By Danny Peary
You can catch the final screening of Alex of Venice at the Tribeca Film Festival this Saturday at 6:30 at the SVA theater on 23rd Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. The impressive directorial debut of actor Chris Messina, a native of Newport, is a character piece about a workaholic environmental attorney in L.A., Alex who lives in Venice, California. When Alex’s husband George (Messina) suddenly leaves her, she is forced to pay more attention to their shy son Dakota (Skylar Gaertner) and her aging actor father Roger (Don Johnson). Still neglecting her son, she enlists the help of her irresponsible, free-spirited sister Lily (Katie Nehra) around the house while she deals with the biggest case of her career and has an affair with the man she is fighting in court, Frank (Derek Luke) Alex is played by one of my favorite actresses, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who made a splash as an alcoholic teacher in Smashed. On Saturday I spoke to Winstead about the film and her character.
Danny Peary: I thought you deserved a lot of awards for your performance in Smashed. That might have been the best performance of 2012.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Wow, thank you.
DP: Your characters in Smashed and Alex of Venice have no self-awareness. Did you recognize that similarity?
MEW: It’s funny, but I don’t think I actually compared them in that way. But it’s true. They’re both in denial about their own lives and not really looking at themselves.
DP: They can’t fix themselves, or make no attempt to do it.
MEW: That’s right. Certainly Alex through most of the movie is just in complete denial about who she is and all the problems she has.
DP: In the press notes, Chris Messina says this is a slice-of-life drama. That means characters don’t have to change. But the movie is about change. Everyone changes for the better.
MEW: It’s one of the major themes of the movie.
DP: When does Alex have her pivotal moment of change?.
MEW: There are several little moments. Her relationship with Frank (Derek Luke) is a huge change for her, because she married when she was young. But her internal change doesn’t happen until the end of the movie, when she kind of comes in and talks to her son, Dakota (Skylar Gaertner). That to me is the moment when she says, “I’ve been so much in denial of my life.” During the early midlife crisis that she is going through, she becomes focused on everything other what she should really be focusing on. Ultimately, she should focus on her relationship with her son and her estranged husband George (Chris Messina), whatever that relationship is going to turn into.
DP: That’s interesting that you say that, because how they are now is not set in stone.
MEW: Even if they don’t get back together, they recognize that they have a son and must look after him together. Ultimately her relationship with Dakota is going to be the most important thing to her. After George leaves, she has to be a parent alone and at first she’s flailing about and hitting the wall and not being attentive to him.
DP: Well, you know the last line of the movie.
MEW (smiling): “I should have listened.” Yeah. That is a great encompassing line for who she’s been.
DP: About a third of the way through the movie I was liking your performance, but I was asking myself, “Do I like her character?” When you read the script for the first time, did you like Alex?
MEW: I really liked her in the script and as I played her, But there were a few moments when I was thinking, “I hope people stick with her through some of this stuff, because she’s really high-strung and nervous for a good majority of the movie.” She’s not connected, not really present, and making bad choices as well.
DP: Really bad choices.
MEW: There were a couple of really bad choices she makes but I’m not sure Chris and I realized they could potentially turn the audience against her until the movie was over.
DP: Actors are usually protective of their characters, so were you seeing good stuff in her?
MEW: Absolutely. She’s so relatable, in terms of people that I know and love. I have a really big family, so there’s all sorts of types of people in my family. So there are Alexes in my family. Especially when you’re a mother and you’re very busy and just trying to keep your life together, you don’t want to look at or think about or address things that aren’t going well. Because there’s too much going on. I think that’s easy to relate to, particularly for women today who are trying to balance so many things in their lives. Alex, in some cases, would rather things just go on in their own broken ways because it’s easier than addressing the real problems.
DP: Something she must do to move forward in her life is to realize that she’s no longer in love with her husband, and vice versa.
MEW: Oh, absolutely. That’s a hard thing to learn. I think Alex and George haven’t really been in love in a long time, even if she never admitted that to herself.
DP: In the scene when George breaks up with Alex as she sits on the porch in front of him, you had tears in your eyes. Was that a powerful scene to shoot?
MEW: It was incredible. We did it so many ways. I didn’t really start out intending to be as emotional as it was. It was one of my audition scenes, and it was less emotional in the audition. At first she is so in denial as he breaks up with her that it wasn’t really hitting her. Doing the scene with Chris and having him acting with me and directing me at the same time, was very interesting because he started going completely off-script and had George say things to Alex that were heartbreaking. What he said was really sad and mean, but it was really truthful. That immediately set off the waterworks, There were emotional takes, where I was sobbing at the end of it, but we knew Alex couldn’t have that moment so early in the movie. So I think we found something that is poignant, but not devastating because she is not realizing the weight of what is really happening to her. She has denial.
DP: Reading the script, did you think Alex would end with Frank, the most self-aware character in the film?
MEW: In the scene with the Ouija board, Alex tells Lily that since George has left, she wonders if she will ever have sex again. I think it’s a nice moment because Alex shows her insecurity, which she never really revealed up to that point because she’s really trying to keep it all together. She shows that she is insecure about who she is and where she’s going and will end up. Frank is an exciting person who comes to her life. He is the most self-aware character in the film. I don’t think Alex is thinking about messing up her work life, I think she’s just allowing herself to feel something she hasn’t felt in a long time. With Frank, she tries to be kind to herself. She wants to give herself a little bit of freedom to explore something new romantically. That’s how I feel, but I think there’s several different interpretations. When I watch the scenes between Alex and Frank, I realize that’s my favorite stuff in the movie. Doing those scenes with Derek Luke just felt so different from the scenes I did with anybody else.
DP: You have many two-character scenes in this movie. Alex is with George, Roger, Dakota, Frank, and her sister Lily (Katie Nehra).
MEW: Yeah, it was like ten different mini-movies for me.
DP: With different styles of acting.
MEW: Yeah, absolutely. Which was so much fun to do. I got to show so many sides of Alex through these different relationships. I love the scene with Lily and Alex and the Ouija board because the mood we created felt so real to me, like when I’m with my real sisters and we have wine after our parents have gone to sleep. My sisters don’t talk about double penetration necessarily, but the feeling and mood in that scene was spot on. It was fake wine but we felt drunk and giddy.
DP: I thought it was brilliant to cast Don Johnson as Alex’s dad Roger, an aging actor who is the early stages of Alzheimer’s but is trying out for a part in The Cherry Orchard.
MEW: Chris was asking us, “What do you think about Don Johnson for the dad, and we said, “That’s brilliant.” I think he really rose to the occasion and gave a really heart-breaking performance. You never know what to expect from someone who’s an icon, and he was just really great to work with. There’s nothing PC about Roger, and I love that. We have a similar sense of humor, let’s put it that way. It was one of my favorite days on the set. He was so giving to everyone and really taught me a lot.
DP: I wasn’t surprised by how good and natural you are in this film because I’d seen Smashed. But I was surprised by how good you were in that film. Do you have different fans from your early horror movies, Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and the types of films your making lately, Smashed and now Alex of Venice? Or do fans not realize you’re the same person in all of those films?
MEW: I really don’t know, to be honest. I did several horror movies, so they started to connect the dots. I think one of the reasons why I get to be so anonymous is that no one knows that I’ve been in more than one movie. They always think it’s somebody new. It’s kind of nice.
DP: I saw most of your early movies without realizing they all starred the same actress, you. It wasn’t until The Thing that I knew who you were. Was that a pivotal movie for you, in terms of audience?
MEW: I’ll always really love that role. It was not a movie that did well necessarily, but I was attracted to the idea of playing a smart action heroine at the time. I still am. I loved the character, and the project, and the director [Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.] and it’s still something that I look back on fondly.
DP: You had the scream queen designation, and all the sudden you’re playing your roles in a low-keyed manner, like a female Steve McQueen almost. You hold back and give caring, nonshowy performances. Were you always capable of that, or did you all the sudden become a really good actress?
MEW: I was always suited to play these roles but when you start out you get boxed into a certain type of role. People thought, “Oh, that’s what she is suited for.” They thought I was meant to be an action heroine or a horror scream queen, but I always approached those roles in the same way I approached Alex in Venice and Smashed. So even when I look back on those films, I’m proud of the work that I did in them. But maybe I just didn’t have the freedom to explore as broad a range of emotions as I do in the films I’ve done of late. As I’ve gotten older and gone further in my career I make the effort to just bring myself into the part as much as I can and know that’s a good thing. I think when I was young I thought that wasn’t really acting. I thought I had to create this mysterious person who’s totally different from me and that was the only way I was going to be a real actor. As I got older I realized that what people want to see is the actress they want to see their personality and their heart and their soul. That’s actually what makes people relate to my characters. I’m just really thankful that people like Chris Messina watch me closely and appreciate all those weird things I do in front of the camera. Because when I watch my performance I see all these faces I was making without realizing it!