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Mary Elizabeth Winstead Interview: Vampires, Superheroes and History Class

Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Fox/Getty Images

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’ is one part fantasy/horror, one part imaginative historical biopic and one part period romance. Each of the characters must traverse the various aspects of the story throughout the course of the film. But there is one character that is living in the later two thirds of the formula (with zero interaction with the first) for the vast majority of the tale: Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Mary Todd Lincoln.

We had the opportunity to speak with the actress recently about essentially being in a period drama while her cast mates made an action film, playing a 19th century Hillary Clinton and what makes her vampires the vampiriest.

How much did you know about Mary Todd Lincoln prior coming onto this project?

I knew a little bit but probably not any more than what you hear in grade school and what you hear just sort of casually. So what I knew the most about her was that she was the one first lady who ended up institutionalized and she seems to be regarded as having been somewhat crazy. So I was very curious to know if she was going to be portrayed that way in the script and how that was going to be handled. And it wasn’t really touched on so much. When I researched her more I realized that there is so much more to her than that and that the way she was portrayed in the script was pretty accurate for who she was for the majority of her life.

Was there anything you learned about her and her relationship to Lincoln that really surprised you?

There were a lot of surprises. I was surprised to learn that she actually was, in real life, engaged to Stephen Douglas (played by Alan Tudyk in the film) which I thought was something they just created for the film because it seemed so convenient for his political rival to have been her former fiancé. But that was actually completely true. And she really dumped him, this guy who had money and status and all of that, for Abraham Lincoln who at the time was a poor lawyer who didn’t have anything to his name. So, that to me said a lot about her and really made me want to know more about who she was. And their relationship was really fascinating. I mean they were both kind of emotionally troubled people in different ways but they were good for each other and I think that they had a really strong bond but it wasn’t always lighthearted. They definitely had a lot of really dark moments together and you can see some of that in the later years which I was glad got into the film.

It’s interesting that she was involved with political rivals. It sort of calls into question her own political stance.

She was very involved politically and very opinionated. She came from a family of slave owners so they didn’t agree with her, but she was very outspoken about a lot of things. And that was one of them. It didn’t make her family happy, but that wasn’t the most important thing to her, obviously. It made me have a lot of respect for her.

It’s a fun film but I also think the base metaphor that people who are disenfranchising other groups are vampiric is sort of interesting. Was that appealing to you?

It is and I think that the whole vampire element is very cool. I think it seems silly and campy and ridiculous but I think that Timur (Bekmambetov) as a director and Seth (Grahame-Smith) when he wrote the novel and the script came at it from a much more serious point of view. And I think that they wanted to say something with this film and for it to be not just a popcorn flick, which it is and it’s great for that. The action sequences are incredible and its super entertaining but I think you can also take away some themes that might be a little bit deeper than that.

Was there any part of you that was worried about taking on the legacy of Lincoln in this way?

Yes, it’s definitely a little bit daunting but the more it came together and the more I learned about who was involved and what their intentions were those fears became less and less. Because I knew that Timur, in particular, was coming at it from a place of such respect and reverence for Abraham Lincoln. He’s not American so he has a slightly different view on him so I think that it allowed him to take this and run with it. As Americans we might be a little more afraid to take it on. But he has just as much respect for Lincoln but is able to play with that image a little bit more than a lot of us are able to. I definitely trusted his vision for it.

They have said that they’re painting the Great Emancipator as the country’s first superhero — does that sort of bring to mind what a superhero is and does?

Absolutely. I think when you think about Abraham Lincoln and the fact that he was willing to stand up for what was right even though it was not necessarily the most popular public opinion at the time and to do what was right even though it meant that he was going to be disliked by some people and to fight for the freedom of others — well to me that’s a superhero.

Did it ever feel like for much of the film you were in a historical drama while the rest of the cast was in an action/adventure?

That’s exactly how I felt because I wasn’t even there for any of the action sequences. So for me it was like I was in my own little movie. And that’s how I saw it from the beginning when I signed on. I was like ‘well this is this crazy over the top action film, but, as far as I’m concerned this is my chance to do a period piece and to get to have a love story.’ It was actually a nice break for me from all the action and the gore that I’d been experiencing. So even though that’s all surrounding me, I got to do something different, which is great.

Are you a fan of the vampire genre? It does feel like its own genre now.

Yeah, it seems to have become that. What’s interesting about it is that they’re all so different. Our vampires are so different from the ‘Twilight’ vampires and those vampires are so different from the old-school ‘Dracula’ vampires and things like that. So it’s interesting to think that they’re all of the same genre but vastly different portrayals. For me I love some but I don’t love others it just depends on the quality of the film. I love some of the more modern ones like ‘Let the Right One In’ and I love our vampires and how terrifying they are. I think that’s as it should be.

What do you think that this is sort of adding to that trend?

I think that Timur has his own unique claim on the genre since he was doing it before it was a trend with ‘Nightwatch’ and ‘Daywatch.’ And visually our vampires don’t look like any of the other vampires out there and I love that. I think they’re really kind of beautiful. They’re horrifying and grotesque but there is an artistry that he brings to it that It think is really kind of mesmerizing to watch and very different than other on-screen vampires.

What was his directorial approach with you?

He always had an idea to give but he was also very sweet and soft spoken. But he would always have something to say about the scene, like to me he would say, ‘Hillary Clinton!’ to remind me that I’m supposed to be coming at it from a really strong point of view and that I’m supposed to really stand up to Abraham Lincoln and not just let him take all the strength in the scenes. So it was always really fun and interesting directions.

You’ve mentioned doing a wide range of films, from the more geek-centric ‘Scott Pilgrim’ to sci-fi horror in ‘The Thing’ and now this. Where do you want to go from here?

Well I’m kind of open to anything. I just want to work with good people and scripts and complex characters. In the past year since I’ve done this film I’ve focused more on doing smaller independent films because I was feeling hungry for that kind of thing. But now I’m open to big films as well if those come around.

‘Abraham Lincoln” Vampire Hunter’ opens in theaters this Friday, June 22nd.

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