Kate Winslet: Kiss Us, Kate
Prior to Titanic, Kate Winslet was a respected young actress best-known for appearing in period pieces like Sense and Sensibility (for which she received her first Oscar nomination). In addition to earning Winslet a Best Actress nomination, Titanic made her a movie star. But Winslet was not interested in Hollywood stardom. And she was nothing like her prim and proper screen persona as this cover story from the March 1998 issue of Movieline magazine makes clear.
Long before young Kate Winslet made such a searing impression as the willful, passionate heroine who twice careens from stem to stern of Titanic, first intending to hurl herself into the sea, then later trying to save herself from it, she was so equated with intensity that her close friends used her surname as an adjective for high emotion. Word has it that whenever she reaches a fever pitch or displays a fit of zeal, her pals quip, “Very Winslet of you.” Or, on a day of blustery English weather, one of them is likely to say, “We’re having a Winslet sort of day, aren’t we?”
Winslet’s Titanic director, James Cameron, marveled that she sometimes cried for a solid hour after a big emotional scene, and Ang Lee, who earlier directed her Oscar-nominated performance in Sense and Sensibility, apparently found her such a whirlwind that he prescribed tai chi and Austen-era poetry to calm her. She’s that volcanic, that undefended against her own deepest feelings.
But make no mistake. Kate Winslet is not free-firing raw emotion personified. She is too talented and too highly trained to be merely, as she describes herself, “instinct on legs.” James Cameron believes she’s simply one of the most gifted actresses of her generation, an opinion held by many and backed up by a list of awards hardly to be believed for an actress 22 years old. She was born into a theatrical family in Reading, England, which had her living and breathing the life of a performer from day one. Her father is a struggling actor who ran the Reading Repertory. Her mother acts as well, and is the daughter of two actors. Her two sisters both act. Winslet’s parents sent her at age 11 to the local theater school, and by 13 she had won her first acting job, dancing with the Honey Monster in a well-known Sugar Puffs commercial. She then did musical theater and sitcoms, and quickly moved to the stage, where, as a young teen she was already a full-fledged star and celebrity. Then, she brought it all to bear in movies.
When Kate Winslet, having beat out 175 other hopefuls for the part, made her film debut at 17 playing the affected New Zealand schoolgirl who toys with lesbianism and then takes matricide seriously in Heavenly Creatures, her performance was so original and so convincing in its chilly aplomb that people left the theater asking, Who was that? Ang Lee quickly cast her as the emotionally reckless young sister to Emma Thompson in Sense and Sensibility. In Michael Winterbottom’s Jude, she played the fearsomely intelligent Sue, a Thomas Hardy heroine no one else Winslet’s age could probably have touched. Kenneth Branagh then chose her for his luminous Ophelia in Hamlet.
In casting the part of Rose in Titanic, James Cameron was biased against Winslet because she’d done three period pieces already. He wanted a girl with no such history. But after she read for him, he never thought about the matter again, and she proved his faith justified. The all-the-stops-out longing she shows for Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic packs the heat of a bravura turn by one of the silent screen’s great beauties. You can’t imagine any of her contemporaries handling the role. That alone should keep her in the spotlight for quite some time, so long as she doesn’t take up residence in the east wing of Helena Bonham Carter Manor.
Why don’t Hollywood and the media blather on about Kate Winslet the way they do about, say, Winona Ryder, Claire Danes or Gwyneth Paltrow? Probably because she is seldom in Hollywood, and hardly anybody knows about it when she is. She almost never plays the movie star. My first glimpse of her comes one early morning when she strides into the living room of her Peninsula Hotel suite, forthrightly thrusting out her hand and heartily welcoming me in great, mile-a-minute bursts of chat that suggest Emma Thompson on uppers.
“I’m a hardened Brit–I cannot do without my nicotine and coffee,” she growls, plunking herself down on the sofa and adroitly rolling a cigarette to accompany her fresh orange juice and croissants. She is preternaturally poised, shit-kicker boots and disarranged hair notwithstanding. And she has an old-soul wisdom in her eyes that also belies her years. These are the qualities that make her “Winslet” emotionalism a far more interesting phenomenon than mere temperament.
“So, are you really given to the intensity in your real life that you bring to the screen?” I ask.
“I am incredibly passionate about my life,” she proudly asserts. “I am absolutely unable to hide any emotion. If I wrote a book, I’d have to call it P is for Passion. I don’t go in for anything halfway. My feelings about things are instant, on the spot. And my heart is always, always on my sleeve.”
“Are you going to let loose with any of that intensity while you’re here in Hollywood? Go out on the town clubbing later? Or to a party, perhaps with some young American actor?”
Winslet flashes me a wry, incredulous look, laughs, and shakes her head in a resolute no. “What I am doing is getting on a plane for home right after the photo shoot, because I will not stay here for any longer than I need to.” She tosses in a little stage shudder to underscore that she’s not kidding. “Just coming here to Los Angeles–well, let’s say, I find it suffocating. I mean, when I flew here to take my mom and dad to the Oscars, I thought I was going to go crazy. I really dislike the glamour side of the business that’s so prevalent here, the ‘constant attention’ thing.”
She has no interest in the joys of Young Hollywood? “I’ve never gotten enough inside ‘Young Hollywood’ to become part of the club, as it were,” she says. “Leonardo gets cross with me whenever I come here. He says, ‘Hey, sweetie, I’m going to get a whole bunch of friends together to hang out, OK? And I just go ‘Ugh.’ Half the time, I’m tired from the plane trip. He’s furious with me right now. But the possibility of going to places like the Skybar frightens me because it is so the ‘Young Hollywood’ thing to do. It doesn’t really interest me, and, honestly, it’s difficult for me to adapt to situations like that. And the whole drug thing frightens me, too. It’s such a very big thing, something I’m becoming increasingly more aware of, both here and at home.
“Somebody said, ‘Let’s go have a bit of Charley,’ and I had no idea what they meant. I’ve never taken any drugs in my life, never even had a drag on a joint. That makes me sound squeaky clean, but as you see, I make up for it in cigarette smoking and coffee drinking and occasionally going out and getting completely plastered, losing my mind, and waking up the next morning feeling very sorry for myself.”
Winslet takes a drag of her cigarette and continues, “I’m an incredible control freak. I think what frightens me about drugs is that I can’t bear the idea of losing control of myself, my center. Particularly in a business that is so out of control.”
At the mere mention of the Business, Winslet tears into a merry riff, replete with dramatic gestures and impersonations, on Hollywood’s out-of-control incongruities, foibles and absurdities. “Anytime I get off the plane here, I dash into Starbucks–which I love so much that I think I’m going to have to open a franchise back home where we don’t have them–and as soon as you hit a Starbucks in Los Angeles, you see all these incredibly thin women, toned, no body fat, who stand at the counter and go, ‘Can I get a decaf, no milk, and a low-fat scone?'” Her version of the anorexic, check-out-my-implants wannabes she’s imitating is dead-on. Switching back to her own plummy tones, she laughs, “And I trot up to the counter, go, very loudly, ‘Can I have a latte, please, extra hot, and one of those maple nut oat scone things? Actually, I’ll get two of them!'”
Winslet declares herself incensed by the attention young Hollywood women pay to weight and bust size. “At 19, I went from pillar to post about my body and spent at least 95 percent of my head-space every day thinking about what I bloody looked like,” she says. “When I was making Sense and Sensibility, Emma Thompson noticed that I’d skip lunch and not eat properly. She said, ‘If you dare try and lose weight for this job, I will be furious with you.’ She went out and bought me The Beauty Myth, and since then, I’ve been much more relaxed about that side of it. But, my God, the young women in Los Angeles!”
Winslet drags hard on her cigarette and exhales skyward. “Plastic surgery and breast implants are fine for people who want that, if it makes them feel better about who they are. But it makes these people, actors especially, fantasy figures suited to a fantasy world. Acting is about being real, being honest. Ultimately, the audience doesn’t love you or want to be with you because of what your face looks like or because of the size of your backside. They’ve got to love you because of the honesty within your soul. As an actor, for me to conform physically in such a way would just be taking me to a plane of complete unreality, which is not what it’s about. I would be doing everything that I always said I would never do.
“And yet,” she adds quietly after a moment, “I understand how some of this happens. The hardest thing about working in a film environment–and all Los Angeles is a film environment–is that you’re immersed in a fantasy world all the time. It’s goddamn safe. Everything’s done for you. Your life outside your work stops for that period of time. Then, the shoot is over. Suddenly, you have to wash your own knickers on the weekend. I always love to get back to that reality. Others don’t.”
But isn’t escape from reality part of the fun of being a movie star? “I care nothing about being a movie star,” Winslet insists. “In many ways I feel I’m being arrogant and cynical when I say this. I’m baffled to be in the position I’m in. When I first thought about being an actress–which, I think, was when I was born–I didn’t plan or hope for this. I love acting and I just thought, ‘Well, I’ll just take each day as it comes and hope to always love it.’ In the last couple of years, with things being very busy in my life in terms of work, there have been days when I’ve asked, ‘Why on earth am I doing this job? It’s too much mental torture. I’m too tired. I never see my family.’ There are times where I thought, ‘Shit, I’m not having a life–I’m not having enough life experience upon which to draw.’ It’s horrible to feel that about the life you’re making for yourself.”
Hear Winslet talk about her experience as an actress, though, and you know that she is living the life she’s meant to live. She speaks respectfully of most of her directors, rapturously about some. For Peter Jackson, with whom she made Heavenly Creatures, she has passionately fond words. “With Peter, who is like my godfather, I knew from the first, ‘Here is a man who’s going to be with us actors, no matter what.’ Once, it was two a.m. and I just couldn’t get my head around the scene, the movie was so frightening. Peter took me into a little room, hugged me, and spoke to me as if I were my character, and said, ‘You’ve got to think about this thing you must do tomorrow’ and he made me talk it through, plan the killing. By the end of it, I was just a wreck. Then he took me onto the set and said quietly, ‘Roll camera.’ Because I was just so ready to do it. We had to loop the whole thing later, because the crew people were only slowly coming back onto the set.”
Kenneth Branagh turned Winslet down for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but she didn’t have to audition or even read to get Hamlet. While shooting, she told her director/costar, “Be as violent with me as you bloody well like. Twist my arms off if you want to.” What with his manhandling of her, plus the self-inflicted injuries Ophelia endures in her madness scenes, Winslet wound up with bruises and lumps. But that wasn’t the scary point. “I was terrified of doing Shakespeare,” she admits. “But Ken told me, ‘Do you know how frightened you are right now? Julie Christie is a million times more terrified.’ That’s when I realized that all of us, Julie Christie, Derek Jacobi, even Ken–we were all in that same little boat together. It helped me calm down.”
And how, at the end of the day, does she come out on the subject of her Titanic director, James Cameron, who is not known for putting himself out to calm his cast down? In fact, Winslet, who nearly drowned filming the finale of Titanic, became vocal to the press a while back about her frustrations with the “ordeal” of making the film, saying that the “temper” of the director “frightened” her, and admitting, “Some days I’d wake up and think, ‘Please, God, let me die!'”
Time, good reviews, good box office, and, one guesses, consultations with her publicist, have tempered the views she’ll now give for public consumption. “He’s a genius and a maniac,” Winslet says. “A genius in terms of his vision, a maniac in terms of getting what he wants. But that’s to be absolutely admired, because to be the controller of a thing that’s so absolutely huge is amazing. Some of the visions he had in his head I found really frustrating, because I couldn’t quite understand what he meant. I finally came to realize, though, My God, this man has been visualizing nothing but this for the last two years.”
Although there’s no denying what an ordeal it was to make the movie, Winslet calls the finished product “a brilliant, beautiful film that, when I saw it up there on-screen in all its glory, it was just such a relief and a joy, it blew me away. It’s so larger than life, I can’t believe it’s me up there. It’s like, I come from a small town outside of London, what am I doing in this film?”