Mary Elizabeth Winstead's 'Birds of Prey' Work Was 20 Years in the Making
Despite acting since she was 12 years old, Mary Elizabeth Winstead had never experienced a set like Birds of Prey where the creative team was led by women both on and off camera. Winstead, who plays Helena Bertinelli and her alter ego, Huntress, felt a greater level of camaraderie among her castmates, since everyone was keenly aware that a set like Birds was rarer than it should be. She recalls noting in a conversation with co-star Jurnee Smollett-Bell that it had taken them over 20 years to come across a set like this.
“It feels great to not be standing behind a bunch of men, but to actually be standing in front of it as women with something that we made, something that we’re proud of and something that we put our blood, sweat and tears into,” Winstead tells The Hollywood Reporter of the Warner Bros. and DC film led by Margot Robbie and directed by Cathy Yan.
Heat Vision breakdown
In September 2019, Birds of Prey underwent additional photography in order to amp up the film’s action quota. Since Winstead was shooting her upcoming Netflix actioner, Kate, in Asia, movie magic was needed for her one and only pickup shot.
“We actually did a tiny shot in Bangkok while I was shooting Kate, which had some of the same producers as Birds of Prey,” Winstead explains. “So, they flew out the Huntress outfit, I put it on, they got me in front of a green screen with the Bangkok crew. … It was supposed to be me, as Huntress, on the motorcycle, but it was just a close-up. So they threw me on a bicycle in front of a green screen, and that was my one pickup shot for Birds of Prey.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Winstead also discusses her preparation for Huntress, how Death Proof compares to Birds of Prey, and her perspective on playing Lucy McClane in Die Hard 4.
I have a very important first question: HELL-en-a, Hell-AY-na or Hell-ee-na?
Oh, gosh! I don’t know if it’s the correct pronunciation, but I say Hell-AY-na Bertinelli. That’s just the choice I’ve made, but I’m not sure what the creators intended. (Laughs)
Because there are so many different comic book runs involving Huntress, how did you make sense of all that material in order to inform your version of the character?
I was given quite a bit of freedom from the creative team of Cathy, Margot, Sue [Kroll], Bryan [Unkeless] and everyone involved to just read whatever I wanted, as much as I wanted, and take inspiration from whatever bits helped me or fit this version of the character that we’ve created in the movie. So I think we took little bits and pieces from everything, but ultimately, we distilled it down to who she seems to be, which is this really fierce, ferocious fighter who is fighting for revenge on behalf of her family. There’s also the fact that she’s kind of a loner, and she doesn’t really work well with other people, which manifests in her personality. So I took bits and pieces of that from the comics and ran with it in my own way.
In Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, he made the point that Bruce Wayne is Batman’s mask, figuratively speaking. With that in mind, how would you differentiate Huntress from Helena? Is Huntress her true face, a la Batman?
I think she creates Huntress from Helena. She creates Huntress from the pain that Helena has experienced in her youth. Huntress is the face she can put on to put that pain into action and turn that pain into something good in her eyes. She gets to be an avenger, she gets to have purpose and she gets to be more than just this scared little girl that she was when her family was killed in front of her. I think that’s what the character or persona of Huntress represents to her.
Was the Huntress casting process another one of those six-month sagas, or was it relatively streamlined?
I would say somewhere in between. There were a lot of auditions; there were a lot of meetings. I initially met with Cathy, and we talked about the role and her version of Gotham that she was creating, which was really exciting to me. That’s what initially drew me in. Then I had a chemistry read with Margot, which was great. We got in a room, talked, improvised and had fun. That progressed to reading with lots of other women. They mixed and matched us. So I would be reading with Jurnee, and then I would be reading with another actress. Then they’d swap us around and do different variations. So they got a bunch of women in a room and just sort of saw who clicked — and that was fun. It was a long, somewhat arduous process, but at the same time, I’ve heard of worse. (Laughs) It was a nice way to get to know everybody a little bit before starting.
Physically speaking, is this the hardest job you've ever had?
It was up until that point. Since then, I’ve moved on and done a much more action-heavy movie [Kate] after Birds of Prey, which was great. But Birds of Prey was definitely a big, huge leap in that direction for me to really train hard with a stunt team and go beyond what I’ve done before in terms of fight training and physicality. I really loved it.
Did you mostly do fight and crossbow training with 87eleven? Did they let you do some motorcycle work too?
It was with 87eleven, and it was great. It was based on a lot of jiu-jitsu, throws, wrestling and martial arts drills. That’s what they instilled in me from the very beginning, but I did not get to do any motorcycle training. I thought I might when I read the script; I was excited. I thought I’d maybe get to learn how to ride a motorcycle, but since Huntress wears a helmet, there was no need. My double [Dena Sodano] got to have all the fun in that regard.
Do you learn fight choreography relatively quickly, given your background in ballet?
I do, yeah. I’m really grateful for that background. I think I automatically pick things up…I feel like I’m able to use my body and pick up the choreography in order to use it to move the story and character forward. That was something I was used to doing in ballet — and performing in pieces where I’d be creating a character with my body and expressing it that way. So that’s something that I still really love to do, and I think that’s partly why action is something that I’ve really taken to.
Is fighting someone down a slide as fun as it looks?
(Laughs) It’s so much fun! It’s a little bit insane. When they first showed it to me — like many other things that I did in this film — I initially said, “I can’t do that. There’s no way I can do that.” Then we started practicing it, and we figured out how to do it. I think there were probably five takes where I very nearly took [cinematographer] Matty Libatique’s head off by crashing into him at the end of the slide, because he was literally sliding down backwards with us every time we did it. So it was quite dangerous for him. But it was really exciting, and it’s a really great shot, too.
There’s something so satisfying about Huntress’ table kick as she takes out those mobsters at a restaurant. How did you pull that entire sequence off? It’s quite elaborate.
That was designed to be me because it’s all in one shot. It was really cool the way that we shot it. When the camera would move away from me, Rosie [Perez] would walk into it, and it would become the present. When she would walk out of frame, the camera would move around and I would step in as we flashed back to my fight scene. So it was a really cool and elaborate one-shot kind of a scene that was fun to shoot.
Birds of Prey was written by a woman [Christina Hodson], directed by a woman and mostly performed by women. Were there specific moments during filming where you were particularly glad that a woman like Cathy was at the helm?
Every day I was glad for that. She’s so smart, so confident, competent and fun. I think the fact that she is a woman just lent a perspective that was so refreshing for all of us to get to be around every day and to be led by every day. I have never been a part of something that was so female heavy in terms of every single department and every single leading creative role, especially not in this genre, this budget level and all of those things. That was liberating, refreshing, exciting, fun and meaningful in every single way for me, and I think for the rest of the cast as well.
Given the women-led creative team, did you and your castmates have greater camaraderie?
Absolutely. We talked about it a lot. I remember speaking with Jurnee about how she and I have both been in the business since we were kids — well over 20 years now — and how this is the first time this has happened for either of us, which is shocking, strange and not right. But, at the same time, it’s made this experience so special, and it was such a bonding experience for all of us to go through this film together, to be in the trenches together, to be working hard together, to be putting out work that we’re proud of and to have it be our own. It feels great to not be standing behind a bunch of men, but to actually be standing in front of it as women with something that we made, something that we’re proud of and something that we put our blood, sweat and tears into.
While Death Proof didn’t have a female-led creative team, you did have a team of women around you in terms of your scene partners. Were you reminded of Death Proof at all while working on Birds of Prey?
There were definitely some similarities. That was an incredibly fun group of women, and so was this. This was fun every day. Also, it was hard, there were injuries, there was stress and there were things to deal with, but at the end of the day, we had fun, we lifted each other up, we supported each other and we laughed. And that’s really what I remember about the Death Proof group as well: there was a lot of laughter, support and camaraderie. It had a fun spirit, and that’s what I loved about that film and that group of women. I loved that spirit in this film as well.
Since you were filming Kate in Asia around the time of Birds of Prey’s additional photography, were you even available for pickups?
I don’t think I was needed for anything. We actually did a tiny shot in Bangkok while I was shooting Kate, which had some of the same producers as Birds of Prey. So they flew out the Huntress outfit, I put it on, they got me in front of a green screen with the Bangkok crew, and it was a crazy mashup between my last film and this film. It was kind of a funny experience. It was supposed to be me, as Huntress, on the motorcycle, but it was just a close-up. So they threw me on a bicycle in front of a green screen, and that was my one pickup shot for Birds of Prey.
In the past, you've talked a lot about how you weren't particularly fond of the early roles and auditions that came your way. Do you get the impression that 10 Cloverfield Lane and Nikki Swango from Fargo changed the industry's perception of you?
I don’t know. I think it’s been a very slow progression for me in terms of shifting the perspective. I did a lot of really, really small films that, at least for me, shifted my trajectory in terms of the way that I saw myself as an actor and the projects that I wanted to pursue. I think it helped me bring a deeper level of understanding to the characters that I play, whether they’re in small films or big films. So I think taking some time out to focus on really small, character-driven roles helped lead me to those bigger projects that were also really character-driven and demanded a certain level of depth that I might not have had without those smaller, more character-focused independent films.
When most people get home from work, they often want to completely disconnect and decompress from their day job. For example, if a sushi chef makes sushi all day, the last thing they want to do is to eat sushi at home. Because your day job involves feeling and emoting, do you tend to turn yourself off when you get home, since you’ve had to be “on” all day on set?
That’s an interesting way to put it. Yes and no, I guess. I tend to try to be pretty level in my everyday life and on set as well. When I’m not acting, I try to be pretty even-keeled and level. I try to keep myself as calm as I can be. It’s sort of a good state to be in if you don’t know what state you’re going to have to put yourself in from day to day. As an actor, you don’t necessarily know exactly how far you’re going to have to go or what you’re going to have go through for a character. So I try to focus on being calm and happy. I try to keep my stress level pretty low so that I’m not bringing any of that home with me.
The Parts You Lose was one of my favorite films of 2019. Would you mind reflecting on that experience?
Oh, that’s nice! I think it’s such a beautiful film, and one that I was really proud to be a part of. I got to learn a little bit of sign language for it, and I got to learn to communicate in a new way, which is something I’m always grateful for. It was a lovely group of people and a beautiful story. I can’t wait to see what Danny Murphy does in the future, because he’s a really talented young actor.
I’m fascinated by Hollywood reunions and how Hollywood seems to be smaller than most people realize. However, I was surprised to learn that The Parts You Lose was not a purposeful Smashed reunion between you and Aaron Paul. In fact, I believe Aaron shot all of his scenes before you even arrived on set.
Yeah, we didn’t have any scenes together, which is unfortunate. I would’ve loved to have had scenes with him.
Since you did reunite with Fargo’s Scoot McNairy, do you also get the sense that Hollywood is smaller than people might think?
Oh, yes. Absolutely. I’ve gotten to the point now where I know or have met just about everybody I can think of, or I’ve been in the same room with them or our paths have crossed in one way or another. So, yeah, it is a pretty small place, especially when it comes to like-minded people and people who gravitate toward the same kinds of projects. I tend to come into contact with a lot of the same people because we like the same directors or stories. We tend to find each other in the same orbit.
Will you usually acknowledge the reunion to the other person? For example, did you crack any air conditioning jokes around Scoot?
(Laughs) I don’t know if I cracked any jokes, but I know we definitely reminisced a little bit. I didn’t bring up his untimely death in that way.
Your Kurt Russell reunion on Death Proof must’ve been interesting, given the vastly different natures of Death Proof and Sky High.
Our reunion was somewhat bizarre, I suppose, as it was such a different world to the one we worked together in before, but it was such a lovely surprise for me, because he is the absolute coolest and kindest. He was such a big star — and I was not at the time — but he was just absolutely lovely to me as always.
Have you maintained a skill that you learned for a movie?
I just learned how to drive a stick shift on my last film, finally. I had never learned to do that, so that is something that I’m planning on continuing to take with me. Also, my martial arts training is something that I want to keep up with after doing it three movies in a row now. I feel like it would be a real waste to just stop that when I do feel like I’ve been progressing quite a bit.
I presume you haven't Rollerbladed since Ramona Flowers on Scott Pilgrim vs. the World?
No! (Laughs) I haven’t at all. I have to say that I could Rollerblade just fine, but that was something that I didn’t take to as well as fight training and things like that. I didn’t really have the natural skills that I wished I would’ve had in order to really do that justice.
Do you recognize the person who played Lucy McClane in Live Free or Die Hard? Does that feel like a different lifetime almost?
It does! It does feel like a different person. The person that I was then was practically a child; I think I was 21 or something like that. I certainly have fond memories of that, but when I look at who I was, I was very quiet, shy and in my shell. I see a very fearful version of the person that I am now.
How did Netflix’s Kate go?
Kate was an incredible experience. It was a real jump for me in terms of the level of action that I was performing in the film. It’s a character-driven story with real emotional impact, but I was performing pretty raw and intense action sequences almost every day. That combination was really exciting to me, and the role really let me go for it with everything I have. I really felt like my skill set improved quite a bit. I worked with 87eleven again, the same stunt people that I worked with on Birds of Prey. I was very lucky to work with such a great group of people again. I also worked with [Birds of Prey producer] Bryan Unkeless again. ... It was tough because we had all-night shoots in Bangkok, but I worked with Woody Harrelson, who’s the best. I really can’t wait for people to see it, I think it’s going to be a special one. It’s really action-packed.
Did you know that’s your fourth character named Kate?
(Laughs) Yes! I didn’t know if anybody else would pick up on that, but yes, I am aware. Maybe, I was meant to be a Kate. Maybe, I was born with the wrong name.
Birds of Prey hits heaters on Friday.
by Graeme McMillan
by Graeme McMillan
by Graeme McMillan
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