The way Mary Elizabeth Winstead describes her role as Nikki Swango on the new season of Fargo sounds like the most delicious birthday cake. Using adjectives like “rich” and “layered,” the Rocky Mount, North Carolina native won’t stop gushing over getting to bring to life such an interesting and complex character. “Fargo is such a dream because it’s everything you want,” she tells me as we sit down in Los Angeles. “It’s the best material. I knew just from the history of the last couple seasons that every single female role [on this show] has been so rich and layered and fascinating.”
That description can also sum up Winstead’s acting choices as well. From 10 Cloverfield Lane to The Spectacular Now, Winstead has drawn critical acclaim for nearly every film or TV series she’s done. “I’ve been very lucky,” she says. “Most of my career I’ve been considered an up-and-comer, which is sort of funny sometimes when you’re an up-and-comer after 15 years. But I’m very grateful to still be rising.”
Even with all the accolades, Winstead admits she hasn’t always felt comfortable in her skin—or with her body of work. “I think I had always wanted to go down a certain road, but I had insecurities. It’s taken me a lot of time to get to that place now.”
So how did she get to the “now?” And what is it about playing Nikki Swango that’s helped along the way? Winstead—who asks me to call her Mary (“When I was 12, I thought Mary Winstead was so boring, so I thought if I included my middle name it would sound more grand. I never bothered to change it!”)—is ready to explain it all.
Glamour: You are killing it in this role.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Thank you! It was everything I hoped for. I was surprised because I wasn’t expecting to play someone like Nikki. I was expecting to play someone more like Gloria, so it kind of came out of left field. It’s a great meaty role to sink my teeth into. The Fargo world is so fun for me to watch, so to know that it’s so much fun to be in as well has been such a lovely experience.
Glamour: With all the roles that you’ve played, what role shaped you the most as an actress?
Mary: This little movie I did called Smashed with Aaron Paul five or six years ago. That totally changed the way I saw myself as an actor and types of roles that I wanted to play. It really just set me in a clear direction in terms of what I wanted to do.
Glamour: And what did you want to do?
Mary: Just knowing that I had the complexity and the capacity as an actor to play the kinds of roles I always wanted to play. I think I had always wanted to go down a certain road, but I had insecurities about whether or not I could really focus on that. So when I did that, it felt so good. I realized these kinds of complex roles and this kind of material is what I can steer myself towards. I don’t have to worry if I’m good enough for it.
Glamour: It’s so true, and I love that you’re saying that. You can be the best and still doubt yourself.
Mary: Yeah, even now I’m so much more confident than when I did [Smashed]. It’s taken me a lot of time to get to that place—my confidence and being comfortable in my own skin and my body and being able to play a role like Nikki that’s sexy.
Glamour: That’s so interesting you say that.
Mary: Yeah, I steered away from that for so long because I was totally terrified of playing anybody like that. Every part and every year I just learn little bit more about myself and I start liking myself more. That’s been the biggest change for me, which I think is very normal. I started when I was younger; throughout my early 20s, I was just trying to figure out what other people wanted me to be and fit that. I think now that I’ve enter my 30s, I go, “Oh, I’m what people want. What I am already!” Then you start embracing that. Just being yourself is the key to the whole thing. That’s something I’ve really clicked into in the past couple of years more so than ever before.
Glamour: Tell me more about why playing a “sexy” role like this was something you tried to steer yourself away from.
Mary: Sometimes you get in your head. I didn’t want to play these kinds of roles because I was like, “I don’t want to be seen that way. I don’t want to be seen as sexy because that’s not interesting or substantive.” But then you get a role like this, where she’s sexy but she’s also a billion other things, and then you can really embrace that side of her and yourself and feel good about it.
Glamour: With all the talented people you’ve worked with, who has taught you the most?
Mary: In the last few years I’ve gotten to work with more female directors, which is awesome, but still not enough. I’ve only worked with a few in the course of a 15-year career now. But one woman who I love, and I hope to work with again, is Patty Jenkins, who directed [the upcoming] Wonder Woman. We did a pilot together, and I was so in awe of her energy and her stamina and her passion and the way that she articulated the way that she wanted things in a strong and compassionate way. She was somebody going forward I would like to emulate. I don’t know if I will direct, but I have aspirations to maybe do something like that or producing. I just loved the way she handled herself.
Glamour: You studied ballet at the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago, but you realized you were too tall to have a career as a ballerina. How heartbreaking was that?
Mary: There’s always going to be challenges and barriers, but you have to be adaptable and go, “OK, if that’s not going to work for me, then this is a passion I have as well.” I was passionate about a lot of things in the performing arts, so I was lucky ballet wasn’t the only love in my professional life. I wanted to perform, and I didn’t feel ballet was going to allow me to do that to the extent that I wanted to. Acting seemed like a good transition from that.
Glamour: One of your earliest roles was on the NBC soap opera, Passions. How did you view that experience?
Mary: It was a huge deal for me as a kid. I was going to be a regular on a TV show! But it wasn’t what I had dreamed of when I knew that I wanted to become an actor. It was a bit of a complicated experience for me as this very serious, like tortured 14-year-old who had all these things I wanted to do. In the soap world, you do an episode a day. You hit your marks, do your scene, and you’re done. It wasn’t really the exploratory work I was hoping for or had dreamed of. [Laughs] Even then I knew what I really wanted, and it took me a long time to get there.
Glamour: You were only on it for a year, right?
Mary: Yeah, I quit. I know, right? I was the first person on that show to quit! It was after a year, and I thought, “This isn’t really what I thought acting was about.” I wanted the opportunity to try and explore something else.
Glamour: What did you expect acting to be about?
Mary: It was a very strange environment. Everybody was really lovely, but it was a strange…like, people weren’t very nice in terms of the way we were treated sometimes. I was young, and I had done some things before that—guest spots on TV shows—and I was like, “It’s supposed to be more fun than this.” I had schooling and people were always really annoyed that I had to go to school. It wasn’t really a great environment for the age that I was. And I knew that I wanted to be an actor because everything I had done up until then was the most joyous experience in the world. Then once I quit and started to do other things, everything else from that point on was as joyous as I had hoped for. [Laughs]
Glamour: I think that’s an important lesson though—even though we might be lucky to have a job, if it’s not the right fit and you’re not happy, it’s time to look elsewhere.
Mary: Absolutely. It’s a tough thing to talk about because as an actor you never want to complain or make it seem like you’re ungrateful for something. But especially as a kid, if you’re not happy, you should be allowed to leave. They had to be somewhat understanding at least from that perspective.
Glamour: How different are you now from that little girl? How have you changed?
Mary: I’m probably more laid back in a lot of ways. I was very type A as a kid, and I wanted to be the best at everything. Now I’ve definitely learned that this is not the best [quality] to have. You need to be able to screw up and learn from it.
Glamour: When you were 18, you met your husband on a cruise ship. Details, please.
Mary: Yes, I did! It was a Carnival Cruise to the Caribbean. I was with my friend and her grandmother because it was her graduation present. Riley was similarly tagging along on his vacation and was with a friend and his friend’s parents. My friend and I were trolling for boys, as you do when you’re 18, and one of the first days on the cruise I saw him and thought, “That’s my person!” But I didn’t talk to him for several days. I just sort of followed him around and tried to catch his eye, but he was never really looking at me. Finally one day I went up to him and asked if he wanted to hang out, and we were pretty much inseparable from that point on.
Glamour: He was from Texas, and you were splitting your time between L.A. and Utah. No big deal!
Mary: Ha, right? We started sending each other videos because this was before FaceTime and stuff, so I would take a big video camera with me to the mall and film it so he could see it and then would send him a tape of it. [Laughs] We did that for a couple years, and then [he] made the official move to L.A. after that.
[#instagram: https://www.instagram.com/p/8tSJsxGtsY/ ]
Glamour: So when your friends ask you for advice about when they’re going to meet their person, what do you say to them?
Mary: I know, right? It’s so individual. It worked for us because it just did. We just kept working. We knew we liked each other, and then we knew we loved each other. It went from there.
Glamour: Was this a spur of the moment trip for either of you? Like one person didn’t almost go and it was total fate?
Mary: Yeah, it was. I actually got offered a job on the movie A Cinderella Story right before I was supposed to go on the cruise. I was really stressed because my friend had been planning this cruise for months, but then there was this supporting part in this movie. It was a big stressful thing at the time because I was still just starting my career, so to get offered a part in a movie was a big deal. I was hemming and hawing about it and just decided, “No, I’m going to go on this cruise.” That could have changed everything! Who knows?! I could have been working with Chad Michael Murray, and it could have been a whole different thing. [Instead], I’ll be celebrating seven years of marriage with Riley later this year.
Glamour: Wrapping up, how would you sum up your career so far?
Mary: I’ve been very lucky. Most of my career I’ve been considered an up-and-comer, which is sort of funny sometimes when you’re an up-and-comer after 15 years. But I’m really grateful because it makes me feel like I’ve been on this slow climb, and I feel very grateful to be still rising and still trying to reach my potential. There’s been times where it’s been scary. Every actor has those moments where you think this is your last project and no one is going to pick up the phone for you again. I go through that all the time, but then somehow something always comes along and it reinvigorates your spirit and carries you through the next phase. So I always keep that confidence that it’s going to happen even in the dark moments. That’s worked for me so far. Maybe I’ll still be an up-and-comer in five years, and I’ll be OK with that.
Fargo airs Wednesdays on FX.