day and you’re going to look back and think, “Wow, I was just at one of the biggest premieres at Radio City Music Hall.”
He’s just a really cool, laidback guy. He doesn’t try to impress himself on to you, try to tell you what you should do with your career, how you should behave but it was nice to be around him, be in awe of him at all times.
STIPP: It’s been a busy year for you with not only this but with GRINDHOUSE as well and has it informed your sense of how you want to take your career, going forward?
WINSTEAD: Yeah. I’ve just been having such a great time sort of playing these supporting roles in these great films where I get to be completely different. I’m just been so appreciative that I’ve had these kind of little nuggets of just really fun, interesting roles to play. I just want to do that as much as I can, find my way onto more great sets. GRINDHOUSE was one of the greatest experiences ever, just to be on the set with Quentin Tarantino who’s the most enthusiastic, joyous person to work with…and to see his child-like excitement about being on set and making a movie…I just kind of want that same thing. Just to have as much fun as possible and work.
STIPP: How are you handling, then, the preparations as the leading lady for your next film, MAKE IT HAPPEN?
WINSTEAD: It was a character that I was really drawn to…being from the dance world myself. Being able to play a dancer was really exciting for me and I feel like a lot of the dance movies that have come out in the last 10 years, not all, but some of them have been airy, sweet and simple. I’m just hoping to bring a more realistic edge to the character and show the more real-life…things that happen when you’re trying to become a dancer. My sister is a professional dancer and I used to be a dancer for a lot of my life and it’s really a tough life to live. I just want to show the less sweet side to it even though it will be a classic dance movie, a feel good girl movie. But I think we give it a little more interesting edge to it as well. It’s a challenge I’m taking on and I’ll see whether I can run with it.
STIPP: I was kind of surprised to see that one of your aspirations was to do a romantic comedy. Not surprise as if it’s a bad thing but you usually hear the words “art film” or “passion project” when you ask an actress what she’d like to do, going forward.
WINSTEAD: I think it would be a lot of fun. I also think it’s a lot more challenging than people would think. That’s why it’s really hard to find a really good romantic comedy because it’s really hard. A lot of great actors have a hard time doing that because there’s so much that goes into chemistry and comedic timing and I really kind of want to hone my skills as a comedic actress because I really admire that kind of performing.
And I’d really like to do a great art film but I don’t necessarily think that they’re all that great. Just because something is independent and dark and twisted does it make a good film. I’m not going to search out those kind of films…I’m going to search out films that are well written, well-crafted and that have interesting characters.
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