Winslet is always an actor to watch
TORONTO ó “We’re talking about sex,” Kate Winslet yells at a gatekeeping publicist who has barged into the room. “You can’t come in.”
The radiant British actress, who just turned 31, isn’t quite in Judi Dench’s or Helen Mirren’s league when it comes to issuing commands with regal authority. But she’s been a mother long enough to Mia, soon to be 6, and Joe, almost 3, to know how to ward off unwanted interruptions with a “stop that!” tone of voice.
And she certainly doesn’t hesitate to take charge of a situation while doing press during the recent film festival here, having already removed her fashionably lofty suede boots (“I never wear heels, except for junkets”), closed the window to minimize noise, adjusted the sheer drapes and rolled her own cigarette after politely inquiring, “Do you mind if I smoke?”
The intruder does not follow orders to scoot. And who would, given the hot topic at hand?
Winslet relates how she once again must doff her duds on-screen in the first two of her four films this fall. Already opened is the political tract All the King’s Men. Next is the satirical suburban melodrama Little Children, the primo Academy Awards bait of the bunch that arrives today in limited release.
Tell her she looks just fine, discreetly lying across the bed unclothed while a nearby Jude Law is allowed to retain all his garments in All the King’s Men and Winslet relates the horror that could have been: “Another part of that scene was cut. He takes all my clothes off, and I walk around the room completely starkers. Terrifying. With the camera behind me. How about that for anxiety?”
Pretty good. But when her bored and naked stay-at-home mom commits a rigorous infidelity atop a laundry-room sink with Patrick Wilson’s bored and naked stay-at-home dad in Little Children, wasn’t that, well, even more awkward?
“The first two minutes of a nude scene is the worst,” she explains patiently. “Then, you just kind of forget you are naked. You’re so concerned about getting it right, so concerned about them not shooting the crumply regional Belly and saggy bottom. The anxiety goes away. It’s a weird, weird thing.”
Not so weird, really. Winslet regularly strips in such arty-minded and semi-obscure films as Hideous Kinky, Jude, Holy Smoke!, Quills and Iris. Oh, yes, she also struck that unforgettable odalisque pose for Leonardo DiCaprio’s wide-eyed artist in the bank-breaking sea monster of all blockbusters, Titanic.
Disappointingly, she resorts to the hoariest of clichÈs to justify her streaking streak: “Any of the love scenes I’ve ever been asked to do in a film has always been absolutely crucial to the story.”
But considering Winslet is the only actress to have collected four Oscar nominations ó two for supporting (1995’s Sense and Sensibility and 2001’s Iris) and two for lead (for Titanic and 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) ó before age 30, she just might be sincere.
“She has not been eaten by celebrity,” say Jeanine Basinger, the head of film studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. Compare her to Gwyneth Paltrow, Oscar winner for 1998’s Shakespeare in Love in a role that Winslet turned down, and “the difference in the level of work and projects chosen is quite pronounced. She has defined herself as an actress, not a glamour pinup or a mature sophisticate.”
Another great performance
Nomination No. 5 may be in the offing if critical assessments of her subtle yet smart portrait of Little Children’s Sarah, an intellectual oddity adrift in suburbia whose darling 3-year-old and Internet-porn addict husband fail to fulfill her, are to be taken seriously.
According to A.O. Scott of The New York Times, “Ms. Winslet, as fine an actress as any working in movies today, registers every flicker of Sarah’s pride, self-doubt and desire, inspiring a mixture of recognition, pity and concern.”
Her character’s convincing lack of maternal instinct even got under the skin of some of the suits at New Line Cinema, says Little Children director Todd Field (In the Bedroom).
“When the first dailies came in, they called and asked, ‘Everything OK out there? Kate is very tough in a couple early scenes with the husband and little girl.’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ They said, ‘What if people don’t like that?’ I told them, ‘That is the point of the film, remember?’ I hesitated to say anything to Kate, but when I did, she just laughed and laughed and said, ‘Oh, that’s marvelous, isn’t it. It’s working.’ ”
The greatest challenge, Winslet says, was to play a person so unlike herself, one who “carries her child as if she were a heavy piece of luggage she is trying to lug through an airport,” as Field puts it.
“It was very, very hard playing somebody who wasn’t a good parent and didn’t have enormous amounts of affection,” she says. “It’s not often seen in movies, but it is reality sometimes. That’s why I had to play it as truthfully as I could to the script. As tempted as I was to cuddle and kiss that little girl in every single scene, I knew how important it was to the story that I didn’t do that.”
Yet she was able to admire Sarah’s gumption at least. “She makes this decision one day on an absolute impulse to take this dare and kisses a complete stranger on a playground,” she says of the scene where Sarah and Wilson’s Brad, nicknamed the Prom King by the smug neighborhood mothers, have their initial encounter. “To dip one’s toe in the waters of temptation is very, very, very dangerous, and I think it took tremendous courage to go the whole hog.”
The illicit relationship and its aftermath profoundly affect Sarah. “We’ve all been through that,” she says. “Those moments where you think, ‘Oh my God, should I do this? Everything will change if I take one step forward.’ ”
Stardom didn’t affect her
Winslet could apply those same thoughts to her situation after the overwhelming success of Titanic, still the No. 1-grossing film of all time with more than $600 million domestically. Teen idol DiCaprio might have been king of the world, but where did that leave his co-star, whose feature debut was only three years before in Peter Jackson’s much-admired crime fantasy Heavenly Creatures?
“I genuinely went into that experience having no idea how huge that film was going to be, had no idea what size the budget was. I did it because I loved the script.”
But decisions did have to be made ó how should she steer her career? Toward more money and fame? Or toward personal projects that allowed her to maintain a better sense of balance?
“I did have a lot of things offered to me that would have changed my life all the more and, to be honest, I was not ready,” she says. Instead, Winslet was drawn to the oddly titled Hideous Kinky, a small film about a spiritual quest set in Marrakech.
Part of that decision was based on advice given to her by her late boyfriend, Stephen Tredre, an actor and screenwriter she met on a BBC sitcom in 1991. He died from bone cancer at age 34 in December 1997, just as Titanic was about to open.
Before signing on for Titanic, “I remember standing in the middle of Knightsbridge on my phone. I had just gotten this mobile phone, and it had been ringing all day with people hassling for answers for this, that and the other, and I was 20 years old. I phoned my boyfriend and said, ‘What do I do? What do I do?’ And he said, ‘What does your heart tell you to do?’ ”
With those words, Winslet suddenly bursts into tears. “I’m sorry. I’m getting emotional because this person passed away. Go away, Stephen,” she says, waving her hands as if shooing a ghost.
She dabs her eyes and begins to recover. “So I did it for him. I wanted to let people know that acting was the most important thing to me. And hang onto my integrity.”
As if to bring herself back into the present, she pulls out a snapshot taken at the Los Angeles Zoo of her two children and husband, Sam Mendes, the British theatrical whiz who won a directing Oscar for 1999’s American Beauty.
Winslet, briefly wed before to Mia’s father, Hideous Kinky assistant director Jim Threapleton, and Mendes take turns working, and split their lives between London and New York. Since May, she has been the one guarding their domain. But the man who exposed the seamy underbelly of domesticity with such acerbic aplomb in American Beauty is quite the happy homemaker when he has to be.
“We spent some time in England this summer, and Sam was just so fantastic,” Winslet says. “A lot of mornings he would get up with our son, unfortunately between 5:45 and 6:15. By the time I’d come downstairs, not only had he unloaded the dishwasher from the night before, but he had reloaded it and put it on, cleaned down all the kitchen surfaces, given Joe his breakfast and made me a coffee.”
If Mendes can handle Tom Hanks and Paul Newman in Road to Perdition and Jake Gyllenhaal and Jamie Foxx in Jarhead, dirty dishes are probably a snap. She sighs. “When I met him, he was dedicated to his work and that was pretty much his life. Suddenly I came along and I had a child already. So he got used to it quick.”
Though Winslet is taking a year’s break, she has two more movies to tide her fans over. “I have finally done a much bigger film again,” she says, referring to The Holiday, a romantic comedy directed by Nancy Meyers (Something’s Gotta Give) that opens Dec. 8.
“I play a contemporary English person for the first time ever,” she says about her heartbroken Londoner who swaps homes with an equally heartbroken Yank in L.A. (Cameron Diaz) for two weeks. They each suffer culture shock and find love ó Diaz with Jude Law and Winslet with funnyman Jack Black.
Then, for the wee ones in her life, there is Flushed Away, opening Nov. 3, the first computer-animated feature from the creators of Wallace & Gromit about an underground city of rats. Hugh Jackman voices Roddy, a posh pet rodent who is flushed down the loo and is desperate to go home. Winslet is the scrappy scavenger Rita, who lends him a hand and her boat.
Still, she is looking forward to continuing her break from the Hollywood rat race.
“I have this English friend who lives in Los Angeles who is also an actress and she said, ‘What are you up to now?’ I told her I was taking a year off. She said, ‘Wow, how’s that going to be?’ And I said, ‘It’s going to be great. My daughter is starting school. My son is starting preschool.’ And she said to me, ‘Don’t you feel frightened you might lose a bit of yourself?’ I was struck by that. I knew what she meant, but what would I lose?”
She sits back and reflects a moment. “Sometimes I think I should be more guarded in interviews, but I just can’t do it.”
And thank goodness for that.
Winslet is always an actor to watch