INTERVIEW: Mary Elizabeth Winstead Discusses Stand Up Comedy and ‘All About Nina’

For my money, Mary Elizabeth Winstead gives the performance of the year so far in “All About Nina.” It’s not even close. Her work in the film is Academy Award worthy, and that’s putting it mildly. Winstead takes the material provided to her by filmmaker Eva Vives and takes it to some incredible heights. We raved about it first back at the Tribeca Film Festival (here) and just recently at the Los Angeles Film Festival (here). Suffice to say, The Awards Circuit is on board with Winstead getting some top tier attention for this role.

It was a real pleasure to get a chance to speak once again with Winstead. Back in 2014, I sat down with her to talk “Alex of Venice” (interview found here). This time, of course, we were chatting about a performance that goes above and beyond. “All About Nina” not only features her best work to date, but a turn that Oscar voters shouldn’t sleep on. Winstead co-stars with Common in Vives’ movie, which is a must see. If you’re still on the fence somehow, let this back and forth sell you on it. It’s one not to miss.

Joey Magidson / Awards Circuit: How are you?

Mary Elizabeth Winstead: I’m good! How are you?

JM: I’m doing well. Thanks for asking! First of all, congratulations on the film coming out.

MEW: Thank you so much. Thank you! I’ve seen some of the stuff you’ve written, and I’m so appreciative. It’s so lovely.

JM: What made this part attractive to you? There’s a lot of stuff that people seem interested in you for. At the same time, you don’t sign on to a lot. So, you definitely have an idea of what you want to do. What made this something that sounded like a good way to spend six months of your life?

MEW: Yeah. This one, you know, because these movies are so fast and furious, we shot this one in 21 days. It was a much shorter time spent in the character, but a much more intense time than most others, you know? But, it just was, from the first page, so intriguing to me. It opens with this huge, long, stand up monologue. I don’t get that many scripts that open with just one woman talking for three pages, you know? Right off the bat, I was curious about it, at the very least, since playing a stand up comedian seemed like such an incredible challenge. But, I wasn’t sure, based on that, whether I was the right person for it or not. It’s a movie about a stand up comedian, if the whole movie is about the world of stand up, should that be me, or should that be a real comedian? I wasn’t really sure about that. As I read on, and the story becomes so emotional and so complex, so raw, I thought “oh god!” I want the opportunity to try this, to go to all these different places. Then, of course, when you get to the emotional gut punch at the end, I was totally gobsmacked. So, it was an easy yes for me, from every single aspect.

JM: Getting a monologue to open a movie is rare enough, but then when it’s in the realm of stand up comedy, was that a different sort of challenge?

MEW: Well, it was definitely scary for me. It was one of the more scary things I’ve ever had to do. It’s a real skill, and I think I learned that even more than I had already known before, which was that stand up is a skill that has to be honed over time. Every time you go out, you get a little bit better, you’re learning from the audience, you’re trying to make it a little funnier, or a little bit smarter, tighter, sharper. I didn’t have that much time to hone my skills to the level that a real, popular and confident stand up comedian would have. But, I approached it like playing any other part. I’m going to try to be really good at this and be this person. So, I watched a lot of stand up, went to a lot of shows, listened to a lot of it. I tried for a while to find someone to be my kind of core inspiration, you know? One of the people that Eva (Vives) wanted me to watch a lot of was Richard Pryor, which was great. He talks a lot about trauma in his life and brings it into his performances, which was important. Ultimately, I realized that I had to step away from immersing myself in it and just figure out the person, what she thinks is funny, why she tells the jokes she does, why she puts up the defenses that she does, all the layers that she covers herself with, and all the different masks that she wears. That’s where the comedy had to come from.

JM: Totally. Plus, once you find out what the character’s trauma actually is, you realize that this isn’t just a look at a stand up comedian. It’s about way more than that, and cuts deeper.

MEW: Yeah! I think the movie is really a character study. She’s a person and stand up is what she does for a living. It’s a huge part of how she expresses herself, but it’s about a lot of things, on top of all that.

JM: And it doesn’t necessarily complete the story, but gives you this mirror into her life at a particular moment. It’s a brave choice, from you on down.

MEW: Aww, thank you. There’s definitely parts of it that feel uncomfortable, but I think we all kind of embraced that. I love that, that it’s not resolved at the end. It’s not all wrapped up in a perfect bow, but you do have hope that maybe down the line it will be.

JM: People sometimes forget that character study doesn’t always mean “full story.”

MEW: Yeah, exactly.

JM: In terms of getting to work with a female filmmaker and really being the central part of a movie. Common is a big name and great in the film, but this really lives or dies based on you. A movie birthed by women, which you, sadly, rarely get in general.

MEW: Yes! This is my first feature role directed by a woman, which is just crazy, since I’ve made a lot of movies at this point! I’ve worked with women on television, but never before in film. It was such a liberating experience for me, from top to bottom. In particular, the comedy was something that was sort of an unexpected joy. The realization that I’d never done comedy with women before. Even in films where I’d done comedy, it was always written by men, directed by men, and often I was the only girl in the scene, so it was a real joy to sit around coming up with jokes with other women. There’s some totally unique about that. When I had the realization that I’d never had the opportunity to do that before, it was sort of sad in a way, but also really exciting. We’re exciting! This is fun. This sort of comedy deserves to be out there. This perspective deserves to be out there!

JM: Has working with Eva made you think about directing?

MEW: I think, for a few years now I’ve thought about the possibility of directing. It might be something that I could be good at. Of course, it’s something you don’t really know about until you try. Hopefully one day I’ll find the time and the people who want to work with me, because I’d love to try it. But I don’t know. It would all have to come together in the right way. We’ll see. But I hope that it does!

JM: What do you look for going forward? Between great work on television, “All About Nina,” which deserves awards attention for you, and how every few weeks you’re rumored to be up for a blockbuster, does it impact what strikes your fancy when looking at potential gigs?

MEW: Well, I mean, I kind of just go with my gut feeling on whatever I do. Usually, I’m just looking for something that I think will feel good to do. Usually that is based on the material and the people and the story we’re telling. That means for me that character is complex, that we’re trying to say something with it that’s going to make us feel good and stand behind at the end of the day. So, that’s kind of what I look for. If it’s not saying anything, if it won’t make me feel good, I’m not interested. But, if it is, if it has a point of view that’s interesting to me, or if we’re trying to say something that might matter at the end of the day, that could capture my interest.

JM: Luckily, that’s starting to include certain large scale projects too now.

MEW: It is! It’s exciting. It opens things up for me a little more. More diversity of storytelling, in all facets of filmmaking, is really exciting.

JM: Is there something that you haven’t done yet that intrigues you, character or project-wise?

MEW: You know, I don’t know. Like you said before, I’d love to potentially direct some day. I’d love to do a play some day. I’ve never done theater and that feels like something I should do, to challenge myself in a new way. So, I’d love to do that. Ultimately. I feel like I’m at a place now we’re I’m sort of able to do a project and kind of wait until something comes along and pulls me into wanting to go back to work. I just wait for that feeling, and I can’t really explain it, or don’t go after things. I just wait until I connect to something. Sometimes I try to look for it, I think about how I should look into this sort of role or contact this person, put this together, but ultimately that’s just not what inspires me. The writing, the material, the role, the great character. That’s what inspires me. So I just wait for them to find me.

JM: Well, congratulations again, and I’ll keep banging the drum for this and you to be seen and considered for awards.

MEW: Aww. Thank you so much! That is really really awesome! Have a good one Joey!

We would like to thank Mary Elizabeth Winstead for her time in speaking with Awards Circuit.

“All About Nina” hits theaters on September 28th!

Be sure to check out our Official Oscar Predictions Page to see where “All About Nina” ranks among the contenders!

What do you think?

Film Lover

Written by Joey Magidson

When he’s not obsessing over new Oscar predictions on a weekly basis, Joey is seeing between 300 and 350 movies a year. He views the best in order to properly analyze the awards race/season each year, but he also watches the worst for reasons he mostly sums up as "so you all don't have to". In his spare time, you can usually find him complaining about the Jets or the Mets. Still, he lives and dies by film. Joey's a voting member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.


Leave a Reply

    Film Review: ‘Tea with the Dames’ is as Delightful as it Sounds

    TV Review: ‘Manifest’ Might Be the Dumbest Pilot You’ve Ever Seen