After turns in horror movies like Final Destination 3, Death Proof and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, established scream queen Mary Elizabeth Winstead is generating Oscar talk as a teacher trying to get sober in the funny and sad new indie Smashed, co-starring Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul. On a whirlwind tour of the States in advance of Smashed’s limited opening Oct. 12, she talked to TIME by phone from Boston about rebooting her image with what she says “is really a hopeful film.”
You play a very convincing drunk. How did you train?
I didn’t grow up around anyone who was an alcoholic, and I’ve never had any issues with alcohol. So I went to a lot of AA meetings. I found out how much I related to alcoholics’ struggles—to look into the mirror and recognize your faults, to try to love yourself.
They let you in? Isn’t that against AA code?
I didn’t go in proclaiming I was an actor and doing a film. I went in and said I’m here because I want to learn about being in AA. I always either went with Susan [Burke, one of Smashed‘s writers] or Elise [Salomon, a producer] who is also in recovery.
Oscar winner Octavia Spencer plays Kate’s warm and wonderful AA sponsor. Were Susan and Elise your pre-production research sponsors?
They absolutely were. Not only are they both in recovery, they are extremely funny and also both have been actresses. They know how to look at life with humor.
(READ: What TIME’s Richard Corliss had to say about Scott Pilgrim vs. the World)
It’s a juicy part. Did you have to fight for it?
When I got the script, I just flipped out. It was so complex and layered and human. I was considered more of a popcorn-flick actress, which is why I was actively pursuing a film like this and someone who would let me in the door. I did an audition tape, and I included every big scene in the movie.
The film straddles the fine line between the misery and humor in Kate’s situation. She’s a trainwreck, but one with a dry wit.. And it’s striking that she���s an excellent and enthusiastic teacher, even if she does vomit on the floor of her first grade classroom while attempting to teach hung over. Did you base her on any of your old teachers?
That has been one of the surprising things—people have been saying that they wish their kids had teachers like Kate! I had great experiences at that age in school, but what I was really thinking about was my nieces and nephews. I’m from a big family and there are a lot of little kids running around. I was thinking what it would be like to have to lie to them. How much guilt that would make me feel. Kate wants the kids to be looking up to her. And when all that starts unraveling, it’s so awful.
Please explain your character’s hideous wardrobe of sack dresses.
(Laughs) She needed to look a little off. From far away she kind of looks like a regular girl, but then you get up close, you realize that there is something not right. She doesn’t look at the mirror.
There’s a wonderfully awkward scene where Nick Offerman’s character, a work colleague who has helped Kate get into recovery, tries out an off-color come-on while they’re sitting in a car. Was that improvised?
[Director] James [Ponsoldt] always left the camera rolling; there was rarely a moment when he’d call cut, so we did some improvising. Even though most of those moments aren’t in the film, they really informed the film. But that scene in the car was completely from the screenplay.
That is one of my favorite scenes. She still likes him and she doesn’t punish him too badly for it. He is confused. He’s an alcoholic. He’s trying. Several men have spoken up at screenings, men who are in recovery, to say that moment was one of the most real scenes.
(READ: TIME’s interview with Winstead’s co-star Aaron Paul on his day job on Breaking Bad)
You’ve been in quite a few horror films.
I just consider myself a working actor but for some reason, yes, I have done a lot of horror films—four or five of them over my career [six if you count The Ring Two]. But you know horror films are some of my favorites: The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, Alien. Those to me are the height of cinema.
How many times have you died on screen?
I have never had a death scene! In one film I was killed, but it was off-screen. Every other film I’ve done I’ve lived through.
You’re not entirely done with popcorn flicks though. You’re in 2013’s A Good Day to Die Hard, reprising your role as Bruce Willis’ daughter, right?
I guess you could call it an extended cameo. (laughs) I got to go to Budapest for a few days and jump back into that rapport I have with Bruce. It was fun to revisit.
Are you aware that awards pundits have mentioned you as a dark horse Oscar nominee for Smashed?
I have certainly seen it around; I am pretty plugged in, I have Twitter… I am just amazed. But just getting the film into Sundance was great. The fact that that big word is even being bantered about—it’s all good. I will take what I can get.