Mary Elizabeth Winstead on Playing an Ultimate Diva in ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ 

For Mary Elizabeth Winstead, acting has long been a part of her world—she started at the age of 15 when she was cast in the 1999 soap opera Passions

Since then, the last two decades allowed the actress to work in different genres and roles, making her well-known for her versatility—be it in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Final Destination or as the infamous Lucy McClane in Live Free or Die Hard.  

Now, she definitely finds more catharsis in her work, she says, as it’s important for her to bring herself to the art in a truthful way—something which took her a long time to realize.

The 39-year-old actress stars alongside her husband and actor Ewan McGregor in A Gentleman in Moscow, which is now streaming on Paramount+.

We caught up with the actress while she was in Toronto to promote the series and discuss playing an on-screen diva and working alongside her husband, Ewan.

I love your versatility as an actor—be it Scott Pilgrim, Die Hard, Final Destination or Kate. As an artist, what is it that you are looking for in your career when this project came along?

“Gosh, I think that this project was just one of those rare dream projects that brought everything together for me. First and foremost, it’s an incredible story. The novel is absolutely beautiful, funny and epic. The show really captures all of those emotions that the book really kind of lays out in this saga. And then to get to do such juicy, fun, and complex role alongside my husband—I just couldn’t really imagine anything better.”

If every character is a little bit of the actor who plays them, how much of yourself did you see in Anna?

“I always feel like, emotionally, there’s a lot of me and the characters in terms of what I’m bringing to it from that standpoint. But then the personality is sort of another layer that is somewhat created. So Anna is definitely more ballsy, brazen, and brash than I am. But she does kind of soften over the years, over the course of the show. So it was nice to start out that way and then soften with her as the years went by.”

It feels like you’re having a lot of fun with the character, especially when we start off and then we go into it. Can you talk a bit about that?

“I did. I had so much fun being a diva. I mean, she’s like the ultimate diva of her time and to get to really luxuriate in that and embrace it, and really stand firm in that kind of confidence, it’s a rare thing; you don’t really get to behave like that in real life. So I love getting to do that on screen. It’s great.”

You said the script really captured what it feels to be an actress. How so?

“I think there were certain elements that were explored on the show, in particular, how Anna has to navigate her relationships with men in how it relates to her career, her roles, and whether or not she’s going to get them and all those things. I think in terms of looking at my career, when I started out, and when I was a bit younger, I think I read these scenes and went, ‘Oh, wow, they really kind of nailed what that feels like to be a young actress kind of worrying about saying and doing the right thing, or making a misstep, and basically having your career mostly being in the hands of men and how that feels.’ So I was really impressed with how Ben and Sam were able to kind of create those scenes that weren’t really in the book, and bring them to life in a way that felt very current and resonated quite a bit.”

In terms of Anna being an actress in that era, where did the lines sort of blur in the relatability of being an actress and woman today?

“I thought they did such a brilliant job of making it feel very current in terms of the emotionality of it. But at the same time, it really played so well into the character who was an actress of that time. And in Russia, I mean, and the tension of that, the stakes of that were incredibly high. If she fell out of favour, it could mean she disappears and nobody sees her again. Those are very high stakes at that time in history. So the tension of that was very strong, but then underneath it, the emotion of kind of understanding, being in that position, in a different way in a much more modern way. It was great to be able to bring that to it as well.”

This time Ewan is your scene partner as well. How would you describe working opposite him?

“We did work together on Fargo, but we haven’t been able to do scenes together since we’ve been married so that was really great to sort of go to set every day and show up, get to have our coffee together, prepare together, and then step into these roles where we got to just play and riff off of each other as actors. We both love great material in great roles and the opportunity to bring that to life. And I think seeing that spark and excitement in one another as part of what makes us click so well when we work together.”

As real life partners, and now scene partners, what’s one thing that surprised you about working with him?

“I think probably just the ease and the comfortability. I’ve just never experienced that before of walking into a set and have it be so seamless. Like I’m literally just walking into my kitchen; it just was so comfortable. There was just no guard to try to put down or no pretense it was just like, ‘Oh, here we are. Now let’s play the scene and let’s enjoy it.’ So that was so simple and lovely.”

What part of this experience or your last few projects have given you a better understanding of what the goals are for yourself as an actor going forward?

“Wow, I mean, I guess every part of this project was so lovely. I mean, obviously, just loving the work so much and then also getting to marry that with working with people that I really love. I think that’s a dream come true, and getting to continue to find ways of doing that. You know, ideally, if it’s with my husband, that’s the greatest thing. But even if it means it’s just with people that I really love and respect and admire, continuing to find ways of doing that, with material that you really love, I think is ideal.”

What did being a performer mean to you at the start of your career and what does it mean to you now?

“I was a kid when I started out so I think I did think of it more as a performance. I would play characters and I would really try to just become someone else and I loved that and I still do. But now that I’ve been doing it for so long, I definitely find more catharsis and I find that it’s very important for me to bring myself to it in a truthful way, which I think took me a long time to kind of learn that I needed to do that, and also how to do that. And now that’s part of the process that I really love.”

The Count asks Anna, what drew her to the stage? She said it’s a place where you could forget. She was the happiest there. Where is your happiest place?

“It’s hard to say because I think now as a woman, and I’m a mother, it’s like, home is the heart of my life. But then I don’t think I could also live without my own kind of escape to just be me, which is my work and my creative self. So it’s hard to choose between the two.”

What do you think are the qualities that make a gentleman in today’s era?

“I think probably curiosity about other people and about the world and respect.”