Film-goers have the chance to watch Kate Winslet inhabit two astoundingly different, but equally remarkable, leading roles. But unlike Winslet’s pristine young Rose in Titanic, or her lovably quirky Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or her now classic Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, her two current characters won’t woo or charm. They will, however, mesmerize, and ticket buyers should expect to tumble head over heels for Winslet herself, who just may be, in the words of Leonardo DiCaprio, “the most talented actress of her generation.”
Those who have worked with or watched Winslet since her arrival in U.S. popular culture aboard James Cameron’s unsinkable Titanic know DiCaprio’s assessment isn’t empty approbation. To see Winslet slip so fully into the character of a tortured former Nazi sympathizer in The Reader is to see an actor’s actor at work. To see her capture in small gestures the private loss of suburban disaffection in Revolutionary Road is to witness a performance of preternatural grace. But to witness both in one weekend is to become immediately aware that Winslet is now setting the standard for film actors everywhere.
“Do I want an Oscar? ...
You bet your ass I do!”
With five Oscar nominations in ten years, Winslet’s long been on the list of legends-in-the-making. The youngest actress ever to receive two, then three, then four, then five Academy nods, Winslet’s always been a lady who leads. She made her first appearance on the cover of Vanity Fair a decade ago, and she again graced it this past December. And when this year’s Academy Award nominations are announced in late January, industry insiders are expecting Winslet’s name to appear again—even, perhaps, twice—placing her in a different kind of category, as a member of the “why the hell haven’t they won yet?” club. Populated by some of the greatest actors of all time, it’s both a discon- certing distinction and a hard-won honor, usually reserved for those who so consistently deliver pitch-perfect perfor- mances that a viewing public and an industry in love with the New and the Next consistently take them for granted. If this has been the case with Winslet, one gets the feeling this award season will shake the Hollywood voters out of their complacency and place a golden statue in the British icon’s hands.
In keeping with her now well-known penchant for speak- ing her mind, Winslet isn’t shy about her lust for Oscar gold. “Do I want an Oscar?” she asked rhetorically to Vanity Fair’s Krista Smith. Her answer: “You bet your ass I do.”
That degree of desire, along her pleasantly surprising forthrightness, has defined Winslet’s steadily spectacular career. From her early days working the British stages and small screens, to her film debut in Heavenly Creatures, directed by Peter Jackson (pre-Tolkien obsession), to her perfect youthfulness in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility and Kenneth Branaugh’s Hamlet, Winslet has never shied from difficult roles, be they delightful or, as has more often been the case, disquieting. Keenly, she has made a name for herself dis- secting the lost innocence of youth and beauty, playing a young student who conspires with a friend to kill her mother, a bored and desperate housewife who seeks respite from the confines of motherhood, an aging Nazi guard who seduces a young boy. Roles like these have won her acco- lades, and the critic’s favorite adjective: fearless. “If I’m freaked out by it and think I could never do that, that makes me think I should be doing it,” she said.
The mantra “follow your fear,” seems to have defined her career, from her early England days until the latest Oscar buzz. Born in Reading, England, the second of four children among a family of actors, Winslet talks openly about being overweight as a child, a fact that makes it dif- ficult even today to imagine herself a symbol of beauty and sexuality. And her path to success seems the stuff of American dreams: “I’m not the pedigree kid,” she says, “I’m not classically trained. I didn’t come from the fancy home, no. My mother had to put her family allowance, the money that she would get from the state for me and my three siblings, she had to put the whole lot towards [acting school] tuition.”
The struggle was well worth the effort, as Winslet is now comfortably ensconced in the Hollywood pantheon, accompanied now by her director husband of five years, Sam Mendes (who shares her roots: the two were born ten years apart in the same small hospital), Mia, her eight- year-old daughter from her first marriage, and Joe, her and Mendes’ five-year-old son. Their homes in New York and the Cotswolds, in England, are havens from the flurry and frenzy of their Hollywood schedule. Rarely at home these days, Winslet’s work this past year has kept her one of the busiest women in the business.
Winslet hasn’t always sought that frenzy, and her film- ography seems to have been built by her own selectivity; her particular kind of success is just as much a product of her saying no as saying yes. In favor of more independent films, with subject matter she found more intriguing, Winslet turned down such roles as the lead in Shakespeare in Love and Anna and the King, the elfish Eowyn in Lord of the Rings, and singing Satine in Moulin Rouge. Rather than blockbuster potential, the grave subject matter of her most recent work, and the emotional disturbances of the char- acters, seems to attract her. “Playing these two incredible characters has been the most creatively rewarding year of my life. They taught me more and stretched me more than ever before.”
It seemed for a time that the Winslet double-feature December was not meant to be. Winslet originally passed on the lead role in The Reader—not for lack of interest, but because of scheduling conflicts: she was already commit- ted to Revolutionary Road. The latter, based on the classic Richard Yates novel, was, as Winslet put it, “very important to me ... such a labor of love, and such a passion project.” Serendipitously, due to predictable Hollywood maneuver- ing, The Reader was delayed. And many months and a Nicole Kidman (slated to star in the film) pregnancy later, Winslet was given the opportunity again, and took it without hes- itation—though she was not allowed the time she usually takes to prepare for a role. “Of course, I’d seen Shoah and Schindler’s List, but I had a lot more to do to get ready. I did a lot of reading, and talking to people. And I had to focus on my character. We also had to be careful not to make her sympathetic in any way, but at the same time show she was not a monster. She simply did she what she did.”
Intense scheduling and complicated character work were only a fraction of the considerations for Winslet. In Revolu- tionary Road, she was reunited for the first time in 12 years with her Titanic co-star DiCaprio, a reunion that, though a movie publicist’s dream, came with the burden of high expec- tations. “We really wanted to get it right ... There’s going to be a lot of intrigue, for reasons that are not just this story, because of our on-screen history.” That history came in handy when filming scenes that were heavy with unspoken emotion. “Leo and I do have sort of an almost telepathic con- nection, because we’ve known each other for such a long time and have remained friends consistently over all of these years, I know how Leo thinks, I know how he works, as he does with me.” And when your husband is directing, that kind of intimacy occurring can be equally an asset: “The fact that we are married was incredibly helpful, just simply because he knows my history, as I know his. There were cer- tain moments when he could see the dark places I was trying to go to and he would know to just leave me alone.”
“If I’m freaked out by it and think I could never do that, that makes me think
I should be doing it.”
The fearlessness that drives her clarity when it comes to choices in roles, and the desire for perfection that moti- vates her performances, drives her personal philosophy as well. Ever the straight-shooter, Winslet speaks openly about the demands of her profession, and in particular has spoken candidly about the pressure on female stars to adjust to a certain standard of physical appearance. “As a kid, I was not very confident at all. I think that my confidence as a woman and as an actress has grown over the years through the roles I’ve played. But at the same time, this notion that nobody is perfect—movie stars included—is very important to me. It’s a very important message to give to young women. For that reason I will never be unhappy to talk about it.” And about that recent nude shoot for Vanity Fair? “I was thinking, ‘Yeah, dammit; I’m 33, I’ve had two kids, and Steven Meisel is taking pictures of me naked!” She took the chance and took off her clothes, thinking, “‘This is never gonna happen again!’”
Those stunning photos, untouched by digital knives (except for her skin tone nothing was retouched) and released in advance of two Oscar-worthy performances, will only enhance Winslet’s iconic status and rise to becoming one of the greatest female actors in the history of film.