Celebrating the Powerful Versatility of Mary Elizabeth Winstead

Boasting a holistically rewarding line-up of projects for virtually every demographic, this actress succeeds in constant reinvention.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead Filmographies

Alex of Venice (2014)

Several post-Smashed efforts left Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s acting abilities sorely underutilized. Many a thankless part peppers the mid-section of her filmography (at the time of writing), namely in films such as A.C.O.D. (2013), A Good Day to Die Hard (2013), Kill the Messenger (2014), and The Hollars (2016).

Thankfully, Alex of Venice exists. Winstead headlines the drama as its titular workaholic lawyer, whose eagerness and drive make her the perfect breadwinner. However, reality slaps Alex in the face when her unhappy homemaking husband abruptly takes off, entrusting a slew of familial responsibilities upon her.

Although loving and kind-hearted, Alex is high-strung and easily frazzled. She has long been defined by personal ambition alone and is patently unprepared to deal with anyone else’s problems.

Winstead navigates every scene with an agitated uncertainty familiar to anyone chasing the fabled work-life balance. She isn’t unaccustomed to portraying prim people, but Alex is unequivocally her most rigid character to date.

Ultimately, the film implores its protagonist to confront control issues, regardless of their unpleasantness. Winstead has never been so anxious onscreen. Yet, she discovers dignity and courage in that softness.

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s later genre offerings would help definitively transition her to adult roles. The wholly unnecessary The Thing prequel (2011) and the confoundingly hollow Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) tease tempered, level-headed versions of her past horror heroines — albeit to muted effect.

Instead, we look to Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane for Winstead’s fulfilling homecoming to big-screen scares. She portrays Michelle, a young woman imprisoned in an underground bunker after an unprecedented attack endangers life on the Earth’s surface.

Trapped in a tiny shared enclosure with an utterly menacing abductor (John Goodman), Michelle employs her own brand of disarming personability to outpace her domineering counterpart. Much of the narrative tension relies on a game of wits between Winstead and Goodman, wherein the former astutely constantly assesses her circumstances for a means of escape.

Of course, Winstead’s agility and steely resolve are paramount traits that aid in Michelle’s liberation. Winstead is always on her toes in 10 Cloverfield Lane, organically facilitating the movie’s nail-biting narrative beats and embodying the ideal final girl in every sense of the phrase.

BrainDead (2016)

Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s return to the small screen heralded some of her most delightful characters to date. We have to discount Carlton Cuse’s melodramatic sci-fi mystery The Returned. That said, Winstead finds the perfect horror-comedy in the series BrainDead.

The political satire focuses on a struggling documentary filmmaker named Laurel Healy (Winstead). She begrudgingly takes on a staffer job in Washington, DC to pay off her mounting debt. Unfortunately, Laurel’s newfound career in politics also coincides with the infiltration of Capitol Hill by extraterrestrial brain-eating bugs.

For the most part, Winstead gets to be in exuberant problem-solving mode as Laurel. Her natural flair for repartee and charm meld with assured resourcefulness. She is audaciously funny when handling the outrageous comedic demands of the series, too.

When Laurel’s allegiances are put to the test — by family drama as well as a flirtatious will-they-won’t-they dynamic with an opposition staffer — Winstead steps up as a commendable dramatic and romantic lead. She instinctively leads with her feelings even in the cutthroat world of fraught partisan politics. Winstead validates Laurel’s emotiveness, which is exactly what makes her such a fulfilling lead.

BrainDead‘s uniquely engaging and quirky plot feels like a gift for Winstead fans. Its premature cancelation stings. Nevertheless, it remains a refreshing one-season adventure that artfully services the breadth of her talent.

Mercy Street (2016-2017)

Period pieces are few and far between in Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s resumé. Still, her modern sensibilities lend themselves exceptionally well to Mercy Street. The PBS medical show dramatizes the lives of various staff members at Mansion House Hospital during the American Civil War.

Winstead fills the shoes of historical figure Mary Phinney. A stoic, noble abolitionist, she is conscripted to the Union infirmary as the head nurse.

Mary is indispensable to the disarray of Mansion House, but the gore of this new overcrowded workplace immediately overwhelms her. Colleagues of all mantles frequently challenge her headstrong disposition.

Moreover, Mary’s staunch liberal morals inevitably come into question during tricky situations of life and death that cross party lines. She must confront her absolutist values, negotiating with the many frustrations that accompany self-reflection.

The limits of Mary’s empathy are necessarily interrogated throughout Mercy Street. By rooting her passionate service in imperfect integrity, Winstead notably shines during these bouts of contradiction.

Fargo (2017)

Mary Elizabeth Winstead gives her strong-minded Fargo co-star Carrie Coon a run for her money in Season 3 of the series. Because, frankly, who is more prepossessing than the sensational Nikki Swango?

As the character, Winstead’s unapologetic sensuality and voracious appetite for victory impishly vie for our affection in stark contrast to the uncomplicated earnestness of Coon’s straitlaced Burgle. Plot-wise, Winstead faces off with not one but two Ewan McGregors (as rivaling twin brothers), ostensibly as a partner-in-crime at first.

Incredibly, when Nikki bites off more than she can chew and is horrifically obliged to atone, Winstead doesn’t play reformation straight. Nikki’s initially vindictive self-absorbed front ebbs and flows, evolving in line with Fargo’s idiosyncratic twists.

The transformative odyssey of Nikki’s arc compels our curiosity, considering her development from manipulative femme fatale to misunderstood scoundrel. Winstead keenly discloses the character’s shortcomings and culpability without tossing her humanity aside. By far, she created the most memorable antihero of the season.

All About Nina (2018)

Eva Vives’ confronting directorial debut, All About Nina, is a hidden gem in Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s resumé. The actress’ starring role dodges linear notions of character study, providing one of her most rigorous, full-bodied dramatic exercises in recent years.

The movie follows the messy everyday escapades of its caustic titular protagonist. Nina is a slovenly, vulgar stand-up comedian with a scathing, aggressive sense of humor. Although her harsh personality works for her edgy public image, she struggles to connect to others on a human level.

There is no shortage of raw, terrible people like Nina onscreen — Winstead’s own filmography is a testament to that. Nonetheless, her blisteringly committed performance establishes a character that is even more troublesome to pin down.

The screenplay’s hard-hitting themes awkwardly collide into snippets of gross-out comedy. To Winstead’s credit, her character absorbs all that discord and stubbornly spits it back out. Her fatalist, painfully cognizant schtick sharply reveals the complex realities of female trauma.

What develops is a relatable unruly woman worn down by the world around her, and Winstead’s stunning feral magnetism keeps viewers appalled and enthralled.

Gemini Man (2019)

Ang Lee’s Gemini Man is a crisp technical experiment bolstered by the effectiveness of its actors. The plot tracks Will Smith’s retired Defence Intelligence Agency hitman, a weary ex-sniper doggedly pursued by a much younger clone of himself.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead enters the scene as Danny, a proficient but fresh-faced DIA agent. She elects to join forces with Smith to uncover his former employer’s shady secrets.

Winstead never misses a beat as the upstanding, unwavering Danny, especially when paired with Smith. They are perfect scene partners, effortlessly bouncing off each other’s perceptiveness. Together, they create a thoroughly believable and enjoyable mentor-mentee bond that is electric in its frankness and sincerity.

Additionally, Winstead finds herself in the direct fray of the action and gets to kick serious ass. The ruthless grit of her physicality guarantees that Danny can hold her own in a fight and is never side-lined.

Birds of Prey (2020)

Cathy Yan’s defiantly glittery and garish Birds of Prey is the most distinctive and exhilarating comic book movie to come out of the DC Films franchise. Mary Elizabeth Winstead beat several other intriguing names for the coveted role of Helena Bertinelli, a.k.a. Huntress, a crossbow-slinging badass reluctantly linked to chaotic miscreant Harley Quinn.

The heroines of Birds of Prey define themselves by an abundance of harrowing backstories that inform their present-day hang-ups. Huntress witnessed the massacre of her entire family as a child and, as a result, isn’t all that impertinent when left to her own devices.

The character is almost comically moody and dreadfully socially awkward. These attributes starkly contradict her propensity for brute force.

Admittedly, Huntress’ anger issues are underexplored in the film. Still, witnessing Winstead share in a cinematic triumph of feisty, flippant womanhood is giddily gratifying. Her impeccable treatment of the fight choreography is utterly mesmerizing.

And there is always room for more! The superhero arm of the entertainment industry has primed us to anticipate role reprisals, and I certainly hope Winstead gets to reenter the DC scene.

Kate (2021)

Kate satiates my need for more Mary Elizabeth Winstead action vehicles should my hypothetical Huntress project never come to fruition. The Cedric Nicolas-Troyan flick inducts the actress into the tried-and-true tradition of brooding blood baths, letting her take center stage.

While Kate’s bitter, vengeful storyline recalls the broad predictability of its genre predecessors, Winstead’s vicious depiction of the eponymous heroine elevates the movie significantly. Her unforgiving tenacity is notably savage and unpolished. Regardless, the crisp, impacting combat sequences leave us transfixed.

Winstead simultaneously locates an exquisite middle-ground between acrimonious assassin blankness and involuntary protégé protector (her chemistry with teen co-star Miku Martineau is fantastic). But I especially appreciate that there is nothing aspirational in either her approach to survive or save. Winstead surrenders to savagery in this one. We just have to buckle up and enjoy the ride.

By now, we are predisposed to expect future greatness from Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Self-assurance serves as a throughline for most of her characters, but her soaring successes lie in an aversion to pigeonholing.

The strength of Winstead’s existing roster even makes her such a joy to watch in small doses. This is absolutely the case for her appearances in The Beauty Inside (2012), Swiss Army Man (2016), and the animated anthology Love, Death & Robots (2019). Peppered throughout Winstead’s robust talent showcase, these equally enjoyable bite-sized inclusions demonstrate just how important she is to the cinematic landscape in all its forms.

Winstead consistently personifies nuance and individuality in her work, honoring the many shades of female perseverance.

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Sheryl Oh: Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)