A lot has changed since 1981, but on movie screens, at least one thing remains the same: If you absolutely, positively have to kill a body-inhabiting, shape-shifting Thing from space, use a flamethrower. Accept no substitutes.
 
That was the case in John Carpenter's 1982 feature "The Thing" and fans will be relieved to know that it's also apparently the case in Matthijis Van Heijningen's prequel/prelude, which hits theaters on April 29, 2011.
 
Given the amount of flamethrower action in Carpenter's genre classic, I don't think I'm spoiling anything when I say that it's early June on the Toronto set of "The Thing" and Mary Elizabeth Winstead is doing her part to make a flamethrower into next summer's hottest -- lame pun intended -- accessory. 
 
"I still have yet to burn an actual person," Winstead laughs. "But we are doing that. The stunt people have this fire retardant gel and so they're not even covered. It's their own skin and but they got this gel on and you're burning them. So I'm a little bit nervous about that, but kind of excited!"
 
[More from Mary Elizabeth Winstead's conversation with reporters on the set of "The Thing" after the break...]
 
Winstead is no stranger to on-screen butt-kicking, whether she's working with super-powers ("Sky High") or video game fighting skills ("Scott Pilgrim vs. the World") and despite only a half-hour of training with her new weapon of choice, she also seems pretty confident.
 
"It's mostly awesome," she says. "I've had a couple of scary moments but overall it feels pretty cool. It adds a natural bad-ass kind of component."
 
And, like most actresses in her age range, Winstead is also no stranger to to the horror genre, having battled death in "Final Destination 3," fought off a serial killer in "Black Christmas" and even dealt with small screen werewolves on "Wolf Lake," so she recognized a good thing when her boyfriend introduced her to Carpenter's film four years ago.
 
"That was the first time I saw it and I was blown away," she recalls. "I was just like 'How have I not seen this movie before?' and I've never even heard of it before that. I thought it was so good and so legitimately scary, which being around horror stuff for awhile it's pretty hard to scare me, and I was really frightened and really creeped out by that film. I thought the performances and everything about it was just really great."
 
Although Winstead is one of the most recognizable actors in the "Thing" cast, she admits she had to fight to convince some higher-ups that she was old enough to play Kate Lloyd, plucky paleontologist and the film's female lead. Fortunately, Winstead had a source of inspiration for the intellectual side of her character.
 
"I come from a pretty scientific family. My sister is a neurologist and my brother is an engineer," Winstead explains. "So I kind of just thought about them and their personalities. The way they carry themselves and the way that they speak. I sort of tried to carry that in with me. There's nothing you can do other than try to convey a certain intelligence and that's all I really could do." 
 
One of the things that's notable about watching Winstead at work is that she appears to be able to turn the character on and off at will. Like most of my colleagues, I've been on sets with actors who have to stay in their character at all times, meaning relative isolation (and certainly no talking to the press) between takes. Winstead, however, prepares to be out-of-breath by running a little in place, does a couple takes of terrified roasting (we're on set, but we can't see what she's actually using her flamethrower on, whether it's alien or man), removes her parka and can be out playing with her dog (and chatting with journalists) seconds later.
 
"I certainly have to get into a different headspace, but I'm certainly am not somebody that's going to spend all day in that frame of mind," Winstead acknowledges. "I've got to have some peace in between."
 
She adds, "When I first started out I would listen to my iPod all day and I would just get into these moods and stuff. Then you realize that there is so much downtime on a set that you'll just kill yourself if you go about it that way so you have to learn a little bit of technique to back up the real emotions."
 
Although some "Thing" purists might be concerned about the mere idea of a female character in the franchise, Winstead says all of the right things, even comparing Kate to Sigourney Weaver's Ripley from the "Alien" franchise.
 
"That's one thing I loved about it when I read it," she says. "This girl, similar to the Ripley part, could be played by a guy. You could change the name and it doesn't have to be a girl. There's no feminine characteristic about her other than that she is a woman. That I really like. I like that I'm not The Girlfriend or I'm not The Mistress or I'm not these kind of roles that you can get pigeonholed in as an actress so it's great."
 
That means that the thick, hooded jackets and gloves and boots won't be cast aside for consideration of sex appeal and it also means that Winstead's Kate and Joel Edgerton's Sam -- the closest the film comes to a Kurt Russell equivalent -- won't be pausing in the midst of trying not to die for a bout of awkward Antarctic romance.
 
"I really can't imagine fitting in any sort of romantic element into this kind of environment," she promises. "It would just seem really forced and odd. Their connection is that they find some sort of level of trust within each other and that's just one of those things where you meet someone and you feel like you recognize something in them that you find you can trust. That's really all it is. They form this bond and are able to stick together through the whole thing where everything else is starting to fall apart. But, yeah, no sexual tension. If anyone finds any sexual tension, it's completely imagined by them."
 
Also...
 
 
 
Audiences will be able to imagine "The Thing" starting on April 29, 2011.