Mary Elizabeth Winstead with Common in "All About Nina"

Tribeca 2018: Mary Elizabeth Winstead and director Eva Vives on “All About Nina”

Winstead plays stand-up comedian coping with trauma from her past

Apr 30, 2018 Web Exclusive
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When stand-up comedian Nina Geld (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) receives an invite to audition for a SNL­-esque variety show on the West Coast, she welcomes the opportunity to restart her life in a new place. She ditches New York – and an abusive ex-boyfriend – for Los Angeles, where her career takes an immediate upward path. She soon meets a stable guy (Common) with minimal baggage, but contiuously endangers their relationship through alcohol-fueled self-sabotage. Behind Nina’s outwardly confident comedy persona hides a young woman grappling with trauma from her past, who runs the risk of standing in the way of her career and personal life as both are on an upward swing.

All About Nina is the feature debut from writer-director Eva Vives, who crafts in Nina a character who is disarmingly funny yet troublingly self-destructive. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the star of such films as Smashed, 10 Cloverfield Lane, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. We spoke with the filmmaker and actress about their latest project, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: Stand-up comedy, to me, has always seemed like the most intimidating form of public speaking.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead: I would agree!

Do either of you have any experience doing stand-up?

Winstead: Now I do. This was my first foray into it.

Eva Vives: I was there for her first performance.

Winstead: It was one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve ever done, I think. I was kind of paralyzed with fear about it. When we were just at the stage of getting ready to do it, I’d always thought I’d really throw myself into it, and immerse myself in it. I’d do open mics, and I’d do all of these things. But then, I was scared to do it. And then part of me thought, “You know, I’m not really a comedian.” Like, [my character] is supposed to be good at it, and if I just went and did open mics, I’d suck at it. [Laughs] it wasn’t necessarily going to do what I wanted it to do, you know?

So instead I just tried to harness her confidence with it. I’d just go in and believe in what I was saying, and believe that it was funny. It helped that it was funny, between what Eva had written and the consultant we worked with, Jamie Loftus, who came in and helped us as well.

Vives: She helped a lot.

Winstead: They boosted my confidence, but it was incredibly scary. Incredibly.

The film is called All About Nina. Can you describe who Nina is, for people who haven’t seen it?

Vives: That’s a good question. I feel like I’d written it and then it was like, “Well, there she is.” How would I describe her? I think she’s super-fun and kickass, and complicated in the best of ways. I mean, I would like to hang out with her.

The genesis of it, for me, was to show somebody who presents in a way on stage that’s very different from what’s going on in her life. For me, I think there were a lot of layers to her. I think that’s also why I wanted Mary to play her.

Winstead: Awwwww. [Laughs]

Can you talk more about that? What was important for you to find for this character when you cast Mary?

Vives: The layer thing was huge. Obviously, I hadn’t really seen her do much comedy.

Winstead: I haven’t done much comedy. Nothing like this, that’s for sure.

Vives: But the stand-up aside, I think there’s also a lot of other funny stuff in this movie. I always think it’s a shame, because I know so many women who might have serious jobs, who aren’t necessarily comedians, but are also very funny, and I don’t think that’s something that’s shown very often in movies or TV shows. That is, unless it’s someone you already know; like, this actor does funny movies, or funny TV. Especially with actresses who are considered very beautiful – for some reason, they can’t also be funny. That always makes me a little sad. That was a big part of it.

I love comedy. It’s a great way of processing darkness and pain – I’m certainly not the first person to say that. But, it certainly was for me. I knew Mary as a dramatic actress, and so I knew she could do that really well. I was hoping she would be interested in [the role]. I never had any doubts that she’d be able to do the comedy really well.

Winstead: She was always cool about it – she had total confidence. I was the one spiraling in my own head.

Vives: I had sent her the script, and she couldn’t do it because she was about to go shoot Fargo. But she said she liked the script, and so I said we’d sit down and talk about it. I remember that she said there was so much rage in [Nina], and that was the thing she would have to be playing underneath. And I thought, “That’s the word!”

Winstead: I think that’s what I said I would have the hardest time with. That’s something I hadn’t played before, either. On top of the comedy stuff, I’d never played someone who was holding on to so much anger before. That was something that I would have to figure out how to tap into.

Vives: Her anger was very important in the script. Obviously she talks about it onstage, too, but so much of it was about having all these things be in there without naming them, necessarily.

Mary, what are things that excited you most about the role?

Winstead: I mean, all of those things: the layers of the character are undeniable. Sometimes you read scripts, and especially for a woman looking for an interesting role, it’s really clear when it’s there on the page, because it doesn’t happen all the time.

At first I was reading the script just casually, but then I was reading it, and reading it, and reading it, and I got through to the end and just went, “Oh my god.” This was an incredible opportunity to be really challenged by a character, and also to do something really meaningful in terms of what it was saying. It was kind of a no-brainer. When I met with Eva, I was so on board immediately.

The role looks like it was very challenging. The character shows such a wide range of emotion – she’ll be on stage, confident and in command in one scene, and then a crying mess moments later.

Winstead: It was a challenge, which is what I wanted. The best experiences, for me, are when you’re excited about something and then you go to do it, and you’re sick with nerves over whether you actually might be able to pull it off. As awful as that moment is, it’s always the best. That’s really what I strive for in the roles I take on.

Vives: To be terrified. [Laughs]

Winstead: [Laughs] Yes, to be terrified. That’s when I know I’m on the right track, even if I can’t see it in that moment. I’m just thinking, “What did I get myself into? I’m going to ruin this!” So, that was great – to have a role that scared me in that way, not knowing whether I’d be able to pull it off or not. It’s exciting to live on the edge like that. I don’t have a lot of opportunities that allow me to do that.

Vives: I have to say, you made it look very easy on set. You never seemed to have any issues with any of it.

Winstead: Well, that’s good. I think the hardest part, for me, is the week or so leading into [a shoot]. That’s when I get it most into my head that I might not be able to pull it off. And then the first couple days are often a bit rocky, with nerves. But once I’m in it, I’m usually pretty much just in it. The wheels are off, and I can just do it.

Can you tell me about casting Common? He’s great – he plays a character that you want to like, but you aren’t sure whether he can be trusted.

Vives: I’m sure other filmmakers are going to hate me, because casting can often be very tricky. For the most part, I got very lucky. Common had always been on my mind for the part. I know this is going to sound weird, but I knew him as an actor and, obviously, as a rapper, but when I watched him accept the Oscar a few years ago, I was sitting with my husband I said to him, “This guy’s so classy, isn’t he? He’s just such a classy dude.” I remember being very moved by his speech.

I think he just got it right away. We both saw [his character] in the same way. You’re right – we don’t really know much about him and what his intentions are. You’re going to see him from Nina’s point of view, and wonder “Is this guy just a player? Is he going to hurt her?” Because that’s where she’s coming from. But he’s not that guy at all. I love his performance. I think he’s very vulnerable and charming in it.

I’m wondering about all of the celebrity impressions your character did in the film, Mary. How many of them were scripted, and how many did the two of you come up with once you started collaborating?

Winstead: [Laughs] It’s probably half and half, I would guess. Some of them were definitely scripted.

Vives: You, and Jamie, and I got together one day. You said you were a singer and you were comfortable with that, which was great, because that’s hard to do.

Winstead: I told if she wanted to throw in any singer ideas that would be easy for me, because I could try to modulate that. But yeah, we got together. Some of the ones that were in there and scripted I was worried about. I wasn’t sure if I could do them. 

Vives: We had Li’l Wayne in there. We had to cut some out, too. She did Britney, which isn’t in there now.

Winstead: [Laughs] I wish Britney was still in there.

Vives: The one sad thing about this movie was there was so much funny stuff we couldn’t fit. There was a lot of stand-up we did with Mary, but after a while you just have to cut certain things. I hope we find an outlet for it somewhere, someday.

Winstead: Some of the impressions, it was just like “Here are some I can do.” Not because I’ve done impressions before, but these were voices I just kind of do when I’m just around the house being weird. Like Werner Herzog, and Bjork.  

***

All About Nina made its world premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. 

(www.tribecafilm.com/filmguide/all-about-nina-2018)



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