[This story contains spoilers for Ahsoka and Scott Pilgrim Takes Off.]
Due to the SAG-AFTRA strike, Mary Elizabeth Winstead had to let two exciting projects in Ahsoka and Scott Pilgrim Takes Off speak for themselves, but now she’s finally looking back on her rather significant 2023.
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In early 2022, Winstead officially joined the Star Wars galaxy in order to bring the beloved animated character of General Hera Syndulla to live-action for the first time. When the offer originally came in from Ahsoka creator Dave Filoni, it allowed Winstead the opportunity to reunite with Rosario Dawson 16 years after they last shared the screen in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. It also presented her the chance to join the storied franchise that she already had a great deal of familiarity with, as her life partner, Ewan McGregor, has been playing Obi-Wan Kenobi since the late ‘90s and had just wrapped his own eponymously titled Star Wars Disney+ series.
“It was great to have a direct line to what this experience was going to be like, and it was nothing but positive,” Winstead tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Of course, we had those conversations before [Ahsoka] as well, but it became a different conversation once it became a reality that I might actually be stepping into it. And I also had a familiarity with the project from being around on the Obi-Wan set.”
Ahsoka began filming less than a year after Winstead gave birth to her first child with McGregor, and she remains grateful that her role as Hera wasn’t as physically demanding as some of her more recent roles in Kate and Birds of Prey.
“It was really perfect for me just in terms of where I was in my life at the time. It was my first job back after having a baby, and I was still feeling my way back into my body in terms of my physicality in the role,” Winstead shares. “So it was perfect for me to feel strong and like a warrior, but in a way that didn’t require me to wreck my body, which was still in some level of postpartum recovery even at that stage.”
In the midst of speaking to THR, news broke via Lucasfilm that the Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) and Grogu were jumping to the big screen in The Mandalorian & Grogu, and within the same press release, it was announced that Filoni was already developing Ahsoka season two.
“I can say that I genuinely know very little, but that is a very exciting press release and I’m really happy to hear that it’s being talked about,” Winstead says.
In November of 2023, Winstead also returned to her signature role as Ramona Flowers in Bryan Lee O’Malley and BenDavid Grabinski’s Scott Pilgrim Takes Off, which just won best animated series at the 29th Critics Choice Awards. Unlike her Star Wars character, Winstead was now adapting her live-action character from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World for animation, and early on, she was given a heads-up that the anime series would center around her. The series explores what would’ve happened if Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) actually lost his opening duel with Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha), the first of Ramona’s seven evil exes that Scott defeats in Edgar Wright’s 2010 film and O’Malley’s graphic novel source material.
“I had been a little bit tipped off to the fact that Ramona was going to have a bit more of a focus this time around, but I’m accustomed to being somewhat jaded to those kinds of things just because I’ve been around the block a long time,” Winstead admits. “A lot of times, when someone says you’re going to be more of the focus, it’s sometimes not quite true or doesn’t really feel quite true. So I didn’t really get my hopes up too much, and then I just couldn’t believe how profoundly beautiful [O’Malley and Grabinski] made that swerve. They wove the story together in a totally new way, and I was just so impressed.”
Below, during a spoiler conversation with THR, Winstead also discusses how her dynamic with Dawson on the Ahsoka set felt similar to Tarantino’s Death Proof set in 2006. Then she explains why she doesn’t expect a second season of Scott Pilgrim Takes Off anytime soon.
You had these two exciting projects that you couldn’t talk about for the longest time, and that’s something you’d never really experienced. A big part of the job is talking about the job. So did it feel pretty isolating? Did it make you anxious?
I suppose it came along at a good time for me because life was so busy anyway. So I didn’t really mind having the opportunity to do the work and letting it speak for itself. There was something liberating about it. That’s not to say that it’s stressful speaking to you, but the thought of promoting something is often another layer of stress. So, in that sense, it was a little bit freeing, but in another sense, the lack of celebration was a bit hard, particularly with Ahsoka. It was unfortunate to not really be able to get together with one another and celebrate all the effort that went into it. So it was nice once the strike was over, as we were able to get together and just have a meal and say, “Oh my God, look at what we made.” Those kinds of things are special, and I’m happy that we’re able to do that again.
It’s interesting because I had someone tell me just the opposite. They, too, said that press isn’t their favorite thing to do, but like most things, once it was no longer an option, it suddenly became a lot more desirable.
Yeah, when you’re doing things that you like and you want people to see, you want to be able to go out and talk about it. So I especially felt for some of the younger actors. I felt frustrated on their behalf. When you’re getting your career up and going and you’re having a big breakout moment, I know how important it feels to let people know about what you’re doing and what’s coming out. So I wished that I could be out championing Natasha Liu Bordizzo on Ahsoka and others, going, “Look at this new actor. Check them out. They’re amazing.”
When the Ahsoka offer came in, did you walk down the hall and say, “Hey, you! What should I know about this? What’s the deal with the volume? Is C-3PO cool?” Did that conversation happen [with Ewan McGregor]?
(Laughs.) Definitely. We talked a lot about what the experience of being a part of that world is like. Of course, we had those conversations before that as well, but it became a different conversation once it became a reality that I might actually be stepping into it. And I also had a familiarity with the project from being around on the Obi-Wan set. I had a familiarity with some of the people involved, not in a super close sense, but in the way that someone might be a friend of a friend. So you’ve heard about them and you’ve heard how cool they are to work with.
And just being on the Obi-Wan set and getting to see what a positive environment it was, there was something incredibly moving about that. I got to see people working on Star Wars who were such big fans of Star Wars, and that’s something that you can’t really feel and know until you’re there and you feel that energy and what a special thing it is to be a part of. There’s something really infectious about being on a set where everybody really wants to be there. So having had that experience when the offer came through, it made me even more excited than I would’ve otherwise been. Obviously the prospect of being in Star Wars is exciting regardless, but knowing what it feels like to be in that community made it something that I would never want to turn down.
I hear stories all the time of actors calling other actors to vet directors and producers, so who better to ask, right?
Absolutely. It was great to have a direct line to what this experience was going to be like, and it was nothing but positive.
Was the C-3PO scene a nice surprise for you since it also reconnected Hera to Leia?
It was! There were so many moments like that. It was very moving, and it took me by surprise how much it hit me in the moment of seeing him on set and in that costume and hearing his voice. There’s just something so ingrained in us when it comes to those original movies and how much we’ve all grown up on them. So it was almost an out-of-body experience to be there in person. It was a really rare, unique thing to experience.
Natasha Liu Bordizzo devoured the animated series, Star Wars Rebels, so it could serve as her character’s memory bank, but Eman Esfandi opted not to be influenced by his animated character. I can’t imagine you had time to watch seventy animated episodes, but which approach did you take?
(Laughs.) I’m probably somewhere in the middle. I watched as much as I could, and I really devoured the first couple of seasons. From there, I spoke with Dave about key episodes in the seasons beyond that would be helpful for me to watch. I wanted to really understand her and to really understand what Dave and [EP] Carrie [Beck] wanted me to bring to her. Obviously, watching as much Rebels as I could was a huge part of that, and then speaking to them about what aspect of her personality was most important for me to harness and also make my own. It’s such a fine line when you’re taking on something that already has an incarnation out there. As an actor, you never really want to do an impersonation. So you try and figure out who this person is and how I can have those same qualities, but as I would possess them.
Rosario told me that there was never really a moment where the two of you said, “Hey, we went from the back of a muscle car in Austin, Texas to colorful makeup and head-tails in a galaxy far, far away.” But she did say she joked that she was glad to see that Lee Montgomery survived.
Did it take a minute to adjust to her in a new role and setting?
Walking into Ahsoka, I carried that same dynamic with me from when we worked together before [on Death Proof]. I was like 22 years old and super wide-eyed, and I just thought Rosario was the coolest person in the world. I was also super shy, and so it did take me a minute to come out of that dynamic. When I was on [the Death Proof] set, I was like, “Oh my god, it’s Rosario. She’s so cool and I’m the kid.” So I still felt a little bit like that at the beginning [of Ahsoka], and a few days into it, I was like, “Oh wait, we’re both adults now. We both have long careers behind us, and we’re playing these really strong badass women as equals.” So it was fun to get to stand next to her in that way, and it was just so much fun to get to play in a different capacity.
Did your makeup teams have a daily contest to see who could get their makeup and lekku on the quickest?
(Laughs.) I do remember there being a little bit of, “Whose lekku was lighter or heavier? And how many incarnations have there been?” Obviously, Rosario had played the character already, and so they had already been through several incarnations of getting it where it needed to be. And so I took her lead a lot. “How did you make this more comfortable? How did you work towards the contact lenses not getting sand in your eyes, and the lekku not weighing on your neck by the end of the day?” So you get into a real routine with it, and I was thankful that Rosario had already worked out some of those kinks. You take the lekku off in between takes as much as possible, and you do eye drops as much as possible. There’s a lot of maintenance throughout the day to make sure you don’t end the day in absolute agony, and everyone was really, really helpful in that way.
From 10 Cloverfield Lane and Gemini Man to Birds of Prey and Kate, you’d done five years’ worth of jobs that really put you through the wringer, physically. So was part of you glad that Hera didn’t have to get too physical for the time being?
Yeah, it was really perfect for me just in terms of where I was in my life at the time. It was my first job back after having a baby, and I was still feeling my way back into my body in terms of my physicality in the role and in my roles, in general. So it was perfect for me to feel strong and like a warrior, but in a way that didn’t require me to wreck my body, which was still in some level of postpartum recovery even at that stage.
With Dave Filoni recently being promoted to Lucasfilm’s chief creative officer, I was going to ask you if Ahsoka season two feels inevitable, but we have some breaking news. Lucasfilm literally just sent out a press release to announce a movie called The Mandalorian & Grogu, and that season two of Ahsoka is now in development. So, congratulations!
Thank you! “I know nothing, I say nothing.” [Writer’s Note: Star Wars actors often repeat a similar mantra in regard to what may or may not be going on.] They generally keep us pretty much in the dark, which is for the best, because I would never want to say more than what I am allowed to say. So I can say that I genuinely know very little, but that is a very exciting press release and I’m really happy to hear that it’s being talked about.
So Edgar Wright told me all about the 14-year–old email chain with the Scott Pilgrim cast. Is that a pretty rare thing to keep a cast text or email going for that long?
Definitely. I don’t think I’ve been a part of a cast who’ve kept in touch in the same way, particularly not on one email chain. So I’d say that Scott Pilgrim is my only experience with that, and it’s just so perfect for this group of people and the kind of sense of humor that has existed since everyone first got together. I love it so much.
I assumed you were tipped off during that anniversary live read you did in the middle of the pandemic, but that wasn’t the case. Edgar wanted to wait until the opportunity was real. Did you reply to his email pretty quickly about returning?
I think so. My memory isn’t perfect, but from what I recall, pretty much all of us replied really quickly to say we were in with really simple, quick responses. It was an easy thing to say yes to. It was a great opportunity to get to revisit these characters in a way that could work with all of our schedules, and there was absolutely no reason not to do it. It was just a perfect opportunity. And then when the scripts eventually came in, it was just mind blowing how amazing they were.
Was the surprise of the first episode still intact when you read it for the first time?
I had been a little bit tipped off to the fact that Ramona was going to have a bit more of a focus this time around, but I’m accustomed to being somewhat jaded to those kinds of things just because I’ve been around the block a long time. A lot of times, when someone says you’re going to be more of the focus, it’s sometimes not quite true or doesn’t really feel quite true. So I didn’t really get my hopes up too much, and then I just couldn’t believe how profoundly beautiful [series co-creators Bryan Lee O’Malley and BenDavid Grabinski] made that swerve. They wove the story together in a totally new way, and I was just so impressed.
Yeah, it really was Ramona’s story. She got to reconcile her past relationships and become the best version of herself.
Yeah, I was so surprised by how much it affected me. I thought it would just be a lot of fun to do, which it was, but there was also something really healing about revisiting your younger self. Any character is yourself in some way, and getting to bring a character of mine forward into a new place in her life, it affected me more deeply than I anticipated.
At first blush, it’s kind of a risky premise. Some people might even say it’s gilding the lily by rewriting an already beloved story, but I viewed it as Bryan Lee O’Malley exploring a what-if scenario in his own story and franchise. Did you feel one way or another about it?
When it was first brought up to me, I didn’t think about it too deeply, really. I just thought, “I’m sure whatever they come up with will be great,” but I had no idea what it would be. I couldn’t fathom how they could possibly come up with an idea that would keep people’s interest after all this time, and it really goes to show what an asset it is to wait ten years before revisiting material like that. [Series co-creator] BenDavid [Grabinski] and Bryan came at it with so much life experience from the last ten years. Bryan, as the person who created these characters, got to look back at that time in his life and bring all of this wisdom to it from where he is currently, but with the same sense of humor and irreverence and all of that. So I don’t think it would’ve been the same had we done it two years after the film was released. It needed that time to really build to something truly special.
Everyone sounded pretty on point, but it was almost eerie how well you recaptured Ramona. Do you partially credit the inflection or tone you chose for her way back when?
Yeah, I thought it was a really great opportunity to go back and recapture that tone, but also bring some new shades to her, which I really appreciated getting to do. I got to do more scenes with a bit of a smile or a bit of warmth or a bit of cheekiness or things that the film didn’t really have time to explore. The focus of the film version of Ramona was really this deadpan personality. That tone suited the film, but it was nice that the animated series gave me several episodes to explore her and bring those other shades to her. So it was a cool challenge to find that voice, but then also open her up in new ways.
I know you had to wear wigs as Ramona, but I foolishly thought that Ramona also wore wigs given the frequency with which her hair changed colors. It just seemed more practical, not that a world with subspace highways needs to be practical. But the anime series established that she went to great lengths to recolor her hair, and that’s something I wish we could’ve seen in the movie just because it would’ve fit Edgar’s filmmaking style so well.
It’s funny because that was one of my favorite things when watching the anime as well. I hadn’t seen it before the show actually came out, so it was such a nice surprise. There was something so calming about the way it was edited and the music they put with it. Ramona’s hair dyeing actually gave me a new perspective on her. It’s not just about escaping and moving on and washing her past away, but there’s also something comforting about this routine that she has. When you see it animated the way that they did it, there’s something lovely and sweet about it, and that was another new shade of Ramona that I hadn’t seen before and really appreciated.
Back in the day, did you briefly flirt with the idea of coloring your hair? Or did everyone agree that it would be too damaging and logistically challenging?
I think it would have been impossible to do, but at that point, I was so excited about the film that I would’ve done whatever they asked me to do. (Laughs.) From a production perspective, it would’ve been an impossibility. In the morning, my hair would be blue. In the afternoon, it would be pink, and then in the evening, it would be green, because that was the way it was scheduled. So there wasn’t really a way to do it practically.
The season ends in a complete and satisfying way, but it does leave the door open for Gideon/Gordon (Jason Schwartzman) and Julie (Aubrey Plaza) versus Scott and Ramona. Do you feel like there’s any urgency to pick it back up anytime soon? Collectively, the situation feels more casual than Ahsoka by comparison.
Yeah, I think we would all jump at the opportunity to do it if there was an amazing story to tell and Bryan said, “I’ve got this incredible story,” but I also wouldn’t want to place that pressure on him. Like I said earlier, part of the reason why this was so special is because it took years to bubble up. He was able to create something with BenDavid that was totally unexpected after all this time and through this new lens of life. So I wouldn’t expect that to happen again in a super quick way, not because they’re not incredibly talented, but because things should take time. So that’s my long-winded way of saying that I’m up for whatever they want to do, but my expectation is that it won’t come along anytime soon.
Ahsoka and Scott Pilgrim Takes Off are currently streaming on Disney+ and Netflix, respectively.
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