Mary Elizabeth Winstead has been on the edge of the A-list for more than a decade.
After steady TV roles in her teens she broke through on the big screen thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. Since then she’s juggled big blockbusters that have left her short-changed (the latter Die Hard sequels, The Thing prequel) and challenging indie fare.
On the latter front she played an alcoholic opposite Aaron Paul in Smashed, a lawyer trying to piece her life back together after her husband abruptly leaves in Alex Of Venice, and a young women undergoing cult deprogramming in Faults.
Winstead was outstanding in all three – Smashed’s heartbreaking AA speech leaves a lasting mark – but all of them flew completely under the radar. That won’t be a problem for her latest film 10 Cloverfield Lane, a quasi-sequel to the JJ Abrams-produced monster hit.
Here Winstead plays Michelle who, after a messy split from her fiancé, drives into the night and doesn’t look back. Flipped off the road by a trucker, she’s taken hostage by John Goodman’s sinister-as-hell survivalist Howard. According to him, the world outside has ended, the air contaminated and leaving the tight confines of his bunker isn’t an option.
The film is a strange mix of indie and blockbuster; it starts as an excruciatingly tense thriller before morphing into something much grander (think the original Cloverfield and Abrams’s Super 8). This is perfect for Winstead, offering her a serious acting test opposite Goodman while putting her in a wide-appeal crowd-pleaser.
“I’ve learned and done a lot of growing as I’ve gone on,” she tells Loaded of her career so far. “Now I’ve got to the point where I’m really drawn to characters who are trying to make life work, being active.
“Michelle encompasses that in a really big way – I don’t want to play characters who are passive and aren’t doing something to drive their own story.”
She dug into the part by reading 3,096 Days by Natascha Kampusch, the Austrian women who spent eight years in captivity.
Beyond that, she wanted to trust her instincts on set. “There wasn’t much I could do,” she says. “This was one of the roles where I just had to be put in that situation.”
There are similarities between her character’s plight and Brie Larson in Room. Both women are held against their will by cruel captors, and ironically both actresses starred in 2010’s cult favourite Scott Pilgrim vs The World.
“Room was a book that I read and loved,” she says.“I did think it would be kind of funny because Room would be coming out around the same time, it’s a funny coincidence. This is such a hybrid of genres, I think it sets itself apart.”
How would she describe 10 Cloverfield Lane? “This is drama, thriller, horror, suspense, sci-fi. You get a little bit of everything. That’s true entertainment for me.”
The original Cloverfield’s creative trio – JJ Abrams, Matt Reeves and Drew Goddard – all return to produce the follow-up, but this time directing chores fall to newcomer Dan Trachtenberg.
Still, secrecy levels on set were extreme. The film was originally titled Valencia and was based on a low-budget script about an abduction. It was only late in the day that Abrams and his Bad Robot production team moulded it into something Cloverfield-related.
“I don’t want to play characters who are passive and aren’t doing something to drive their own story.”
Even during shooting Winstead wasn’t entirely sure how it played into the 2008 film.
“I didn’t know that it was going to be connected with the title, I knew that it was being talked about on set as being in the same sphere as Cloverfield and we were trying to achieve a similar thing to what Cloverfield did,” she says.
“When we were shooting it we were in such a bubble of making the movie it really wasn’t hard to keep it a secret,” she says. “It was a different title then and it starred John Goodman. I just said that and nobody pressed me on it.”
Abrams wasn’t present on set during the making of the new Cloverfield (Star Wars kept him busy), but Winstead is full of praise for her long-distance producer.
“A lot of what this movie became was because of JJ – the earlier scripts, what it was crafted into was because of JJ’s ideas and thoughts,” she explains.
Winstead jokes that she didn’t go into the Cloverfield meeting with Abrams expecting to nab a role in Star Wars. Maybe in the future?
“I wasn’t go in with any false presumptions. I knew the project I was going in for before I met him,” she says. “I’m leaving that open on the table, I won’t close that [Star Wars] door!”
Michelle is very much in the mould of Abrams’s previous leading ladies. See Keri Russell in Felicity, Jennifer Garner’s slick spy in Alias and Daisy Ridley’s Force-wielding Rey in Star Wars.
Film geeks will also see shades of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien as the film twists into science fiction in the final act.
“What I liked about the character was that she could’ve been a man or a woman, it didn’t really matter,” Winstead says. “Of course, the dynamic of the reasons why Howard wants her there, being a woman plays into that in a very clear way you can’t really get around.
“The way she acquits herself and the way she behaves, she’s doing what any of us would do. I liked that about her. It didn’t feel like it was this stereotypical thing that happened to her so that she could cry, find her inner strength, be this fragile flower that blooms into a woman. She was just a regular girl trying to survive this situation.”
And survive it she does, ending in a way that’s tailor made for a sequel. If there is one, Winstead wants in.
“I would love to see the next chapter for her if that’s a possibility. You never know what’s within the real of reason – I would love to if we got the opportunity,” she says.