In the indie comedy Smashed from co-writer/director James Ponsoldt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Kate, an elementary school teacher who hits rock bottom with her love of alcohol, which is supported by her husband Charlie (Aaron Paul of “Breaking Bad”). In a decision that tests the cohesion of the marriage, Kate decides to give Alcoholics Anonymous a try (where a character played by Octavia Spencer of The Help becomes her sponsor). Nick Offerman plays a co-worker of Kate’s with his own history of substance abuse.
Lead actress Winstead has become increasingly visible in Hollywood, with roles like Bruce Willis’ on-screen daughter in Live Free or Die Hard (and the upcoming A Good Day to Die Hard), Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and even a lead part in last fall’s The Thing.
Director James Ponsoldt, who co-wrote the film with Susan Burke, also directed the film Off the Black in 2006, which starred Nick Nolte and Trevor Morgan. Ponsoldt and Winstead are currently in post-production on their next project, The Spectacular Now, co-starring Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) and Jennifer Jason Leigh (Greenberg).
Smashed opens in Chicago on October 19.
How old were you when you had your first drink of alcohol?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: My first sip was 17, but it was literally a sip. I didn’t have a drink-drink until I was nineteen.
James Ponsoldt: 12. I was drinking regularly at twelve. My and my friends, the five of us, we had a system where I would take this Thermos on Monday, take it home, raid my parents liquor cabinet, fill it up with booze, and we’d get loaded at lunch. Someone would have the Thermos the next day. I got arrested for the first time in sixth grade.
Winstead: I didn’t know that.
Ponsoldt: We tried to break into cars.
Did that attitude inspire the free-ness of events that Winstead’s character goes through in the film?
Ponsoldt: Definitely. I got in a lot of trouble when I was a kid, like early high school. I was not good at being a juvenile delinquent because I would get caught and usually arrested. And the friends that said I was the catalyst for their delinquency, I was like, “I’ve got to stop, or I’m not going to get out of this town.” and then my other friends kept going. And in some funny ways, and some pretty tragic ways. I carry no judgment.
In the film, Nick Offerman’s character uses the word “moist,” and to very negative effect. Granted, the context of its usage is very bad, but the word “moist” appears to be a taboo word regardless. Why? What’s up with that?
Ponsoldt: Me and my co-writer Susan Burke spent a lot of time almost engineering this perfect storm of what two words that would just be a kick in the gut to anyone, and certainly a woman. A lot of women that I’ve known don’t like that word, I don’t know if it falls on gender lines.
Winstead; I don’t know, maybe it’s my inner feminist is like, “I don’t get it, moist is a great word! Embrace it!”
Ponsoldt: I don’t know if it’s me, or it’s the aesthetics of the sound. Edgar Allan Poe said the best phrase was “cellar door.”
Winstead: It is an unattractive sounding word, it is true.
Ponsoldt: What is good in life that is moist?
For much of the film, the camera is very tight on Mary; her face especially.
Ponsoldt: It was close to her for a lot of it. The film was all hand-held. The goal was definitely audience identification, and not objectification – put two alcoholics in one a movie and let them bumble around, we do do that, but first and foremost you feel like you’re part of that relationship.
Winstead: The camera and [cinematographer Tobias Datum] were like another character that was living with us. It felt very natural.
Was this the case even with the last scene between you and Aaron Paul?
Ponsoldt: That was one of the harder sequences, because that was one of the only times that the camera got between me and Aaron, just because it had to service the shot. For everything else, there was never coverage like that. It was more like finding the moment, and who the camera wants to focus on in the moment where everyone is moving around. It never felt like you really were aware of the camera. That scene it felt a little different. I felt the camera there. But everything else, it felt like he was a living part of the scene.
Was shooting that biking sequence on busy streets freeing, or stressful? How did that happen?
Ponsolt: We did have a police escort. Part of me is like, there is something so wonderful and romantic and stupid about riding your bicycles drunk through rush hour traffic in Highland Park in Los Angeles, and I love that magic hour light. But that magic hour light does coincide with rush hour, which is, you’re pissing off a lot of people. We’re not a big film, we didn’t shut down the street, so we had people relating and engaging with them. Depending on the filmmaker, that could destroy a take, but someone yelling, “Fuck you, hipsters!” to me that’s great. That’s part of the neighborhood.
There’s a point with the children, and you’re working with these kids. Was there any damage caused to these kids by the monologues?
Winstead: They seemed savvy and cool, and excited to be there. Most of them had been made aware of the scene content by their parents or by James.
Ponsoldt: It was a real class.
Winstead: We just walked in.
Ponsoldt: The kids with dialogue, they had auditioned, and by the time we met them their parents were aware. They say when you cast a kid, you cast their parent. And they are aware with the kid being there, and they explain what’s going on, how does it make you feel, maybe this is why she’s acting funny. And kids are smart, they are not stupid. They’re really perceptive as all hell, and they see everything. They love to play. And the best actors are like kids too – they love to imagine.
What do you think ‘Smashed’ says about the importance of maturity in relationships?
Pons: I think it’s about maturity, and immaturity. This is a love story, and a coming-of-age story. It’s a love story in that it is a portrait of a marriage, and it’s a coming-of-age story in that it’s through the lens of the wife, and she goes on a journey, and she has to change her life, and she tries. She struggles, she gets back up, she falls harder .. but the story is not alcoholism first and foremost. The ins and outs of addiction and recovery and 12 steps are informed by my co-writer’s experience who has been in AA for years. It is pretty honest to her experience. But we didn’t want this movie to be “Scared Straight” film or a message film, that stuff is so boring. We wanted it to be a hangout movie, a vibe movie where the people are funny and they’re fun. They can’t possibly sustain this relationship. And when you get into an adult relationship, you’re going to have to sacrifice some things, whether it’s like, “I go out every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday to drink with my friends,” well, maybe you can’t do that anymore. Or, just negotiating where you put your wet towels. That stuff can be really boring or pedestrian, but it is relationships, which is not just buying roses and celebrating your anniversary. Especially if you’ve known each other for a long time, it really destabilizes the relationship when something changes. Any dynamic when any group of friends, when it’s like, “I’m not smoking weed anymore,” or “I’m not eating meat,” they bust your balls. “Wait, what? You judge me now. Are we not cool?” Suddenly people start looking at themselves.
Did working with this story make you re-examine how you view alcohol and those who abuse it?
Winstead: It made me look at a lot of the people I know in Los Angeles. I drink, I’ve never been compelled to drink a lot, or felt good when I drink a lot. And certainly I have been drunk many times, but it’s just not something I really enjoy. I love getting just a little bit tipsy, or having a couple drinks. But my whole life, for whatever reason, I usually cut myself off after that. I have other problems, but I looked at the friendships and relationships that I have, and the people who I have never seen sober, or talked to them when they’re sober. When you’re young enough, you think, “Ah, there’s that crazy kid that I used to talk those times,” but the film definitely makes you think about these people, and at what point do you start worrying about them. And in Los Angeles, and this industry, that line is continually more and more blurred. The older I get, the older my friends get, I don’t really know where it is, and I think the line is different for everyone.
Ponsoldt: For me, I was very aware at a young age that members of my family were alcoholics. “Whoa, they get really funny hen they keep drinking Bloody Marys,” or, “Grandpa’s drinking Sharp’s now, that is fake beer, okay.” That was totally weird. And then with friends, you just, I was teaching how t roll a joint when I was twelve, and when I was 17 I left, and they were dabbling in heroin, and it was like, “Oh shit, am I responsible for fucking up their life?” I was drinking and partying hard from middle school on, and tapered off, because I was always getting caught. I drank, but it was more social for me. But I was hyper aware that some of my friends were total addicts; again, no judgment. I love having dumb stupid adventures, I just don’t want to get sent to jail.
Mary, you have a scene in which your character participates in the drunk art of karaoke singing. What relationship do the both of you have with karaoke bars?
Winstead: The hard part about not drinking often is that when you go to a karaoke bar when you’re not drunk, it’s not fun. Going to karaoke isn’t fun when you’re not drunk, and you see people drunk and having a good time, but I don’t want to get up there, I’m not drunk enough.”
Pons: There’s comedy, and there’s comedy sadism. If I’m sober at a karaoke bar, I’m just laughing at people. But if I’m drunk, I’m up there, maybe singing “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” They say “I Got You Babe” is the easiest song to sing in karaoke. But white people rapping is really cliché. I get in my head if I’m sober; I get really neurotic.
The film has two important monologues by Mary that happen at Alcoholic Anonymous meetings. Mary, how did you go about crafting those monologues with James, especially in terms of emotional range and tone?
Winstead: We worked a lot just on the character, 3:39 in general, and who she is. We talked about each scene in depth, and I think having built a foundation of who she is and what her decisions are based on, I think it made it kind of effortless for each scene to be like, “This is what she’s thinking about, this is where she is coming from.” Very often he wouldn’t tell me what to do, but would come up to me asking questions, “What do you think she’s thinking when she says this? Why do you think she feels that way?” It’s almost like a therapist, so by the end of it, I had answered all of the questions and we could just go off and shoot the scene. I was just thinking about that, he never told me what to do, he just got me to come to my own conclusions by asking me questions all of the time.
Ponsoldt: She was like, “Don’t ask me questions if you already know the answer!”
Winstead: The funny thing about this film is that every day was difficult, and every scene was difficult, kind of on the same level, because each scene was so layered and so complex – there was always something going on emotionally, there was never anything that was simple. You have to be aware of where you are in the story – even when my character is having fun, she’s not, you know? It was exciting for me to get pushed to such a constant level everyday.
What does movie puke taste like?
Winstead: It’s the texture, which is more gross than what it tastes like. Peas and carrots, literally, mashed up. I don’t know what is made to make the “thick of it.”
Ponsoldt: Most people do yogurt.
Winstead: It was like a thick soup. We shot a couple more puke scenes than you see in the film, and we did more takes than most other scenes. It was like, “Let’s do one more, to see how big of a splatter we can make.” There was a scene in which I was puking in a toilet, and he just wanted a big splatter.
Ponsoldt: It was really important that it hit right in the bowl.
Winstead: I remember being like, “Is this clean?” We were shooting in the school. “Has anyone cleaned this lately?”
Pons: I went through with a handy wipe … and then Megan Mullally used the same toilet.
Quick Questions with Mary Elizabeth Winstead and James Ponsoldt
What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Winstead: Swedish Fish [laughs]. Mini-bar.
Ponsoldt: Kimchi, and some sort of Asian rice porridge.
Favorite pop song growing up?
Winstead: Growing up I really loved Janet Jackson’s [sings] “If I was your girl … ”
Ponsoldt: “Voices Carry” by ‘Til Tuesday.
If you could be someone else for 24 hours?
Winstead: Tom Hanks, now. It seems like his life is really nice. And he’s really funny, and everyone likes him – just seems like a cool person to be.
Ponsoldt: Kofi Annan. He travels in interesting cirlces.
Age of first kiss?
Winstead: Peck … 12. Real kiss? 15.