February 2 - 8, 2009
“WHAT YOU SEE IS WHAT YOU GET”
Perhaps our most iconic modern actress, Kate Winslet is currently in the eye of the media storm: for award-winning roles in two films Revolutionary Road and The Reader and for impromptu, heavily criticized acceptance speeches. But, she tells Leigh Singer, everything she does comes from the heart.
Your feelings on Kate Winslet quite possibly come down to her most recent public performance, at last month’s Golden Globes ceremony. Not, you understand, the pair of roles for which she scooped historic Actress and Supporting Actress wins, as Revolutionary Road’s 50s American housewife in suburban meltdown and an enigmatic German accused of being a Nazi concentration camp guard in The Reader.
No, it’s Winslet’s second acceptance speech that has divided people. She choked up; she gushed; she forgot fellow nominee Angelina Jolie’s name. In short, she made a bit of a spectacle of herself. And for some, particularly back home in Britain, that just won’t do.
Winslet, 33, straddles two camps. In one, she’s regularly emphasized the fact that she’s just “Kate from Reading”, a normal, plain talking, Home Counties girl made good, a devoted mother of two, unaffected by fame, who famously served bangers and mash for her first wedding. Yet she’s also unequivocally our biggest movie star; lead actress in the highest-grossing film of all-time, Titanic; the first actor ever to achieve 5 Oscar nominations by age 30; and married to an A-list director, Sam Mendes.
So when she goes, in her own words at the Golden Globes, “on the cuff”, a double-edged sword hangs overhead. Either she’s accused of lacking the requisite dignity (as if Hollywood award ceremonies were big on that) for a British girl – the Guardian cattily decreed that her speech “raises the occasional wave of nausea” and mocked her antiquated use of the word “gather”. Or, even worse, she’s merely laying the false humility on thick. Really, even when you prevail – twice – you can’t win.
“It didn’t take the shine off because my mum and dad, they just could not have been more thrilled,” Winslet defends, sounding slightly hurt on the phone from New York. “And also my sister just had a baby three days after the Golden Globes, so we had this amazing week in my family. But the fact that the country that I come from are really the only people who find it necessary to say unpleasant things about me…”
She tails off, but quickly reasserting herself, a note of defiance in her voice. “And call me naïve, but I didn’t realise that people reviewed speeches. I’m a very black and white person. What you see is what you get and I just spoke from the heart.”
Right now Winslet is speaking from the heart and in public rather a lot, thanks to her double-whammy of award magnet roles. The “most exhausting and rewarding year of my life”, wasn’t made easier by a bout of food poisoning after London’s Revolutionary Road premiere. “My family normally have cast-iron stomachs,” she tuts, “but I was on GMTV and thought I was going to faint.” It meant cancelling a full day’s press and rescheduling this interview from a different continent. But just two days later, he we are.
Perhaps it’s partly to do with Winslet knowing that this, right now, is her moment. She’s been turning out acclaimed performances since her 1994 film debut in Peter Jackson’s haunting tale of fabulist, murdering schoolgirls Heavenly Creatures; from period dramas (Sense and Sensibility) to fiercely modern classics (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind); bruising US indies (Little Children) to quirky offbeat projects (Hideous Kinky); and of course colliding with Leonardo DiCaprio and an iceberg, that made her a global icon overnight.
Revolutionary Road and The Reader, based on celebrated novels by Richard Yates and Bernhard Schlink respectively, offer more evidence for admirers who cite Winslet as the best actress of her generation. If both films are noble but flawed, her work is practically flawless, masterclasses in Winslet’s ability and daring, baring both soul and, once again, body. A steely character – how else do you survive such a ruthless, judgmental business? - it’s clear both parts took a great deal out of her.
“When I first read [The Reader’s] script, my initial reaction was I can’t play this part,” she explains. “I’d never read a character before where I felt I have absolutely nothing of my own life to compare to this woman. Which is all the more reason to take on the challenge of playing her.”
“The same with Revolutionary Road - there were sides of both these characters that I did not like and as an actor - I learn this more and more - it’s not your job to like your character but it is your job to understand them. I had to occupy some very black corners of the emotional universe that I would normally never choose to go anywhere near.”
Yes, we’re talking about acting. Pretending. But Winslet’s self-professed binary mindset leaves little middle ground. If her character stands accused of wartime atrocities, or suffers the torment of a doomed marriage, you know she’s putting herself through the ringer to get there. Particularly if there’s some correlation to her own life.
“I’ve had my heart broken, I’ve been through a divorce, none of these things are a secret,” she admits, “and they have been some of the most painful times in my life. As an actor all you have is your own emotional toolbox and if you aren’t prepared to use your own experiences then you aren’t able to do the job.”
Acting as therapy then? “You know, I’ve never had therapy or any stuff like that,” she agrees, “and maybe it’s because of the job I do that I haven’t felt the need. The other thing is, I like my baggage. My baggage has become very important to me. All I really have as an actor is the experiences I’ve had and the courage to use them.”
Courage may not be the exact word to describe reuniting with Titanic co-star DiCaprio in Revolutionary Road; but then, ‘unconventional’ probably doesn’t do justice to the experience of simulating sex with your “best friend”, while your husband directs you both.
“It was profoundly bloody weird, is what it was,” Winslet blurts out. “And I was the only one who felt it! Sam is the consummate professional. I kept thinking he’s going to flinch, but no. In fact we’ve got a still which we put in a frame, of Leo and I about to kiss, nose to nose and Sam is right behind us making the camera frame with his hands!”
Any embarrassments were, she notes, more than compensated by “the dream” of finally working with Mendes and re-teaming with DiCaprio, moreover on a project that she first collared the script for – “for a woman that’s quite unique” – and had to hold together for four years until the three of them join forces. “So winning the Golden Globe puts it into perspective,” she says plaintively, “and that’s why it meant such a great deal to me.”
Of course awards and ceremonies mean posh frocks and acres of column inches dissecting actresses’ fashion sense and figures, a subject Winslet has been very vocal on since a much-maligned 2003 GQ magazine cover that digitally streamlined her curvy figure. “I’m not very good at keeping my mouth shut,” she jokes. “I still think it’s important to make young women – not people in general, young women – aware that this picture-perfect, Photoshopped image of models and movie stars is not reality. No one looks like that.”
In the next breath, however, Winslet cheerfully admits of her awards attendance, “playing dress-up is also very, very exciting. The Golden Globes, that morning, I was so nervous and people around me were like, ‘God, Kate we’ve never seen you like this.’”
Still the same enthusiasm drives her endorsement of a very different proposition, British charity Cardboard Citizens, the UK’s only homeless people’s professional theatre company. “It literally turns them into actors and gives them a whole new lease of life,” she marvels. “I went to the most amazing production in Holloway prison, got to sit in a room with people serving life sentences and watch them stand up and become an actor for ten minutes, improvising a scene. Really, truly a remarkable organisation.”
As for her own acting, it’s actually refreshing to hear a star be so upfront about enjoying being rewarded for her work. It’ll be just the one Oscar opportunity this year, Academy members putting her forward as Best Actress for The Reader – confusingly, her Supporting Globe win - rather than Revolutionary Road. But even here, her pride is tempered, refracted even.
“More important than any of that, my kids are now at an age where they would feel something about me achieving a win like that,” she beams. “They’re still zinging from the Golden Globes. They were watching it on TV and they totally get what it means.” If only the same could be said of certain members of the press. You hope Kate Winslet doesn’t cave in to the critics and prepare a speech, stays “on the cuff”; surely it’s when the bona fide movie star and the girl-next-door merge – gather, even - that things really gets memorable.
The Reader and Revolutionary Road are out now; for more information on Cardboard Citizens, visit www.cardboardcitizens.org.uk