Mary Elizabeth Winstead on the Political Thriller BrainDead, Trump and Women in TV

TV Features Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Mary Elizabeth Winstead on the Political Thriller BrainDead, Trump and Women in TV

Every election year we hear the same sound byte that this year is “extremely important,” but now more than ever that rings true. During President Obama’s presidency, the government has blocked many strides that he’s tried to make. Most recently, Republicans have vowed to block the President’s pick for SCOTUS. So far, they’ve kept up that end of their promise by refusing to have a hearing for the President’s nominee Chief Judge Merrick Garland—this is unprecedented. 

And in response to this hair-pulling tantrum-like behavior, many Americans are looking for a new voice, and in turn are responding to passionate speech, whether it’s based in vitriol filled with hate or tired disenfranchisement. No matter what party you represent, both sides are up in arms over what’s happening (and what’s not happening) in Washington, D.C., and it’s made for a terrifying knee-jerk era of politics.

Fortunately, it’s also made for some fascinating television. The brave storytelling of shows like Scandal and House of Cards are so on top of the spinning and scheming of Washington, that it’s often difficult to differentiate between where the art ends and the government discourse begins. 

Enter BrainDead, a new political thriller from the Kings (creators of The Good Wife). The series offers up all the pulp Washington has to offer, and then cranks the voltage way up. It’s a dramatic thriller, with a bit of Sci-fi thrown in for good measure. The hybrid of these genres shouldn’t work, but it turns out that Robert and Michelle King, combined with producer Ridley Scott, represent a trifecta that can do no wrong.

The show focuses on Laurel (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a documentary filmmaker turned wide-eyed Hill staffer, who not only has to deal with saving a government shut down on her first day, but also with big egos and exploding heads—literally. As the natural political landscape of our current election scorches the environment, there’s also an alien-like force that’s brainwashing D.C.

Winstead sat down with Paste to speak about the current state of politics, Trump’s lunacy, and where BrainDead fits in between the two.

Paste Magazine: The Kings really made a name for themselves with The Good Wife. Did you jump at the chance to work with them? 
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Absolutely. As soon as I heard they were doing a new show I was very intrigued. Once I read the script, I was so blown away that they would do something so different, so risky, and so outside of the box from what you would expect from them. It solidified the fact that I would be very lucky to work with these two people. They’re really going for it, and that’s really exciting.

Paste: They’ve tapped into how to really get the most out of primetime network content, which you can’t say for too many people.
Winstead: No, and that’s what I was so impressed by. I haven’t watched every episode of The Good Wife, but every time I did watch from year to year, it seemed to be a consistent level of quality. It’s mind-blowing to me, because it’s near impossible to do for that many years with that many episodes. Hardly anyone can pull that off. Now that I know them, I know it’s because they’re incredibly smart, talented and really genius in terms of how fast they think. 

Paste: You’ve done television before, and now more than ever there is talk about the revolution of TV and how we’re in this golden age. As an actress, do you find there’s more freedom on television?
Winstead: Absolutely. I go where the great roles are. I don’t want to be sitting back and playing someone’s wife, who doesn’t really get to do anything interesting. I’m happy to go wherever those roles might be. Right now, TV is definitely where the great protagonist female roles are. You can really drive the story and have a character arc, and go on adventures. That’s what I wanted to do, so I feel really lucky to have found that role to keep me challenged and exciting every day. It’s a great place to be in.

Paste: Why do you think that is? Is it really just the mucky muck business of the film world that has women characters thriving on television? 
Winstead: I think that’s what it is. There’s a lot more TV shows right now. In the film world, when it comes to the big films, there’s really not that many of them. There’s not that many that are original standalone films, with all these tentpoles and franchises. If you’re not starring in one of those, there’s really not that much else out there other than independent film, so I’ve started to do a lot of independent films and a lot of TV work. The opportunities in film are fewer than what they were a few years ago. 

Paste: It’s safe to say that your character Laurel has had a tough first three days of work. I think under those circumstances anyone would quit. 
Winstead: I know! She’s put through the ringer on this show, man! She’s pulled from every direction, during every episode. Just the fact that she survives at the end of the day is quite a feat for me (laughs).

Paste: At the end of the pilot I said, “How is this poor woman going to have enough stamina?!”
Winstead: (Laughs) And it does not let up. It just keeps getting worse for her, so be ready.

Paste: I’m ready. The stakes are already so high, and again that’s what the Kings do so well; they just keep on elevating.
Winstead: Just when you think it can’t get any crazier, every episode I say, “Okay, I guess we’ve reached pique insanity,” and then the next episode they totally up the ante. 

Paste: Did you know what you were getting yourself into, in terms of the content?
Winstead: Not really. I don’t think I knew what I was really getting myself into, other than I knew that I loved the pilot, I knew I loved the Kings and I knew it was just the right thing to do. It was one of those things where I just had to dive in and not overthink it. It’s even more insane than I could’ve ever imagined in terms of the material, but it’s also so rich and smart. It’s beyond what my mind could’ve cooked up.

Paste: These succinct storylines really say a lot on how viewership has changed. 
Winstead: It has changed. I think people really like to consume TV like a novel, where you have a beginning, a middle and an end to a story. There’s always going to be people who like the more procedural shows, where you get that in one episode, and there’s something easy and comforting about that, and I think that might continue. But there’s something exciting about having these shows that you binge watch, and cliffhangers. It’s something we’ve never had before and it’s exciting to be apart of this new age. 

Paste: It’s a unique perspective to play an outsider to the political world in the sense that Laurel has constructed this different career for herself, while her family is still embedded in the government. 
Winstead: It is. There are a lot of complexities there. We’ve talked about when she was younger she probably was really competitive, someone who ran for class president and she probably wanted to go into politics. When her father had an affair it fractured that for her, and she turned on politics, went out to L.A. and decided she was going to be around people she deemed to be real and authentic. She surrounded herself with truth, so when she gets bribed by her father to go back to D.C. to work for her brother, I think that little kid side of her kind of comes back. That drive takes over and she really does want to do a good job. She does have it in her to be passionate about these issues, so she wants to see things through.

Paste: This is a very interesting time for a show like this to premiere. People are disenchanted with how the government is seemingly just falling a part and not doing what it’s supposed to do, so you have people responding to vitriol in a way we’ve never seen before. In seems to go hand-in-hand with the premise of this show.
Winstead: Absolutely. This is an idea that the Kings have had for a while but I think as soon as all this craziness started happening, it really influenced the show in such a way that we can’t possibly not be a direct commentary on the current political climate. I think it will be pretty cathartic for people to watch the show and be able to completely observe things that are happening to these politicians, who we are all just frustrated by, especially by the whole system. I think the show satirizes that in a way, but also has somewhat of a hopeful message too, because we do have characters who are really trying to do good and make things happen. They’re up against this insane structure of government that is designed to be against them. But you get to watch heads explode and maybe you want a particular politician’s head to explode at this point to have it all be over with.

Paste: I think a few years back a network would be scared to buy into this. You always hear about the machine around actors and actresses, and what they can and cannot say. I’m sure this press day has brought up some pretty interesting questions for you. 
Winstead: Oh, definitely. It is such a political show but we don’t want our political opinions to overshadow the show, or to go around and spout what we believe all the time. For people who follow us, they have a very good idea of who we are and what we’re into as people, so we don’t have to go around and talk about our own personal politics. The politics of the show are pretty bipartisan. We’re talking about government as a whole, and how fractured it is and how the system isn’t working. As a society, we’ve been pushed so far apart from each other, more so than one party versus the other.

Paste: When you do read-throughs do you talk about what’s going on in politics? 
Winstead: We do. It tends to skew that way when we’re on set. In every workplace those conversations are happening, so I think it’s impossible to get around that, particularly where we’re doing a show like this.

Paste: The Kings are always cognizant of that relevancy. It was so strange to watch the three candidates speeches peppered throughout the episodes. You kind of think, “Wait a minute. This isn’t fiction. What he’s saying is actual reality.”
Winstead: I know! There’ are quotes and articles that I’ve been reading that I think are satirical, because it can’t possibly be real. When you plug it into our show, it almost works too perfectly in the zany, over the top, bizarro world that we’ve created because our own world seems so bizarre at times right now. It’s eerie how perfectly suited this show is for this particular summer. 

Paste: I love that Donald Trump’s lunacy has been explained through the premise of the show. Wouldn’t it be great if we could point to something like aliens as an explanation for him?
Winstead: I know. It would be great. It would be the perfect explanation and who knows, maybe we’re on to something? Maybe that’s what’s happening (laughs).

Paste: Do you see the current election and its results affecting the show? 
Winstead: Yeah, there’s definitely plans. The Kings have mapped out the first four or five seasons in terms of what the focus is going to be. This season is really about the current summer and the election, but from season to season, it’s really going to move and travel. I know they’ve been talking a little bit about it, but I don’t want to give away more than they’ve been saying. It’s not going to be in the same place, or the same city. It’s always evolving.

BrainDead premieres on June 13 on CBS.

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