How Mary Elizabeth Winstead Became One of Our Great Genre Actresses

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Cinema is a pigeonhole business. You make a successful type of movie and that becomes your calling card, your expected modus operandi. A love of proven profits (and hey, who doesn’t?) means that branching out is seen as risk, which Hollywood studios hate. There are a few financial theories explaining risk-aversion, but the point is making a movie is a gamble. Any time you can solidify something to already-tread ground, that’s just one less variable to worry about. That’s why actors who’ve made action smashes or lucrative rom-coms often find themselves stuck with those roles. That’s why such a thing exists as a “scream queen”. Once you’re a successful horror actress, it’s hard to escape that image. But Mary Elizabeth Winstead, star of the recent 10 Cloverfield Lane, carries a transcendent, compassionate, weary humanity from horror to psychological dramas to sci-fi and back, making her one of our greatest genre actresses.

Winstead broke through with horror and, whether she was fending off the very hand of Death in Final Destination 3 or providing a voice of reason in Black Christmas (“You really shouldn’t provoke someone like that”), her characters found their base in grounded emotional intensity . She’s never a pawn in anyone’s game or a Final Girl that suddenly turns on the competency once all her friends have been picked off. Her reactions, as meaningless as it may sound, are human. Practical. You’re locked into a rollercoaster and suddenly have a vivid vision of its disastrous near-future? Obviously, you’re going to be an emotional wreck, overwhelmed with horror and a newfound responsibility to all the other passengers. There’s no screaming at the screen of “don’t go in there!” because she’s completely empathetic. Some of this is due to well-written characters, but making us believe these decisions is all Winstead. Her Final Destination 3 breakdown becomes psychosocial, fearing not just for her life but for those around her, wondering if she can be a force for good, driving her performance through the film from abject terror to depressed nihilism to breakneck desperation ‐ and we buy every second.

A fan of horror since childhood, Winstead claims and redefines the title of “scream queen”. That’s because, starting on Broadway and transitioning from small supporting roles that invariably earned her praise despite their cinematic homes (see 2006’s Black Christmas remake, a handful of Die Hard sequels, and the often unfairly maligned Death Proof) to lead roles in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and the remake of The Thing, she’s never played the stereotypically airheaded victim. She “[hopes] to solidify an image of a scream queen who’s really strong, [intelligent, and active]” by bringing an empowered agency to these final girls. She’s never there to get paid, making a mark with any character she can, reimagining what a “scream queen” can be. Bringing a compassionate, empathetic personality to a sorority girl about to be slashed or the endearingly fed-up Mary Todd Lincoln in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (again, the only good part in that film) allows her to stretch genre roles to their limits. Finding power in complexity, her badassery grows out of her emotions, not muscles, weapons, or bravado.

She does most of her own stunts, going through fight training for Scott Pilgrim and “knocking [herself] around” jumping over tables while fearing for her life, similarly finding perfectly organic ways to settle into her performances. Her large, expressive, alert and thinking eyes scope out situations while a weary smirk constantly flits around the corners of her mouth. “You’ve got to be kidding me”, she says at one point in 10 Cloverfield Lane. Not despondent, but the good-natured exhaustion of John McClane or self-operating Shaw from Prometheus.

Her cool head in The Thing has practical echoes in 10 Cloverfield Lane, where her character wakes up chained to a wall after a car accident. Her lead performance in Faults, playing a cultist undergoing deprogramming, makes us believe not only in the power of cults, but the power of fear, of why someone might choose a cult over their “real” life. Extrapolating fiction from a performance, using an actor to justify some sci-fi or cartoonish craziness, is the biggest gamble a genre movie can take. We’re asked to believe Ramona, in Scott Pilgrim, a girl Scott has just met, is worth fighting seven evil exes for. Going to the ends of the earth, facing your own mortality, in an arcade-style brawler? That’s a lot for one character to warrant. As Ramona, Winstead provides a take-charge partner to Michael Cera’s wimpy Scott, her every glance resonating with an enigmatic power. Not every actress could bring a magnetic melancholy to a character that fights with a gigantic sledgehammer.

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Kicking ass secondarily, Mary Elizabeth Winstead embraces the “queen” half of the moniker. And she’s had no better vehicle in her career so far as fitting as 10 Cloverfield Lane. The closest to Sigourney Weaver she’s been since leading The Thing, her hushed bunker MacGyvering and [spoilers] regretful post-apocalyptic reckoning imbue her character, Michelle, with much more than fear. The heightened hyperventilation only matters once we understand her. A deep history of non-confrontation, subservience, and evasion bubbles up organically to inform her terror, rationalization, and growth. By the time she escapes her captor and the various threats in the alternative hell of freedom, we feel like we know so much about her. Winstead isn’t anyone’s romantic interest, yet is never asexual. She’s witty, but never comic relief. Some actors slum for paychecks, but Winstead feels like a benevolent queen (sans the “scream”) gracing under-served sci-fi, psychological thriller, and horror films with her presence.

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Jacob Oller writes everywhere (Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Playboy, FSR, Paste, etc.) about everything that matters (film, TV, video games, memes, life).