Mary Elizabeth Winstead Reflects on How Past Roles Prepared Her for 'BrainDead'

"Laurel is definitely a piece of almost everything I've ever played," the actress tells THR about how her previous roles have influenced her current one on the CBS comic-thriller.
Courtesy of CBS
Mary Elizabeth Winstead

Mary Elizabeth Winstead has been preparing for BrainDead for her entire career.

Throughout nearly two decades in the industry, the actress has taken on a serial killer in Death Proof, the Grim Reaper in Final Destination 3 and, most recently, postapocalyptic aliens in 10 Cloverfield Lane.

When The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Winstead on the Brooklyn set of the CBS' new comic-thriller, she admitted that her past genre-hopping helped her lean into the absurdity of brain-eating bugs — and made squashing them much less daunting.

"I've done so much of all of the show's genres — sci-fi, comedy, drama and particularly horror — now that I know what that needs to feel like for the audience. It needs to feel real," she says. "If you're not committed to it, what's the point? The story's so absurd that as an actor, you have to really believe it in order for the audience to care. I've done enough of it to know to not be scared to really believe it, play it straight, and go for it in that way."

Now three weeks in, BrainDead has seen space bugs ignite multiple head explosions — including one all over Winstead's character, Laurel, in the back of an ambulance. Winstead cites 10 Cloverfield Lane in particular for helping her learn to "react to strange things happening around me" with CGI. Looking back on her past roles, the actress feels that BrainDead's Laurel is a culmination of all the characters she has portrayed.

"I have a lot of fun playing those kind of roles and finding new ways into them each time, and Laurel is definitely a piece of almost everything I've ever played, which accounts for a real, whole person and is really fun," says Winstead. 

BrainDead was a collaborative effort for Winstead and creators Robert and Michelle King. Thanks to Ridley Scott's Scott Free Productions — which produces both BrainDead and PBS period drama Mercy Street, on which Winstead also stars — the actress was called in directly by the Kings for the part, and from there, the trio molded the character of Laurel together.

"Laurel, in terms of her personality, is a lot of me. I didn't have a huge frame of reference coming in — the Kings just kind of wanted me to bring myself to it and make her really real and relatable," Winstead explains. 

One of the biggest draws to BrainDead for the actress was playing a complex character who steps up to the challenges of Washington — both the political and the supernatural.

"I feel especially lucky because I've been able to play a lot of complex central protagonists — whether that means they're strong in the sense that they're physically capable or they're falling apart, but they pick themselves back up and they figure out how to kind of move on," says Winstead. "Laurel encompasses all of those things: She's very real, she's not perfect, she's got a lot of flaws, and she's kind of goofy at times. I love the fact that there's a comedic sensibility, but at the same time, there's this real kind of strong, dramatic, and sometimes even action-oriented side to her as well. I really get to run the gamut of things that I can do, and I never know what to expect. I'm really happy that I've found a role like this that could take me to places that I can't even imagine yet."

Even though the Kings imagine four seasons of BrainDead — with the bugs spreading from D.C. to Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Hollywood — Winstead won't necessarily just stick with TV.

"I would love to continue to balance TV and film, but I do feel like television, on the whole, has more opportunity for really in-depth female leads and complex female leads," she explains. "So that's kind of what I'm drawn to, and I'm very open to whatever medium that's going to be in, whether it's TV or film or theater, which hopefully I will tackle one day. I think a play or musical would be really fun. I'm trying not to think too much about the medium and just think more about the characters and trying to just follow that."

Winstead notes that she's been surrounded by talented theater actors on both BrainDead and Mercy Street, which has her itching to get onstage. "I auditioned for one or two plays and a couple of them have gone pretty far down the process of almost happening," she reveals. "Ideally, if it could be something like [BrainDead co-star] Aaron [Tveit] got to do in Les Mis, that's the dream. I did audition for that and was obsessed, obsessed with the idea of doing that. [Singing] is just a skill I could have in my back pocket if anybody wants me to do a little song and dance. I can do it, but it's not at the forefront in my mind."

Just as Winstead was a fan of Tveit's work, she was actually one of the main reasons that he signed on to the project in the first place

"Mary Elizabeth, I've been a fan of hers for a long time," says Tveit. "I saw her in Smashed with Aaron Paul a few years ago and was utterly blown away by her work. I've just really been aware of her as an actress. When I got sent the script, it was the Kings, it was here in New York, and she was a lead in it. I would have all my scenes with her. I was like, 'Where can I sign up for this?'"

Tveit, who plays Gareth, notes they didn't have a chemistry read before filming began on the series. "It's been wonderful, and from day one, we just totally fell in together and we have a great dynamic," he says. "Our dialogue almost falls into this '40s romantic comedy, like His Girl Friday. To do that, you have to be so prepared and know all your lines and be ready to go. To have a partner in crime that is always so on her game, it's a dream."

For Robert King, it was a no-brainer to cast the duo. In fact, he compares Tveit and Winstead to two popular couples from his previous series, The Good Wife.

"Gary Cole and Christine Baranski have this amazing chemistry that every time they're on the set together, they fall back into it. Julianna [Margulies] and Josh [Charles] had that, too," King recalls. "It all comes down to chemistry, and the only other time we saw that spark was with Mary and Aaron. There is this extra thrill when they're on the set together. I don't know what it is, but they enjoy each other and they enjoy each other's jokes. We can push how much they disagree because you always go back to, 'I just like being with this person.'"

Whether or not Laurel and Gareth get together on BrainDead is not the show's main question, though, and that's something that Winstead appreciates.

"Every time I read one of the Laurel and Gareth scenes in the script, I just get so excited to do it because it's just not typical. They have this relationship that is really intellectual in terms of how they connect, and they are both smart and witty and inspire each other," she says. "It doesn't just feel like a plot device, like, 'Oh, she's got to have the guy before she takes down the bugs; we've got to go back to this B storyline.' It feels as exciting as the bug storyline — very exciting and fresh."

BrainDead airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.

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