At an isolated outpost known as Thule Station in the Antarctica, a crew of international scientists unearths a remarkable discovery. But elation quickly turns to terrifying paranoia in the thriller “The Thing” as the group of researchers encounters something inhuman that has the ability to turn itself into an exact replica of any living thing. Columbia University paleontologist Dr. Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) leaves behind the safety of her sterile laboratory and travels to this desolate region for the expedition of her lifetime. Joining a Norwegian research team that has stumbled across a creature buried in the ice, Kate and her fellow explorers discover an organism that seems to have died in the ice eons ago.
MoviesOnline sat down with Winstead recently at a roundtable interview on the Universal Studios backlot in Hollywood to talk about “The Thing.” She told us how she got in touch with her inner Ripley, why she enjoyed working with co-star Joel Edgerton, and what distinguishes this film from other horror films she’s worked on. She also explained why the scene with a two-headed monster creature was her favorite and updated us on her upcoming movie, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”
Q: What was worse, the heat in there or the snow in the Antarctica?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: It was really hot by the end when we shooting because we were shooting in the summer in Canada so actually it was all fake snow.
Q: Eric Christian Olsen referred to you as the Ripley of this.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Oh yes.
Q: Did you like that and did you feel a little Sigourney Weaverish while doing this?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: I love the comparison. I’ll take it for sure. I love Ripley and I love the “Alien” movies. The comparison was coming up a lot in pre-production and so I tried not to think about it too much because I don’t want to copy her in any way. I mainly just took it as a compliment and then tried to move on.
Q: Are you generally that tough?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: I don’t know. I mean, I tried not to play her too tough because I didn’t want it to be like oh, she’s a tomboy and she’s badass. I just wanted her to be a relatable woman who’s trying to be strong. I like to think that I would be the same in that situation but who knows. I might just be crying in a corner.
Q: You’ve done a lot of horror movies. What makes “The Thing” special for you and different from all the other ones?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: To me, it evokes a time period of my favorite horror films which are the 70s and 80s. I feel like it has a little bit more of that classic slow burn. The first half of the film is really slow and suspenseful. Then, when the terror kicks in, it kicks in and it doesn’t let go. It doesn’t feel so modern and slick to me and that’s one thing that I was really excited about going onto it. Also, to be honest, the character was so refreshing that it was a no brainer. I had to do it.
Q: You play a paleontologist who’s doing research. Do you think you would be able to do that in real life?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Oh, probably not. I did a little bit. I hung out with the paleontologists in Toronto for a little bit and it was really fun. They have a really fun job and it’s really exciting. It’s almost more like Indiana Jones than clinical. It was relaxed and casual and there’s fossils hanging around and they’re picking them up and throwing them around and going “Hey, catch this fossil!” It was really cool. So, in that sense, it would be a lot of fun, but I don’t know that I could really sit down and focus on something like that so analytically. I think that my brain is just too frazzled most of the time. But yeah, it was a lot of fun to be able to play a character as a woman in a movie that is that smart and that strong and that put together and not be neurotic or shrill or sexy or whatever the things that women usually are in movies.
Q: Did you pick up any Norwegian?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Not really. I did a little bit on set but I don’t remember any of it so it really didn’t do me any good. I did learn a few phrases and a few swear words and things like that, so maybe if I heard them I could understand them. I don’t really remember them at this point.
Q: Were you a little bummed out that your character didn’t transform into an alien monster?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Man, that would have been interesting just to be a part of that. It was cool getting to burn an actual person like that, because I burned a lot of practical creature-effect type stuff and then one of the last things we shot was me burning a stunt guy with flame retardant gel all over and it was just crazy because you’re just hoping nothing goes wrong in that scenario.
Q: It was pretty fun working with the torch?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Oh yeah, it was really, really fun. I really liked it. It’s dangerous and it’s kind of weird because it’s really relaxed. We didn’t have training or anything. It was just like “Alright, stand a few feet back and give it a go. This is the button.” So it was like alright, we’re doing this thing. We’re burning things and you’re just going to trust that we can do this. Okay! Every time I would go back and look at the footage on the monitor after I did a scene where I was burning something, they would always be like “Look at your eyes!” My eyes were like whoa! There was this crazed look on my face like I was just so excited to be burning something. I always look really gleeful in every shot. It was funny.
Q: Were the tanks heavy? Did you feel the heat?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: They were really heavy – the parka with the tanks – and a lot of times we’d have to be running with it on and I mean I’m not a body builder by any means so it was a bit rough. But it was cool to be able to do it. It definitely makes you feel stronger by the end of it.
Q: What was it like working with Joel Edgerton? He seems to be having quite a year.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: He is! I’m very happy for him because he’s the most deserving person in the world. He’s so talented and smart and funny and easy to work with. He’s relaxed and down to earth and not pretentious in the slightest bit. He’s a sweet, fun guy. He’s Australian and he’s just great. I love Joel.
Q: Do you have a favorite monster puppet or scene with the monster?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: I think the scene with the two-headed monster creature. When Eric was shooting that, it was the most disturbing thing because they had this face of Trond (Espen Seim) who played Edvard in the movie and they were conjoining the two of them and Eric is screaming and looking at this face and they’ve got it pressing up against his face and it was just the most disturbing thing to watch being shot. It was incredible. It was so freaky just in that sort of form, and of course they enhanced things with CGI but that was one of the things, even without any of it, it was terrifying to look at.
Q: I like the fact that this is told very straight. It’s not a jokey horror film. For you, is that kind of the appeal to have the serious, dramatic film that’s more about the paranoia?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Absolutely. I feel like it’s a horror film for adults and I don’t think that we get a lot of those. I feel like most horror films now are made for teenagers about teenagers. I’ve done a couple of those horror films. There’s nothing wrong with that but the older I get the more I starve for more adult material. So that was one of the things I really loved about this film and the character and that there was a real maturity about it I felt.
Q: Would you say that your Mary Todd project is more history based or will it be more tongue and cheek?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: It’s hard to say. We all did a lot of research because there’s a lot of historically accurate stuff in there and it really follows the story of Abraham Lincoln in a totally factual way but then weaves this completely fictional storyline in with it. We all had to know our characters and the history really well. At the same time, once you get there, you have to be able to throw it all out the window and just know that you have the foundation, that you know the reality of the story, but you have to go along for the ride of the fiction as well and let go of certain aspects of the reality and have fun with it. That’s kind of what we did.
Q: You’re in this cold environment, so when you’re running around with the tanks, how do you not break a sweat?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Oh, I was sweating definitely a lot. I mean, we had these coats and fur boots and fur hats. A couple people passed out. It was real heat exhaustion type stuff setting in. We were all just drenched. But it works because we’re all supposed to be so scared that I think the sweat and all that stuff just added to the feeling of it.
Q: What was it like shooting the final sequence with Joel?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: It was great. We shot it chronologically so we did that the last couple days of shooting. It was exhausting, but it was a lot of fun. It’s one of my favorite parts of the film. It was one of my audition scenes I think when I see something about him and it’s just a great, pivotal moments between the two of us that I really enjoyed.
Q: Were you a fan of the original?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Yes, I was a big fan of the Carpenter version. I watched the Howard Hawks version when I first auditioned. I hadn’t seen that one but I’d seen the Carpenter version many times and was a big fan.
Q: Before starting this film, did you recall some of that in your head to get a feeling for that world?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Oh yeah, I watched it a bunch of times. I think most of the actors did. It was something that we talked about every day. It was like if we felt a scene was too similar to a scene from the Carpenter version, we’d all be like “Oh, let’s change this around.” Or if there was something that we felt was too outside of the world of the Carpenter version. But every time I would have a question about something, the director had seen it 18 billion times so I’d be like “I think I have a question. I don’t think this is quite right.” And I would always get smacked down, because no matter how many times I’ve seen it, I have not seen it as much as the people behind the scenes of the film.
Q: Matthijs (van Heijningen) did such a great job directing and you survive at the end, would you be up for a sequel? They say there’s a Russian station 50 miles away.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: It depends on your interpretation. My interpretation is that I did not survive. I think they say there’s a Russian station but she’s by herself. It depends on how optimistic your point of view is, I suppose. I’m sure if it’s a huge hit. You never know what could happen, but in my opinion, I don’t think she made it through there.
Q: So she didn’t come back as the dog?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Sure! Why not? There you go. We’ll say that. That works.
Q: You’re one of only two females in this and the other one gets knocked off pretty early. You were around all these guys for all this time. Were you part of the gang or did they treat you like the girl?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: I was so part of the gang. It was so cool. I really expected to be… I’ve been on other sets where it’s very male and heavy and usually it’s very much a boys club and you try to say “Oh, I have an idea” and they go “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.” So it was really nice. I felt like because I was the lead of the film, I really was the leader of the group even though I was a girl, and it was a great feeling to have everybody coming to me asking my opinion on things, asking my opinion on a way a scene was written, and it was a really great experience in that way. It was really refreshing and made me feel like there was hope for equality because there wasn’t an ounce of misogyny or power trips or ego trips or anything like that the entire shoot. It was really wonderful.
Q: Any bump or bruises?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Oh yeah, there was a lot of that, especially in the end sequence. After shooting that, it was just like head to toe one giant bruise — I think my whole body. But it’s fun. Those are definitely battle scars that you feel proud of.
Q: When you were on the alien ship in the final sequence, was that actually green screen or did they build parts of the ship for you guys?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: The ship was built and it was beautiful. There were certain things that were green screened that we were shooting, but for the most part the ship was a set and it was really beautifully made and cool to see and felt real. Everything [we shot] there was always something practical there to react to. It was never like just being in front of a green screen and not knowing what the world was at all. It was all a lot of tangible stuff there which was really great.
Q: Is that something that you prefer to work against? I know “Scott Pilgrim” used a lot of green screen whereas this film is a lot of practical?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Even with “Scott Pilgrim,” they created the world so well that there was green screen stuff but it feels more like that than it really was because all the sets were built and they were colorful and alive and exciting. But I have done a lot of green screen work and I think any actor would prefer that there be something there to react to. I get myself into it by saying it’s like a challenge and it’s fun to try and make it real when it’s totally imaginary. But, at the end of the day, to get a good performance it’s always better to have something real to react to. So yeah, I would definitely prefer that.
Q: What was your favorite part of playing your character?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: I think for me it was just not having to wear make-up or not having to worry about what I looked like at all for the entire film. Anytime I would come to set the director, Matthijs, would stare at me and I’d be like “Oh no, he’s noticing that I have a zit today or something. Oh God!” And he’d be like “She looks too good. We need to make her look worse.” I’d go “Yes!” That’s such a good feeling because normally as an actress you’re constantly worried that people think you don’t look good enough. It’s just like an unnecessary stress that’s just frustrating. So, it was really liberating to be able to play a part that had no sort of attractiveness factor in it whatsoever. It was nice.
“The Thing” opens in theaters on October 14th.