Best Actress: Kate Winslet’s Moment

14 minute read
Mark Harris

It’s 11 days before the academy Awards, and Kate Winslet is giving her third best performance of the year. The occasion is a lunch at New York City’s Oak Room at which 100 or so invited guests have gathered to honor her performance in Stephen Daldry’s The Reader. This particular publicity event, orchestrated in the 26th mile of the Oscar marathon, has multiple purposes: it’s designed to entice any wavering voters in the few days before the last postmark lands on the last ballot. It’s also intended to defuse complaints that the movie’s treatment of the Holocaust is too manicured. Thus, Elie Wiesel has been drafted to host the meal, which would have been a masterly counterstroke of damage control for distributor Harvey Weinstein had Wiesel not bailed at the last minute to attend–oh, bitter irony of the red-carpet campaign trail!–a bris.

But above all, this midday fete is engineered to give the movie’s star one final turn in the spotlight. By the time Winslet arrives, she has already participated in several hours of diligent self-exposure that day, illuminating for both Larry King and the women of The View the complexities of pretending to have sex with Leonardo DiCaprio in the bleak marital drama Revolutionary Road while the film’s director, Sam Mendes–her husband–watched.

If she is fatigued, she never betrays it. An eager, insistent clot of people pushes toward her, and somehow she manages to greet each well-wisher with a fractional recalibration of body language that suggests a wordless surge of elated surprise on her part: Oh, it’s you! You’re the one I’ve been most hoping to see, and how wonderful that we share that secret knowledge! To achieve this effect, Winslet must appear, at every minute, to be not only the most interesting person in the room but also the most interested. This is not easy, and she does it very well. People walk away feeling glowy, sated and privileged. She has made them feel that way, and not out of actressy affectation, but because right now, it’s her job.

Of course, Winslet would rather be acting onscreen, which is, she says, “the one thing that I do for myself”–and lately the thing she has been doing better than just about anyone else. In an industry that insists that most actresses remain giggly, pliable and princessy well into middle age, Winslet has somehow avoided that pigeonhole entirely. She doesn’t play girls; she never really has. She plays women. Unsentimentalized, restless, troubled, discontented, disconcerted, difficult women. And clearly, it’s working for her. Her two most recent performances–as Hanna Schmitz, the illiterate former concentration-camp guard in The Reader, and as April Wheeler, the anguished, rageful 1950s wife and mother in Revolutionary Road–have earned her two Golden Globes, a Screen Actors Guild prize, a British Academy Award (BAFTA) and her sixth Oscar nomination, a benchmark that no actor so young has ever before reached.

At 33, Winslet has become not only the finest actress of her generation but in many ways also the perfect actress for this moment. She’s intense without being humorless. She’s international in outlook (though raised in Reading, England, in a middle-class family of working actors, she now lives in New York City and won those Oscar nominations for playing three Americans, two Brits and a German). She’s ambitious but cheerfully self-deflating, capable of glamour but also expressive of a kind of jolting common sense. She has a strong professional ethic, which she somehow balances with her domestic life (she and Mendes have a son, Joe, 5, and Winslet has a daughter, Mia, 8, from her first marriage–she takes both kids to school most days). And, cementing her status as an icon of the Era of New Seriousness, she really likes hard work. Assuming she’s paid her taxes, are there still any openings in the Cabinet?

“I come from a long line of real cart horses,” says Winslet the day after the lunch. “Very stoic, insides-made-of-iron people. So I can take any s___ you can fling at me. I can cope with any workload. I can deal with lack of sleep. I can multitask like you’ve no idea. But two weeks ago, I actually had a panic attack.” She leans forward on a sofa in Mendes’ production office in Manhattan’s shabby-glam Meatpacking District and smiles. “My first one. I didn’t know what it was! It was a little like when your water [breaks], and you think, Did I just pee a bit, or is this it? I called my sister and said, ‘I can’t breathe, and I feel like I’ve got a brick on my chest and I’m seeing funny, and it sounds like everyone’s talking to me in Hebrew.’ She said, ‘Yeah, that’s a panic attack.'”

That seems a reasonable reaction for someone who has spent the decade since the historic success of Titanic making sure she’s an actress first and a celebrity only when useful; the YouTube universe, in which every utterance is rewound, scrutinized and parsed, is new to her. When she succumbed to some teary emotionalism at the Globes, the Times of London called her acceptance speech a “disaster” and warned direly that her exuberance was insensitive to the “darker, crueller” mood of an America in economic collapse. Try processing critiques like that while smiling warmly on camera as Oprah Winfrey tells you how much she approves of your implant-free breasts. You’d hyperventilate too–especially if, for the first time in memory, you don’t have a job lined up. After a couple of years of high-pressure work, Winslet hasn’t chosen her next role and says she’s looking forward to spending some time at home in a steady routine. But, she adds, “I know how long it’s going to be before I feel, O.K., I really have to know what I’m doing next, or I’ll freak out! I know myself, and it’s only a matter of time.”

For the most part, though, Winslet’s professional m.o. isn’t hysteria. “Once I’ve dealt with something, got it all out–you know, vomited and wept and had the big discussion,” she says, “I move on.” She approaches her characters with curiosity and determination, with an anatomist’s keenness to discover what makes them tick rather than a narcissist’s desire to refashion them into glibly “relatable” versions of herself. She annotates every corner of her script, which resides in a satchel with a Dictaphone, a notebook, a camera, a pencil case, snapshots and any other tools she thinks she’ll need. She’s hungry, persistent, questioning. Winslet says the only fight she and her husband ever had about Revolutionary Road happened at their dinner table one evening after Mendes, an Oscar winner for American Beauty, had spent a long rehearsal day doing exploratory character work with all her co-stars.

“Sam is brilliant at saying to actors, ‘Tell me about this character: Does she go to church? What does she think about at 11 in the morning?'” says Winslet. “I kept waiting for my turn.” It never came. “He took it for granted that I was ready, and he said, ‘I can’t talk about it 24 hours a day.’ And I just lost it. I said, ‘I’m sorry, but you’re gonna have to. You’re my director, and if I wasn’t playing April and the actress playing April phoned you, you’d leave your dinner to go cold and take that call for two hours in the other room! I know you would because I saw you do it with Jake Gyllenhaal!'” she says, recalling Jarhead and laughing as she re-creates her mini-tantrum.

Winslet won her point, but that’s about as diva-ish as she gets. The kind of behavior that could get her called a movie star spooks her; she started running away from the label in 1998, desperate to escape Titanic mania, and if it’s gaining on her, she doesn’t want to know. “For her, it reflects a lifestyle she doesn’t aspire to,” says Mendes. “And also, if you call yourself a movie star, the next movie you’re in will probably prove that you’re not.” Movie stars have projects built around them; Winslet seeks out movies in which she can serve a director or story by becoming an essential support beam in the film’s overall architecture. Movie stars usually want more–more words, more screen time, more veto power; she wants less. When the playwright and screenwriter Doug Wright worked with her on Quills in 2000, he recalls, Winslet told him “with great tact, ‘Doug, I’d never say a word against your writing, but this line? This one here? … I don’t have to say it. I can do it with my eyes.’ It was the best lesson in screenwriting I’ve ever been given.”

More than any of her peers, Winslet can shape her greatest moments within those silences. In The Reader, she bares her character in the piercing looks of lust, suspicion, self-loathing and judgment that Hanna directs at her young lover and in her terrible stares of incomprehension during her trial. And Revolutionary Road pivots on the scene in which April, sitting on the beach next to her husband, realizes that he is never going to keep his promise that they’ll move to Paris–that he will always ultimately fail her. It’s a shattering realization that Winslet conveys not only mutely but behind dark glasses.

“I kept saying, ‘Sam, should she really be wearing the glasses? Shouldn’t I just prop them on the top of my head?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely not!’ So I thought, Well, I trust him completely, and this is a whole new challenge–someone has taken my eyes away. But the silences are where I have learned the most about the job that I do. They’re where I learn to think.”

Winslet’s pre-Titanic breakthrough came when she was still in her teens, in 1995’s charming Sense and Sensibility. But beginning with her portrayal of Clementine, the psychedelic-haired femme semi-fatale who radiates crazy in 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a darker, richer phase of her career began to bloom. With the 2006 drama Little Children, in which she plays a suburban mom whose fear that she is becoming a cliché propels her into an affair, and her two latest movies, her appetite for a certain kind of role–“angst-ridden women,” she says, owning up to it immediately–has become unmistakable. “In her real life, she likes to keep things very simple,” says Mendes. “But she’s drawn to roles that seem like puzzles that need to be explored or mazes that need to be entered, even if she doesn’t know how to get out.”

Winslet’s attraction to those roles is something of a mystery even to her. “It’s a funny thing,” she says. For a few seconds, her articulate, free-associative, appealingly profane conversational style deserts her. “I almost … don’t know. If I had a therapist, I’m sure they would identify it. Clearly, it’s not coincidental. Do I feel trapped? No, not at all. Have I experienced feelings of serious entrapment in my life? Absolutely, yes, without question–and I haven’t known that I was trapped until it’s all come crashing down. And only then have I realized that there’s a fire in me that won’t be put out, and, my God, I can’t believe I just said that! What a wanky-actor thing to say!” She sits back, unwraps a pouch of tobacco and rolls a cigarette, a habit she says she’ll work on shedding after the Oscars. “I think what connects these characters is that they want to have clarity–not necessarily freedom, just the chance to take a moment and say, ‘Now what do I do?'”

But that’s where Winslet’s identification with them ends. Playing The Reader’s Hanna was, she says, “like staring down a long, dark tunnel and searching for a fleck of light at the end, but there f___ing isn’t one. There was nothing of her that I could relate to. Just nothing.” When Daldry approached her about replacing Nicole Kidman, who had left the project in January 2008 after becoming pregnant, “I was concerned about whether I was skilled enough,” Winslet says. The nudity required for the film’s sex scenes didn’t unsettle her–though she now says, “I think I won’t do it again: a) I can’t keep getting away with it, and b) I don’t want to become ‘that actress who always gets her kit off.'” But she wondered if she could handle a German accent, play Hanna convincingly into old age and find a foothold in a character who exemplifies the banality of evil. “You don’t have to make the audience like you. And not worrying about that makes the job much more interesting,” she says. “But I did say to myself, Come on, Kate. You don’t have to humanize her, but you do have to understand her.”

At some point during a movie, Winslet will usually turn to her director and ask, “Why did you want me to play this part?” “I’d really like to know!” she says, laughing. “Is it because of my jawline, or is it something else? Please tell me it’s something else! It’s really important for me to know why I’m there, because then I know what’s expected of me.”

The insecurity, says Daldry, is “incredibly charming. She’s not panicking. She’s already done tons of research. But she’s genuinely seeking an engagement with you. She feels great responsibility for bringing what’s needed to whatever the circumstances around her demand. That’s one of the things that a proper leading lady does.”

That sense of responsibility has always been part of Winslet’s makeup, although she says that in her 20s, she had to balance it with her dread of being thought an “arrogant young actor.” Between 1993 and 1998, she kept a journal chronicling those uncertainties. “I’ve always been very, very aware of wanting to be understood as being the person that I really am,” she says. So, partly in order to figure that out, she started to write, detailing the years-long arc of her relationship with a man 12 years her senior that began when she was still a teenager, her first trip to the Oscars, their breakup, her grief over his death in 1997, the making and release of Titanic, a list of every movie she turned down in its wake (she’s too discreet to name them), the beginning of her first marriage and her bewilderment over what Hollywood wanted her to become. (Interested publishers are advised not even to bother asking.) Several years ago, worried about leaving the diaries behind as she globe-hopped from one job to the next, she locked them in a safety-deposit box in London. The morning after she won the British Academy Award for Best Actress, she decided to retrieve them and revisit her younger self, a girl who was “absolutely desperate to be out in the world on my own two feet.”

“I was struck to discover that I was truly the same person back then. But in the diary, I write several times, ‘I’m not sure I should really be working. I’ve got to learn more. I have to catch up with myself.’ Well, I feel I’ve caught up with myself now,” Winslet says. “With these roles, I’ve just closed a big chapter in my life. I feel that only in the last two years could I look someone in the eye and say, ‘I know how to act’ and really maybe mean it.” She hesitates for a hairsbreadth. “Notice I said maybe.”

Mark Harris is the author of Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood

Star Turns For a gallery of Kate Winslet’s 10 best roles, go to

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