Entertainment & Arts

Smashed: Mary Elizabeth Winstead on playing an alcoholic

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Media captionLeading lady Mary Elizabeth Winstead tells the BBC why she took on her most dramatic role to date

A low-budget independent film about an elementary schoolteacher with a drinking problem has been tipped as a potential awards contender. BBC News spoke to its director and stars.

Movie awards voters tend to be impressed by hard-hitting studies of alcoholism, regularly rewarding films that have highlighted the perils of the demon drink.

Ray Milland won an Oscar in 1946 for playing a drunkard in The Lost Weekend, as did Nicolas Cage, 50 years later, for imbibing himself to death in Leaving Las Vegas.

Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne and Jeff Bridges were also given Hollywood's highest accolade for playing characters partial to a tipple.

It can work for actresses too. Elizabeth Taylor received her second Oscar for playing a boozy harridan in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, while Lee Remick got a nomination for going blotto in Days of Wine and Roses.

All of which bodes well for Mary Elizabeth Winstead, whose portrayal of Kate, a young wife trying to stay off the sauce in the independent film Smashed, is being tipped as a dark horse in this year's awards race.

Only last month, she was nominated for a Spirit award, alongside Jennifer Lawrence (from Silver Linings Playbook) and child performer Quvenzhane Wallis (from Beasts of the Southern Wild).

Could an Oscar nomination follow in January? During a visit to London last month, the 28-year-old was studiously playing down her chances.

'Wonderful imagination'

"I'm very aware my chances are not very high so I'm not getting my hopes up," says the actress, previously seen in quirky movies like Scott Pilgrim vs The World and Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof.

"But it's lovely to hear anyone say anything like that about a performance I've done, and I certainly can't help but fantasise about the idea of being a part of it in some way."

"I had seen Mary in big action films like Die Hard 4.0 and the remake of The Thing," says Smashed director James Ponsoldt, whose work won a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival last January.

Image caption Paul (left) is known to US TV audiences for playing Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad

"But spending time with her, I realised what a wonderful imagination she has and how willing she was to really prepare for this role."

Those sentiments are shared by actor Aaron Paul, who took a break from playing a crystal meth dealer in TV's Breaking Bad to appear as Charlie, Kate's free-spirited, perennially intoxicated husband.

"The goal in this business is to get lost in the scenes and truly feel like you're living moments as if they were your own," says the 33-year-old.

"That happened pretty much every day on set with Mary. It was great and a wonderful experience."

Should accolades come in Smashed's direction, it would be quite a coup for a film shot in just 19 days for a reported $500,000 (£312,557).

Not only that, but it would also surely be the first movie so honoured to feature a teacher publicly relieving herself on a convenience store floor.

For Winstead, used to projecting glamorous self-assurance on red carpets and in photo shoots, fabricating something so indecorous and unladylike must have posed a challenge.

Apparently, though, such considerations were secondary compared to the need to make an artificial bladder function on cue.

'Not propaganda'

"What's funny in scenes like that is that sometimes the technical aspects end up overriding everything else," the actress smiles.

"I was wearing this... 'device', and when I sat down I had to put my arm on my leg to activate it.

"And it wasn't working - every take it wasn't working. On every take everyone was behind the camera going, 'Is it going to work?'

"So it really got rid of all of the humiliation of doing that scene, because all the focus was on hoping that it worked and that we could actually get the scene done."

Winstead's character is driven to seek help from Alcoholics Anonymous, much to the chagrin of her hard-drinking husband.

Image caption The cast of Smashed includes Octavia Spencer (right), who won an Oscar this year for The Help

The film takes a fairly uncritical view of the organisation, which is depicted by Ponsoldt and his co-writer Susan Burke as a benignly tolerant force for social good.

"Susan and I have very complicated feelings towards AA," says the director. "We both know people whose lives have been saved by it, and we know people who left because they thought it was a cult.

"We didn't want to glorify it; this is certainly not a propaganda film. Nor did we want to take easy shots at it.

"We just wanted the scenes at AA to feel honest and true, so we went to great lengths to make sure they were accurate."

As graphic as Smashed becomes, particularly when Paul and Winstead's characters are at their most inebriated, it is not inconceivable the film could benefit the organisation.

Winstead is happy for it to have a dual purpose, saying it would be "fantastic" if the film was "used in any sort of positive way".

"People have come up to me after screenings who work with alcoholics and feel it would be a great tool for them to use," she says.

"I think the reason they feel that way is it feels more real than other films on the subject, and a lot more relatable to people of this generation."

'Recovery point'

Smashed is not the only film around at present to have an alcoholic protagonist. Another is Flight, out in the UK in February, in which Denzel Washington plays an airline pilot waging his own battle with the bottle.

Winstead admits it is "interesting" for the two to emerge at the same time but insists that they are "very different films".

"Smashed is about a person getting their life together, while Flight is about somebody in the throes of alcoholism who can't get to that recovery point," she muses.

Image caption Denzel Washington plays a pilot in Flight found to be harbouring a dark secret

"Although they are both anchored and rooted in alcoholism, they tell very different stories."

"I think it's funny in a quirky, cosmic way that they both came out so close to each other," laughs Ponsoldt. "I just wish we had Flight's marketing budget.

"But I see it as a win for everybody. The world is better when both the independents and studios are making movies for adults that deal with serious issues that pertain to everyone's lives."

So how does one set about playing an addict? For Aaron Paul, the most effective route to finding his character was also the simplest.

"What I did for research was drink - a lot more than I had ever in my entire life," he reveals. "I filmed myself getting severely intoxicated and I studied the tapes.

"I also went onto YouTube and typed in 'drunk people acting crazy'," he continues. "It's incredible what you can find out there."

Smashed is out in the UK and Ireland on 14 December.

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