Mary Elizabeth Winstead is finally getting a moment to take a few deeps breaths. The pause has been well-earned: She spent the first seven months of 2018 filming, and another movie, “All About Nina,” is finally getting its wide releases after premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival. Critics praised Winstead’s performance as a cynical up-and-coming stand-up comic. (Rapper and actor Common costars in the film as an empathetic love interest.)
“I got involved in kind of an unusual way, because it’s a small movie and sometimes those kinds of films get lost in the shuffle,” says Winstead of the indie. Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Eva Vives, the screenplay originally went to Sundance as part of the Sundance Directors Lab, where it was workshopped through a reading.
“I was so blown away,” Winstead says. “I thought it was the most complex, challenging female lead character that I’d read in a long time.”
The 33-year-old brunette actress stars in the dramedy’s titular role, a stand-up comic hoping to strike her big break in L.A. while simultaneously using men and booze as remedies for a history of abuse. While the movie is fictionalized, the story is loosely based on Vives’ own experience. The role pushed Winstead outside of her comfort zone, most notably for her numerous stand-up comedy scenes in which she delivers her character’s sharp commentary on pop culture figures and relationships.
“It is may be the scariest thing I could ever imagine attempting to do,” says Winstead, who’d never performed stand-up before. “When you read a script and you’re so far from actually doing it, it just sounds like such a great idea to do the thing you’re most afraid of doing: It feels like jumping out a plane or something.”
Vives brought on a consultant, “onset comedian extraordinaire” Jamie Loftus to help them prepare for the challenging monologues.
“The three of us would get together in the mornings any day that I was doing a stand-up scene and we would go over it, collaborate and come up with new stuff, and rework old stuff,” says Winstead. “The little bit of comedy that I’ve done has always been mostly with men, so this was a really fun way to do comedy where you’re just sitting with two other women and there’s no feeling of, ‘oh well, good try, you’re not as funny as the guys.’ Which is usually what you feel in a room full of guys when you’re trying to be funny. So it was really liberating to be working on comedy with women only.”
The film is also notable for its representation of a female experience, told through the lens of a female director-writer and lead. They shot in the wake of #MeToo, adding to the chorus of female-led projects centered on a women’s experience.
“It’s interesting in some ways because we did have some jokes and things in there initially that we had to take out because they’ve kind of been blown apart by what is in the news — like I actually did a bit about Louis C.K.,” Winstead says. “At the time that we shot it, it was really sort of scary because no one had actually come out; there had been a little talk and rumors about him but the articles and the exposé about him hadn’t come out yet. Ultimately Eva took it out because now we’re not really saying anything new by doing a joke about Louis C.K. So certain things like that; it was interesting how much changed from the time we shot it to the time now that the movie’s coming out.”
Next year she’ll appear in Ang Lee’s action film “Gemini Man” with Will Smith and Clive Owen, and “The Parts You Lose” with Aaron Paul, a “sweet but dark” coming-of-age story. “For me, it’s not really worth it to spend all your time and energy on a project with people you don’t like,” she says. “I want to work with people that I enjoy, that I want to be around, and that I want to learn something from and be inspired by.”
(Furthering that mentality, last year she struck up a relationship with her former “Fargo” costar Ewan McGregor; although Winstead declines to discuss her personal life in the interview, the relationship has buoyed her name in the media outside of her current projects.)
But personal dramas aside, for Winstead, her career decisions seem to boil down to two essential elements: the people and the story.
“Either a story grabs me or it doesn’t. It’s pretty simple. And I think beyond that, I’m also looking at the types of people I want to work with and the types of stories I want to tell, and if there’s something that is needed or valid in our time at the moment — I think it’s important for me not to just make things for no reason,” she says. “I think I’m just trying to find stories to tell that mean something to me, and mean something to the people making it, and then will hopefully mean something to the people watching it.”
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