Interview by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for
June 17, 2012

Based on author Seth Grahame-Smith's bestseller, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter reimagines the 16th President of the United States as a lean, mean, ass-kicking machine who not only sought to abolish slavery and unite the nation, but also took up a private war of vengeance against a growing infestation of vampires ingratiating themselves into the burgeoning frontier of young America. The genre-bending story ambitiously and creatively filters true historical events through the conceit of a horror fantasy, taking viewers on an entertaining ride that is part fact, part wild invention. Grahame-Smith, who enjoyed success with his previous mashup of period drama and horror fiction, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, adapted his own novel for the film, directed by Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch, Wanted). Benjamin Walker takes on the title role of Abraham Lincoln, heading up a cast that includes Anthony Mackie, Dominic Cooper, Rufus Sewell, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who plays the future President's main squeeze and eventual First Lady, Mary Todd.

In this exclusive interview, Mary Elizabeth Winstead talks about working on this stylish action/horror, offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of her recent work in short films, and previews a mix of upcoming projects. The title Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is obviously one that grabs people's attention. What was your initial reaction when you first heard it, and when the script first came your way?

MARY: Well, I had originally heard about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, when that was initially being made into a film. So I was definitely aware of the mashup concept. And later on, I had heard about the book Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter as well, and I knew that it was from the same author. So I had an idea of what the concept was, but I still wasn't quite aware of how it was executed and what the tone was--you know, I wasn't sure if it was campy or serious or what. So when I read the script, I was so amazed and just shocked, because I never once second-guessed anything that was happening--I really took it all at face value, and I believed everything on the page. And the fact that it was able to transport me into that other world that seems so not believable was amazing to me. So I was really excited to be a part of it.

What creative twists on history did you enjoy most in either the book or the film?

I just loved the fact that in order to weave in this fictional storyline, they didn't have to really break the reality of the true events very much at all--it almost feels like the metaphorical version of events, you know? The history is really there. If you look at the A storyline, it is the true history of Abraham Lincoln and his life, and none of that has really been changed or altered to try and fit the story of this vampire fantasy. It's really all there. And I was amazed at how they were able to do that. And for me, playing Mary Todd, the whole movie, I never had to think of vampires. The whole time, I really was just thinking of the true story of their relationship and what they were really going through, and it worked perfectly well. I didn't really need to worry about the fantasy element at all, and that was really cool.

It seems that after years of being romanticized, vampires have lost a lot of their popularity to zombies amongst horror and action fans. What can old-school genre enthusiasts look forward to with Abraham Lincoln's take on vampires?

Well, these vampires are definitely terrifying--I mean, there's nothing sort of loving or sweet about them in any way. [laughs] They are just scary, and they're really grotesque and frightening. It's Timur's brand of vampire, and I think he has a really unique style. And visually, they're kind of beautiful to look at, but in the grossest way, you know? I haven't seen it in 3D yet, but I'm really excited to see it in 3D because it was terrifying to me in 2D, so I can only imagine how scary that's going to be when that kind of vampire is actually leaping out at you. So these vampires are scary. And I think we need that. I think it's a good time to bring back the terrifying vampire.

As a viewer, what do you think about 3D becoming more prevalent in big action films?

I think it's great when it's used sparingly, and it's used for added effect, and it's not just the entire movie in 3D. And I haven't seen this one in 3D yet, but from what I hear, that's what Timur's done--used the 3D to just enhance the visceral feeling of the film. And I think that in this kind of movie, that really adds an element of excitement. You know, when you're dealing with these action sequences that are already jaw-dropping in 2D, that just adds another element that just takes you into that world, and I think that's really great.

Were you comfortable learning to use the old-timey shotgun?

I was! I really loved that, actually. I loved loading it. [laughs] It was really fun. It was my one bit of action, so I definitely took relish in it.

Are you a pretty good shot now?

Ummm...I don't know. I'd like to think so, but I'm not very well practiced. That was my first time...So I'm sure I'll get more chances.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think this is the first time you've played a character also named Mary, right?

It is! Yes.

Given that being called something else is yet another layer between an actor and their character, are you at all pulled out of the acting experience when you're playing someone with your own name?

It's interesting...I mean, it was very convenient, I think, for the crew. [laughs] Like nobody had to learn a different name--you know, I'm just "Mary." But I think for this, there were so many things that brought me into character--the costumes and the hair and the make-up and the sets, and everything was just so specific and it's such a different world--that I think it didn't make much of a difference. I think maybe if I was dealing with a world that was much more similar to my real life, it might get a little more confusing, where it's like, "Wait, what am I doing? Am I me or my character?" [laughs] But for this, it was such a different world that the two different Marys were very, very separate.

If storytellers 150 years from now decided to fictionalize you in a similar manner to Lincoln in this film, what would you like your alter-ego to be? Mary Elizabeth Winstead: actress by day, what by night?

Man...I would love to be something badass along the lines of a vampire hunter, but of course, it has to be something different. Like I've been saying I really want there to be a Mary Todd vampire hunter, because I would love to be in period garb and killing evil things. [laughs] I would love to be a sort of hunter of the undead in some capacity. I think that would be awesome.

Where were the locations used for your scenes?

They were all in or around New Orleans, which was amazing. It was so much fun to shoot there.

Did you personally have time to soak in some of the local culture?

I did. I loved it. We spent a lot of time in the French Quarter, specifically on Frenchmen Street, which is where there's just tons of jazz clubs, live music...There's just always something exciting happening. One of the things I would get were [poems]. There were these street poets who just write you poetry on the spot. You can give them a theme, and they'll just write you a poem based on that theme. [laughs] There's little fun things about the city that are everywhere you look. And there's constantly street fairs happening. You'll wake up in the middle of the night and there's suddenly a parade outside your door. It's just an incredible place that feels unlike anywhere else in the country. It's amazing.

You've done some great short films over the past year or so, like Magnificat, where you were able to create so much tension in only 13 minutes. What are some challenges in making shorts that maybe aren't present when you're doing a feature-length movie?

I think short films are incredibly challenging. To try to tell an entire story in that short amount of time is a real test of your skill. And I think Riley [Stearns], my husband, who wrote and directed it...You know, it's really all him. I produced it and starred in it, of course, but I think he would probably be the better person to answer a lot of those questions. But I know that he really wanted it to be very atmospheric and tense. And I think that that was a lot of not showing too much. I think that was sort of his brand of horror that he was trying to create--keeping a lot hidden and keeping a lot secret, and only giving a certain amount away to the audience. And that sort of helped create the atmosphere that he was going for.

In the comedy short Cost of Living, you provide the voice of a computer that is constantly announcing disastrous news in a calm, matter-of-fact style. How did you like getting your HAL 9000 on?

[laughs] It was really fun, actually. We recorded it all in my living room with BenDavid [Grabinski], the writer/director. And everybody was just cracking up at every line because I was saying these sort of horrible things, but doing it in such a cheery, kind of deadpan way--you know, these people are all dying around me, and it doesn't matter to me. [shrugs] "I'm just a computer. I have no feelings." So it was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed it.

Let's expand computers to include robots...Do you think you would be able to adjust to life better as a robot or a vampire?

I'd go for vampire. Because even if you're going to have to live for an eternity in sadness, at least there's still emotion there, you know?

Immortality has its advantages. Think of all the traveling you could do...

Yeah. I mean, I've been saying that it would kind of be horrible to live forever, but there's certainly perks to it as well. [laughs]

So when you're not making awesome short films, what are you doing in your free time? Picking up any new hobbies, interests, or skills?

Yeah. I've been working on an album lately with Dan the Automator, who's a friend of mine. And we've been having a lot of fun with that. So there's been a lot of writing music and recording music. We're both really busy with other things, so it's really slow going. But that's been a big focus of mine when I do have time. And I love just being home and hanging out with my husband and my dogs...And just being really lazy when I can be. [laughs]

What kinds of dogs do you have?

I have a miniature dachshund and a Maltese, and they love each other, and they're adorable, and they're very hard to leave behind, which is why it's hard for me to leave my house sometimes. [laughs]

What style of music can we expect from you, when you do manage to finish that side project?

Well, it's kind of '60s French pop inspired. Dan comes from a big hip-hop background, so it's got a sort of hip-hop influence in the beats and things like that. But it's kind of a fusion of those two elements.

Given the flavor of that music and the fact that the spoken dialogue in your short film Casque is French, I'm now curious: are you fluent in French?

No! [laughs] The music, actually...It's not really in French, but it's just sort of in that style of like the Serge Gainsbourg/Jane Birkin kind of way. But yeah, I wish I was fluent in French, because I obviously love France and the French culture. I'm very into it, but I'm not very good at speaking the language. [laughs]

You've got a few movies coming out in the near future. Are there some projects that you're particularly excited about?

I'm really excited about Smashed coming out this fall, which is a film that I'm super proud of, and just excited for people to see. And I just finished a comedy called A.C.O.D. with Adam Scott and Jane Lynch and Catherine O'Hara and Amy Poehler, and just a bunch of incredibly funny people. So [I have] a couple things coming out that are totally different than anything I've done before, so I'm excited to see what that leads to, and what else will come down the line.

Any chance we'll see you reprise your role as John McClane's daughter Lucy in the next Die Hard movie?

I don't know. It could go either way at this point. [laughs]

Well, I will have my fingers crossed. Mary, thanks for taking the time to do this interview this afternoon. I really appreciate it.

No problem! Thank you so much, it was nice to talk to you.

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