Celebrating the Powerful Versatility of Mary Elizabeth Winstead

Boasting a holistically rewarding line-up of projects for virtually every demographic, this actress succeeds in constant reinvention.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead Filmographies

Welcome to Filmographiesa column for completists. Every edition brings a working actor’s resumé into focus as we learn about what makes them so compelling. In this entry, we spotlight the filmography of Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead has navigated Hollywood donning various monikers. The television series Passions initially introduced her to soap opera fans. Her early big-screen ventures quickly made her a fan-favorite among genre buffs.

Winstead’s resumé proves remarkably diverse, honing her masterstroke of exceedingly likable but fearless female characters. She fits in everywhere, greatly enhancing conventional and unorthodox narratives alike.

In this edition of Filmographies, we highlight the most critical — and at times overlooked — offerings of Winstead’s 20-year career.

Sky High (2005)

The sweet, goofy, and feel-good superhero movie Sky High broke out a plethora of young stars, including Mary Elizabeth Winstead. In fact, her supporting role of Gwen Grayson contributes to many of the movie’s crowning moments.

The plot centers on the children of superpowered individuals — kids seeking to earn hero or sidekick stripes of their own at the eponymous institution. Winstead’s Gwen is a pretty, poised older student who catches the eye of the awkward budding protagonist.

Sky High‘s shenanigans are anything but subtle throughout its 100-minute runtime, and Gwen’s characterization abruptly devolves for sinister purposes. This shift legitimately works in Winstead’s favor, though. Her rapid descent from picture-perfect composure to catty, bratty, and unhinged injects dynamism into the film, alleviating its more generic elements. 

Final Destination 3 (2006)

Horror and sci-fi have defined Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s career since the beginning. She first dabbled in the supernatural as part of the main outfit of the short-lived werewolf TV drama Wolf Lake (2001-2002), stealing the show as a blossoming ingenue character longing to break out of her good-girl shell.

The third installment of the Final Destination franchise and the 2006 Black Christmas remake then confirmed Winstead to be a bonafide scream queen.

The former — a more accurate barometer of the actress’ abilities as a horror movie protagonist — tends to involve groups of annoying people getting killed by the unseen force of Death. Final Destination 3 holds the honor of being the most enjoyable of the lot purely because of Winstead.

By all accounts, the actress has to bank on doe-eyed innocence in the role of jittery high schooler Wendy Christensen. However, her visceral access to wells of emotional intensity ensures that the movie’s inexplicable Bad Vibes are palpable.

Winstead’s presence is intuitive and utterly convincing. She feels authentic in spite of the over-the-top bloodshed punctuating the overall grimness of the Final Destination series.

Death Proof (2007)

Following minor appearances in the drama films Factory Girl (2006) and Bobby (2006), Mary Elizabeth Winstead joined the ensemble of Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino’s muscle car murder entry in the Grindhouse double feature.

The exploitation-inspired picture substantially boosted Winstead’s profile and credibility among auteur circles. I just wish that the Death Proof screenplay had given her more room to pack as much punch — in every sense of the word — as her scene partners Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms, and Zoë Bell.

On the page, Winstead’s character — the impressionable Lee Montgomery — sports an adorable but naive persona that literally leaves her as bait partway through the film.

It is Winstead’s own captivatingly endearing qualities, including her hypnotizing vocal chops in that impromptu a capella rendition of “Baby It’s You”, that instantly encourage audience investment in Lee’s plight. Despite her implied ill fate, she remains on our minds beyond the movie’s final frame.

Make It Happen (2008)

One could argue that the comparatively high-profile nature of a movie like Live Free or Die Hard (2007) deserves a more consequential mention in Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s filmography breakdown. After all, she’s out there playing Bruce Willis’ kid.

But the surety of Winstead’s step in Darren Grant’s overlooked Make It Happen beats out her static supporting role in the Die Hard franchise. She headlines the dance-centric flick as a hip-hop enthusiast aspiring to enter a famed Chicago dance academy. Cold, hard rejection soon guides her to new empowering opportunities in burlesque-inspired routines.

Winstead is easily the best part of Make It Happen due to her winsome combination of determination and vulnerability. She maintains a genuinely earnest, hardworking protagonist against lackluster characterizations around her. Winstead carries the film from start to finish, succeeding in mining realism and honesty in the cheesiest narratives.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

In Edgar Wright’s vibrant and galvanizing Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Mary Elizabeth Winstead leans into the manic pixie dream girl homily. To a point, anyway.

She is Ramona Flowers, the stunningly mysterious love interest of our titular lead. Ramona’s ethereal arrival jumpstarts an all-out war between Scott and the seven evil exes that he must defeat to “win” her love.

Scott’s arrested development only permits him to view Ramona in extreme, unrealistic snippets. To him, Ramona is cool, enigmatic, seductive, and witty, but not much else.

Unfortunately, the storytelling itself — irreverent, cheekily self-aware, but fairly simplistic — situates viewers in a similar position of idealizing Ramona to a fault. At the very least, Winstead’s portrayal is crucially underpinned by purposeful tenderness. She imbues Ramona with biting honesty and chilly guardedness that is delicate enough to counteract the film’s facetiousness.

Smashed (2012)

James Ponsoldt and Mary Elizabeth Winstead comprise a dream team. Their collaboration on the heartwrenching Smashed breathed new life into the latter’s filmography, categorically realigning the actress from coquettish fledgling to weighty indie asset.

Smashed tracks the precarious life of Winstead’s Kate Hannah. She is an alcoholic grade-school teacher set on breaking the toxic cycle of her addiction. While this causes Kate’s rapturous and ruinous marriage to fellow drinker Charlie (Aaron Paul) to crumble, her desperate quest for self-advocacy is raw, unsentimental, and life-saving.

Winstead’s spell-binding depiction juxtaposes Kate’s hilarious and ridiculously personable side with a worn ambivalence that noticeably rejects pity. The character has good intentions and is adept at work. But Kate also grapples with a willful lack of self-awareness that stifles her potential.

Winstead’s incisive acting inspires our sympathy from a neutral, judgment-free standpoint. She subsequently worked with Ponsoldt again on The Spectacular Now (2013) and reunited with Paul on The Parts You Lose (2019). Regrettably, neither project gives her adequate space to replicate the sheer unflinching dedication presented in Smashed.

Faults (2014)

There is nothing quite like Faults in Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s filmography. The fascinating psychological dark comedy follows a dejected cult expert aiming to solve his money problems with a deprogramming job. The subject? An elusive, eerily charismatic 20-something named Claire (Winstead).

Beyond our (hopefully) healthy distrust of cults as a whole, Winstead’s engaging poignancy compounds our reception of Claire’s unnerving predicament. Intelligent and scintillating, she relays her sect’s ostensibly freeing thesis with disconcerting levelheadedness.

Winstead flourishes under such a mischievously unreadable guise. The actress stays composed and confident without neglecting the terror of Claire’s emotional potency. The character’s compelling resistance impresses a frightening and beguiling sense of empowerment upon viewers.

We should never buy whatever Claire is selling. But Winstead’s forceful advocacy for this woman’s questionable personal decisions makes that so damn hard.

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Sheryl Oh: Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)