How to Act Terrified, Courtesy of 'Cloverfield's Mary Elizabeth Winstead
To call Mary Elizabeth Winstead a "scream queen" would be to sell her short. The 31-year-old actress has appeared in every type of horror-adjacent picture imaginable, encountering serial killers, psychological terrors, even the hand of God. But she's never a pawn in anyone's game. The strength she displayed in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World made her the perfect alien opponent in the remake of The Thing. The distress she summoned to play a burnt-out alcoholic in Smashed shared DNA with her run-like-hell performances in Final Destination 3 and Black Christmas. Thus, while Winstead had the genre cred for 10 Cloverfield Lane, the latest spine-tingling mystery from producer J.J. Abrams, her damn fine acting skills give the role something more.
How do you play scared with integrity? We asked Winstead for her secrets. For the next time you want to pull the prank of a lifetime...
Listen to music that will psych you up
"I used to be really into that, with emotional stuff. This was back when I was first starting -- I was a different person then! -- but I had a lot of, like, Fiona Apple, and that kind of thing. Damien Rice. Got teared up. But now, the past few years, I've kind of gotten away from that. I'm more of just, substitution and thinking about my own life and my own experiences. I can click into that pretty quickly, so I don't have to be super sad off-set."
Scared people work out
"I did ballet through my teens, which doesn't seem like a long time, but it is in the ballet world, where your career is over by 23. And it helped, I think. It especially helps if you have fight scenes, particularly for remembering choreography, because it is like learning a dance, you know? You have to know step by step exactly how it's going to go. I think having the training of memorizing movement physically, not just memorizing lines, is helpful."
Commit to the stunt, and throw yourself into action
"I definitely have more confidence with [stunts] now. Sometimes too much. I think I can do things that I can't really do. I have photos of my body some days after shooting where I'm literally covered in bruises. Like, I look like a spotted animal or something. Covered in welts. I'd be like, 'I don't even know how this happened. I don't even know what I was doing that made it this bad.' I think part of it is the character and just her desperation. Take jumping over a table: when you're jumping over a table and you're scared for your life, it's not going to be the smoothest jump in the world, you know? I would end up knocking myself around a bit."
Exert energy before going into gasp mode
"[Acting scared] is a lot about energizing. I tend to do a lot of silly, physical things to try to get there. I feel like if I can trick my body into thinking this is real, then it kind of helps the emotions. I do a lot of, like, causing myself to hyperventilate. It's a lot of running in place and push-ups. If I don't have a lot of space, I'll get my body in a really weird position and hold my breath for a long time. I probably look insane. But it's a trick as opposed to just being super organic, coming at it emotionally, which is really hard. I think fear is one of the hardest things to manifest out of nothing. You kind of have to do some little tricks sometimes."
If you lose your voice screaming... keep screaming
"Recently I was doing [Automated Dialogue Replacement] for [Cloverfield], and the thing you don't realize on set is, when you're doing a lot of heavy breathing and screaming and a lot of that stuff, in order for it to all edit together, you have to do the whole thing all over again [in a studio]. It's all rendered pointless at the end of the day. So I was in ADR for hours, basically going through the whole movie. Any time I have scenes where I'm just breathing or crying or screaming, I'm redoing all of that. And they have to make sure it all blends seamlessly, so I have to do it over again, anyway. By the end of the session, my screams are just sounding like a little boy going through puberty. The voice just keeps cracking, and Dan [Trachtenberg, director] was like, 'Can you do it without the voice crack?' I'm like, 'I'm trying! I'm losing my voice!'"
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Matt Patches is Thrillist’s entertainment editor. He previously wrote for Grantland, Esquire.com, Vulture, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Guardian. His favorite scary movie is Kill List. Find him on Twitter @misterpatches.