Profile & Interview: Kate Winslet
by Carlo Cavagna
LEFT: Eternal Sunshine poster featuring Kate Winslet
ccasionally AboutFilm gets to rub elbows with Really Big Stars. We've had the honor of interviewing Nicolas Cage, John Travolta, and Jim Carrey. Kate Winslet cannot be considered the biggest star we've had the opportunity to question. Kate Winslet cannot by herself open a film at the top of the box office. But Kate Winslet is the first star for whom I've broken my own self-imposed No Autograph Hounding at Press Junkets rule.
When I participated in a roundtable interview of Winslet in early March, prior to the release of her new film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it had been several years since Winslet was the Star of the Moment. There was, for example, none of the electric expectation that filled the room when Charlize Theron gave an interview last December. Everyone sensed that an Oscar crown was imminent, and Theron played the role perfectly. Poised and elegant, she wasn't giving an interview; she was gracing us with her presence. Sitting across from Theron was like being confronted with an unreal goddess, not a fellow human being. There was a barrier between us and this perfect, unattainable waxwork of a woman. There's nothing wrong with that, because we need waxwork movie stars—they are what make the movies glamorous and enchanting. However, not all movie stars need be waxworks.
Sitting across from Kate Winslet is a wholly different experience. Her vibe is not “admire me,” but “sit with me, talk to me, laugh with me.” That's not to say that Winslet isn't breathtakingly beautiful, because she is. However, Winslet's beauty is different. Maybe it's the changes motherhood wreaks on the body, or maybe it's that she eschews the buffing, burnishing, and Botoxing favored by other actresses. She's not dressed to the nines with eight layers of makeup. She's at least twenty pounds heavier than the average movie star. Her forehead actually corrugates when she raises her eyebrows. She looks fantastic.
Winslet is often described as an “old-fashioned” beauty, which is code for, “Um, she's a bit heavy.” Back in secondary school, Winslet reportedly weighed 185 pounds at one time, earning her the nickname “Blubber.” More recently, tabloid magazines have had field days documenting her pregnancy-related weight fluctuations. It's as if Winslet's buxom body not resembling that of a stick insect (to swipe a term from Bridget Jones) is a bad thing. It isn't. Winslet has never been shy about proving it, continuing to bare herself in the service of art, long after her success gave her the power to refuse, in movies ranging from Titanic to Iris. The exclamation point on the title of Holy Smoke!, an otherwise ridiculous film, can only refer to the full glory of Winslet's spectacular… spectacularity. I've heard heterosexual women say that film made them wish they were gay.
The woman sitting across from me now does not seem a bit old fashioned. While Theron played up the old-fashioned Hollywood beauty queen mystique, the down-to-earth Winslet appears dressed in a simple blazer and jeans. She is friendly, outspoken, even loud. This is the corset-clad queen of costume dramas?
Yes, it is. Winslet has scored three Academy Award nominations, all for period work—Sense and Sensibility, Iris , and, of course, the movie she is best known for, Titanic. She has three Golden Globe nods (for the same films), and three Screen Actors Guild nominations. She has two BAFTA nominations and one victory, for Sense and Sensibility. With her exceptional talent, sooner or later she'll haul in the big prize—an Academy Award victory. Acting has always been in her blood.
Born in Reading, England, Winslet comes from a thespian family. Her parents, Roger Winslet and Sally Bridges-Winslet, ran the Reading Repertory Theater, as did her grandfather. Her uncle Robert Bridges appeared regularly on West End stages. Two of her three siblings, her older sister Anna and younger sister Beth, have also caught the acting bug.
Winslet began studying drama at the age of eleven at a performing-arts high school in Maidenhead, and got her first paid role cavorting with the Honey Monster in a Sugar Puffs commercial. After graduating in 1991, Winslet landed parts on British television, in shows like the kids' adventure Dark Season, the dramas Shrinks and Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, and the popular comedy Get Back, with Ray Winstone. On stage, Winslet played Pandora in the musical “Adrian Mole,” Wendy in “Peter Pan,” Sarah in “A Game of Soldier,” and Geraldine in “What the Butler Saw,” which garnered her first official recognition, a 1994 supporting actress nomination from The Manchester Evening News. It wasn't the stage, however, that provided Winslet with her big break.
In 1994, Winslet made her feature film debut in Heavenly Creatures, which was also the debut of director Peter Jackson. (You may have heard of him; he directed a series of epics involving some sort of a ring.) Winslet starred at Juliet Hulme, a disturbed, sickly teen who helps her best friend murder her mother. Despite the content, which is based on a true story, Jackson did not make the film into a thriller. Instead, he explored the girls' profound bond, an elaborate fantasyland into which both would escape from their dissatisfying reality. Winslet's performance was disturbing, convincing, and poignant.
Heavenly Creatures got Winslet roles as a princess in Disney's A Kid in King Arthur's Court (1995) and in Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility. This Jane Austen adaptation brought Winslet to the notice of the world. As the passionate, stubborn Marianne (the “sensibility” in the story), Winslet offered an exquisite and perfectly balanced contrast to Emma Thompson's portrayal of pragmatic elder sister Elinor (the “sense” in the story). Other period films followed: Michael Winterbottom's adaptation of the Thomas Hardy tragedy Jude, and Kenneth Branagh's unabridged Hamlet, a four-hour all-star marathon in which Winslet played the ill-fated Ophelia.
Then came the titanic Titanic. Over $600 million in U.S. box office, over $1.8 billion in worldwide receipts, fourteen Oscar nominations, eleven Oscar statuettes—there aren't enough words to describe the mind-boggling success of the biggest film of all time. Should you be visiting from another galaxy, Winslet played Rose Dewitt Bukater, a dissatisfied Philadelphia society girl who falls for Jack, a penniless artist played by Leonardo Di Caprio. The budding relationship upsets pretty much everybody on the First Class deck, and all hell breaks loose at about the same time the colossal ship whacks an iceberg.
Pre-Titanic Winslet reportedly had been turned down for Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet (Claire Danes got the part), Nicholas Hynter's The Crucible (it went to Winona Ryder), and Kenneth Branagh's Frankenstein (in favor of Helena Bonham Carter). Now the luminous beauty, the youngest actress ever to receive her second Oscar nomination, had twice as much Hollywood clout as Danes, Ryder, and Carter combined. Winslet could have gone for the much-coveted twenty-million-dollar payday. She could have gone for the more traditional post-Oscar Serious Project (see, e.g., Kim Basinger and I Dreamed of Africa; Kevin Spacey and Pay It Forward). She reportedly turned down Shakespeare in Love and Anna and the King. Instead, she came out with something called Hideous Kinky.
Based on an autobiographical novel by Sigmund Freud's granddaughter, Hideous Kinky (1998) finds Winslet as a self-absorbed hippie traipsing around Moroccan desert in 1972 with two young daughters, searching for spiritual enlightenment to the tune of America's “A Horse with No Name.” It was…let's just say it was not good. However, Winslet did find her first husband on the set of the film, assistant director James Threapleton. Also, journalistic accuracy requires noting that Hideous Kinky was filmed in late 1997, prior to Titanic's release and therefore not a choice made by Kate the Superstar. The next film, however, was.
That film was Jane Campion's Holy Smoke! (1999), described on this site as a “psycho-sexual-religious-suburban-wilderness-survival-melodrama-with-funny-spots bit of Kate Winslet idolatry.” Like Hideous Kinky, the theme was spiritual search. Winslet plays a young woman who has a religious awakening in India only to be lured back home to Australia by her family, who hires an exit counselor (Harvey Keitel) to “deprogram” her. This deprogramming involves a lot of psychodrama, a lot of sex, and Harvey Keitel staggering around the desert in makeup and a red frock. Go figure.
Obviously, the success of Titanic had freed Winslet to go off on a quest of her own, one that did not involve mega-stardom or massive box office receipts. She continued exploring unusual sexuality in Quills (2000), a film about the institutionalization of the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush). Winslet plays a prison laundress who helps Sade smuggle his pornographic scribblings to the outside world.
Then came the British World War Two mystery/thriller Enigma, a slight but intelligent film about the titular code-breaking machine. Winslet co-stars with Dougray Scott and Jeremy Northam as a tough, smart, and decidedly de-glammed mathematician. Though the film was ignored in the United States, Enigma marked an important point in Winslet's career development. She had played strong, independent women before—in fact, she's always favored those roles—but until Enigma they were always highly feminine characters, in the traditional sense of femininity. In other words, Winslet oozes estrogen. Enigma downplayed that, even though Winslet was probably pregnant during shooting. She gave birth to daughter Mia in October, 2000 (before Enigma's release). Despite Mia's arrival, Threapleton and Winslet did not stay together, divorcing the next year.
Iris was Winslet's next film. In it she and Judi Dench play younger and older versions of the same character, free-spirited British author Iris Murdoch, who suffered from Alzheimer's late in life. Around this time Winslet also became a surprise success on the UK pop charts. A song she performed in the animated film A Christmas Carol called “What If?” found its way into the Top Ten.
Winslet had shown independence and courage with her post-Titanic work, but it was time to return to higher profile projects. Though Iris earned Winslet her third Oscar nomination (for Best Supporting Actress), she had definitely faded from the public eye, at least in the United States.
Winslet re-introduced herself to America, and to an American accent, with The Life of David Gale (2003), the kind of ludicrously twisting drama/thriller with a big moral message favored by major Hollywood studios. It was, frankly, far beneath her talents, probably a choice designed to prove Winslet was capable of playing a tough-as-nails modern character—something she had already demonstrated with Enigma, not that anyone in the United States noticed. She played a reporter investigating the case of a death row inmate (Kevin Spacey) who is, of course, just a few days shy of execution and, of course, probably not guilty. The film grossed only $19.5 million, which was nevertheless over twice as much as her next most successful post-Titanic project to that point, Quills ($7 million).
Now Winslet delivers the most arresting Winslet performance yet, in the Charlie Kaufman-scripted Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Variously red-haired, green-haired, and blue-haired, Winslet is the fiery Clementine, a woman who undergoes a medical procedure to erase her introspective ex-boyfriend Joel (Jim Carrey) from her memory, thus prompting him to do the same to her. Once the procedure is underway, Joel has second thoughts and battles to save his memories of Clementine in a lucid dreamworld. Asked to be outrageous opposite one of our most outrageous actors playing against type, Winslet delivers. The brilliantly inventive, heartfelt film has become a near-unanimous critical success, and if there is any justice in the world, Winslet will get her fourth Academy Award nomination.
These days Winslet has a lot to celebrate. Not only is Eternal Sunshine the most critically acclaimed film of the year so far, but she recently became a mother for the second time. In December 2003, she and her second husband, American Beauty director Sam Mendes, welcomed a boy, Joe.
In the future, Winslet will no doubt continue to surprise. Her next film will be J.M Barrie's Neverland, about Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie, in which she stars opposite Johnny Depp. This spring she has been filming a John Turturro-directed musical (!) with Susan Sarandon and James Gandolfini (!) called Romance & Cigarettes.
Sitting across from Kate Winslet and considering all her accomplishments, it's hard to remember she's still only twenty-eight years old.
Question: Is it nice to be back to your normal hair color?
Winslet: Yeah, but I was in my normal hair color every day because they were wigs. They were clearly pretty convincing ones because everyone says to me, “So how did your hair hold up?” I was really up for dying my hair all those different colors, but, you know, a movie is shot out of sequence. Literally some days I would start with red, and then by lunch time I'd be blue, and then the afternoon I'd be green, and then I'd be back to red again. So we had to have wigs, but they were all such incredible wigs. I mean, even I would be up close to the mirror going cross-eyed going, “How is that possible?”
Question: Which was your favorite?
Winslet: I really loved the red. I absolutely just—I don't know why, I loved that red wig and loved having red hair. It was great fun.
Question: Is it your goal to defy the expectations of traditional leading lady roles?
Winslet: No, it's not my goal. It's fun. It's really fun to take risks, and it's really fun to play lots of different characters. Clementine was the most eccentric part that I've ever played. I just had so much fun doing her. What an unlikely pairing! You wouldn't imagine that Jim Carrey and I would ever do a movie together. When I was sent the script and was asked to do it, I just thought, “Well, there's no way I'm not going to do this,” because I knew that it would be a totally new experience and very challenging, which it was—both of those things.
Question: Do you relate more to this sort of flawed character than the idealized romance of something like Titanic?
Winslet: Yeah, I do actually. I really do, because to me, the relationship between Joel and Clementine is incredibly real. I think what Charlie Kaufman does that is so incredibly brilliant, is that he creates these very simple stories and then tells them in very unorthodox way. But yeah, to me, their relationship was profoundly honest and true to life. In no relationship can you possibly live every day at a fever pitch, as though it's the first day that you've met. Reality isn't like that. The best relationships in the world are successful precisely because you take the rough with the smooth, and learn how to be honest with your partner, and to confront things. That was what I loved about these people.
Question: Do you see the irony in the fact that this is your most eccentric, humorous role, and you're opposite Jim Carrey, doing more of a Kate Winslet-type role?
Winslet: Yeah, absolutely. I really had the Jim Carrey part, and that was pretty terrifying to be honest. At first I was like, “Oh, I've got to be the funny one. Oh no. How on earth am I going to do that?” So yeah, I was very nervous walking into it, but I like that fear. That stage fright is often one of the best things. I didn't preplan too much of it either. With the more romanticized period pieces that I have been doing—the more classical parts—you really have to prepare for something like that. Like Enigma . You have to concentrate so much on the period and certainly with Enigma, we learned how to use Enigma machines. There's so much preparation that goes into those types of films. With this one, I just thought, “My God, I have to leave it all to chance. I have to know who she is.”
Question: Is Clementine like you?
Winslet: I'm a relatively impulsive person, yeah. I mean, not when it comes to relationships, but certainly in terms of day-to-day life. For example, I might wake up in the morning knowing that I've got a couple of meetings and a script to read, and get my daughter to nursery school, and I might just turn around to my little girl and say, “Look, the sky is blue. Let's just go to beach. Or let's just go to the aquarium,” or wherever it might be. You know, just suddenly change everything in the last minute. So, there was actually a lot of me in Clementine. And hell, you know, I don't wear corsets every day; I wear jeans. So it was a lot more comfortable just in a practical way for me to be her—to the point where I had so much fun that I put my own clothes on at the end, and I went, “Oh, back to boring old me again, you know, with all my black that I wear.” I really seriously considered actually dying my hair red after we finished the shoot, because it was just so much fun to be something different for a while.
Question: Are you impulsive when choosing scripts?
Winslet: I react from the hip. I'm totally instinctive and impulsive about it, and that's just the way that I've always done it. I'm not very premeditated, and I don't have a whole plan, a whole career agenda. I don't think to myself, “You know, okay, I'll do a period movie this year, and then next year I'll do a movie with Johnny Depp, and the next year I'll do a film with Jim Carrey.” I just don't. I leave a lot to chance. It's whatever really excites me and inspires me. I just like to take risks like that. And more importantly, I don't walk into a film thinking this is gonna be a hit. It's just the wrong thing to think. Because as soon as you start to do that, the competition kicks in, and I'm just not a competitive person. I really love my job, and I want to do it as well as I possibly can, but I don't want to be the best. I very much enjoy watching other actresses play parts way better than I ever would have been able to. It's a very, very inspiring and exciting thing to be able to do that.
AboutFilm Question: Could you describe working with Jim Carrey?
Winslet: He's a great guy. We have such a good relationship, and, you know, you can't act chemistry. You can't make that happen, so I really just hoped to God that we were going to get on well, and thankfully we didn't hate each other. It was just great. Yes, he's goofy and silly and pulls crazy faces, and my God, he is a master impersonator. But he also has this quiet side, too. I'm used to taking myself off into quiet corners and preparing myself for a particular scene probably much more than Jim would be. And he had to do quite a lot of that in playing Joel just because Joel is the shy, more introverted guy. So he did have to sort of keep himself from himself sometimes. I could see that, and I love that, and I love being able to accept another actor's process, however different it might be to my own. But Jim and I, we actually had quite a similar process.
AboutFilm Question: We always hear about what actors get from working with other actors. I'm curious in this film what you tried to give the other actor?
Winslet: I always do exactly what you just said. I always try and give as much as I can, rather than get as much as I can. You're very lucky if you work with an actor who is brilliant and very inspiring, and gives you a lot, and that's why I try and do that myself, you know, if I'm doing off-camera dialogue. This would certainly happen with Eternal Sunshine. If Jim was doing a scene where the camera was just on him, I would be off camera acting my ass off because otherwise he wouldn't have had anything to react to. You have to commit to that, and continue to be that character off camera.
The only time I've been accepting of an actor not doing that for me [laughs] was when I was doing Quills. There was a scene with Geoffrey Rush, Joaquin Phoenix, Michael Caine, and myself, and it was one of very few scenes that we were all in together. We shot everything on Geoffrey, shot everything on Joaquin, shot everything on Michael, and it was round onto me. And I'd been acting my heart out with everyone else for everyone else's close ups. And Michael turned around to me—Michael Caine, the great Michael Caine, Sir Michael Caine—turned around to me and said [adopting Caine's accent], “Darling, do you mind, I just—I've got to be somewhere a little bit later. Do you mind if I just take my costume off?” And I thought he just meant maybe his jacket or something like that. No, back to dressing room, wig off, full normal clothing on! And he walked back onto set, and I was like, “Oh. That's what you meant.” But he still acted his heart out, and, you know, how can you not forgive Michael Caine for something like that. He's so charming and so funny, I was just like, “What the hell.”
Question: You said before that it would have been difficult to imagine you and Jim Carrey ever doing a movie together. Why was this an unlikely pairing?
Winslet: Because I have played Ophelia, and he was Ace Ventura, Pet Detective.
Question: It's that simple?
Winslet: No, no, no, no, no. Absolutely not. I mean, I just—I don't know what assumptions people might make as to the actors that I would work with, but I imagine people would think, you know, Derek Jacobi, Kenneth Branagh. Those are the things that would spring to people's minds. And believe me, I've been lucky enough to have worked with them and had an amazing experience. But as an actor, you always want to mix it up and play different parts. Jim and I have been in completely different movies to each other in the past, and so the pairing of us in this film, I think is exciting and challenging and different, and I would hope that people will think it's an unlikely pairing in order to make them go and see it.
Question: Did it change your approach, working against expectations?
Winslet: No, I just knew that I had to be something very, very different from what I had been before. Whilst it was very challenging for Jim to play Joel Barrish—this shy, introverted guy—at the same time, I am known for being this classical English rose in all these period pieces. So I knew I had to break that mold completely, which meant that I just worked very, very hard on the dialect. I wanted her to look totally different from everything else I've ever done. I think we can safely say she does. And so I just knew that I had to completely change my whole persona, and I was thrilled to be able to do that and be given the opportunity to do that.
Question: How do you reign in the eccentricity?
Winslet: Well, I had to be prepared to let people dislike her at times because she's a bit of a bitch, but at the same time, she's gorgeous and she's funny and she's silly, and you sort of feel for her. You sense her confusion about who she is, and her life, and so on. She's very, very vulnerable underneath all of that stuff, so I just had to work very, very hard. Sometimes I would say to [director] Michel [Gondry], “Let me know if I'm not doing enough. Let me know if I'm going too far.” More often than not, he would be pushing me further. I was so terrified of being over the top, and he would just say, “No, no, no. More, more, more.” And I'd be like, “Really?” He'd go, “Yeah, yeah, it doesn't matter. Just do it, just try it.” That was fantastically liberating. When you do classical period films, you don't get the opportunity to do that. It's a more subtle approach.
Question: In what particular scenes were you pushed further?
Winslet: The scene where they're in the forest, when they just find themselves suddenly—I don't know how it was cut together because I still haven't seen the final cut of the movie, but I believe you suddenly find them in a car, and they get out, and they're in a forest, and he's like, “Look, I'm erasing you Clem.” He's trying to hold his eyes open, [in order to wake himself up]. And he tries, and it works for a split second. Michel had me jumping all over the place in one version of that scene that we shot. I had not expected it was going to be like that. I figured that it would be the two of them maybe sitting on a log just talking to each other. But no, he had us running up and down, kicking leaves around, and it was so much fun.
Question: What about the scene on the beach with the snow?
Winslet: It was very cold and very unexpected. We all went to Montauk and we had a couple of weeks of shooting. We needed nice weather, and the morning after we arrived there, everyone woke up, and it was like, “Oh, there's three foot of snow outside, what are we going to do?” They had to push the call time because they had to scramble and figure out what we, in fact, were going to be able to shoot with this crazy weather. And Michel's like [French accent], “Fuck eet, let's just put ze bed on ze beach. Get out of it anyway and let's have them snowball fight, and you and Kate, just go over there, chase each other in the snow,” and he just shot stuff anyway. So it was great and crazy and I think that's an amazing image, a bed for a start on the beach, but in the snow with the waves? He's very, very clever.
Question: I have a completely different question. Is there a piece of pop culture, whether it's a CD, or an album, or a TV show, or a movie, that you would like to erase?
Winslet: Like to erase? No, I don't think so. I don't really believe in the idea of that process. I just think that the good and the bad experiences that we all have in our lives are what form us as human beings. I'm sure that everyone else who's walked into this room today has probably said the same thing. There's nothing that I would erase, no movie, no song, no nothing. [Singing like Celine Dion] “Once more, you opened the door…”—I've certainly heard that too many times. But no, you can't erase those things. They're all part of our pasts. I'm very grateful for some of the things that I've been through, however horrible they might have felt at the time. They make you stronger.
Question: What romantic movies have inspired you? Is there any particular movie that has had a big impact on you?
Winslet: A favorite romantic movie? I really, really loved Something's Gotta Give. I'm sorry, I just absolutely loved it. And Diane Keaton, that whole sequence when she's just crying her eyes out, throwing her manuscript into the air—I absolutely loved it, I really did.
Question: What about a favorite CD?
Winslet: I'm currently really into Rufus Wainright.
Question: I'm collecting stories about most embarrassing moments. What was your most embarrassing moment?
Winslet: One embarrassing moment that I wouldn't mind deleting was—I was in a tap dancing class when I was fourteen, and just laughing my head off with one of the guys. I don't know what we were laughing about. We just kind of got ourselves into that hysterical thing that you can't get out of. And I actually peed myself in the class. So badly. It was terrible.
Question: What was your your worst summer job?
Winslet: My worst summer job? I've served up donuts when I've been on a diet. That was not easy. I'm afraid I broke the diet those days. Long time ago when I was seventeen—yeah, that was probably my worst summer job.
Question: Where were you serving donuts?
Winslet: It was a cart at a huge music festival which takes place in England called WOMAD, which is the World of Music and Dance, and it's completely incredible. My uncle's a chef, and for many years he was the food coordinator. And so he'd say, “Wanna work on the donut bus?” And I'd go, “Yeah.”
[Read the AboutFilm review of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind]
[Read the AboutFilm interview with Jim Carrey]
[Read the AboutFilm interview with Elijah Wood]
Feature and Interview © April 2004 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Eternal Sunshine images © 2004 Focus Features. Heavenly Creatures and Holy Smoke! images © 1994 and 1999 Miramax. Sense and Sensibility image © 1995 Columbia Pictures. Hamlet image © 1996 Columbia Pictures & Castle Rock Entertainment. Titanic image © 1997 Paramount Pictures. Quills image © 2000 Fox Searchlight. The Life of David Gale image © 2003 Universal Pictures.
|Talk about this feature on the AboutFilmBoards|
|Official Eternal Sunshine site|
|IMDB page for Kate Winslet|
|IMDB page for Eternal Sunshine|
|MRQE page for Eternal Sunshine|
|Rotten Tomatoes page for Eternal Sunshine|