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Mary Elizabeth Winstead on Vintage, Vampires and Playing Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Elizabeth Winstead isn't new to the acting world—you might remember her as a cheerleader in Quentin Tarantino's 2007 film Death Proof or as Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. But now, she's snagged a lead role as Mary Todd in the Tim Burton-produced, Timur Bekmambetov-directed Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, an only semi-fictional account of the life of our 16th president based on a novel of the same title. And that's not all: her next project, the hugely buzzed-about Smashed, sees her playing a recovering alcoholic alongside Oscar winner Octavia Spencer.

Last weekend, I sat down with the star to discuss her style sense and onscreen turn as a former First Lady—albeit one who battles bloodsuckers while wearing a hoopskirt and looped braids, of course.

What exactly drew you to the part of Mary Todd?

Well, initially when I read the script, I wasn't really sure to expect—just from the title! But I was pleasantly surprised about how real all the characters felt. And the character of Mary Todd was written in a way that was very strong, very take-charge—not at all the sort of passive, "token female" role you see sometimes.

Heading into the project, did you know much about Mary Todd's life?

All i really knew about her was that she ended up being institutionalized when she was older, and I knew that during her time as First Lady, she was talked about for having a lot of breakdowns. So from what I knew, she was kind of a crazy person. But then the more I read about her, the more I learned that was only really true in her final years. There was a lot more to her than that.

How did you study up before you began shooting the movie?

I only had a couple weeks to prepare once I got the role—not much time at all. So I basically got every biography that I could, and I watched a couple of old movies that were about Lincoln to see what their portrayals of Mary Todd were like. She was so different from most of the women of her time—she was totally willing to be disliked in order to speak her mind. I fell in love with her both as a character and as a person.

You shot the movie in New Orleans—that must have been fun!

It was amazing. I'd never been before and had heard it was really fun...but I also had a picture of it being very boozy, like Bourbon Street, Mardi Gras, that kind of thing. It's really so beautiful though—there's great architecture, and it just feels so alive. There's always something happening: a concert, a show, a club with a live jazz band. And even as someone who's not a party person, I still went out every single night when I was there.

You got to wear some pretty amazing costumes, too. What were they like?

I loved them—initially. They were all handmade in Italy, and we even had the designer on set the whole time. But once you get over the fact that everything's so gorgeous, you realize wearing corsets and hoopskirts isn't as much fun as you thought it'd be. It was hard to eat, to breathe, to move...and sitting was the worst! I had to have people helping me all the time, even just to walk across the set. I don't know how i would've dealt with being a woman in that period.

It was like having a handicap.

Yes! A beautiful handicap!

So what's your personal style like?

It changes a lot—I've never been the type of person to stay within one style for very long. I've always been a big lover of vintage, of '40s and '50s style. And while I still am, I add more modern elements to it than I used to. I used to prefer vintage clothes all the time, and now I'm much more into vintage-inspired things because I like to be comfortable. I don't really love wearing polyester all the time! So I love pieces like this one [gestures at her polka-dotted, pleated Max Mara dress]...it's new, but has a retro feel.

Can you let us in on some of your favorite shopping destinations?

I love online shopping. I don't particularly like going out and trying on clothes in stores. I love ASOS—I'm on there all the time.

And you're the new ASOS Magazine cover girl! Congrats on that!

Yes, thanks! It was coincidental. I'm obsessed with that site—it's where the majority of my shopping happens. I dabble a little in designer, but I'm not big on spending too much money. Marc Jacobs and Marc by Marc Jacobs is the sort of thing I go for. His clothes always have that whimsical, vintage quality. And Louis Vuitton...owning some of those pieces would be a dream.

What are you planning to pick up for summer?

I really just want to be comfortable, but mix in a little bit of glamour. Like, I never used to be into them, but I've gotten really into maxiskirts and maxidresses. And those are definitely outside of my more vintage, structured comfort zone.

How about your summer playlist? What have you been listening to lately?

A lot of Grimes—like around the clock. I've also been in a nostalgic mood, so I'm listening to the Cocteau Twins, a lot of '80s stuff too.

OK—it's time to play a little game I call "Mary vs. Mary." I'm going to pit you, Mary Elizabeth, against your onscreen alter ego, Mary Todd, in a few different categories. Let's see who comes out on top. First, who wins for best fashion sense?

I think you have to give it to Mary Todd just for being able to rock the clothes from that period. Wearing that every day of your life is a challenge in and of itself. For her, fashion was like hard work!

Who would you say is better when it comes to getting the guy?

Hmm...Mary Todd is very bold. I think were kind of similar in that way. I'm married, and have been with my husband forever, but I definitely made all the moves—just like how she did [with Abe Lincoln]. So I think this one might be a tie.

Finally: who would be more useful to have around in the event of a vampire attack?

Man, I'm giving them all to Mary Todd! She's got a little more experience with this kind of thing than I do. But still...if I had to, I think I could hold my own. I've got a good kick! And then, you know, if I had a stake, I could do the whole "kick, then stake" thing. Sort of a one-two punch.

Sounds intimidating. Speaking of which, your upcoming movie Smashed got incredible reviews at Sundance this year. What was it like going from playing the strong, brave Mary Todd to someone struggling with alcoholism?

It was certainly a different preparation style compared to everything I've done before. It was very much a collaboration with the director—we'd talk for hours and hours about the character, and about myself, and how the two of us could relate...like what I could find in the character to grab on to. I went to a lot of AA meetings, talked to a lot of people in recovery and matched up my own story with theirs. That was the interesting part about it—realizing I had a lot in common with those people. Even though I don't have substance abuse issues, I have issues of my own that helped me relate to them. It was an amazing process to go through.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter opens nationwide on Friday.

Photo: Getty Images

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