The most frightening element of the 1982 John Carpenter horror classic “The Thing” is the title creature, a shape-shifting alien parasite brought to gruesome life with detailed practical effects. For actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the scariest part about starring in a new prequel to the film, also called “The Thing” and opening Friday, was the risk of not living up to a cult favorite.
“I think there was some pressure going into it knowing that we were going to be watched very closely and that if we didn’t do it justice, there was going to be a lot of anger,” Winstead said in Los Angeles.
But the 26-year-old actress, known for her roles as a Hollywood starlet in Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof” and as the object of Michael Cera’s affection in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” saw in “The Thing” a chance to do something different.
“I didn’t open the script and see a bunch of retreads of the same characters that are in the first film, who are so beloved,” said Winstead, a self-described fan of Carpenter’s film, which was itself inspired by 1951’s “The Thing From Another World.” “I saw a totally new story with new characters and new dynamics.”
Winstead plays Kate Lloyd, a Columbia University paleontologist enlisted to help excavate a mysterious creature frozen in ice near a Norwegian research station in Antarctica. It will surprise no one who has seen Carpenter’s film that the creature escapes, with disastrous results: The charred wreckage of the Norwegian camp is visited in the 1982 film by Kurt Russell’s wily helicopter pilot, MacReady.
The new “Thing,” set days before the Carpenter film, maintains the mythology and echoes some key scenes of its predecessor, but it also adds original elements. Chief among them is a female protagonist — there are no women in the 1982 cast — who is in many ways the opposite of Russell’s wisecracking hero.
“I kind of accepted the fact that she’s not funny,” Winstead said of Kate, for whom she drew inspiration from her oldest sister, a neurologist. “She’s very serious.… She’s very focused, she’s very intelligent.”
She also turns out to be handy with a flamethrower.
Joel Edgerton, Winstead’s costar, said there was a conscious effort “not to try and make her some sort of glamour queen in the middle of this crazy, dirty, oily, ancient base station.”
Winstead found the opportunity to play a character who wasn’t overtly sexy, funny or ditsy to be refreshing. “I just don’t feel like that’s really representative of women as a whole,” she said. “This was the kind of role that to me was the kind of thing I was looking as a filmgoer to see on screen.”
“The Thing,” a Universal picture, also diverges from the typical studio playbook, with a first-time European director in Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., a cast lacking any real big names, and a number of scenes with Norwegian dialogue and English subtitles. Van Heijningen, who is Dutch and has a background in commercials, is a devout Carpenter fan (and an “Alien” disciple) and was adamant about maintaining the original film’s slow burn.
“Old horror-thriller movies, they always have a long buildup,” he said. “I really had to fight for that.”
The director tried to use practical effects as much as possible, though many scenes make use of computer-generated imagery. Winstead said she and her fellow cast members found it useful to have something tangible to act against other than a tennis ball on a stick or a guy in a neon-green bodysuit.
“It’s a real blend of practical and CGI,” she added. “It’s kind of representative of the film in the sense that it’s a blend of the old and the new.”
Like “The Thing,” which takes place in 1982, Winstead’s next project is another period piece, one whose audacious premise is given away in the title: “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” due next year. In the film based on the book by Seth Grahame-Smith, who also wrote the screenplay, Winstead plays Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker), who in this universe slays vampires during his off-hours. Timur Bekmambetov (“Wanted”) is at the helm.
As with the novel, the film is deeply researched and plays its absurd hypothesis with a straight face. “It feels very real; it’s not very tongue-in-cheek or winky or anything like that,” Winstead said. “It’s really told as though this is the story of our country. It’s a lot of fun.”
Winstead is preparing for her role in “Smashed,” a small indie in which she plays an alcoholic teacher opposite Aaron Paul of the AMC series “Breaking Bad.” After that, it’s anyone’s guess what the Los Angeles-based actress will tackle, which suits her just fine.
“Whatever your last film was is usually how people see you,” Winstead said. “I try with every film to go in the opposite direction … so that nobody will ever be able to figure out exactly what I am.”
— Oliver Gettell
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