One night each month, at the stroke of midnight, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World fans, sporting all manner of colored wigs and comic book–inspired accoutrements, line up outside Quentin Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. Like The Rocky Horror Picture Show before it, Edgar Wright’s film, which didn’t make much of a dent in the box office when it was released in the summer of 2011, has grown into a participatory event with a ravenous following. The film centers on Michael Cera’s titular character, an aspiring indie rocker who, in order to land Ramona Flowers, the girl of his dreams, must defeat each of her seven evil exes in mortal combat. As Ramona, Mary Elizabeth Winstead brought spunk, sexiness, and an acute sense of comic timing to the role. In the wrong hands, she could have been any other one-dimensional female cipher, the archetypal pixie of lesser indie flicks. But Winstead, who routinely acts as the master of ceremonies at these midnight screenings, gleefully chewed the scenery, to the delight of the comic book’s devoted legions.
The big-screen comic book adaptation, which also stars Aubrey Plaza, Alison Pill, and Jason Schwartzman, has enjoyed what Winstead describes as a “slow build” toward cult status, which is an apt metaphor for her own career trajectory. After spending six years screaming her way through middling horror films (Final Destination 3, Black Christmas), racing through big-time action flicks (Live Free or Die Hard, Tarantino’s Death Proof ), and amassing an army of nerd-core fans, she’s finally poised to ascend to all-out stardom—even if she’s her own biggest skeptic. “I’ve been hearing that for about five years,” says the 27-year-old North Carolina native. “It’s cool to hear, but I don’t know that it means anything, or at what point you actually break through. The other day I heard that Jennifer Lawrence is about to ‘break through.’ I was like, She’s been nominated for an Oscar! She hasn’t broken through yet?”
This summer, Winstead stars as Mary Todd Lincoln in director Timur Bekmambetov’s hyper-stylized, not-so-historical thriller Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which she insists is far more serious than its name implies. “The title definitely got my attention, but it’s not a campy schlock-fest,” she says. “As actors, we played it straight. There’s no winking at the audience. It feels like the real story of Abraham Lincoln, except that it isn’t.” The role of Mrs. Abe presented Winstead with a specific challenge: to be true to history’s version of the First Lady (whose husband is played by Benjamin Walker), but to do so within a fantastical world where vampires mingle with the 16th president of the United States.
Though it’s poised to become her biggest role yet, her most satisfying challenge came in the form of Kate Hannah, an alcoholic elementary school teacher whose life verges on total collapse in Smashed, a darkly comic relationship drama directed by James Ponsoldt that earned Winstead raves when it screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. In it, she stars opposite Aaron Paul as one half of a couple whose relationship unravels when she decides to give up alcohol.“Their happiness is based on their love of drinking together,” she says. “But it’s unsustainable. My character starts doing horrible things every time she gets drunk. She’s spiraling out of control, and decides she needs to get sober.”
The film’s 19-day shoot was grueling but cathartic for Winstead, who admits, “Even though most days resulted in me bawling or screaming, I knew I’d be okay, because even if it nearly killed me, I could give it everything and in a few weeks I’d be a better actor because of it.” Although the film won’t resonate with everyone—its deeply flawed characters aren’t always easy to get behind—Winstead’s part reenergized her passion for acting. “Smashed came at a moment when I was pretty desperate to do something challenging. It’s fun doing big action pieces and having your own trailer, and I’m lucky to have those opportunities. But if you only do those things, you start to wonder, What is it about this that I love? It can become really muddled and confusing. Smashed terrified me, but it turned out to be the best thing I’ve ever done.” To prepare for it, Winstead attended AA meetings with co-writers and producers who were actually in recovery, which proved essential for the actor, who’s never had firsthand experience with substance abuse.
Winstead was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, the youngest of five children. At the age of 5, she and her family relocated to the Salt Lake City suburb of Sandy, Utah, and a few years later, she was traveling to perform in New York (in a Broadway production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) and Los Angeles (for a series of TV roles). As these roles became increasingly steady, Winstead and her mother began spending more and more time in L.A., and eventually, when she was 14, they moved into a place in the city’s semi-notorious Oakwood Apartments.
The complex, which is nestled in the hillside space that divides Hollywood from the San Fernando Valley, houses both aspiring and emerging actors, as well as child stars who crash and burn before they can legally drink. During pilot season, it teems with agents, casting directors, headshot photographers, and countless dreamers—many of whom never get so much as a callback. “It’s a fascinating place,” says Winstead. “When I was there, Frankie Muniz was there. Hilary Duff was there. It was like tween central. They were the cool kids and I was definitely not.” Thanks to her doting mother, she “never saw a drug or the seedy side of Hollywood” during her formative years. “I was never allowed to venture too far away from her, so I was very uncool, which was hard for me at times. I feel like I grew into my coolness later on.” A slow build, you might say.
Photography by Michael Donovan