Mary Elizabeth Winstead
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From scream queen to BrainDead, Mary Elizabeth Winstead's journey through genre

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Feb 15, 2020

Over the last 15 years, Mary Elizabeth Winstead has fought aliens of different shapes and sizes, faced off against Death, come up against vampires in the 19th century, and attended a high school for superheroes. Now she's playing Huntress alongside Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey. This is not her first comic book adaptation — Scott Pilgrim vs. the World gets that honor — but it is surprising the actress hasn't appeared in either the MCU or DCU before this moment. Two of her Scott Pilgrim co-stars have gone on to become Marvel Captains (America and Marvel), and now it's Winstead's turn to enter the superhero franchise fray.

Before she joined Cathy Yan's Birds of Prey, Winstead had been the Final Girl and gone toe-to-toe with a variety of formidable foes. She has worked in a collaborative environment against a common enemy, though with no one quite as tough or fabulously dressed as Harley Quinn and her sartorial squad have been by her side.

To celebrate Winstead's Huntress, SYFY FANGRRLS is taking a look back at her stacked resumé, which has mostly avoided repetition. Even when the overall subject matter is similar, the narrative style is varied and therefore sidestepped typecasting; she isn't relegated to a beleaguered girlfriend who is there to simply prop the hero up. Horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and comic book adaptations all feature in both a leading and supporting capacity on television and film.

Whether it is a long-running franchise, reboot, or an original story, Mary Elizabeth Winstead has become a go-to actress for characters that convey toughness and vulnerability in equal measure — and we're here to show you why.

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Sky High

Sky High (2005)

It isn't Marvel or DC, but Winstead starred in a superhero movie long before she signed on to Birds of Prey. The delightful Disney high school-set Sky High focuses on a group of teens experiencing the awkwardness of adolescence with the added pressure of figuring out whether they are a sidekick or a hero. Winstead plays alluring senior Gwen Grayson, a popular student who is also surprisingly nice and accommodating to the new class. Going against the usual "mean girl" archetype, the super feminine Gwen is not only protagonist Will Stronghold's (Michael Angarano) crush, but she also accepts his date offer. She is charming and attentive, but she is also hiding a secret. At this early stage in her career, she revealed an ability to that play sweet and disarming with lingering darkness and rage. This role also demonstrated her comedic and physical performance skills, which led to more action-heavy roles.

Final Destination 3

Final Destination 3 (2006)

Making her horror movie lead debut — she had a minor role in The Ring 2 in 2005 — Winstead had the pleasure of foreseeing the horrific event in Final Destination 3. A rollercoaster accident is a fate narrowly avoided by her character Wendy Christensen (and some of her friends), thanks to her worrying premonition. Of course, this only proves to be a brief reprieve before they are later stalked by Death. Flexing her scary movie chops, Winstead is an ideal Final Girl because she possesses the smarts and resourcefulness of a quintessential horror lead. This is very much the foundation of her work in other movies like 10 Cloverfield Lane and The Thing. While this particular franchise lost its fresh sheen pretty quickly, Winstead is a bright spark amid the formulaic plot.

Black Christmas (2006)

Keeping up the horror streak but losing her Final Girl crown, Winstead is at least memorable in the easily forgettable remake of the '70s slasher. Unlike the 2019 version, this is a paint-by-numbers scary movie, which sees the actress cement her Scream Queen status. Thankfully, she moved beyond the cliche as her career progressed, mostly leaving the derivative roles in the mid-'00s. In a link to the characters of Birds of Prey, Arrow's Katie Cassidy is the lead in this particular slasher reboot.

Death Proof

Death Proof (2007)

Along with Black Christmas, the cheerleader uniform-wearing Lee Montgomery is one of the few roles on this list in which Winstead lacks agency. Playing naive is not the issue, but it is disappointing that she gets left as collateral and this particular thread is not picked up on, leaving audiences to wonder exactly what horrors have befallen this character. Winstead is more than capable of playing cute — but sadly there isn't any kind of duality or nuance in what is probably director Quentin Tarantino's weakest outing (as part of the Grindhouse doubleheader with Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror).

Scott Pilgrim

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

As Ramona Flowers, Winstead scores high on the cult hit status in a role that is thankfully more than "just the girlfriend." Her hair color is ever-changing, which is part of her unique style, but this is a role that allowed the actress to go hard on the stunts from fight sequences to wirework. In the wrong hands, it is a part that could easily come across as Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but she avoids that particular archetype pitfall and never comes across as just a concept.

The Thing (2011)

The Thing (2011)

A prequel set before John Carpenter's legendary Kurt Russell-starring 1982 horror movie of the same name puts Winstead in a Ripley from Alien protagonist role. As Kate Lloyd, she a vertebrate paleontologist graduate who is sent in to find out what the hell is going on in the Antarctic station. The voice of reason, she is initially dismissed by the male-dominated group, and those who didn't listen to her are quick to regret their life choices. The movie itself isn't particularly compelling, but again, Winstead gives you someone to root for amid all the carnage and dumb decisions.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012)

Remember that brief period when presidents fought vampires and Jane Austen characters faced off against zombies? Winstead, in one of her only period roles to date, played Mary Todd Lincoln in a very different interpretation of the sixteenth president's role in American history. This is definitely not Steven Spielberg's version. The genre mash-up is more miss than hit, but even when a movie doesn't hit the mark, Winstead always manages to elevate the action. Here, she still gets to flex her bonafide action heroine status, even though she's playing a traditional wife role and not the lead.

The Returned

The Returned (2015)

One of Winstead's first acting roles was on the short-lived CBS supernatural drama Wolf Lake (also starring a pre-Vampire Diaries Paul Wesley) and she returned to TV on several occasions in the last decade. The A&E remake of the French series Les Revenants was met with critical acclaim, but the ratings were not as enthusiastic and it was also canceled after one season. Telling the story of a town that sees the dead return as if nothing has happened, Winstead plays Rowan Blackshaw, a woman whose fiance died on their wedding day. He is back from the grave, wanting to pick up where they left off but it isn't that simple. It's a haunting premise that sees Winstead lean into the emotionally charged aspects of this unique relationship conundrum.

10 cloverfield lane

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

Aliens are a continuing theme in Winstead's journey through genre over the last decade. Perhaps the most terrifying scenario is the actions of the humans in the spiritual sequel to 2008's Cloverfield. Sure, what is outside the bunker is pretty scary, but Winstead's ordeal within the claustrophobic location is deeply disturbing. Strength and vulnerability are portrayed in equal measure, as well as a character who is tenacious and resourceful. Monsters exist in many different forms and Winstead has faced her fair share of creeps that fall into human, supernatural, and alien categories. This performance emphasizes why she is a go-to actress across a variety of tense narratives, whether in a big-budget movie or a more intimate affair.

BrainDead

BrainDead (2016)

The short-lived political-satire-meets-alien-invasion CBS series showcased Winstead's propensity for playing the lone voice of reason, as well as her ability to deal with whatever out-of-this-world situation has been thrust in her direction. Laurel is a documentary filmmaker who has to take a job for her senator brother so she can raise funds to make her latest feature. For her trouble, she has to reach across the aisle and stop the government from being taken over by alien bugs counting on a contentious divide in opinions. Her competence and ability to lean into an absurd scenario sell the material, which was sadly way ahead of its time. It also features the weirdest sex scene that has ever been depicted on network TV and for that alone, it comes with a high recommendation from us (also, it is very good overall). Before her turn in Birds of Prey, this was arguably her best-dressed character to date.

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