As many of you might have guessed, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is what one might call a craze-induced summer blockbuster. The United States’ 16th President hunting vampires is actually the least of the film’s bizarro nature; this is a film with a vampire throwing a horse and the weaponization of forks against confederate vampire soldiers. Making all of this a world audiences can buy into isn’t a simple task for an actor, but Mary Elizabeth Winstead and the rest of the cast go about it as seriously as they can.
Timur Bekmambetov made a very specific film, yet Winstead is acting in one of her own since, when 99% of the lunacy is happening onscreen, Mary Todd Lincoln usually isn’t around. When she is onscreen, Winstead faces another kind of challenge with her extensive makeup. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter marks another entry in Winstead’s career with a world-building director at the helm, and, speaking with us at the press day, that seems like the main appeal for projects such as these.
Here is what Mary Elizabeth Winstead had to say about Timur Bekmambetov’s “idea machine” method of directing, the specificity in physical & dialog-driven action, and the strong life of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World:
So, when you read a passage detailing a vampire throwing a horse, is that the sign-me-up moment?
Oh my God, that scene is insane [Laughs]. Most of those scenes I had no concept of what they were going to look like, since I wasn’t even there when they were shooting them. I was blown away when I saw that for the first time. You do think, “I have no idea how they’re going to do that and I have no idea how that’s going to look,” but that’s kind of exciting. There’s a mystery factor to it.
Not being involved in those broader scenes, in terms of staying tonally grounded, was that helpful?
Definitely. It was nice for me, because I was really in my own little movie: a historic period piece, for the most part. I didn’t have the challenge of balancing the two different tones, like the other actors.
You do have the makeup challenge, though. To what degree do you have to readjust how you act?
You do have to do that a little bit. It’s harder to be expressive, because you got so much stuff on your face it can be hard to make facial expressions. That’s a bit of a challenge. At the same time, it added so much for me, because I didn’t know how I was going to play someone about 20 years older than me. As soon as they put the aging makeup on, it became easier and made more sense. Naturally it just became easier.
What about playing period? Was Timur pretty strict about not having modern-feeling performances?
That is a challenge. There was kind of a fine line, because we didn’t want it to be too stiff or too stylized in the period dialect or tone. They wanted it to have a slight modern quality to it, so we tried to keep it a bit loose and free. It’s period, but it’s not.
You’ve worked with a good amount of directors who have their own style or voice — Tarantino, Timur, or Edgar Wright. Is there a shared connection between directors like that?
Definitely. I think they’re all very specific and know exactly what they want, which is wonderful. Admittedly, on a day-to-day basis, it can be be frustrating, especially with action sequences, because every detail has to be perfect. You know, you’re shooting one movement at a time, like, “Punch, cut, now move your body, do it again, and cut.” Everything is so laboriously drawn out. When you see it on screen, it’s so fast-paced and action-packed that it’s so different from your experience of shooting it.
You mentioned how laborious it is hitting each beat in an action sequence. Say when you’re working off Tarantino dialogue, is it a similar process?
It’s very much the same thing. We rehearsed it over and over again. We knew how every line was going to come in and which beats to hit. There was a certain rhythm to it, like, yeah, fight choreography or dance choreography.
Was it the same with Roman Coppola? I just spoke to him and he came off as a bit of a perfectionist.
Definitely, yeah. There are a lot of musical sequences in the film, and you can tell it’s singularity his voice, his vision, and everything is exactly the way he had it in his mind.
Are you a fan of CQ?
Yeah. I’m also a huge fan of his music videos and thought he had a unique voice, which was different. Even in the genre with Wes Anderson, and people like that, he’s still very set a part of that.
Is that appeal of all these genre films you do, getting to work with people who create their own worlds?
That’s a huge part of the appeal. You know, besides a great script, the director is really the first thing I look at it. I want to work with people who have a voice, a vision, and are standing out from the crowd. I feel like getting to have worked with people like that.
When you work off material like this, there probably needs to be more trust involved than usual. What made you trust Timur to make it work?
You know, I had seen his other films, and that’s a big part of it. I’m a fan of his work. Knowing his level of talent and knowing what he’s capable of is huge. Also, getting to meet him and getting to know him and seeing how kind and generous he is with actors was really wonderful. That makes you feel more comfortable on set and trying new things, and not feeling closed off and scared.
Actors he’s worked with usually refer to him as a one-man idea machine. Was that your experience?
Several times a day he’d come over and say, “[giving a perfect Timur impersonation] Okay, I have idea!” [Laughs] It would always be some crazy new idea that no one would think of doing. Sometimes it would mean we would have to change everything that day or deciding a scene belonged earlier in the script. Like, he would decide a scene needed Abraham to be in his early twenties, and not his forties, so all the costumes and sets would have to change. People would be scrambling to try to make the idea work, but it would always be worth it.
At the end of the day, he would always be right. It’s nice to know when you’re putting the work in and with all the stress that, at the end of the day, it’s going to be for the benefit of the film. He’s always thinking for what’s new and what’s different. There’s certainly parts of the script that didn’t change, but his ideas on how to approach a scene would be different. He would came up to me before a scene where I’m comforting Abraham and playing the good wife, and he told me, “Play it like you hate him, like you hate the sight of him.” [Laughs] It was great. I loved that.
There’s a a little of Mary Todd Lincoln in the book we don’t see the movie. Were the any ideas from Seth’s story or from research that really informed your performance?
I mean, everything that was in the book was all true to real life events. After reading the book, I went out and bought some books, to see how it matched up to what really happened. I saw it all did really happen, and I delved further into that. I learned so much about her, what she was like, and what their relationship was like. It was fun to read about, because she’s an incredible woman, and I hadn’t known that before. The more I learned about her, the more I realized the movie was portraying her accurately.
Was it a similar experience to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, where you delved into the comics and even used the littlest of details?
Definitely. We all referenced the books so much, from the actors to Edgar. We all had the books on set, and we would be look at them from scene to scene. Even our facial expressions and head movements would try to reflect what was drawn on the page. That was really, really specific.
Is it gratifying to know that movie’s never not on HBO now?
It’s so great! I love it. I love that it plays once a month at the New Beverly, and there’s always a line of people outside before. The audience keeps growing for it, and that’s great. I haven’t revisit it in a while, but usually when it’s on HBO, I’ll watch it for five minutes or so, because it just makes me happy. Even now I just can’t change the channel too quickly. I have to get a little bit of it. I never used to get stopped or recognized for that movie, but now it happens more often. It’s, like, “Wow, how cool is it to have a film people are still discovering and loving two years later?”
Especially since the internet now is so focused on the movie of the week now, that must make it cooler.
I never really cared about those things, but now I care even less about those weekend numbers. They don’t mean anything in the long run. I think Scott Pilgrim is going to be appreciated for years to come, and nobody’s going to remember how much it made opening weekend.
Is there a big change in work ethic from films like Scott Pilgrim and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to Smashed?
Oh, it’s a huge difference. [Laughs] It’s almost not even the same job, you know? I love them both, but I need to experience both of them at different times. It’s nice to go from one to the other. They’re different experiences. Doing Smashed after several bigger films was very cathartic, to have a very different energy on set.
Roman Coppola made A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III sound pretty surreal. How do you describe that movie?
It’s basically about this man going through a bit of a crisis, and it’s shown through his perspective and what’s going on in his head. He’s quite imaginative. It takes place in the 70s, but it’s highly-influenced by 1930s musicals. There’s a lot of musical numbers, fantastical set pieces, and things like that. It’s very whimsical and sweet.
Did all that call for a more heightened performance?
Well, it’s always different, and it depends on what it is. This one was so heightened that you had to go over the top and have fun with it. I’m in a fantasy sequence where I play this dominatrix military type of office, calling out commands to other women. In his head, that’s what he thinks women are like when men aren’t around. Of course, he’s totally wrong and it’s totally ridiculous. You just have to go with it and chew the scenery.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is now in theaters.