(A Word With ... ): Chances are you have seen Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Maybe it was as the ultracool delivery girl of Michael Cera’s dreams in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” the resolute survivor of the sci-fi/horror thriller “10 Cloverfield Lane” or the swaggering ex-con Nikki Swango in the third season of “Fargo.”
Fans of indie fare may also remember Winstead’s un-showy honesty as a recovering alcoholic and elementary school teacher in the drama “Smashed,” opposite Aaron Paul.
And yet the actress somehow still sidesteps the brightest spotlights, which may have something to do with the unassuming manner in which she carries her beauty — and the lack of ostentatious awards-bait roles in her filmography. “Some people do want bigger and flashier, and don’t really get it when you don’t go there,” said Winstead, 34. “I’ve always had to just be sort of OK with being under the radar if people don’t necessarily respond to that kind of performance, because that’s what makes me feel good.”
And she continues to branch out. She made an album of swoony pop songs with producer Dan the Automator (not under her own name, but as Got a Girl) in 2014. And now Winstead is testing herself anew: She is co-starring in a revival of “Dying City,” Christopher Shinn’s subtly suspenseful drama of grief and manipulation, that runs at Second Stage Theater until June 30.
“I was too scared to go after it,” Winstead said of stage acting. “I didn’t go to theater school or anything, so it’s always been something I thought I wouldn’t know how to do. But now I’ve reached a place where that really excites me.”
After that, the actress will be back on the big screen in less cozy settings: She’s in the Will Smith action movie “Gemini Man,” out in October, and is playing the vigilante Huntress alongside Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn in the 2020 release “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).”
Winstead recently sat down for a chat in a rehearsal room at Second Stage. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: What made you change your mind about doing a play?
A: I did this PBS show called “Mercy Street” with a cast of theater actors. I came at it with an inferiority complex but they really encouraged me to try. At that point I thought I could do the Williamstown Theater Festival or something, dip my toes in. Then the script [for “Dying City”] came when I had been doing “Gemini Man” and “Birds of Prey,” back-to-back, wall-to-wall action movies — which was really fun, but I was starting to crave something intimate and personal. I thought, “That’s it, that’s what I have to do. I need something new to challenge myself.” It was sort of a no-brainer so I auditioned. I think they were already interested in me but I didn’t realize it and I was like, “Please, let me have this part!” [laughs].
Q: Did doing live shows with Got a Girl help alleviate your jitters?
A: I remember thinking, “It’s just me on that stage, there’s no spectacle, what am I supposed to do? There’s no way I’ll be able to command these people’s attention.” It was surprising to be so scared then step on stage and feel totally relaxed and confident. Having had that experience was one step closer to going, “I think I can do a play.”
Q: It’s not your stage debut, though: Didn’t you do “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” in Salt Lake City with Donny Osmond?
A: Ha! I was 13. If you’ve seen that show, you know there’s a choir of children who sit onstage all the time and sing occasionally — I was in that. It was an incredible experience for me as a little kid, but I didn’t continue down the path of theater and around that age I started working in TV and film.
Q: Your IMDb page is getting pretty long. Which projects were keystones?
A: Definitely “Smashed” was a huge one for me. I unlocked something that made me go, “OK, I understand myself a little bit more, and I understand how I’m going to be able to bring that to the role I play.” It brought a new level of confidence in terms of being able to connect with all kinds of characters — they didn’t have to be like me in order for me to bring them fully to life.
Q: In “Fargo,” Nikki struts around as if she were always in control. Was it as fun to play her as it looks?
A: I loved [the role] but I was like, “Me? Really? This is what you want me to play?” I was a little bit perplexed because I was expecting some sort of Minnesota-nice character. I guess I was surprised that I would be playing someone so brash and tough and sexy and ballsy — all of those things I never attributed to myself. Usually there tends to be some sort of sweetness in what I’m offered, or bookishness. But I love it when I’m offered something in the opposite direction.
Q: “Gemini Man” is a big action thriller. Did you get to hang from a helicopter? That seems to happen a lot in this type of film.
A: No, but I do a lot of running around and I get to fight some people. I had to train in jiu jitsu, do a little tactical gun training — there’s some shootouts. “Birds of Prey” was the next level up. In “Gemini Man” I’m a DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] agent who’s been hired to keep an eye on Will Smith, but in “Birds of Prey” I play this assassin who’s been trained since childhood. It’s all women and genuinely funny and weird. It feels from the ’90s, in the best way.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.