The Badass Interview: Mary Elizabeth Winstead On FAULTS

The star of the new indie thriller talks about her intimidating role in FAULTS and the challenges of finding good roles for women. 

Many of you are pretty familiar with Mary Elizabeth Winstead from her fantastic performance as Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, as well as a few other studio films. But in recent years, she's truly shined in independent projects, from her heartbreakingly honest performance as an alcoholic school teacher in Smashed, to her layered and stunning work in the new film Faults. Directed by her husband Riley Stearns, Faults sees Winstead portraying Claire, a member of a cult organization who's kidnapped by Leland Orser's Ansel Roth, an "expert" deprogrammer and huckster. As the film progresses, it becomes very much a game of who's deprogramming who, and its unnerving atmosphere sets the stage for the film's disquieting climax.

I spoke with Winstead this week about Faults, the intimidating role of Claire and the challenges of finding meaningful roles for women in the film industry. We also spoke a little about her role in the U.S. remake of The Returned, based on the original French series.

Faults is your husband's project, but did he intend for you to play the role of Claire from the beginning?

Yeah, I think it was always this unspoken thing. He told me the idea for it and I loved the idea. And then every ten pages or so he would kind of show it to me, and for the first thirty pages or so, my character doesn't come into it at all, but I immediately loved it. I was like, this is going to be an amazing movie and I can't wait to see what role I'm going to be playing in it and what it's going to be like. It was always kind of understood that I would play it, although when I started reading it I wasn't really sure if I was the right person for it, and I would get worried about that. But I kind of just trusted him in that he trusted me, and I kind of had to have faith in him, and it all worked out.

Cults are an inherently fascinating subject, and I like that this one is more of an obscure group. Did you do any research on cults before heading into production?

I did! I started researching a lot of cults and reading as much as I could about, you know, people who had written books after they had gotten out of a cult and what it was like being indoctrinated into a cult, and then also the process of leaving a cult. I did a little bit of research on that, and then sort of jumped into reading about cult leaders and getting as much information about that as I could as well. And that's when I really started to click into who she was ultimately, but it was good to sort of go through all of those layers because she is all of those different people at different points throughout the film. I kind of had to go through all those different paths.

I think it challenges expectations of women, where media often wants to place us into one definitive box.

Yeah, absolutely.

Claire plays against those stereotypes by showing how women can be many things at once because all people are many things at once. 

Right, and that's something as an actor that I'm always looking for because if I'm expected to just be one thing, I get pretty bored by that. And it's not very true to reality because we are so many things, all of us are. But for some reason, as women, we don't really get to be portrayed that way very often, so it's a real treat when I get a role where I can be more than just a one-dimensional caricature.

It's pretty difficult for women to find these rich and layered roles.

It's a constant battle for me and has been for my entire career, which is now... I was just realizing that I've been doing this for like, over fifteen years now, which is pretty insane. It makes me feel old! Even though things have gotten easier for me, it's also gotten to be more of a struggle because I feel like every year I become more and more aware of how sort of off-balance everything is, and it becomes more and more frustrating the more aware of it I become. It's interesting how, even though my roles have gotten better over the years, it's actually become harder because I'm demanding more of myself and more of the roles, and wanting to just demand more of the material in general.

Is it easier for you to find those roles in indie films versus bigger studio movies? 

Oh definitely. I think everybody gets bogged down in what they think will sell, and for whatever reason, people have decided that movies about women don't sell, or that women who are not exactly the perfect archetype of the girl next door don't really sell. There's all these sort of things that we hear all the time about what sells and what doesn't sell, but it doesn't really make sense to me. Obviously there's a lot of great, female-led franchises right now with young women that are selling great and doing really well. So I think we're all just kind of, like, wondering when that tide is really going to change, or when that dialogue is going to change because I feel like they all keep saying that, but that's actually starting to prove to not always be correct. I'm hoping that's eventually going to change.

More women are going to theaters now than before, and women accounted for almost half of all ticket sales for Guardians of the Galaxy, which is pretty huge. 

Yeah, I heard the same thing. It's baffling to me to think that people are still saying that female-led movies don't sell. But it's obviously being shown to be just flat-out wrong. So yeah, at the moment it's much easier to find good roles in indie films, at least typically for me, but I'm hoping that will change. Ultimately, I would love to reach a wider audience, but I just want it to be with the right roles and in the right way.

What was the most challenging part of playing Claire? Was there a specific moment that while filming that was exceptionally difficult for you?

I think Leland and I both were pretty intimidated by the scene toward the end in the bathroom because that was like, a twelve-pager, which was one of the longest scenes I've ever had to do. I think it was the same for Leland. It just goes so many places emotionally and gets so intense, so I think that was really daunting for us both. We shot mostly chronological, so that kind of keeps it toward the end, so every day we were like, "Well, at least it's not the bathroom scene!" Like, oh, this is a tough scene, but at least it's not that one. We kept just kind of joking about it, so when that day came we were just like, oh god, here we go. It was so much fun to do, but it was incredibly intense and I had to slap the shit out of Leland. Because he asked me to! And so I did. It was definitely an intense scene, but so rewarding to actually see on screen because I feel like it just came out so well, and I think Leland's brilliant in it. It's awesome to get to to have those kind of tough scenes and feel like they came out okay.

It's also very intimate, and at times it feels like it could be a stage play. 

Yeah, it does! And it felt that way a lot shooting it, especially because we didn't typically do a lot of takes. You know, we didn't have a lot of time, so it was a lot of getting an entire scene done in just the smallest amount of coverage, and only doing one or two takes and beyond. And shooting chronologically, it was all kind of unfolding like this ongoing story, which was a really great way to shoot. There was obviously downtime in between with the lights and things like that, but we really did kind of get to live as these characters for nineteen days and let it all kind of unfold as the story was going, which was really a lovely way to work.

Up next we'll get to see you in The Returned, the remake of the French series, and I'm really excited about it because I love the original. 

Nice! Awesome! So does that make you trepidatious about this one, or are you open to it?

I'm open-minded about everything. I was a little hesitant when I saw the first trailer, though, because so much of it replicates shots from the French series. But with you and the rest of the cast and creative team involved, I can't help but be interested. And the concept is so, so good on its own. 

I will say that the first episode is very - and that's part of it, that the trailer is really made up of the first episode, which is totally modeled after the original, and it's pretty much... I mean, I wouldn't say shot-for-shot, but it's very, very close to the original. But pretty much with every episode after that it gets more and more different, and then by the end it's like a completely different... it goes in an entirely different direction than the original went. So I find that really interesting. It's almost like a choose your own adventure show, where the characters start out in the same place, but if you choose the original you go in one direction, and if you choose ours it goes in another, in a completely different way. I'm interested to see what people are going to think about our direction.

I'm a fan of that concept, though. Scott Pilgrim was the same way. You could read the books or watch the film, and at a certain point the stories diverge a bit, but they're both great. 

Totally, yeah. And I think, hopefully, our show doesn't take anything away from theirs. They're getting their next season and it's going to be a completely different show than our second season would be if we were to get one. In that case, you could still watch both shows and get something completely different out of it. I think that's kind of cool.

Were you a fan of the original series before you signed on for the U.S. version?

I had heard of it and I had a lot of friends who told me about it, and I knew that it was good because those friends are people with some good taste. I was intrigued because of that, and I was sent the first two scripts and I loved them. And I loved the role and how emotional it was and how kind of haunting it was. So I'm drawn to it immediately, and I'm kind of one of those people who, if I like the material, I'm kind of hooked from that point on. I then went and watched the first episode of the original immediately and I thought it was so beautiful, and so I stopped watching it because I knew if I watched any more I would be, like, scared to do it or I would get something in my head about the way the original actress performed the part and all that stuff. So I decided not to watch it, but I went back and watched it after we finished shooting our first season. I thought it was really beautiful, but I was kind of relieved to see how different ours actually was at the end of the day.

Faults hits theaters and VOD this Friday, March 6th.