When Mary Elizabeth Winstead signed on to play a woman who wakes up in a locked room with no memory of how she got there, she was definitely in for a tough ride. Things soon got harder as the project morphed into a ‘blood relative’ of 2008’s Cloverfield. Winstead happily teased us with elements of the upcoming 10 Cloverfield Lane when we sat down with her recently, including what it was like squaring off against John Goodman and how it felt keeping Bad Robot’s secrets (a task we definitely don’t envy...).
How aware were you of Valencia morphing into 10 Cloverfield Lane?
I felt from the beginning that there were elements of the film that we shouldn’t talk about just for the sake of not spoiling it. There was something bigger about this movie and a mystery surrounding it we didn't want to give away. As we were shooting there were whisperings of things that just felt bigger than what we thought we were doing and I don’t think we really understood it. There’d just be little titbits of information that would start funnelling through and I would kind of go, “Wait, what? That connects to what and how?” There were definitely elements that we weren't fully let in on, and I’m happy about that. I don’t want spoil the whole thing.
What was it like to be part of an evolving project?
It was incredibly exciting, especially because it’s a female-led action genre piece. [Michelle’s] just a sort of an everywoman; she has no training or special skills or anything like that but she takes what she’s given in the situation and does whatever she can with it. She’s active in every scene, trying to figure out what she needs to do to get out of this place or, if that’s not the solution, she's working out how to adapt to it. There’s moments where she’s reflecting and she’s emotional, but she’s never waiting to be saved. She’s very scrappy and resourceful, [and] I loved that about her. I loved being in a film where I’m actively trying to do something in every scene.
I had a lot of John Goodman-caused bruises on my arm, but it was like a badge of honour.
Where does 10 Cloverfield Lane fit in the Cloververse?
The term ‘spiritual’ has been bandied about and I think [it applies]. It's something I felt from the beginning. This is a Bad Robot film, it's J.J. Abrams producing: it has that same sense of mystery and wonder about it and this feeling of taking a very big genre movie and making it much smaller and more personal. In the same way that Cloverfield used the shakycam, documentary-style footage as a way to really turn the tables on the monster movie, I think this does the same thing. It’s a monster movie in a bunker! It takes this big idea and brings it to a very human scale.
It’s a tough movie to define because I think it encompasses a lot of genres. ‘Suspense’ is a good word for it. J.J. brought up The Twilight Zone as something that it could fit in pretty well with. I can see that. It’s suspenseful, it’s scary, it also has moments where it’s funny. It has this sort of mysterious sci-fi element as well. So it’s definitely hard to pigeonhole as one genre.
How involved was J.J. Abrams while working on a galaxy far, far away?
Very, very involved to a very surprising degree because he was shooting Star Wars - you know, whatever that is - at the same time. I thought, “Oh, his name will be attached but he’s not going to have time to really be that involved. It’s going to be one of those things.” And I was so amazed by how not only was he checking in every day, but he had pages of notes on how to make this even better. There were dialogue changes that were coming straight from him. I got injured one day and he sent me flowers right away. I don’t know how he does it. It’s completely alien to me that kind of energy and that ability to be working on so many planes at the same time, but [J.J.] finds a way.
To put it mildy, it looks like your character has a rather difficult time. How intense was the experience on set?
Well certainly while we were shooting! Off-camera it was the loveliest, most laidback group. John Goodman can be disturbing and intimidating if he wants to be, and he has this voice that he can turn on a dime and become so booming and terrifying, you don’t even know where it’s coming from. He’s such a sweetheart and the kind of person you think isn’t really paying attention to all of the little conversations that are happening and then would just crack a joke out of nowhere and I’d be like, “Woah, you’ve been listening this whole time?” I was so lucky to work with him.
What was it like knowing you and John Goodman would have to duke it out?
I think we both felt bad about that because I had to beat up on him, he had to beat up on me a little bit. And we’re both the kind of actors who like to go for it and just make it real. So it was a lot of “Is it okay if I do this?” and then trying to negotiate with each other beforehand how far we could go. So we definitely talked it over before those scenes and apologised in advance before we would get into it. It was a lot of fun. I had a lot of John Goodman-caused bruises on my arm. There was always his handprint on my arm, but it was like a badge of honour!
It’s completely alien to me that kind of energy and that ability to be working on so many planes at the same time, but [J.J.] finds a way.
John Gallagher Jr. has experience with Aaron Sorkin’s lines. You have experience with Edgar Wright’s lines. Do the pair of you get any fun dialogue down in the bunker?
Oh, definitely. The movie takes quite a few turns, so for the most part it is very suspenseful and very tense but there are moments of levity throughout. It’s kind of a rollercoaster ride of these characters not knowing what’s going on and for my character there’s certain points where she wants to escape and then there’s other times where she thinks maybe she should accept the situation that she’s in and try to make the best of it. You see in the trailer we’re making marshmallow fluff, peanut butter sandwiches and watching movies; there were a lot of moments of just us trying to get along and trying to get to know one another. Those were some really fun moments to have.
When she first finds herself down in this bunker she thinks John Goodman’s character, Howard, is the only other person there. Then she eventually finds that there is somebody else down there but she doesn’t know who he is or how he got there, what his connection to Howard is, or if she can trust him. She’s already wondering if Howard is trustworthy, now she’s got this other guy who is trying to be her friend but she doesn’t know what’s happening or if that’s coming from a genuine place. They pretty quickly start to ally and realise that there’s a bond there which leads to a bit of paranoia on Howard’s part. That these two people are now allying against him potentially leads to a lot of tension!
Fate seems to be an overriding element of the film.
Yeah, I think there’s a lot of little mysteries within the film, like in the trailer and the clips that you have seen, there’s a lot of those little questions that come up throughout it. One of the great things is that those questions aren’t all necessarily answered immediately, there’s things that you’re piecing together as the film goes on or you might get a little titbit of information that might help to explain it. And most things do eventually become explained but there are some things that are just great little character moments that you kind of go, “Oh I wonder what that meant”, or, “I wonder why they said that”. You as an audience member can put two and two together and figure out for yourself what it means in a larger sense.
I think one of the themes it really deals with is monsters of all kinds. You know, there’s the monster within all of us that could be just as scary as a real-life monster. So I think it deals with that question a lot, of what’s worse: dealing with someone who is what could be a really terrifying person in a small space and could do horrible things, or to just test fate and see what lies beyond.
What was it like working with Dan Trachtenberg on his feature-length debut?
To see him go to John [Goodman] and give him notes and have John say, “Oh wow, that’s a really good idea, thank you. I’m going to take that”, was like, “Oh, this guy knows what he’s doing”. Because it’s not easy to be a first-time director working with an actor of that calibre on a film produced by J.J. Abrams. I think he handled it with such grace and nuance and he knew what he wanted from the get-go: he wanted a very mature genre film.
I watched Portal (Trachtenberg’s short film) before I met with him and I was blown away, so I knew visually he had it in the bag. He’s a sentimental dude [and] he really gets into the emotional stuff. That's something you hope for as an actor.
Do you think this film would play the same if there were three men in the bunker?
I think there’s definitely elements, particularly with Howard and Michelle’s relationship, that her being a woman has Howard specifically drawn to Michelle and having this female figure down there with him to have for however long their lives play out down there. I think that’s specific to their dynamic.
There’s the monster within all of us that could be just as scary as a real-life monster.
I think the story could have very much played out if they were all guys down there, but I think the fact that she’s a woman naturally affects the dynamic between the characters and adds another layer of creepiness, really, between her and her relationship with Howard and the fact he’s keeping her down there. You’re wondering, “What’s really his motive?” That certainly plays into it.
If you were stuck in real-life events similar to 2008’s Cloverfield without a bunker, would you run or would you stick around to help?
Oh God… You know what, I’m totally one of those, “If it’s my time to go! It’s been a good run!” It’s fate! Leave it to fate. I’d like to think that I would fight as hard as Michelle but you never know until you’re in that situation.
10 Cloverfield Lane is released in UK cinemas on March 18. It hits the US on March 11.
Read our interview with J.J. Abrams here.
Read our interview with director Dan Trachtenberg here.
Read our interview with John Gallagher Jr. here.