|Interview: Mary Elizabeth Winstead and James Ponsoldt on "Smashed"
|by Peter Sobczynski
A talk with the star and director/co-writer of the new comedy-drama about an alcoholic couple whose relationship is put to the test when one of them decides that it is time to get sober.
As a rule, I try to avoid most films involving people coming to terms with their alcoholism on the basis that most of them tend to follow the same trajectory--it starts off with fun times that eventually go sour, it follows as the person makes an initial attempt at sobering up that falls apart at the first sign of difficulty, eventually bottoms out and it ends with the drunk either sobering up at last or dying as the result of their beverage-related excesses. Therefore, I did not go into the new drama "Smashed," which follows a hard-core alcoholic schoolteacher (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) as she struggles to overcome her addiction, an ordeal made more complicated by the fact that she is married to a drunk (Aaron Paul) who loves her but not enough to give up booze himself, with much hope that it would be anything other than more of the same.
As it turns out, this is a step above most films of its type thanks to its quirky sense of humor and a depiction of the struggles of dependency that is less concerned with supplying grandstanding dramatic moments than it is in chronicling the little day-to-day details of people desperately trying to regain and maintain some measure of control over their lives after having gone so long without it. Most of all, it has a fabulous lead performance from Winstead, whom you may recognize from such films as "Death Proof," "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" and the "Thing" remake but whom you have never seen as impressive as she is here. This is a complicated role--made more so by the fact that the screenplay does not provide her with the melodramatics that one might expect--and she hits every nuance dead on. In the last few weeks, I have seen a number of strong performances from actresses and I assure you, this is one of the best of the bunch and it makes "Smashed" well worth seeing.
Recently, Winstead and James Ponsoldt, the director and co-writer of "Smashed," came to town to promote the film and I sat down with them to discuss it, the challenges of adding humor to a serious subject and pre-production preparations for playing an alcoholic.
What was the inspiration for "Smashed"?
Ponsoldt: It started as a conversation between myself and my co-writer, Susan Burke, about stupid things we've done while we were drunk and kind of one-upping each other. This was definitely informed from our own personal experiences and I have had a lot of family and friends who have dealt with alcoholism and substance abuse. Susan is a comedienne and brilliantly funny but she also got sober in her early twenties and started going to AA. It is definitely a world that we know pretty intimately. During the course of that conversation, we talked about films we had seen that had dealt with alcohol and substance abuses and why we didn't connect with them and why we felt a little disaffected from them. If we were going to tell that story, what would be the version for us that we could relate to?
The value system that we created was that it would have comedy, because drinking is fun--there is a reason that people drink. No one was to be lectured at because no one wants to see propaganda. Since it was alcohol and not meth or heroin, we weren't trying to shock the audience--we wanted it to be totally relatable and something in which people could see themselves in the characters. First and foremost, it was to be a love story--a portrait of a marriage through the lens of this woman and her struggles to keep this relationship together while she is dealing with surviving.
Was the fact that there have been so many films in the past dealing with the subject of alcoholism something that you found to be helpful or intimidating when it came time to make this one?
Ponsoldt: I watch everything so I have probably seen them all but the movies that mean the most to me with alcoholics in them are things like "Withnail & Me," which means a lot because it is like a hangout film--you can put it on in the background and I can quote every line. I love those characters and yeah, the main character is a boorish drunk but my guard goes down because II can seem myself in him at my worst moments. First and foremost, he is a compelling character--he is not a two-dimensional propaganda-spewing mouthpiece for an agenda. "Smashed" is not a social-issue movie. I am not for or against alcohol--I drink but my co-writer doesn't because she does really bad things when she does. I don't think that AA is amazing or that it is bad. This wasn't supposed to be an inside-baseball kind of film about the ins and outs of sobriety or 12-step groups.
Our hopes are that all of the details that were there would be honest, specific and spot-on and that this would be a movie that you would watch because it wasn't about alcoholism. It was about a couple trying to support each other when one of them needs to change and that is something that is relatable to anyone who has been in a relationship and had to make some sacrifices. Their condition just happens to be that they are alcoholics but that is like saying that I like to go for dim sun every weekend because I am a foodie. With a lot of the other movies you are talking about, they seem to have an agenda and a message. I am not a politicians and I don't have a message.
When you first read the screenplay, what was it about the role that grabbed you and made you want to do it?
Winstead: I loved the fact that all the characters were just so human and flawed and real but absolutely lovable and even admirable in the sense that they mess up but acknowledge that they mess up and try really hard to make up for it. This is not the sort of stuff that is typically in the scripts that I read, especially for the lead female characters. Those roles are always trying to represent some form of perfection and that is not something that I have ever been interested in as an actor. I don't want to be perfect--I want to be a real person or at least try to represent what it is like to be a real person in a film. That is really what jumped out at me the most. As for the alcoholism part, that is what scared me the most because I had no idea of how to play an alcoholic or even where to start. That was also very exciting to me because you want to be scared and that is what I was actively looking for--a part that would scare me in some way.
I didn't immediately know how I was going to do that. I had seen films about alcoholism--a lot of those famous films that people are always talking about--but they weren't things that I watched a lot or even remembered. They were sort of vague bits of my film history and I didn't go back and watch them again because I didn't want to get anybody else's performances in my head. I wanted to figure out how to do whatever it was that I could do to make this person as authentic as possible and that was mostly by trying to bring out all the ways i which I related to her and her issues and struggles, which don't necessarily involve alcohol. There are plenty of other issues in relationships and in trying to be honest with myself in the way that I live my life that helped me click in.
How did you prepare for the role? Was there some sort of alcoholic boot camp involving pre-production benders and the like?
Winstead: There was one this one night when James took Aaron and I out because we didn't really have time to form much of a bond. It was more like he was cast and we had to shoot in a couple of days, so let's hang out and try to get to know each other. I think that getting drunk together was a quick way to form some kind of bond and also to get that dynamic going of what we are like when we a re drunk together since most of our scenes involve us being highly intoxicated. That was one of the things we did and I also sat in on a lot of meetings--I would go with either Susan or one of the producers, who are in AA. That was a good first step in seeing how not "other" it was. I don't have a problem with alcohol but I could completely relate to everything that these people were saying about how hard it is just to live with yourself every day and accept your flaws and pain and problems and move on so as to grow as a person. that really helped me relate to them a lot.
Prior to "Smashed," you had appeared in a series of larger-scale projects like "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," "The Thing" and "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter"--films in which you were one piece of a much larger whole. "Smashed," on the other hand, is a much smaller-scaled film in which you are on-screen in practically every single scene. Was it a major adjustment for you as an actress to go from one such extreme to the other or was it no different than the usual adjustment of going from one part to the next?
Winstead: The prep work was definitely more intense. James and I spent hours and hours every day talking about the character and building up her backstory and talking about my own life and figuring out how Kate and I were or could be the same person. I had never really had the opportunity to spend so much time collaborating with a director before working on anything. I am usually cast in something and in my own little bubble of figuring out how to play the part until I get thrown on the set, do it and then go home. That is sort of how it is and I have never really felt as though I was a part of the creation of the film as a whole. That was a big change. Actually shooting it was just a lot of fun--I loved the pace of it and going constantly and not having a trailer to go back and take a nap in. Everybody was just on all the time and I think it really helped in keeping the creativity flowing and keeping the performances authentic. I kind of wish we could always work at that pace.
"Smashed" has a very unusual tone to it--it tells a serious story but does so with a lot of unexpected humor laced throughout--and it is the kind of tone that runs the risk of coming off quite badly if handled improperly for even an instant. As a filmmaker and as an actress, what were the challenges for each of you in achieving and maintaining that tone?
Ponsoldt: Some of my favorite films are both funny and sad and the humor that exists isn't because of punchlines or gags that have been shoehorned in--it is because there are totally three-dimensional characters who are pursuing goals and who come across other people who want different things. The humor that I like is more subtle and graceful. I haven't had a night out drinking with friends when there wasn't humor but then events can quickly take a turn and if you are an alcoholic, they can turn a lot because you are constantly making bad decisions. One of the biggest defining characteristics of Kate's character is that she is consistently drunk, at least early on when we first meet her and throughout her adult life, and so she is consistently not making the best decisions and putting herself in situations that no sober person would and having to face the consequences. Also, the actors and ensembles from the other movies that I love can be a little disorienting sometimes because it is hard for you to say "This is a serious, dramatic cast." I like the ones where there is an interesting assortment of actors-people like Madeline Kahn or Gena Rowlands who can do drama and comedy. "Nights of Cabiria" and "La Strada" are two of the funniest films that I have ever seen and two of the most heartbreaking.
Winstead: Ultimately for me, I just really had to trust James that he would be able to maintain the tone. I did know after getting to know him a bit that he was someone who appreciates the strange and the offbeat and that wouldn't be off-limits. I have been on films before where you sort of make a strange choice and just hope to get away with it before someone comes over and says "What was that? Do it again but don't do that." It felt so freeing to know that I was in the hands of somebody who really appreciated that kind of thing. You could do something that was a little strange or off-beat or unexpected and he would be like "Yeah--more of that!" I knew that it would be tonally different from anything that I had ever done before and that there was going to be a comedy-drama element in there. I wasn't really trying to play the comedy because I think the honesty was always the way first and foremost that James wanted to be. However, we were able to be more than just stock characters and would could make the choice to be anything at any given moment and that kept it exciting and fresh.
Did the inclusion of humor in the context of ostensibly serious subject matter like alcoholism cause any difficulties in trying to getting the film put together?
Ponsoldt: Look, alcoholism should be taken seriously but you can make a story about anything and deal with it with humor--it would be a sad world if we couldn't have "Dr. Strangelove." I think that any genre film that can carry humor is a benefit because that is how we process pain and deal with grief. My biggest concern going into Sundance was if people were going to find what I found funny to be funny or if they thought the subject was so sacrosanct that they can't laugh. Also, I wondered if the people in the audience who were sober and had actually dealt with this were going to call BS or if they were going to think that it was honest. We had people on the set who were sober and and I told them to tell me any time that something seemed fake because we wanted to keep it honest.
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originally posted: 10/23/12 06:57:16
last updated: 10/23/12 07:07:05