Mary Elizabeth Winstead talks about the action-packed mayhem of Kate

PHOTO: Netflix

Netflix’s latest action-packed thriller is Kate, directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) and starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Miku Martineau and Woody Harrelson.

The movie follows Kate, a finely tuned assassin at the height of her game - but when she blows an assignment targeting a yakuza member, she discovers that she’s been poisoned. The poison grants her a brutally drawn-out death, and a measly 24-hour time window to find her killers and exact bloody revenge.

As Kate navigates the streets of Tokyo to whittle her way into the bowels of the yakuza however, she forms an unlikely bond with the teenage daughter of one of her past victims.

We had the opportunity to speak to Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Miku Martineau about the film, their ukulele band and the controversy that came with the film’s first trailer. We also spoke to stunt coordinator Jonathan Eusebio, who reunited with Winstead after working with her on Birds of Prey!

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

First off, what attracted you to playing Kate?

Mary Elizabeth Winstead: I was instantly drawn to the idea of Kate, when it was first brought to me and I knew that Jojo and his stunt team were going to be involved. That instantly piqued my interest, because I had worked with them on Birds of Prey, and I loved them so much.

So the idea of continuing that relationship was exciting. But I was a little hesitant about going and doing more action because I was a bit tired, and was also kind of seeking a break. But then when I read the script, it was so good.

Kate was such a great character. It felt more challenging than anything I'd ever done before on so many levels, physically as well as emotionally and to go as far as the film goes, was something that was really exciting for me. I couldn't pass up the opportunity.

Without spoiling anything, there’s a really intense action sequence that takes place in an apartment with you, Miku and Miyavi. What was working on that like?

Mary Elizabeth Winstead: It was such a brilliantly choreographed scene, and it was the first fight scene we shot. So there was a bit of a dangerous energy in the air, because Miyavi and I hadn't been able to rehearse together very much, because he's a very busy and popular musician.

He'd been touring, and so he'd really just showed up a couple days prior and picked up the choreography really quickly. We had a couple of rehearsals together and then it was like, “Okay, you're on, let's see what happens.” We ended up beating each other up a little bit. But it was also really exciting to get in there and to be totally raw with it.

Miku was so fantastic as well, just adding this element of humour with the gun. I love the scene that follows it, with Ani and Kate and that vulnerability that comes out. It's such a contrast to this crazy, intense fight.

Miku Martineau: That’s one of my favourites.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Me too!

What was the toughest action sequence you had to work on for this film?

Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Most of the stunt work was sort of tailored to me since I was cast in the film very early on. JoJo was able to choreograph the fights in such a way that I was able to do most of it myself. Because he knew me from Birds of Prey, he was aware of what I was capable of.

He choreographed the fights knowing, “This is something I think Mary can do.” So the majority of the stunt work, I did myself. There are lots of great moments as well, like getting thrown into a wall into another room. I didn't do that. But everything else I really did, and I had so much fun. I was so grateful to be able to do it.

Jonathan Eusebio: I think the fight with Mary and Miyavi was especially tough for a few reasons. First of all, it’s not like Mary's fighting a stunt performer - she's fighting another actor. Two people that aren't trained to fight like this their whole lives.

To get the right dance partners and get the steps right, it takes time. Getting the flow of the fight was the hardest, just because they had to figure out who was leading who in that fight sequence.

Kate is set in Japan and riddled with references to its culture - from the band Band-Maid to Kate’s Totoro shirt. Did you have any say in Kate’s wardrobe, and what was shooting in Tokyo like?

PHOTO: Netflix

Mary Elizabeth Winstead: There was definitely a collaboration in choosing Kate’s wardrobe, but that Totoro t-shirt was definitely Cedric’s (aka Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, director of the film) love of Japanese culture and Japanese films.

He even has it tattooed on his body, so that's definitely Cedric's passion. But in terms of what Kate wears, how she moves and how she looks and all of that stuff, it was very collaborative and I really enjoyed helping to come up with a lot of that.

Filming in Tokyo was so much fun. It was really fast and intense. We were shooting sort of guerilla style on the streets, just getting shots wherever we could. So I was chasing Miku around the streets of Tokyo with a fake gun, looking...I'm sure, a bit deranged.

All the local people were hanging out on the streets around us, and there was one point where we were actually tailed by a Yakuza van. Just riding around us, trying to figure out what we were doing. It definitely felt a bit like real life for a few minutes, here and there.

Miku Martineau: I am Japanese, and my mom's Japanese. It was really nice filming there, because we actually got to see family - I got to see my grandma, my cousin. They actually got to come to set, and we were filming one of the very last scenes in Tokyo right where my mom grew up.

Jonathan Eusebio: The energy of Tokyo kind of translates into the fight scenes. The vibe of the city helped us conceptualize the tone of the fights. It's always good to see an outsider go into a place that she's not familiar with.

Kate and Ani's relationship acts as the heart of this film. How did you nurture that onscreen chemistry?

Mary Elizabeth Winstead: We didn’t have to try very hard. What do you think?

Miku Martineau: I think it came very naturally. It's just such an amazing story. The journey that Ani and Kate go through - it's very heartwarming and vulnerable. We see a different side of Kate and Ani through this interesting, unexpected relationship.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead: When I met Miku, at her audition, she was just so instantly likable, and friendly, and adorable, and sweet. I think that connection was very, very easy from the beginning.

It was more about finding their antagonistic relationship and making sure that that part worked, because at the beginning, they don't like each other very much. That was what I was more worried about. How are we going to pull that part of it off, because I love her so much?

Miku Martineau: I remember when we were doing those scenes, where we were yelling at each other and screaming at each other, afterwards I would feel so bad.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead: I know, I know! You'd feel so bad and then we’d go play ukulele together. We had our own little ukulele band. That’s what went down after those scenes.

You've worked with stunt coordinator Jonathan Eusebio before on Birds of Prey. Did that familiarity make the preparation for these stunts easier, and how much did the two projects differ?

PHOTO: Netflix

Mary Elizabeth Winstead: It did make it a lot easier. I didn't really have to do a lot of preparatory training for Kate, because that had already been done for Birds of Prey.

I just jumped into it with Jojo and got straight into the choreography, into the fun part, which was just figuring out who Kate is and how she fights. I didn't have to do a lot of the basic drilling and training that I had to go through for Birds of Prey, which was really exhausting. I was happy to skip over that part.

I think it really helped Jojo to know what I was capable of doing, in terms of choreographing the fights. He knew what I was good at already. So I think it was nice to be able to tailor Kate to that, in a way. The two movies were different in terms of style.

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The way Cathy Yan (director of Birds of Prey) directed the fight scenes in Birds of Prey was very lyrical, long takes and it was more like a dance. Kate is a bit more brutal and messy, and a bit more raw and gritty and realistic in that way.

Birds of Prey, I would say was a little bit harder because it had to be a little bit more perfect. In Kate, I got to just go in and flail around and just get crazy with it, and see what came out of it. That was a lot of fun.

Jonathan Eusebio: Being familiar with her made things a lot easier in terms of knowing what she can do. Birds of Prey was almost like teaching her the basics of the way we do action. Kate was taking that and applying it to more complex choreography. Birds is more of a comic book style movie, so the action is more stylised and more over the top. Kate's is a little bit more grounded and more violent.

Mary's very graceful and elegant, and you want to incorporate that in the choreography. You have to take certain things into account. For example, if it’s a small person fighting a big person, would the small person's punches actually hurt the bigger person?

She's an assassin, so she wouldn't really stand toe-to-toe with big guys and trade punches. She used her ingenuity to find a weapon.

If Birds of Prey was a comic book, I would say Kate is more like a graphic novel, or a more serious version of it. It's very stylized and hyper real. What makes it interesting though, is that they still bleed, they still hurt. You have to show that they're they have to struggle to win these fights.

They don't have superpowers. They don't have a team of people helping them. Everything is based on reality and how hard you fight.

There’s a point in the movie where we see Kate take down a house full of armed guards in a pretty spectacular action sequence. From the point of conception to training to shooting, how long does a scene like that take to come together?

Jonathan Eusebio: Usually the director and I will discuss what he wants for a scene. He goes over the emotional and acting beats, and he tells us the story arc. I then try to design the action around that story arc. We’ll do a moving storyboard of the action sequence with doubles and the stunt team.

And then we get to a general consensus. That could take one or two weeks, depending on longer sequences, and then we show that to the director, and he will say yes, or no, or tweak it.

To make a really involved set piece can take a couple of weeks. And then once we get that set up, we have to teach Mary how to do that fight, depending on how long we have to train with her. The [director of photography] and all the camera guys have to watch and learn the fight too.

A lot of their fight choreography is in conjunction with the camera movement. There are a lot of moving parts in the way we designed these sequences. Those things can take months of planning, sometimes.

When the trailer for Kate dropped, there was some controversy regarding the premise of the movie - a white woman going on a killing spree in Japan. What was your reaction to that controversy?

PHOTO: Netflix

Mary Elizabeth Winstead: I certainly understand why there would be a sensitivity to that, especially right now. It's horrifying. Any sort of violence against Asian people that's happening right now, particularly in the United States - it’s awful.

But I think the film, when we set out to make it two years ago, we were thinking about this character and putting her in an interesting international space as an assassin would be. A fascinating criminal organization like the Yakuza is something that would be really cool to watch and get to infiltrate within that world.

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I think all of the Japanese characters in the film are portrayed by incredible actors, who I was so lucky to get to act alongside and to discover somebody like Miku in her film debut. To be a part of that was so special for me and signing on to it initially, speaking with Cedric and knowing about his love for Japan, and his love for that culture was something that was very important to me.

When people see it, I hope that they realize that it's a thoughtful film. There's nothing exploitative about it in any way. It's very emotional.

There's a lot of depth and humanity and dignity in the film, even though there's also a lot of violence. So I'm hoping that they won't just base it on the trailer, and that they might actually check out the film and enjoy it. Of course, I understand those concerns for sure.

Kate hits Netflix on Sept 10, 2021.

This article was first published in Hardware Zone.