The Thing - Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) hides © 2011 Universal Studios

The Thing actress, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, on playing the film’s reluctant heroine.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is no stranger to the science fiction/horror genre, having appeared in such films as Final Destination 3, Death Proof and more recently, Scott Pilgrim vs the World. Her latest project is The Thing, a prequel to the 1982 John Carpenter film, in which she plays a scientist transported to an Antarctic research base after the discovery of an alien organism trapped in the ice. But when the creature is freed and all hell breaks loose, Winstead’s character finds herself transformed into an unwilling action heroine.

The actress took a break from filming on the Toronto set of The Thing to talk about her involvement in the popular franchise and her thoughts about being compared to a certain well-known Alien character…

Could you talk a little bit about your character in the film?

The Thing - Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Columbia University paleontologist Dr Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) © 2011 Universal Studios

I play Kate Lloyd, a budding paleontologist who goes to Antarctica to dig out a specimen that’s been found in the permafrost. When she gets there, she finds pretty quickly that she’s basically been brought there to be a workhorse and not to think or speak but just to do her job. She’s a bit hesitant to go at first, but there’s no way she can turn down the opportunity to go to Antarctica, so she goes along with it.

She’s doing the job she thought she was going to do, but she’s got to keep her mouth shut, not giving ideas and is treated not as an equal but someone who they can control.

Basically Sander [her boss] thinks of me as someone who’s really good at my job but being young and female, he can control and won’t take the credit for this colossal find that he wants to take all the credit for.

She becomes a reluctant heroine?

Oh yeah. She’s just trying to keep it together and I think she’s got some ideas and she’s really intelligent but she’s reluctant to step up and say, ‘This is what we should do!’ But when everything else falls apart, that’s what you have to do.

How familiar were you with the 1983 film?

Very familiar. It’s one of my favorite movies. I have yet to see the original Howard Hawks film, but I think we’re really focusing more on the John Carpenter version, and I love that film. I was excited and worried at the same time when I got this script, because you don’t want to remake that film.

I think it’s a perfect movie, but we’re not doing that. It really is a prequel and a good companion piece, which I think is the right term for it.

What was it like, being the main female character in the Thing universe?

It’s pretty cool. I quite like being the only girl around here. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but it’s actually nice. I felt really respected and like one of the guys, which I don’t often get to experience. So I feel pretty honored to be the first female in this story.

How do you feel about comparisons to Ripley in the Alien films?

The Thing - Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Ulrich Thomsen
Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Sander (Ulrich Thomsen) examine their 'thing' © 2011 Universal Studios

I definitely expect people to be bringing up the Ripley thing. I’m not trying to play it the way that Sigourney Weaver did, or take anything from that.

I think the story of Alien and having a female who becomes the leader at a certain point and becomes the person that people start looking to be the strong one and I think that’s most likely going to draw comparisons.

So on a scale of 1 to 10, with Fay Wray being 1 and Ripley being a 10, where does Kate fit in?

Oh much closer to the 10 range, definitely. Nothing like Fay Wray.

Did you create your own back-story for the character, just so you knew a bit more about her?

I worked with a paleontologist for a little while in Toronto before we started shooting, which was really cool. He works at the museum here, so it was interesting to see how they worked.

It really isn’t a sterile scientific world. It’s a crazy, fly-on-the-wall kind of atmosphere and they’re all kooky and interesting people, so that was really helpful to me for finding who Kate is and what she’s passionate about and why she would want to do this.

I think she’s not feminine in the way that she wears makeup and cares about clothing and things like that. She’s sort of androgynous in a way, because her focus and passion in life is her job and her career and science.

To her, finding a fossil in the ice is the utmost that she can do, so coming here and being part of this in the beginning is extremely exciting, but when she gets here, it turns terrifying so it’s not exactly what she expects.

A lot of your scenes are with Joel Edgerton who plays Carter. Is it strange that people see two characters together in a film and assume there is a romantic relationship between them?

The Thing - Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) knows it's kill or be killed © 2011 Universal Studios

I understand that people love the fact that there were no women in the original film, and I love that about it too. But I’m surprised that people would assume there’s a love story just because there’s a female in it. There’s a male-female dynamic, but I don’t see how you would have the time to develop that in this scenario.

When I come in, the s**t starts going down pretty fast so I really don’t have time to suddenly get goo-goo-eyed with some guy.

Of course, it’s a different thing for a woman to come in, and certainly everyone treats her differently because she’s a woman, but she’s not falling in love with anybody or experiencing a romantic relationship with anybody.

You’ve done a lot of genre work in the recent past. How do you avoid being pigeonholed as an actress?

I’m a movie fan in general, but I don’t usually confine that to one genre. I just love characters, so that’s really what I look at more than anything else. I don’t think, ‘Oh, I want to do this kind of genre,’ I just look at playing interesting characters and this is by far one of the most interesting and challenging characters I’ve played.

Having now played a heroine in this film, how would you feel about playing a few darker roles?

I played a villain once when I was younger in a comedy [Sky High], but it was more over the top, so I guess that’s a very different kind of thing. But yes, absolutely.

I want to be all over the map, so I’d be open to anything.

Joe Nazzaro

Joe is a New York based journalist