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Mary Elizabeth Winstead on Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Playing a FLOTUS, and Lizz Winstead Mix-Ups

Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images

In Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays FLOTUS to the nation’s sixteenth president. As Mary Todd Lincoln, she wears floor-grazing dresses and perfectly coifed updos — and plays no part in vampire hunting. It’s a break from the pluckier roles that Winstead has come to be known for (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The Thing, Death Proof). We caught up with Winstead to talk about pining for fight scenes, towering over co-stars, and being mistaken for the creator of The Daily Show.

Is it Mary Elizabeth or just Mary?
It’s Mary Elizabeth on paper, but Mary is what everybody calls me.

Has anyone ever confused you with Lizz Winstead, who co-created The Daily Show?
Yes. Which is great, because she’s awesome. I have no problem with that.

How did that go down? Did someone actually think you were her?
I guess not specifically in that way. I think people have just called me Lizz Winstead or just written my name as Lizz Winstead. Then people get confused because they’ll credit me in an article about a film and say, “Starring Lizz Winstead,” and people will be like, “What? Is Lizz Winstead in a movie? She’s an actress now?”

So how did you get cast in Vampire Hunter?
I was sent the script by my agents and I was aware of the book. I had been talked to a lot about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, so I was very familiar with the mash-up kind of idea, but I had never read the book. So I read the script and I was just shocked by how much sense it all made, how fun it was to read but how it was played totally straight. It felt like a historic piece rather than a camp, silly little book. So I auditioned.

I don’t even know what Mary Todd looks like, I just realized.
I knew that I didn’t look anything like her. She’s pretty much the opposite of me in every way. She was about four-foot-ten. She had sort of a longer nose and blue eyes and more blondish hair. People would say she was maybe overweight, but you look at her clothes in museums and they’re tiny. It’s all photos, you never know what people really looked like. But yeah, very different from me, and so I just tried to research her personality as much as I could. She, later on in life, ended up being institutionalized; she may or may not have been crazy, but the majority of her life she was just a fascinating, strong, independent woman.

Her relationship with Abe is so chaste. They never sexualize your character. Was there talk of ever trying to make it steamier to appeal to a certain kind of audience?
Definitely not. I think their relationship wouldn’t have made sense. I think they were very much in love, but he was also very distant in a lot of ways because of this other life that he was leading, and that was true of their relationship in real life. He’s very distant because of his political ambitions and she wanted to be very involved, and she was, but there was always a kind of wall between them because they both had their emotional issues. They had a lot of ups and downs.

I feel like with movies or TV shows where the wife is married to someone with a secret life, some viewers tend to turn on the wife because they feel like she’s clueless.

Which is so unfair, but I can see how it happens. Did you feel that might happen with your character?
From my perspective and Timur’s perspective, she knew a lot more than she was really letting on. She just wanted him to be the person to come tell her what was really happening instead of going up and accusing him of this and that. And when he finally does, she’s like, I’ve known about this forever, I’ve just been waiting for you to have the balls to come and say it to me. So I didn’t really feel like I was the clueless, oblivious wife. I think it was more complex than that.

You’ve kicked some ass in past movies. Were you at all bummed that you only have one head count in this movie?
A little bit. I was glad that I at least got one. There’s certainly films where the wife or the woman doesn’t get involved at all, so it was nice to get involved in some capacity. And when I first signed on, part of what I was excited about was not being involved in the action, getting a little break from that. But when I was on set and actually saw people training around me and stuff like that, I got a little jealous. I really wanted to be a part of it.

Benjamin Walker looked pretty believable in the Abe Lincoln makeup. What was it like being opposite him?
It was very surreal. The first scene we had together where he was dressed as what we’ve come to know as the iconic version of Abraham Lincoln, I honestly couldn’t remember my lines. I just blanked in the middle of the scene because I was staring at his face, like, “I’m talking to Abraham Lincoln.” It was too strange.

He’s also super tall.
Yeah, which was great for me because I’m normally much taller than everyone else. It’s always everyone else is standing on a box and I’m trying to crouch down. It was very refreshing for me to actually look up at somebody.

How much taller is he?
I’m five-foot-eight and he’s gotta be like six-foot-two or six-foot-three. And then he usually wore lifts, too, because Mary Todd was very, very short, much shorter than me, so we wanted to give a little of that height difference or at least make it feel like there was more of a difference than there actually was.

What are you working on these days? Is Smashed, your movie with Aaron Paul, still opening this fall?
It is. They haven’t officially released a date, but it should be September. Maybe October. I’m really excited for people to get to see that. This whole past year I’ve been doing little movies more in that budget range, just to experience what that’s like, because I’ve mostly done movies more along the lines of this. It’s been a fun time, but now I think I’m ready to get back into an action role.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead on Lizz Winstead Mix-Ups