Q&A: Mary Elizabeth Winstead on The Returned

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Mary Elizabeth Winstead makes a late appearance in the pilot of The Returned. It’s not exactly a surprise to those who have seen the French original, but as the name Rowan is repeated, the Scott Pilgrim star is the reveal—crying in her wedding veil, confronted with her own returned loved one. 

Shock spoke with Winstead after A&E presented a panel on The Returned to the Television Critics Association in January. Carlton Cuse produces the U.S. remake and it premieres on A&E Monday, March 9 at 10 p.m.

Shock: Was your first scene the first scene you shot?

Winstead: I was in so little of the first episode. I’m only in actually two scenes I think in the first episode. It’s a lot of buildup for just a little brief glimpse, so that was the first scene that I did. It was really cool. It was such a cool day because I got to just do that scene and then the scene later where my new fiancé comes home. It was great to have quite an emotional wallop, just walk in, work for a day, cry a bunch, go home. It was great to have it all condensed in that one day.

Shock: Was it an intense way to start the show?

Winstead: Yeah, but I like that. I like coming in with a bang. It was much better than coming in and doing a wishy washy scene. It was great starting with a scene that I thought was really powerful. It’s nice I guess when you can show up and be able to show a little bit of what you can do right off the bat, instead of feeling like, “Oh, I don’t know if that was very good. I don’t know if that really showed my abilities.” Then not really being sure if people were going to like what you’re doing. I felt that was a scene that I was able to at least show something to give everybody a little bit of an idea. Like the writers, “You guys can write good stuff. I can do it.”

Shock: We know it’s going to be emotional, but is it going to be horrific also?

Winstead: I wouldn’t say horrific, but I do think there is a sense of dread throughout the whole thing, and suspense and the sort of foreboding feeling that something bad is impending. So I do think that kind of permeates the whole series. And there are these killings that are happening. There are some really disturbing things that are happening throughout that aid in that feeling. So it does have that horror element without being, I guess, a full on genre piece.

Shock: They introduce some of the returned through their parents and some through the returned themselves. We don’t meet you until after he comes back.

Winstead: Exactly, when he’s searching for me. You hear the name which I think is a part of the impact as well because you’re wondering who she is, so that’s nice.

Shock: Were you familiar with the French series when this came around?

Winstead: I was familiar with it in the sense that I had heard of it from friends who have really good taste and had told me that it was a great show, but I hadn’t seen it. Then Carlton contacted me about it and I watched the first episode and thought it was so beautiful. But I decided not to watch any more after that because I knew that I would be totally attached to the way that they did it, particularly with the acting, so I didn’t want to be too swayed by that.

Shock: Do you find this sort of drama is a healthy way for us to deal with a subject like grief?

Winstead: I hope so. I know that it’s endlessly fascinating to most people, or at least most people I know in some form or another, whether it’s this show or in a book or in a movie or religion or whatever it is that you find helps solve the mystery for you a little bit. And I think that there’s something about this show that’s hopeful in that way, even if it is a little bit genre and is a little bit creepy. There’s something hopeful about thinking that there could be an afterlife or that someone could come back or that something miraculous like this could happen. It’s just dealing with all that comes with it that the show explores, which goes to some pretty dark and interesting places.

Shock: If someone is going through grief, does having the returned come back actually interrupt that natural process?

Winstead: That’s definitely one of the questions the show explores. There was a question posed at the panel, who would you want to come back? I’m like you. I’ve really only had people die when it was their time, so for me that thought seems really odd and unnatural. It seems like it was right for them to pass when they passed. That’s sort of the natural law of things, but I can only imagine if you had something as traumatizing as a child lost, or someone lost before it was their time to go, how desperately you would want them to be able to come back and how much you would hope for something like that. But, is it a good or bad thing? It’s questionable.

Shock: Does it remain volatile for Rowan or does it become more peaceful?

Winstead: It’s a bit of a roller coaster for sure. It becomes more peaceful for her at a certain point, but then it gets pretty dark pretty quickly again, so it’s definitely all over the map. But she really doesn’t know. The first few episodes, she’s still not really aware that he’s really there. She thinks that she’s having these visions.

Shock: That’s what you would think if you saw someone who you knew had died.

Winstead: Of course, and she’s had them before. When he died, she had visions that terrified her. So that’s what she thinks is happening and it takes her a while to become at peace with what she thinks is a vision. And then when she realizes that it’s real, she’s so hopeful and she’s so happy that he’s back, but that only lasts so long.

Shock: Carlton Cuse has done a number of these shows that are mysterious, horrific or supernatural. Does he have a unique way of running a show?

Winstead: He’s just so smart. He’s so smart and he’s so good to the people that he works with. I’ve known people who worked with him in the past and he’s just one of those people that everyone says you want to work with him. He’s somebody you can trust.

Shock: Are there certain things where if it were anyone else, you might insist “I need to know this about the character?” But because it’s Carlton, you trust him to keep the secret until it’s time to tell you?

Winstead: I know one of the things he’s really hands on in is editing and post-production, which is a real relief for me. That’s an area where we don’t get any involvement whatsoever [as actors] and there’s always a fear that a little emotional moment that was really meaningful to me will get cut, or something that I thought was really important for the character will get cut or misused in some way. Knowing that he’s always in the room and he’s always at the controls with that is a huge relief. That’s something I always had in the back of my head, like he knows where this is going and he knows how to handle it. It’ll all be fine.

Shock: They’re developing a Die Hard 6. Do they have you on call if they need Lucy McClane?

Winstead: Not that I know of, no. I don’t get the feeling that I’ll be called upon for this one. I feel like it was a nice ending moment for Lucy, but we’ll see. Never say never.

Shock: I still want them to get Bonnie Bedelia back. I think John and Holly can work things out.

Winstead: I know! I know, that would be amazing. Then it would be a true “get the whole family back together again.”

Shock: Cuse and J.J. Abrams worked together on Lost. Did they have similar styles of working on their productions from The Returned to Valencia?

Winstead: I think so. I think they’re both kind of mad geniuses in a way who are able to handle so many things at the same time. J.J. was producing this film and directing Star Wars at the same time. He wasn’t on set but he was every day e-mailing, calling, telling us how great our dailies were, giving ideas, giving notes. I was so shocked. I was like, “Aren’t you busy?” Sending me flowers when I hurt myself one day. Just really involved incredibly in so many things, so they’re both sort of omnipresent in that way. You don’t know how they have time to do everything they do but they manage.

Shock: Faults is out just before the premiere of The Returned. Was that a tricky performance to balance being vulnerable but really in total control?

Winstead: It was very tricky. It was probably the scariest role going into it, in part because of the challenge of that and also knowing that it was my husband’s movie and the extra wanting it to be really great. But yeah, there was so much complexity there, but none of it can be shown on face value at all. It had to be really, really subtle and really underplayed. So that was a really tricky feeling like I want people to know in some sense what’s going on internally, but they can’t really. How do I do that? That was a really fun challenge but I ended up having so much fun with it, I think because the character was having so much fun toying with all the people and toying with Leland [Orser]’s character. It ended up being really fun playing mind games with him.