Interview: Smashed Star Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Co-Writer-Director James Ponsoldt

A film about a young couple dealing with how much they drink, Smashed defies most of the narrative and emotional conventions you might expect when you hear “alcoholism movie.”

Smashed was written by Susan Burke and James Ponsoldt, directed by Ponsoldt, and stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World) and Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad).

And though the title suggests Animal House/Project X hi-jinks, it’s really a very nuanced, rich film about the complexity of both problem drinking and maintaining a loving marriage. But for every bit Smashed doesn’t flinch from an honest look at alcoholism and recovery, it also embraces its characters’ charming and funny attributes.

Kate (Winstead) is a devoted and talented elementary teacher who spends her evenings and weekends having a blast drinking with her husband Charlie (Paul). But when the drinking and its aftermath begin to affect her job, Kate decides to sober up with the help of a recovering co-worker (a surprisingly earnest and awkward Nick Offerman from Parks and Recreation) and her AA sponsor (The Help‘s Octavia Spencer). Unfortunately Kate’s new-found sobriety begins to unbalance her genuinely loving marriage to the still-drinking Charlie.

I sat down with Mary Elizabeth Winstead and James Ponsoldt earlier this month in Chicago to talk about Smashed, which won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance in January. As with the film itself, the interview was full of both laughter and serious discussions about alcoholism and recovery.

Smashed opens today in select theaters nationwide.

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James, the film is inspired (if that’s the word) in part by the experiences of your co-writer, Susan Burke. What drew you to Susan’s story?

James Ponsoldt: I’d known Susan as a friend for years, and I’d seen her do a lot of stand up comedy. I knew she was sober and had stopped drinking and started going to AA in her early 20s. She never did stand up comedy about, but then she would tell stories about dumb things she’d done when she was drunk.

And these stories were hilarious so funny and relatable–she didn’t feel pity for herself–and they were totally surreal. All her stories start with the kind of dumb things I do when I’m drunk, but hers just wind up in really horrifying and absurd situations. I would always make her tell the same stories, and eventually I realized I couldn’t get this out of my head and there was something in myself that wanted to explore this.

I don’t usually like movies about issues. If that’s their agenda, they’re very one-dimensional and you can feel the finger wagging at you, and it’s a bummer—no one wants to be lectured at. I don’t have any message about alcohol; I don’t think everyone should stop drinking and go to AA. So I wanted to do it as a love story and tell the story of a relationship through the eyes of a female protagonist. These two people love each other and it works, but they drink. And one of them has to stop, and that destabilizes the relationship.

It was really important to me that we had a value system that was different then a lot of movies that deal with substance abuse. We wanted it to be people our age, not our parent’s, and alcohol is totally mundane and relatable—it’s not heroin or meth—and it’s relatable because people do funny things when they’re drunk. People drink to have fun.

One of the impressive things about the film is how Kate embodies both that notion of drinking to have fun and then struggling with the increasingly self-destructive results. Mary Elizabeth, what pitfalls did you fear when you took on playing Kate?

Mary Elizabeth Winstead: I was scared because I’d never played a character dealing with something as potentially serious as alcoholism, but also a character as complex and layered as this character. It took a lot of work to make sure I got to the place I needed to be to play every level of Kate. As an actor, playing drunk is one of the scariest things for us to do. I’d never done it before and I’ve always been terrified of having to do it one day. Everyone dreads it because it’s so easy to get wrong, and it’s really hard to know the right way to do it. James really worked with me on that, to find the right acting techniques that worked for me and made it seem very real. I always knew that James or the other actors would call it out on set if it didn’t feel real or right.

There were some physical things I did, like spinning in circles and running around the house, acting like a child the whole day we’d be shooting those scenes, Joel and I together would be wrestling and punching each other, trying to stay in that state as much as possible. You can’t drink, so you have to figure out a way that makes you feel drunk so you don’t have to worry about acting drunk, but you’re aware enough of your body and surroundings to work as an actor.

Ponsoldt: Your emotional development essentially stops when your addiction begins, so we figured that when Kate is drunk she’s functioning at the age eight or nine, and she gets petulant or throws a tantrum when she can’t get alcohol.

The first third of the film is about, not to be crass, “Drunk Kate,” while the rest follows “Sober Kate” as she tries to deal with being sober around her still-drinking husband. Mary Elizabeth, how did you approach that other, sober half of the character?

Winstead: That part of it was more clearly easy to relate to. Once I talked to a lot of people in AA, I realized how close I was to them and their struggles. But the co-dependent relationship is relatable to anyone who’s been in a lot of relationships. I could certainly relate to feeling like you’ve grown to a place of clarity in your life and being really close to someone who’s not at that level as you, and having to deal with the pain of seeing someone who’s not on your same level anymore. And the sadness of feeling like you’re the boring one now. Struggling with wanting to love yourself, and worrying if you’re no longer lovable now that you don’t have this thing that makes you fun and interesting and gave you your identity for a long time.

There are some very powerful, honest messages in the film about the fact that Kate really did have fun when she was drinking.

Ponsoldt: The thing you find at AA meetings is they’re really funny, you hear the funniest stories you’re ever gonna hear in your life. They always start with, “It was happy hour and we went to TGIFridays,” and then they end up in these really insane and unpredictable places. You’ll hear the funniest story ever and then the saddest ever, back to back a lot of times. There’s no judgment and no pity—it’s not a bunch of people crying in a group meeting. You’re not really going to shock people at an AA meeting—these people have been to the depths and been humbled by life and had to face themselves and say, “I can’t do this on my own, I need help.” That’s a pretty humbling experience that most people don’t go through.

One of the refreshing things about Smashed is that it’s not relentlessly full of terrifying tales of shattering self-destruction. Kate doesn’t hit what would be considered in melodramatic Hollywood terms “rock bottom.” Her bottoming out is more subtle and in some ways more insidious.

Winstead: Every story of an alcoholic hitting rock bottom is going to be different, and it’s not always going to be the Hollywood version of the craziest, darkest, harrowing existence. Someone’s rock bottom could be “I yelled at my wife, and I never do that, and that goes beyond my limits for what I can stand in myself.” For Kate, she’s very much in love with her husband and also really wants to be a good teacher, someone that children can look up to—she takes a lot of pride in that job. So her rock bottom is when things start messing up her relationship with the kids, and really start messing up her self worth and her vision of who she is and who she wants to be, and she starts realizing that those things aren’t matching up.

Ponsoldt: The movie is about the nuances of fidelity and faith and supporting your partner in a relationship. Aaron Paul’s character is not a bad guy. He’s a good guy; he’s just maybe not as strong and mature as her or hasn’t been brought to his knees yet. He lucked out and met his dream girl and got her to marry him, and they’ve been having a blast, but she can’t keep doing what she’s doing.

 

 

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