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Mary Elizabeth Winstead Talks 'The Thing,' Flamethrowers & Kurt Russell

This weekend, fans of John Carpenter's horror-classic The Thing will be given an answer to the question that has haunted them since the film's release in 1982: What, exactly, happened at the Norwegian camp? For those who are not familiar with The Thing, "the Norwegian camp" refers to the group whose remains were found by R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) and his fellow American scientists at the beginning of the John Carpenter-directed original.

Though it has the same title, The Thing, functions as a direct prequel to its predecessor. It begins with the events that lead to release of the shape-shifting alien featured in the original film. Though it has the same basic premise as 1982s The Thing (the discovery of an alien life-form at an Antarctica research site leads to a deadly confrontation) this film focuses on American paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) as its central protagonist. The thoughtful female lead stands in sharp contrast to Russell's iconic portrayal of MacReady in Carpenter's film.

We recently had the opportunity to speak with Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), about  crafting a relatable character in extraordinary circumstances, training with a flamethrower, and getting her inner Ripley on.

Strong Women And Funny Men:

Did Kurt Russell’s performance in the 1982 film inform your performance at all?

"Not really, no. When I first signed onto it I was like 'okay, I need to make this character funny or something, right, because it’s like MacReady.' And then I was finally just like, 'no, it’s not MacReady.' I need to just not think about that, it’s nothing like MacReady. And just because she’s sort of the lead of this film, doesn't mean she has to have the same personality traits as the lead of the Carpenter film."

So it informed it by not informing it?

Is it fun to get your inner Ripley on?

"Yeah, oh definitely. I mean Ripley, she’s just one of the best examples, especially in the first 'Alien.' Because she kind of ends up becoming more and more bad ass. But in the first one she really is just a smart woman who knows what’s going on and who’s trying to convince everyone else that there’s something bad happening. She responds in a way that women would aspire to. She's someone strong, independent and really put together. So I think that in that sense, Kate is similar. I definitely didn't try to copy her performance in any way, but she is such an iconic character that you can’t help but have it in the back of your mind."

Did this feel like more of a take charge role than your characters in Scott Pilgrim or Live Free or Die Hard?

A lot of the sense of paranoia and suspicion in the film comes from you. You’re standing in for us as the audience. Did you pick specific moments where you were going to question whether or not another character was an alien? Or did you shape that question differently for each person?

"Well, I think the main thing (since you always film things out of order) was keeping track of the timeline of when she’s discovering things and how far into her discovery she is. Because you don’t want to jump the gun and say oh, she knows already at the beginning of the film. She always has a suspicion, but she doesn't understand it at the beginning, she just has more of like a sixth sense that she knows something isn't quite right. But she doesn't fully intellectualize it until a certain point in the film, and so I just had to keep track of exactly where I was in my mind each moment."

Prequels, Sequels And Remakes:

There seems to be room left open for a sequel with this character (outside of continuation of the story in the Carpenter film). Has anyone talked to you about that yet?

"No. I mean, I think it’s all about your interpretation, you know? Like to me, I feel like things are wrapped up. But things can always turn around and you know how it is, if something’s successful enough, they’ll find a way. So who knows. It’ll depend on how things go."

What did you think of the angle of going as a prequel to the original - as opposed to just remaking the original?

Creatures, Blood and Flamethrowers:

Can you talk about working with the practical effects?

"Every big creature scene that we did, we had practical effects there. I mean we had people in suits running around with these crazy tentacles and things, you know, chasing us and stuff like that. It was, I mean, sometimes almost looked sort of silly, but then when you would see it on the monitors it would look awesome. So it was interesting because when you’re doing something you’re like, 'okay, this looks ridiculous.' But then the way it’s being shot, it actually looks great."

Were there moments when you were trying to access this horror and fear but you kind of wanted to laugh?

"Oh, well, yeah, but I mean that always happens in horror films. Because there’s always things that end up happening that are kind of hilarious but you have to stay in the moment and act like you’re terrified. You know, like people being splashed in the face with fake blood and it’s like going in their ears and their nose. It’s just so hard to keep a straight face. But yeah, I guess I’m used to it at this point."

How was your flamethrower training?

"Brief. But it was good."

Did they just put it in your hand and say go?

"Pretty much. Before we started shooting, we went to this warehouse where the guys that do the burn effects showed each of us who had to use it in the film how to use it and said, 'okay, try it.' And we tried it, and they’re like, 'good, you can go.' So it was a very brief training process. But really it’s just, 'here’s the safety precautions, here’s the button you push.' I mean, there’s not a lot more you can do."

Flame on.

Exposition and Working with the Norwegians:

Did you have any conversations as the story progressed in terms of the decisions that your character was making? Did you ever question what she was doing and say, 'Why would she do this at this particular point?'

"Yeah, all the time. This film was great because it was probably one of the first films that I felt comfortable really doing that. I mean normally I’m like, 'whatever you say.' But on this one there was a lot of collaboration. You know, it’s hard, because as an actor you never want to do exposition. You’re always trying to get out of that. But at the same time, you do need to let the audience know what’s going on. And so I’d always be like, 'we don’t have to actually say this at this point.' But  because I was the eyes for the audience, I did have to sort of help kind of move things along and help let the audience know what was happening."

Did anything change, via those conversations?

"Yeah. I mean, there was a lot. The scenes were kind of like ever-changing, moving things. I mean, there were a lot of ideas that sprung up on the day that we added in. Especially working with the Norwegians and ideas that they would come up with, because they know their history and their country and what they would say or do in a situation better than someone who’s writing for them. So yeah, they had lots of good ideas as well, and yeah, we did a lot of  improvising here and there that turned out to be really great."

In this film you’ve got the pilots, you've got you and Eric Christen Olsen, and then the Norwegians. Did you guys ever go method with that sort of division in the camp?

"No, they were just too lovable. They were so great. They were all so much fun to be around and they were all so excited to be a part of this film because they all normally just work in Norway. So to be a part of like a big Hollywood, you know, big budget movie was such a big deal and it was just joy from them at all moments. They would just pick you up and throw you. They were just so happy to see you. So yeah, there was no way that I could try and act like I didn't like them, or didn't want to be around them, because they were so much fun."

You can get to know the Norwegians and see the deconstruction of what occurred at their camp when The Thing opens in theaters this Friday, October 14th.

Follow me on twitter @jrothc

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Mary Elizabeth Winstead Talks 'The Thing,' Flamethrowers & Kurt Russell