In All About Nina, Mary Elizabeth Winstead layers several performances on top of each other. She plays the titular character, an ambitious stand-up comic whose act — confident, laid-back stories about the tribulations of her menstrual cycle and her penchant for casual sex — contrasts wildly with her personal life, which is fraught with self-destruction, sexual and physical abuse, and buried trauma. Onstage, she’s all cool leather jackets and composure; the minute she walks off, she pukes in the hallway, sleeps with a stranger, and has a panic attack in her new love interest’s (played by Common) shower.
Nina’s tone vacillates just as wildly as its protagonist — it’s funny then dark, sexy then deeply disturbing. And without spoiling anything, there’s a third-act reveal that, in the hands of another actor, might feel unearned or even after-school special-y. But Winstead and writer-director Eva Vives (who based parts of the film on her own life) manage to make it feel raw and shocking and almost unbelievably timely in its portrayal of women’s sexual trauma and repressed rage. I caught up with Winstead at the Kimpton Hotel in Manhattan just a day after the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, both of us shaken up and pissed off. We talked about what we could do with our mutual anger, how stand-up comedy “terrifies” her, and the Louis C.K. joke cut from the script that would’ve revealed the truth about the comic before the New York Times did.
How are you doing with the Kavanagh stuff today? I’ve been a bit of a wreck.
I’m a wreck. I’m just so emotional all the time. Like, the emotion is right up here, and you’re just trying not to give into it.
I was thinking on my walk over here that this is such a perfect movie for this exact week.
It’s unbelievable, the timing. It’s been crazy the past couple days doing press about it, talking about it, and texting with Eva, who’s doing press in L.A. We can’t believe it’s all coming to a head right as we’re bringing this movie out.
Is it particularly difficult for you and for Eva, being a survivor, discussing this sort of story in this particular moment? Do you talk about that with her?
It’s been really hard, and that’s the part we didn’t really talk about going into this — what it’s gonna be like to bring this out. It’s one thing to do it and shoot some of these scenes where the character talks about the trauma she’s been through. And it’s another thing to actually bring it out into the world. It’s been a really emotional journey doing that — in some ways, even more emotional than making the film, because I had to repress [the sexual assaults] as the character, because that’s what the character was doing. I always had it in the back of my mind, I always had it in my gut, but I really stuffed it down. Now that the movie’s finished and we’re bringing it out into the world, it’s sort of like — it’s not stuffed down anymore. It’s really coming out.
The film is based on her own story — how much added pressure did that put on you as an actor?
Having Eva on set with me every day, if there was anything that didn’t read true, she would be there to guide me in the right direction. She had a very light touch about it all. She didn’t inundate me with notes or thoughts about what the character was going through. And I tried to do the same with her. I tried not to barrage her with questions. We became really close to one another without really trying.
In the year since Weinstein, have you seen things change for you as an actor? Have you had to deal with anything along those lines over the course of your career?
I’ve definitely seen things change over the years. As we’ve seen, a lot of these men tend to go after really young women for a reason — women who are new to the industry, who don’t know how things work, who have dreams and are desperate for somebody to notice them and give them an opportunity. Of course those powerful men know exactly what they’re doing. At this point in my career, I don’t come across that very much. I haven’t in quite some time. I was very lucky when I was younger and starting out – I was incredibly sheltered, and my mom went with me everywhere until I was like, 24.
She would go with you to jobs?
Yeah. I was so embarrassed at the time, and I was always just like, “Oh my God, I’m so uncool. My mom is always around.” There were times where she stopped coming to set, but she’d still pick me up, or she’d still be at the hotel or something. It was pretty overbearing.
Did she insist on it?
Yeah. And I was very used to it. That was our dynamic. My mom was always with me from the age of 12. But looking back on it, as hard as that was in some ways to be hovered over, I’m also thankful because I really didn’t experience those things — I just was never in a situation to be exposed to that particularly, or people were afraid of my mom.
Yeah, she’s kinda scary. But having said that, I absolutely had every kind of microaggression you can think of, in terms of little remarks, or being put down, or not given respect because I was a young woman. All of that I felt on a daily basis. So I can absolutely relate to everything that women are feeling right now. Whatever your experience has been, from the microaggression to the larger-scale attacks, we’re all feeling the same pain, the same anger on behalf of ourselves and each other. I certainly feel that with this film, everyone is a part of that — feeling that uncomfortability, and that need for change.
The anger Nina’s able to express really struck me. It’s rare to see a woman being really angry on film, especially one who’s a “redemptive” character. Where did that rage come from for you?
That was one of the things that interested me the most about the character, because I knew it would be a part of myself I haven’t really accessed much, as a character or even personally. I’m not someone who gets angry very often. I’m a total pushover. So I’m not exactly sure how I found it, or where I found it. But it’s somewhere in me clearly, because once I stepped into the role, it became easier and easier.
But just getting to know Eva, and speaking more with all my friends who are actresses in the industry, or who work in the industry in different capacities, and all of us sharing what we’ve been through — it has incited a lot of anger in me. And that’s been building for years because I didn’t really realized until my mid-20s, the way that I had been treated was wrong.
And once you notice it, you can never stop noticing it.
And then you become angry about all the years that you didn’t speak up for yourself, that you didn’t realize the way you were being treated should not have been acceptable.
Anger is the dominant emotion in every woman I know right now. But it feels useful in some ways.
It feels potentially useful right now, absolutely. It feels like no matter which way it goes, women are angry, and we’re not gonna take it anymore. If this guy gets voted in, there’s gonna be some sort of big response that’s going to make a change one way or the other. I think it just has to.
Moving away from our mutual rage — I’m curious how you prepared for the stand-up portions. Had you ever done stand-up before?
I was absolutely terrified. I had spent a lot of time watching comedy and going to shows and dissecting everything, and trying to find that female comic that would be my inspiration, like, “Oh. There’s Nina.” At some point, I had to step away from it and go, “No, I have to create her myself.” I can’t really copy somebody else’s cadence, or inhabit somebody else’s point of view. I have to just figure out who she is as a person and let the comedy come from that. Because that’s kind of the type of comic she is. It’s less about her timing. It’s more her point of view as a woman. So I tried to trust that I had some comic sensibility, and that if I took the words Eva wrote and combined it with that, it would work.
Was the audience in the film aware you were an actor playing a stand-up?
Not initially, no. I remember a lot of the extras coming up and asking me if I was a comic and where I performed.
Let’s talk about the vomiting. There’s a lot of vomiting.
There were a couple of different things that I tried. But I usually preferred some sort of split peas soup with chunks in it. I would just have to hold it in my mouth for long periods of time and try to look like I didn’t have anything in my mouth. That was the challenge of it, because you’re trying to do the end of the scene for several beats before you throw up. And to make it look like you’re not sitting there with a mouthful of soup. It’s gross, oh my God. It’s usually cold.
The scene where I drink the vomit was an improvised moment. And it was so divisive when we were making the movie in the edit, whether or not to keep it, because it was just such a gross thing.
You and Common have some very intimate scenes in this movie. How’d you develop that dynamic — did you guys hang out beforehand? Was any of it improvised?
I was pretty anti-rehearsal. Common was wanting more rehearsal, but I felt like the way the scenes were written, it would be really nice to develop it in front of the camera. And with these kinds of movies, these character pieces, I tend to prefer that. You just wanna dive in and be in it, and let the cameras capture whatever’s the first thing that comes out.
You’ve had a lot of so-called “career-making performances,” but I feel like you’re still able to fly under the radar, even sitting here in this crowded hotel.
I definitely prefer to fly under the radar. I feel like I’m at the point now where I’m old enough and secure enough that if fame were to come, I’d be able to handle it and not get swept up in it. I can certainly see the ridiculousness of it, and I don’t think that it would particularly affect me in a super deep way as it would have if it happened to me in my early 20s or something.
There’s something about my face that just changes so much that people can’t recognize me, which is fine with me. Or if I just still haven’t gained that kind of recognition? I really don’t know. It tends to be that people don’t recognize me unless they’re told, “This is so and so, from this movie.” And then sometimes people freak out, but otherwise, nobody ever knows who I am, and it’s great.
What’s the movie that people freak out about?
Still to this day, it’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Which is kind of surprising but it’s a great movie. It’s nice that people still feel that way about it.
I read an interview with Eva where she said that there was a Louis C.K. joke that got removed from the script. Do you know what that was? Did you film it?
I was making a joke about my appearance and saying like, “At least I’m not Louis C.K.,” or something. “You get to see a hot girl onstage.” And then the audience was supposed to boo. Because they didn’t like me making fun of Louis C.K., and then I was gonna say, “It’s okay, he locks women in rooms and masturbates in front of them.”
This was before the Times piece?
Before it came out, yeah.
Yeah, that was in the movie. And we had this little discussion about it, because you know, people were like, “Do we really wanna go there? Do we wanna say that?” And then Jamie [Loftus], who was our comedian on set, was like, “Yes, this would mean so much to comedy. We’re all talking about this. It’s a big deal in the comedy world.” And I was like, “Yeah. Say it. If that’s what’s happening, we gotta talk about it.” But then obviously by the time the movie came out, it was kind of a moot point.
It sort of undercut the shock of it.
Yeah, what was exciting to us about it was that we were gonna say something that wasn’t really being said.
And now he’s already on the comeback circuit. Do you think it’s fair for him to keep doing stand-up?
I was actually a huge fan of his. Of course I think everyone has a right to continue to do what they do for a living, unless they’re going to jail or whatever is the thing to do, but I don’t think people should have to listen to him anymore. I don’t listen to him anymore. I used to think he was this evolved person who had a real understanding of humanity, and that’s why I was a fan of his. And I clearly don’t think that about him anymore because of what he’s done, and also his lack of ability to reflect on that and bring that to his stand-up. He’s not showing that he’s learned from that. So there’s just no interest in him for me.