Interview: Director James Ponsoldt, Actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead on ‘Smashed’

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CHICAGO – The recovery of an alcoholic is rarely told honestly in film, and by making it about the relationships, writer/director James Ponsoldt has achieved that truth. It helps that his lead actor is the illustrious Mary Elizabeth Winstead (“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”).

Ponsoldt and Winstead team up to deliver a poignant and special character in Kate Hannah, who recognizes her own culpability in the party life just in time. How it will affect her marriage with Charlie (Aaron Paul) or her job is another side of that coin, and it turns up in unexpected ways. This is Ponsoldt’s second major film – after “Off the Black” in 2006 – and deals with a time of life and an age group that is not often seen dealing with the complex issues of recovery.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Kate Hannah in ‘Smashed’
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classic

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and James Ponsoldt talked to about their remarkable collaboration, and yes there is even a Scott Pilgrim question. James, this is a subject matter regarding a younger alcoholic, a subject that has rarely been shown as objectively as you have in this film. What was the inspiration for understanding the way you were to present such a story and direct the narrative flow?

James Ponsoldt The goal was to make a love story and a coming-of-age story, and the alcoholism is part of the relationship, but it’s not what the movie is about. It’s not a message movie, or a ‘scared straight’ movie, it’s a hang out movie with a sense of humor, for people of that age group, when today most of the images about them are drunk people, like on reality shows.

There have been great movies about alcoholism in the past, but none that I can relate to, it all seemed to be about my parent’s age. We were interested more in the subtle nuances of relationships, fidelity and how that relationship can be affected when one person changes one of the fundamental facets of that relationship. But humor was important to me, that there be a healthy dose of it, and that there would be a female protagonist. Mary Elizabeth, which did you find most intriguing about the character of Kate, and the most easy to play – her strength or her weaknesses – and why?

Mary Elizabeth Winstead: I think her strengths and weaknesses are married to one another. She finds her strengths in her weaknesses and vice-versa. They are not that clear. What is great about her is that one the strengths is that she’s willing to recognize the weaknesses, and work on them. That really inspired me about the character, love her and want to play her. I did like that one of her strengths became truth.

Ponsoldt: Well, truth is living an honest life. and it is one of the themes that the film concerns itself with, even though truth with her is tricky. She does begin to have some moral accountability, and hold herself to it in that honesty. I think there is a level of expectation in that truth, as if she will be rewarded. When she tells her boss about her stupidity, she thinks she’ll find forgiveness, for example. But life isn’t like that, who knows how others will react to unvarnished truth. The reward is you get to look at yourself in the mirror and say to yourself that you’re not lying. There is a telling scene showing blissfully smashed people in the their late twenties partying like they are still in college. What factors in our current society, in your opinion, contribute to a prolonged adolescence in persons of the current young adult generation, and did you incorporate it as such in your film?

Ponsoldt: Well, they grew up in the Clinton administration, which was a good time in America. [laughs] They were concerned whether the president got an bl*w j*b in the White House, not the state of the economy. Subsequently, and because we live in an age of helicopter parents and tiger parents, the ones who love their kids so much, that they don’t require their kids to grow up and leave home, or even let them be individuals. So all this clichés about ’30 being the new 20’ and ’40 being the new 30’ is all about the fetishizing of youth, to a degree where it gets a bit creepy. Age is beautiful, maturity is wonderful and wisdom comes with age. Back to you, Mary Elizabeth. Alcohol is a particular self medication that affects people in different ways. In analyzing Kate’s behavior as a drunk, where you creating something new or tapping into the well of your own reaction to alcohol?

Winstead: My relationship with alcohol has never been a particularly complex one. I’ve always been a one to two drinks kind of person, it’s more of a relaxation than getting drunk. Even when I was younger, and tried to fit in with some of the more hardcore party-ers, I just couldn’t do it. I was never equipped to live my live that way, so it never was an issue. I certainly have been drunk enough to know what I’m like drunk, and to bring that to the part, but in dealing with alcoholism itself I had to find something else.

It really was about general toxic behaviors, trying to get a result and trying to get there over and over, and it’s never really going to happen. It was about figuring out how old Kate is emotionally when she was drunk, where she reverts back to. I figured she was like a nine-year-old as a drunk, if she doesn’t get what she wants, she throws a fit like a child.

James Ponsoldt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
James Ponsoldt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead On Set for ‘Smashed’
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classic James, given that this production was a nineteen day shoot, what was the most important element in the pre-production that contributed the most in making that shoot successful?

Ponsoldt: Probably the most valuable thing was casting great actors, the bulk of your work is done once you get great actors with great imaginations, and allow them the autonomy to be collaborators, and the script on the page is a blueprint with beats, that they could say and do whatever they wanted. Mary was one of my biggest collaborators, because she is the center focus for 98% of the movie. We spent a long time developing the character.

Winstead: James and I spent several hours a day talking about her back story. Even though in some films you feel pretentious doing a back story, but with this I needed the details to flesh her out, because it was a complex role. Everything was going to be useful to me as an actor. Also it was valuable to talk about my own life and history, and to compare how Kate felt when something similar happened to me in my life. It was marrying all those small details, so by the time I was on set I felt I was Kate, or understood he enough to feel I could be her. To go back to a smaller role you had earlier in the year, ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’ had to be one of the most bizarre forays into U.S. History ever. Nonetheless, what did you admire most in your research on playing Mary Todd Lincoln, and what do you think history misunderstands about her?

Winstead: I think she’s incredibly misunderstood, when I was reading about her I fell in love with her, she was so cool. If she were alive today, I think she could be like Hillary Clinton. Maybe she was bi-polar, but today she’d be working through it and people would be embracing her more. She was smart, opinionated and independent. What was the decision behind taking that role?

Winstead: I just wanted to do it. Timor [Bekmambetov] is an interesting director, has a totally unique voice and is totally out of his mind. [laughs] Also to play a historical character, even in a bizarro parallel universe way was an exciting thing to me. James, you have such a great eye for casting, given this film and your upcoming ‘The Spectacular Now.’ Is there any chemistry that really surprised you in either of these films, that you didn’t really expect when formulating the actor with the role?

James Ponsoldt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
James Ponsoldt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Chicago, Oct. 9, 2012
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for

Ponsoldt: My favorite kind of actor at this point is not defined as a movie or TV type, it’s just what they can do with the material. I think Octavia Spencer [featured in ‘Smashed’] is now thought of as ‘Octavia Spencer, Academy Award winner’ but while we were shooting she was just an amazing actor who was great in ‘Dinner for Schmucks’ and wild in ‘Drag Me to Hell.’ She is someone who has such a high level of sophistication and wisdom, with a lack of pretense, that she can find the humor in tough situations, or add gravitas to humorous situations.

Those are my favorite actors, the ones who can make a scene go in any direction, with anarchy and unpredictability. That’s how life is, and too often films don’t develop that angle, or try to box it in. Mary Elizabeth, you’ve chosen a path of unique character roles over more age appropriate fluff or the leading lady type of journey. How does that path allow to embrace those characters and make them your own?

Winstead: I’ve always been drawn more to character than anything else. I’ve never had a plan regarding the types of movies to cast myself into or to showcase myself. I really take thinks or turn things down based on how I think the character will turn out, if I can do something with it or have fun with it. If it feels like a stock character or perfect dream girl, I’ve never had any interest in it. James, which director’s style has influenced you the most in your evolution, and do you give an homage to them in a particular shot or script reference in your films?

Ponsoldt: Hal Ashby, with his range of something as whimsical and light as ‘Harold and Maude’ to the searing emotions of ‘Coming Home,’ to the existentially funny sadness of ‘Being There’ he really could do it all. He was also a master of tone and a humanist. There is no direct homage, just a value system of really loving my characters and being a great advocate for him. Finally Mary Elizabeth, in ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,’ you portray an obscure woman of virtually every man’s desire. What characteristic within you was best able to understand that trait in Ramona?

Winstead: [Laughs] I did understand what it was like to be that girl who is wanted by a lot of people but for no reason. I mean why? They are fighting over me, telling me they’re in love, but they don’t know me at all. They are creating a picture of who they think I am, that perfect person. I’ve definitely been in that position before, and how isolating it is to be that girl.

“Smashed” has a limited release in Chicago on October 12th. See local listings for theaters and show times. Featuring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Octavia Spencer, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally and Mary Kay Place. Written and directed by James Ponsoldt. Rated “R” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2012 Patrick McDonald,

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