While people often claim that they selflessly wish to help people in need without expecting any compensation in return, there are still many who harrowingly strive to aid others, in an effort to bolster their own reputation in society, and to garner the fame and fortune that goes along with it. That’s certainly the case with the narcissistic protagonist in Riley Stearns’ feature film writing and directorial debut, the upcoming thriller, ‘Faults.’ The drama, which opens in select theaters and on VOD nationwide on Friday, features a cult deprogrammer who enthralling balances moments of intensity and unintentional comedic undertones as he tries to separate a young woman from the group that’s controlling her life. Actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who’s the filmmaker’s real-life wife, enthrallingly showcased that no matter what greedy efforts the self-serving deprogammer embarked on to save her, his egotistical attempts are no match for the steadfast beliefs she has so adamantly held onto since she left her family
‘Faults’ follows despondent self-help guru Ansel Roth (Leland Orser), who has lost his television series, royalties for his famed book and his wife, after his last high-profile deprogramming assignment ended tragically. He has since resorted to accepting any free handouts and job opportunities he’s offered just to survive, as he’s living in his car since losing his home. The distraught businessman is also dodging requests from his manager, Terry (Jon Gries), to pay back the money he borrowed to self-publish his latest book about cults, which has failed to make any money.
When Ansel, who’s one of the world’s most knowledgeable authorities on cults and mind control, is then approached with a job offer by an older couple (Beth Grant and Chris Ellis), his life appears like it will miraculously improve. The spouses, who are fans of Ansel’s work, offer to hire him to rescue their daughter, Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). He warns them that his specialty, deprogramming cult members and returning them to their families, isn’t an exact science, and his methods are risky and expensive. When the couple desperately agrees, he sees the job as an opportunity to finally repay Terry, who has now resorted to threatening his client for the money he owes. So Ansel kidnaps the young woman, as Claire’s parents have become concerned about her welfare after she joined the title cult, and radically changed her views and lifestyle.
With her parents sequestered in the motel room next door, Ansel deprives Claire of sleep as he initiates the process of deprogramming her mentality, emotions and association to Faults. She’s surprisingly calm about the situation, as she believes she can kill him if her fellow cult members send her a message to do so. While she soon starts showing some signs of improvement, such as remembering her love for her parents, Ansel begins to see signs of why Claire left them for the cult, including her father’s domineering side. At the same time, she also reveals to be one of the cult expert’s biggest challenges, as her belief and logic in Faults is unshakeable. A battle of wits and emotions immediately develops between the two, as they relentlessly delve deeper into each other’s minds.
Winstead generously took the time recently to talk about playing Claire in ‘Faults’ during an exclusive interview over the phone. Among other things, the actress, who also produced the thriller, discussed how she was drawn to play Claire because did Stearns specifically write the character for her, but she was also concerned about bringing enough complexity to the role to keep the audience engaged in her journey; how she read books and essays about people who were indoctrinated into, and subsequently left, a cult, as well as stories about cult leaders, so that she could understand how they could attract an entire group of people to do whatever they say; and how as an actor, making an independent film is fun, as she loves their fast-paced energy, as well as the fact that the cast and crew are always working together.
ShockYa (SY): You play Claire, a young woman whose parents are desperate to be reunited with her after she falls under the grip of a mysterious cult, in the new thriller, ‘Faults.’ What was it about the character, as well as the script, that convinced you to take on the role?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead (MEW): Well, I was a bit biased from the start, because my husband wrote the script and role for me. So I instantly knew that this was a character I was most likely going to play. It helped that I loved the script so much, and thought the role was so smart, exciting and interesting.
But I did have doubts about whether I’d be able to do the role justice, which was one of my main concerns throughout the process. I wanted to make sure I brought a lot of complexity to the role, and keep the audience engaged in the character. But once I got over those doubts and we were on the set, shooting, I knew I loved this character so much. I had so much fun playing her.
SY: Speaking of your husband, Riley Stearns, who made his feature film directional and writing debuts with the drama, what was the collaboration process like between the two of you as you were filming? In general, do you prefer working with helmers who also penned the script for the films you work on?
MEW: The film was a wonderful process. It was a great chance for me to be involved from the onset of a project, as I normally don’t get that opportunity. So that was exciting and rewarding for me to be there every step of the way.
Riley and I have such a great and easy-going relationship that it’s wonderful for us to work together. There was nothing about the process that was difficult or stressful; it was just a natural thing for us to do.
I think it does help to work with directors who write their own material. I think they’re able to showcase their very specific voice during that process. I know specifically on this film, that was a great thing to have, especially since I know Riley so well, and completely understand his vision. Anytime you work with a director who has a vision, as well as a story that’s very specific that you understand as an actor, it makes everything so much easier.
SY: With Claire struggling over trying to reconnect with her parents after she leaves Faults, what kind of research did you do in order to connect with her mindset and motivations?
MEW: I did some reading on cults and cult members, particularly people who have written books and essays about how they were indoctrinated into, and subsequently left, a cult. I also did a lot of reading on cult leaders, to try to understand how someone could become so charismatic that they could attract an entire group of people to do whatever they say. That process is very fascinating to me.
The third type of personality I researched was sociopaths and people who lack empathy, and manipulate and use others for their own personal gain. I particularly looked into women who are known psychopaths and sociopaths throughout history, which I found to be very interesting. So knowledge into all those types of personalities really helped me shape who Claire is in the film.
SY: How did you develop your working relationship with Leland Orser, who plays Ansel Roth? Did you have any rehearsal time to develop your characters’ relationship, since they have opposing views on the lifestyle associated with Faults?
MEW: We spent some time together talking and getting to know one another before we began filming. We discussed the possibility of rehearsing, and that maybe being something we’d want to do. But we both weren’t really eager to rehearse, because we both wanted to save our connection for the set.
I think we both felt as we were getting to know each other that a great dynamic was growing between us. That was really something that we could use on set, and we wanted to keep that fresh. Instead of undergoing a typical rehearsal process, we decided to instead just talk about the characters and the scenes.
SY: What was the process of shooting ‘Faults’ independently? Did having a shorter shooting influence the way you approached playing Claire, or the film’s overall creativity?
MEW: I think that it does, but it also induces other stressors, like having such minimal time on the set. But making an indie film where I was married to the director, I saw all the major stresses he went through. He didn’t really sleep, and he lost a lot of weight during the shoot, but overall, he loved the whole process. But that was another side of the coin that I hadn’t really seen before, at least not as intimately as I got to see it this time.
As an actor, making an indie is so much fun. I love the fast-paced energy, as well as the fact that you’re all working together, and everyone’s together all day. No one’s taking long breaks, or going to take naps; (laughs) everyone’s just in the process together, and I’ve always loved that energy.
I think the process of making films independently does help with the creativity of the story. On indies, you don’t have a lot of money or time, so your brain can go to a lot of different places as you come up with ideas to be more efficient. I love those kinds of scenarios that push you into that new place.
SY: Besides ‘Faults,’ you have starred in several independent movies over the past few years, including ‘Smashed’ and ‘Alex of Venice.’ What is it about indies that you enjoy working so much? How does your acting approach in them compare and contrast to bigger studio films you’ve starred in, such as ‘Live Free or Die Hard?’
MEW: Well, with the fast pacing and close intimacy of indies, you become close with the crew and the other actors. Also, the material tend to be a bit more interestingly complex, particularly in roles for women. With indies, I can do roles in which I’m not always super likable, sweet and pretty. I can instead be ugly, mean and irritable, which are things we all are from time to time, but they don’t necessarily make us any less human. So I like to be able to show those sides of a person on film, and you get to do that a bit more in the indies. So that’s what I’m really drawn to in the characters I play.
SY: The drama has received both a limited theatrical and nationwide VOD release. Are you personally a fan of watching films On Demand, and overall, do you think the platform is beneficial for independent movies like ‘Faults?’
MEW: I do, but it is ultimately a double-edged sword. I love the theater-going experience, so I wish every film could be released nationwide in theaters. That way people can go get their popcorn and sit and watch the film in a theater.
But at the same time, I’m one to talk-I watch movies on iTunes, Netflix and On Demand at home all the time. So I understand how nice is it to have that luxury of turning on your device at home, and not have to go anywhere. So I definitely understand both of those experiences, and how they can be great.
Ultimately, VOD gives so many films a platform where they can be seen, whereas they may not have been viewed otherwise without it. So that platform is a great thing in helping indies find their audiences. But the downside is that now there are so many more films available for audiences to choose from. So we have to hope that people will check our movie out, because they do have so many options.
SY: What was the process of shooting the majority of your scenes in the film in the motel room where Ansel was trying to deprogram Claire’s association with the title cult?
MEW: I found it rather comforting, oddly enough. (laughs) Going back to the same place made the set seem very familiar and comforting. It did help, at least for my character, to feel as though I was really in control of the space. I knew the space very well, so I felt like I knew how to handle myself, which aided in what I wanted to do with Claire.
SY: The film had its world premiere at last year’s SXSW, and also screened at such festivals as the Maryland Film Festival and Fantasia Festival. Were you able to attend any screenings at the festivals, and if so, what was the experience like for you?
MEW: Yes, I was able to go to SXSW, where it had its world premiere, and I also went to the Maryland Film Festival and a few other festivals. I was also in New York (on Monday, February 23) for the movie’s screening during Lincoln Center’s Film Comment Selects Series. So I have traveled around with the film quite a bit.
It’s been wonderful to watch it with several different audiences, and see a lot of different reactions. All of the responses have been really positive. With this type of film, it’s always great to see the different reactions, and which parts get laughs and gasps. Those reactions always happen at different parts at each screening, so that’s really entertaining to see.
SY: Now that you have worked with Riley on ‘Faults,’ and saw his process of writing and directing the film, are you interested in branching out into writing and directing, as well?
MEW: I would love to also try those aspects of filmmaking, particularly directing. I would love to try to write something, but I’m not really sure if I’m cut out to write.
I also started singing recently, and I didn’t initially think I was cut out to write music. But I started doing that, and I actually found out that I really enjoy it.
So I do think that screenwriting is something I want to try, at the very least as an experiment, to see if it’s something I’m good at doing. So if I don’t find a feature that feels right for me to work on, I may do a small short film on my own, just so that I can try it out, when I have the time. That’s something that’s on my list of things to do, for sure.
SY: Besides films, you have also starred in several short films and television series throughout your career, including the upcoming supernatural drama series, ‘The Returned.’ What is it about television that you also enjoy working on? How does it compare and contrast to making films, particularly indies like ‘Faults?’
MEW: Ultimately, I like to do good material, as well as work with people I like. When I go back and look at all the things I’ve done, I typically chose my roles, based on the scripts and people involved. It doesn’t really matter what type of platform it is, whether it’s a short film, play, TV show or feature; it’s all the same to me, as long as I’m enjoying what I’m doing when I’m there.
The platforms all have their differences. TV is different, as actors are usually closer to the writers than we are on a film. We’re typically closer to directors on a movie than on television. So that’s a bit of a changeover we have to do in our minds, and get used to the different ways of working.
But at the end of the day, it all stems from the script and the material, which you have to be passionate about. That’s what really matters to me.
SY: Speaking of plays, since you’re primarily known for staring in feature films, as well as on shorts and television series, would you also be interested in performing in theater?
MEW: I would love to do theater. There have been a couple scripts that have come my way, which I have tried to get but didn’t, or have been offered to me, but I couldn’t do them because of scheduling. I’m certainly intimidated by theater, but the more people I meet, and the friends I make who are in the theater world, the less scared of it I am. They all tell me I’ll be fine, and it’s all the same, so I should give it a try. They’ve all been encouraging me to do it, so I think I will try it one of these days, whenever I can, and find the right project.
SY: Besides independent films, you’re also known for having appeared in several horror films in the beginning of your career, including ‘Final Destination 3,’ ‘Black Christmas,’ ‘Death Proof,’ ‘The Thing’ and ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.’ So what is it about the genre that you really enjoy?
MEW: Those films were fantastic experiences, as they were some of my first big roles in big movies. I was very lucky to be cast in them. What I think really happened was that ‘Final Destination 3’ was my first starring role in a movie, and it happened to be a horror film. Then I got in with that crowd, and they all started casting me in other horror movies. I became really close with the movie’s director (James Wong), and then did (‘Black Christmas’) with him.
So I don’t think I had the intention of doing horror films; I just liked the people who were making them. But I enjoyed making them, and they were fun. It was a really lovely time.
I’m still really close with a lot of people from that film. My best friend is Amanda (Crew), who played my sister in the movie. I’m also still close to Glen Morgan, who co-wrote and produced the film, and he actually gave Riley his first job in the industry. We’re all still close, so those films, particularly ‘Final Destination 3,’ were pretty seminal things for me.
SY: Since you have starred in those horror films, and have also appeared in a variety of indies and bigger studio movies, are there any genres you’re interested in starring that you haven’t tried yet?
MEW: I feel like I’ve dipped my toe into almost every genre. But I would like to try a bit more comedy. I think I have that potential, but I haven’t explored it as much as I could. So that’s an area I’d like to further explore, but overall, I’m open to everything. As long as it’s a fun role, and it’s something I can stretch myself with, and it challenges me a bit, I’m more than happy to try it.
SY: Besides ‘Faults,’ do you have any other upcoming projects lined that you can discuss?
MEW: Yes, I have ‘The Returned,’ which starts airing on Monday on A&E, which I’m really excited for people to get to see. I also have another film coming out in April, called ‘Alex of Venice.’ I also just finished a movie with John Goodman, called ‘Valencia.’ So I have a bunch of projects that I shot within the past year that are just coming out now, and I’m really excited for people to get to see them. Now I’m hanging out, and ready to find my next project. I’m hoping that Riley writes me another role, so I can work with him again. (laughs)
Written by: Karen Benardello