When Mary Elizabeth Winstead walks into our West Hollywood studio, her presence is felt immediately. She is statuesque in a pair of black heeled boots that put her around six feet tall, her face free of makeup and her hair, a grown-out pixie, casually tucked behind her ears. Her voice is soft as she introduces herself to me and the entire production crew. It’s week three of award season, and everyone is feeling exhausted, but Winstead is a welcome breath of fresh air and energy.
At the time of our shoot, Winstead is days away from heading out on a global press tour for Birds of Prey, the highly anticipated female team-up in which she stars opposite Margot Robbie, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, and newcomer Ella Jay Basco. (It’s also worth noting the film was written and directed by women, Christina Hodson and Cathy Yan respectively.) As Huntress, the DC world’s crossbow-wielding vigilante, Winstead is a fierce standout but not without her share of comedic moments. The actress is quite at home playing the action hero, or anti-hero depending on how you choose to look at Huntress, and it shows in her performance. “I’m in this zone now where I feel really comfortable in that world, and I’d like to go further and further into it and maybe find something that I can develop and that really feels like me,” Winstead shares.
After a short portrait session, in which Winstead’s beauty showed no bounds, we sat down to chat about everything from bonding with her Birds of Prey co-stars to her 2020 obsessions. (She too can’t stop talking about that Netflix murder mystery doc.) Keep reading for our conversation.
Let’s talk Birds of Prey. Do you remember when you got the call to come in for this project? What was your initial reaction?
It piqued my interest because it was so female-led. Margot Robbie, the fact that she was starring in it, because I really respect her as an actress, but also the fact that she was producing, I thought was really interesting. I went and watched Cathy Yan’s first film, which I loved, so I really wanted to meet her and talk to her about it. I was really curious about Birds of Prey from the get-go, more so than I think other films in this genre, because I think I thought, Oh, you sort of know what to expect, whereas this was something new to me. I was excited to meet all these women who are strong and interesting and unique.
I imagine the term “badass” will be used often to describe this group of women. What does badass mean to you?
I think it just means not really caring what other people think. Following your true self and your heart and what you believe to be true to your values I think is pretty badass. I think inherently that requires strength, so following your own path makes you strong and makes you badass.
Tell us about Huntress. What makes her a particularly exciting vigilante in the DC world?
She was so much fun because she comes from such a dark place. This character is born out of a lot of pain and a lot of trauma, but I think in the comics you see this, and we found this as well, there is still a lot of fun to be had in that character. Sarcasm in the way that she is kind of a lone wolf, she doesn’t really like to work with other people, and the way she sort of butts heads with the other women was really fun to play with. I think we found humorous ways of playing with that. So she is angry and fierce and vicious but also a lot of fun.
Photo:Jade Mainade for Who What Wear
Huntress has a signature purple look that has stayed with her through her many iterations in the comics. How did you take the comic version of her look and give it a modern feel for this film? Was there something you personally wanted to bring to her look?
I think the main thing that we did in terms of translating it to the film that’s different from the comics is trying to make it a bit more tactile and a bit more part of the real world because the film has sort of a gritty real-world aesthetic to it within this very poppy comic book genre. I think we wanted to make it feel very tactile and functional, like I could really run around killing people in this outfit, so nothing is too tight, nothing is too restrictive, and there are lots of pockets for weapons and things like that. I think that was really thought-out. Also, of course, the things we thought were cool stylistically were really exciting to get to brainstorm together with the costume designer, Erin Benach. And also bringing a lot from the comics, the purple was really important as well as the crucifix motif. That is something you see a lot in the comics with Huntress because she comes from this Catholic background, so you see these crucifixes throughout what she wears in the comics, so that motif is brought in throughout everything I wear in the movie. It’s subtle, but it’s there.
What was your fitness regimen preparing for this role?
You know, thankfully they didn’t put us on any particular fitness regimen other than training for the roles, which was what do you need to know in order to play this character? What do you need to be able to do? Sometimes I was on my own, sometimes I was with the other girls, but we just had a big warehouse and trained with the stunt team for several months, did a lot of jujitsu, various kinds of martial arts, a lot of drills that would sort of slowly build into choreography over time, so it was really fun. I really loved it. I love working with stunt people because I find them to be just incredible people and so supportive and sweet, and their work ethic is incredible, and obviously their talent is unimaginable. I always find it really inspiring just to be around stunt people. I feel really lucky to get the opportunity to do that.
Are there skills or practices you would continue doing or take into your everyday life?
After Birds of Prey, I went on to work on another film with the same stunt team, so I feel like I’ve progressed a lot with each film, and physically I just move a little differently in my day-to-day life. My body feels different. I feel stronger, I feel a bit tougher, and so has affected me in some small ways.
This is such a strong female cast with Margot Robbie, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, and Rosie Perez. Do you have any particularly fond memories with the women when the cameras weren’t rolling?
A lot! There were a lot of bonding moments between us on- and off-set. They are such a lovely group of women and so fun, so funny and vibrant and vivacious. I remember there was one night when Jurnee and I went over to Rosie’s house and just all sat and drank wine and cried, just cried to each other. It was just so beautiful. They really are, all of them—Margot, Jurnee, Rosie, Kathy, Sue, Ella—they are all people who I can just pick up the phone and tell anything to. There is a real trust and camaraderie there that is so special.
Photo:Jade Mainade for Who What Wear
I want to ask about your 2020 obsessions. Who are you obsessed with right now? What are you obsessed with right now? And what are you wearing over and over right now?
Who am I obsessed with? I feel like a bit of a broken record and a bit of a cliché because everyone is obsessed with her, but I love Phoebe Waller-Bridge. I’ve been obsessed with her since the first season of Fleabag, still obsessed, just everything about her from her writing to her acting to her style. I love her. I’m so excited to see where she goes from here, and I really hope she writes more female action-oriented films because that could be really exciting.
And what am I obsessed with? I guess one thing I’ve been talking a lot about, and it’s weird to call an obsession because it’s very twisted, but I just saw this show Don’t F**k With Cats. I love when you see something that you tell other people to watch but you don’t tell them anything about it because you don’t want to spoil the experience. So I always feel kind of excited when I find a show or a movie like that that you get to tell people to watch and find out their reaction. I’m a bit obsessed with that.
And fashion-wise, I guess at the moment I’m trying to keep things very simple. I pretty much just throw something on and go, so a black turtleneck and a great jacket—that’s pretty much my go-to thing right now.
Let’s talk a bit more fashion. How do you and your stylist, Penny Lovell, approach a big press tour like the one you are in now for Birds of Prey?
The fun thing about doing a big tour like this when you have a lot of looks to pick out is that everything kind of takes on slightly less importance. You can really just have fun with it; I’ll wear one thing one day and another the next; I don’t think about it too much. It really is playing, and I let Penny handle all of the tailoring and all of the stuff. I let her decide if something doesn’t look right on me, and I don’t really overthink it too much.
Is there a specific look you are really excited about wearing?
I’m very excited about my Mexico and London premiere looks because they are sort of the dressiest looks, and I’m excited to have a little glamour.
What do you gravitate toward when it comes to the red carpet?
I’m really into being very chic and simple with a pop of something that’s a bit more whimsical or a bit more extravagant or like sort of strange in terms of shapes. I’ve always really loved ACNE, so I love that kind of aesthetic, where it’s simple but maybe a little geometric or there is something to it that catches the eye. I was in Tokyo recently and just went crazy shopping there, so I feel like I’m kind of set for the year. I’ve got a few key pieces that I just throw on and it feels unique and different and not like something that everybody has, so I love that. I tend to not shop so much on a regular basis, but when I’m somewhere that I don’t normally go, that would be my time to splurge to get something special.
Photo:Jade Mainade for Who What Wear
How does style come into play in your life now versus five or 10 years ago?
It’s hard to describe. For me, the way that I live now, I don’t really go out that much, so style isn’t really a part of my day-to-day life the way it used to be when I was younger, but it makes when I do glam it up all the more special. It’s kind of rare for me to put on jewelry or to put on a nice dress, especially when I’m not promoting something. But when I do, it’s really meaningful, it’s like a special night out, and I kind of love that. In my day-to-day life, I’m usually in overalls and wellies because I live in a really muddy place, so I like to get cleaned up once in a blue moon and do something glamorous.
As you think about where you are in your career now, what is a dream role for you at this stage?
I don’t know that I have a dream role necessarily, because I’m always inspired by what’s coming to me and I feel like usually what I’m longing for is what ends up coming to me in one form or another, so I kind of quietly send it out to the universe. But I think I’m really excited to do more action-comedy. Since Birds of Prey and the film Kate I did, I’m in this zone now where I feel really comfortable in that world, and I’d like to go further and further into it and maybe find something that I can develop and that really feels like me. I’m looking forward to those possibilities.
You are a bona fide scream queen with many horror/thriller films on your résumé. Are you itching to do another scary film?
I’ve always loved horror. I’ve always loved being the heroine of a film that requires me to do a lot of physical, gritty stuff, so that’s kind of one thing I’ve always loved about horror, the physicality of it and getting down and dirty and really having to claw your way through dirt and being covered in blood. You end up losing all vanity in those films, and that’s something I really love about it. In that sense, I’m always open to it, you know? I don’t close myself off to anything.
What horror films are on your radar right now?
I finally saw Parasite. It took me forever to see it, and I don’t know that I would really classify it as a horror film, but it certainly is horrifying on a lot of levels, and it’s beautiful. To me, that’s when a horror film hits all the buttons—when it’s really entertaining, it’s creepy, it makes you think, and it says so much about society and about class, says something about fears on a different level. That’s what’s always exciting to me about horror.
Birds of Prey is in theaters now.
Photographer: Jade Mainade
Stylist: Penny Lovell
Makeup Artist: Adam Breuchaud
Next up: our February cover story with Issa Rae.