It is rare when a leading actress has near unlimited access to one of her film’s screenwriters while on set. But in the case of star Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Katie Nehra, they were practically sisters during the making Alex of Venice, cameras rolling or not.
As appearing in Chris Messina’s directorial debut, which just had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Winstead and Nehra respectively play Alex and Lily of Venice Beach, two adult siblings who are drawn back together when Alex’s husband George (Messina) leaves her to balance raising their 10-year-old son and the sisters’ ailing father (a fantastic Don Johnson). In the film, which you can read my full review of here, their characters and performances have an instant rapport that helps give the movie its quizzical charm and grace, in spite of the potentially ponderous crises at hand.
And when meeting them in person, it is easy to see they also have that same easy-going connection and shorthand off-screen, turning a roundtable interview into a lively chat about sisterhood, acting with the writer standing next to you, and that one time where ice cream sandwiches proved lethal on-set. We were also graciously joined by Derek Luke, the terrific character actor from Antwone Fisher and Friday Night Lights, who memorably plays Frank in Alex of Venice, a professional and legal foe for crusading Alex by day, and her one source of escape by night.
Was this the first time you got to see the movie?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: The finished film? Yeah. We all saw a rough cut a while ago, which was still the essence of the movie.
Katie Nehra: Yeah, this is our first time with everyone seeing the color-corrected version with the music and the sound. I’m like “Wow, this is like a real movie!” [Laughs]
MEW: It makes a real difference.
KN: It really does! Sometimes while I was watching it, I’m like, “I don’t know. Why is there a boom in this shot?” [Laughs].
How does it feel to watch it, particularly with your words being said?
KN: It was pretty wild, especially with Justin [Shilton], who I started writing the script with six and a half years ago. Just seeing him last night is pretty cool. It feels kind of surreal because it’s like, “Wow, this wouldn’t have happened without us coming together and wanting to share a story.” It was really cool.
Usually the screenwriter isn’t on the set. They don’t want them on the set. Was that daunting at all?
MEW: To be around the writer?
KN: I was like “don’t fuck up your lines.” [Laughs]
MEW: She really would say that like everyday! It was kind of the most collaborative set I’ve ever been on. It just felt like everybody was involved with coming up with ideas, and of course it all started with the original screenplay, which is great and what got me onboard along with Chris [Messina] and everything. But we were all able to come together. Nobody was too precious about anything. We all just threw out ideas and threw out whatever came to mind in the middle of the scene….Chris would walk up to a crewmember and be like, “Do you have an idea? Should we do it another way?”
KN: It was such a loving atmosphere. Chris wanted me to totally put on the actor hat. So, when they would rewrite a scene—I remember there was one scene and I thought, “They rewrote this really bad.” [Laughs] Let’s just do our own version of this! Chris would say, “Okay, so do it like this.” So, it was very collaborative, and we did a lot of improv, which I love. It was great, and that is all a testament to Chris, really.
When you started writing the script six years ago, did you always know the part of Lily was tailor-made for you?
KN: Yeah, probably. I feel like no one is going to write as great a part for you as you can write for yourself. They’re just not. I’m writing a thing right now where I’m playing the female version of Eminem and I’m a bounty hunter. Who the hell is going to cast me as that? [Laughs] I’ve got cornrows and tats. Everyone wants to cast women in these boring roles. I think that’s why Mary was drawn to this film, because it’s like actually watching a woman fall apart and not just be in a kitchen shouting, You’re late!
MEW: Where have you been?
KN: Where have you been all day?!
Were Derek and Mary your ideas for the roles? Or did your idea change after they got cast?
KN: Alex was always written a little older and then when Chris is like “oh my God, you have to meet Mary,” her audition just blew everyone away. We were like “we’ll just make Alex younger.”
MEW: It was really nice that you guys kind of took a risk on that, because we [knew people would notice] that I’m a little bit younger than Chris. We’re just kind of like, “You know what? He was older, and they got together, and whatever.” It happens. And I am old enough to have a 10-year-old son.
KN: Definitely. I think the reason the movie came out so well is because everything kind of happened organically. And I’ve always been a fan of both of their work. I remember Derek had just been on The Americans, and I sent Chris a screenshot photo of you with your fro, and I’m like “what about him playing Frank?” That would be hot. [Laughs]
Derek Luke: Really? I didn’t know that!
KN: I will show you. I think I still have the photo on my phone. I’m not kidding. And Chris is like “he’s really good!” I’m like, “Yeah, hello?”
MEW: No, I remember you telling me that.
KN: You’re here because of me, basically. [Laughs]
DL: Thank you! I’m just happy to be in the movie.
And what drew you to the role?
DL: Chris was interested in Frank being multi-dimensional; it was written that way. And a lot of times, my experience was I showed up on set where some directors would have a law that you could only walk down this path. And I’ve had a great journey with actor-directors [like] Peter Berg and Denzel Washington. I just love their language. So, when I met with Chris, he was like, “We’re going to find [him.]” When you hear someone say that, it means you’re not the only one searching for gems and jewels. We’re all searching for it, so it made it very comfortable. Especially in the independent world, and in movies in general, you can sign up and it can be a week in advance. That’s not normally your prep space. So, you just want someone not to hire you based on the past, but the now.
How was Chris as a director for all of you guys?
MEW: He’s wonderful. Like Derek was saying, just getting to work with an actor-director was so great. I’ve worked with a lot of directors who have great communication, but there are those times where the communication is really not there, because they don’t know how actors approach what they do, and they don’t know how to get you to do what they want by using the right language; they don’t know how to use it. He knows exactly how to express that, because he’s an actor. So, it cuts out any sort of communication issues. And he knows what actors like to do, which is to get to play and go every direction possible. He’s like now do it this way, now do it this way, now do it this way.
KN: He was like an actor’s playground. Most directors are like “can you just do this scene faster?
MEW: Yeah, louder, faster, quiet.
KN: Or you missed your mark. He would be like “what if we did it like this?” And he just let the camera roll. It’s very old school, probably how people when they made films like this—we have the luxury where we’re not doing a film with special effects where you have to get all this crazy stuff. It’s like an actor’s gym where we get to work out every muscle you want to use, and you probably don’t a lot of the time.
MEW: It was really fun. I loved when he’d shoot from behind the camera. After a while he’d just start to shout, “Say this! Give her a hug!” [Laughs]
KN: Or he’d be like, “What are you doing Kate?!” in a funny voice. And it would like work!
Mary, Chris said at the premiere that you did the ecstasy scene so much that you threw up. Could you talk about the process of that scene?
MEW: Well—it was a mix of things that happened. The first thing that happened was that was the day they had an ice cream truck on set. Ice cream sandwiches literally this big [gestures large sandwich]. And I had two of them. I don’t know why, but that night I decided to have two giant ice cream sandwiches. And then—
KN: I had tequila on set.
MEW: Katie was drinking tequila.
KN: I was making mixed drinks.
MEW: I literally had only two sips of the tequila, but it was just enough, I think, with the ice cream. And then I didn’t really realize, the way that Chris shoots, that it was going to be crazy. I mean it looks so mellow with the music and the slow-mo, but we were jumping to really fast-paced music, and Chris kept going, “Jump! Keep jumping! Keep jumping everybody!” It was just half an hour of jumping.
KN: We shot that night until like 7am, and I remember when I saw you, it was like you jumped in the pool. Your body was dripping with sweat.
MEW: I was so sweaty and disgusting. [Laughs]
KN: Just like every ounce of you had been taken.
MEW: At the end of the take, I wasn’t feeling well, so I went to go sit down inside. And to Courtney [Hoffman], who’s our lovely costume designer, I said, “I think I’m going to throw up.” And she took me to the bathroom and held my hair back, and we had a great bonding moment that night.
You have a great a quality of mixing comedic elements with dramatic moments. I saw it in Smashed and I see it in this film. Is that hard to balance or does it come out naturally?
MEW: Thank you so much. Well, I think that’s the kind of thing I’ve grown into as I’ve gotten older and further into my career: bringing myself as much as I can, and knowing that that’s a good thing. I think when I was younger, I thought that wasn’t really acting. “No, I have to create like this mysterious person who is totally different from me! That’s the only way I’ll be a real actor!” As I’ve gotten older, I realized that it’s the opposite. That’s what people want to see. They want to see you. They want to see your personality, and your heart, and your soul, and that’s what actually makes me people relate to you. So, I finally kind of realized that and I just try to bring myself to it.
I’m just thankful people like Chris—when I watch it, I’m like “I do so many weird things!” But thankfully, someone appreciates it. There are so many faces I make where I’m like “I have no idea why I’m doing that.”
This movie is about upheaval and transitions, and reflecting on that. Why do you think Alex began her affair with Frank? Was it because she was looking to bring the upheaval of her personal life to her professional one and to reevaluate it?
MEW: When [Alex] asks the Ouija board whether “I’ll ever have sex again,” I think it’s this really nice moment of showing her insecurity that she’s never really showed before, because she’s just trying to keep it all together and be the mom. So, it shows she is insecure about who she is and where she’s going, and where she’ll end up. I think Frank is a sort of exciting person who came into her life, and I think she and George hadn’t really been in love in a long time, even though she hadn’t admitted that to herself.
KN: Different flavor. [Laughs] Back to the ice cream!
MEW: So, I don’t think she sees it as messing up her work life. I think she’s just allowing herself to feel something she hasn’t felt in a long time, and be kind enough to give herself a little bit of freedom to explore something.
I was wondering if you guys could talk about the sister dynamic, because it is unexpected in the movie, but it’s very real. Do you [both] have sisters?
KN: We both have sisters, yeah. And I think sisters is such a unique relationship—depending on also how close you are in age, you can be competitive, and women are emotional and can be crazy—but Mary and I, when we met, we instantly had a bond, just us. We hung out a lot before we started filming, and I think that help for being in the moment. But I think having a sister, obviously you know what that’s like, what you guys talk about and laugh about. You can be real with your sister. No one knows you like family, scarily enough.
MEW: I love the scene with the Ouija board, because the mood we got felt so real to me of when I’m with my sisters, and we have wine, and our parents have gone to sleep, and we’re at our parents’ house. I mean my sisters don’t talk about double penetration necessarily—[Laughs]
KN: Actually, nor do my sisters, but apparently Lily does!
MEW: But that sort of feeling and mood was so spot on. After we finished it, I was just so happy, I felt like we were really drinking wine. It was fake wine, but we’re both like “is this real wine?” because we felt drunk and giddy.
KN: [Producer Jaime Patricof] said, “I’ve never seen Mary look so embarrassed,” when I said that line. It’s funny, when we were going to film that scene, I was like “I don’t know about this. A Ouija board? It seems kind of dated.” And Chris was like “it’s my favorite scene in the movie.” So, it was fun.
MEW: I loved it.
KN: Yeah, it was worth it.
Did you envision Don Johnson in that role?
KN: That was all Chris, really. He asked, “What do you guys think about Don Johnson for the dad?” I thought “Oh, that’s brilliant.” We never see him falling apart. He always plays the slick, pulled together, handsome guy. I think he really rose to the occasion. It’s really a heartbreaking performance. And he was so great to work with. You never know what to expect from someone who’s an icon, and he was just really great.
MEW: He was so brilliant in the movie…and he’s also such an actor’s actor, which I didn’t really know about him until this. He really focuses and does the work. And even when he’s not working, he’s in acting classes and workshops. He’s a really committed actor.
Thank you so much for doing this.