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Interview: Mary Elizabeth Winstead talks 'Faults' and working with her husband

In her new film, the actress explores cults, which she says are one of the most terrifying things in the world.

To the list of actresses who’ve been directed by their significant others, add Mary Elizabeth Winstead. The “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and “Smashed” star both produced and stars in the twisty “Faults,” written and directed by her husband, Riley Stearn, in which she plays Claire, a young cult member being deprogrammed in a motel room. Not that she wasn’t nervous, at least at first.

Were you always supposed to play Claire?

I was. But in the beginning I was very nervous. There were a lot reasons, not the least of which was it was my husband’s film and he wrote it for me. I was worried I couldn’t do it justice — that I wouldn’t be what he imagined with it. I wasn’t sure I was the right person for the part. [Laughs] I didn’t know if I had the enigmatic, odd quality she needed to have. Once we started shooting I started to have fun with it.

It’s a tricky role, starting with how you have to seem human and brainwashed at the same time.

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I was so afraid of being inauthentic in some way. I didn’t want her to spacey. She does claim to have these connections to other worlds and higher powers. I didn’t want her to be this New Agey weirdo. I wanted her to feel more authentically magnetic. She has to feel like a real person.

Cults are a fascinating issue, because they involve sometimes perfectly rational people subsuming their personalities for a crazy idea.

I think that’s the real horror. It’s scarier than thinking someone breaking into your house and grabbing you or something. To me the psychological horror of thinking that as strong or smart as you think you are, you’ll always be vulnerable to that kind of manipulation. That anybody could be vulnerable to that is really horrifying to me. [Laughs]

Claire shares a quality with some of your other characters, like Ramona in “Scott Pilgrim,” in that she can be dry and emotionally distant.

I find these roles really scary, because they’re so hard to play. Maybe that’s why I’m subconsciously attracted to them, because I like the challenge. When you’re playing emotionally distant, people think, “Oh, they didn’t have to go to the deep emotional places, so that was easy for them.” But it’s so the opposite. It’s so much easier to go big with emotions and have it all be there than to keep it close to the vest and not show anything, but still have it be there — to have something brimming under the surface but not let it out.

Some couples, even very close ones, find it difficult to make films together. How was it for you two?

We were really lucky in that we dipped our toes into it before; we’d done some short films together. We’ve been together for a really long time, so we know each other really well. I don’t think there was any way we could really surprise each other, like me suddenly realizing, “I didn’t know you were a tyrant on the set!” But at first it was a little weird, because we didn’t have to say much to each other. I’m used to being given direction and really talking about what the director wants. But he knows me and I know him, so we didn’t have to say much. At first that made me nervous — like, “Are you sure I’m doing what you want? [Laughs] You’re not just trusting me too much because I’m your wife?” I just had to make sure he wasn’t letting me slack off.

You’ve done very big films — two “Die Hard”s, a “Final Destination” — but you’ve lately been doing smaller, independent films, where the roles seem more challenging. Was that a conscious move on your part or just how Hollywood rolls right now?

I’m just trying to find good roles. And lately for the most part those have been in the independent world. For me it’s hard to find good roles [in big budget Hollywood films]. I’m not a huge name, and not to say they don’t exist, but the good roles tend to go to the same handful of people, and they’re all amazing. But that does make it difficult for someone like me to get those great roles. For me, to find those great roles and do great work, I’m likely going to have to look in other places. Hopefully, eventually, one of those things will open up and I’ll be able to do that. But I’m not going to sit around and wait for it.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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