Kate Winslet: Grace Under Press

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You have to be impressed by Kate Winslet. Everyone knows what great of an actress she is, having been honored with Oscar nominations and with plenty of other awards on her mantle to prove it. This year, she’s really showing her mettle as a movie star, headlining two intense dramas based on difficult but popular novels, which many think will finally get her a much-deserved golden statue (or two).

Already in theaters is The Reader, adapted by Stephen Daldry and David Hare (The Hours) from Bernard Schlink’s novel, in which Winslet plays Hanna Schmitz, a German woman who has an affair with a 15-year-old boy (newcomer David Kross) only for him to discover a dark secret from her past later in their lives.

She went right into making that after being reunited with her Titanic co-star Leonardo DiCaprio in Revolutionary Road, an adaptation of Richard Yates’ 1961 novel by her husband, director Sam Mendes, in which they play Frank and April Wheeler, an idealistic couple whose dreams start to shatter after spending years in the suburbs living what some might call a perfect family life.

It’s been two years since Winslet’s last awards-worthy performance in Todd Field’s Little Children, but this year, she has two movies essentially competing against each other for awards attention. For one week in early December, Winslet was talking to press and doing the awards circuit in New York for both movies almost non-stop between Monday and Friday. Despite being asked a lot of pointed and sometimes rude questions, Winslet always handled herself with the usual poise and aplomb we’ve come to expect from her, really the perfect spokesperson for any movie.

First, we have a more intimate roundtable interview with Winslet talking about The Reader, followed by a few comments made by Winslet at the press conference for Revolutionary Road earlier in the week.

Q: Can you talk about how his project came together and how Stephen Daldry approached you to play Hanna?
Kate Winslet: Well, I had read the book seven years ago when I was pregnant with my son Joe, and I read it in a day, which is remarkable finally that I was able to find the time to have an entire day to sit down and read something from cover to cover. Secondly, I’m not a fast reader, so I knew that this was pretty compelling material to have held my attention in one sitting, literally one sitting. I absolutely loved it of course and was devastated by it and tremendously moved by the story. At that point, I was twenty-seven years old and I never saw myself as Hanna Schmitz. Somehow twenty-seven and thirty-two, and now I’ve just turned thirty-three, that seemed like a big age difference. I just didn’t for one second think to myself, “God, wouldn’t that be incredible to play Hanna Schmitz one day?” I thought to myself, “Wow, what an amazing role. I wonder who could play that part?” And I had sort of a list of a few people in my brain.

Q: Like who? Meryl Streep?
Winslet: Not telling (laughs)… and no, but it was lovely to kind of ruminate on the possibility that Hanna Schmitz may come to life one day, but I really didn’t think of myself in that role; I just felt younger than her at that point. So when Stephen Daldry came to me, actually when we were in rehearsals for “Revolutionary Road” – so in April of 2007 – and asked me to play this part, I had to really kind of, “Hang on a second. Did I just hear you correctly?” Because I’d read this book and I didn’t think that I was right for the role, and then of course, I sat down and read it again and said, “Hang on. She’s my age. I’m this age now, and I could do this. Could I do this? Yes, I think I could.” But then, we couldn’t make it work because of scheduling. They were starting to shoot “The Reader” at a time when we were still going to be filming “Revolutionary Road” and just the logistics got in the way, and it didn’t happen. Then the role went away, and as you all know, it became Nicole’s part, and I thought, “Ah, yes. That’s absolutely right. That’s great. I’d be first in line to see that movie.” Then she became unavailable due to getting pregnant with her daughter and the role opened up again for me and the schedule had sort of slid somewhat and we were able to make it work. I just was so grateful that I had yet another extraordinary opportunity to play an amazing role in the space of less than a year – two great roles in the space of less than a year. I’m really still kind of coming to terms with the fact that that’s happened in my life. God, what a long answer! (laughs)

Q: Do you ever have any trepidations about approaching controversial material like abortion in “Revolutionary Road” or statutory rape?
Winslet: I’m so sorry, “statutory rape”? I’ve got to tell you, I’m so offended by that. No, I really am. I genuinely am. To me, that is absolutely not this story at all. That boy knows exactly what he’s doing. For a start, Hanna Schmitz thinks that he’s seventeen, not fifteen, you know? She’s not doing anything wrong. They enter that relationship on absolutely equal footing. Statutory rape – really please, don’t use that phrase. I do genuinely find it offensive actually. This is a beautiful and very genuine love story and that is always how I saw it. I was very moved by how much these two people came to mean to each other. You know, this is a boy’s first experience of intimacy in that way, and love in that way, and understanding of what love is and can mean, and how deeply it affects the rest of his life ’cause he loved that women. She wasn’t cruel to him. She didn’t force him into anything at all. There’s nothing I believe to be remotely inappropriate or salacious about that relationship. Of course there’s an age gap, yes, she’s thirty-two, he’s fifteen. As I say, she thinks he’s seventeen. But Hanna hasn’t experienced these emotions ever in her life and that is why the relationship becomes so dear to her and why she longs for it and yearns for it. So many years later when she is in prison, she just wants to see his face again. She needs that communication, it’s the thing that feeds her, it’s the thing that keeps her alive for the eighteen years that she spends in prison up to the point of her death.

I think the only controversial thing about the relationship is the fact that there is a big age gap and some people will have issues with that. You know, there were nineteen years between my grandparents and I was in a relationship for five years from the age of fifteen to twenty with a man who was thirteen years older than me who remains one of the loves of my life, and he passed away when I was twenty years old. So I think we really are coming at it from a different angle, but to me, both of these films, if people view them as controversial in any way, that’s obviously up to the audience member or in this case, the reviewer. Both of these stories to me are love stories essentially – very, very different love stories. “Revolutionary Road” is a fascinating study of the human condition of a fragmenting marriage and the torment that these two people put themselves through in their efforts to try and find happiness and try and stay together actually. “The Reader” is about a young man’s experience of falling in love with somebody who it turns out made some choices that were unavoidable in her life that resulted in horrific crimes against humanity. And he in some way had to deal with the fact that he had loved her and she had loved him. I’m gonna stop there.

Q: You have a very clear understanding of her. Did you always understand her mindset or did that take a lot of work?
Winslet: The actor’s job is to understand the character that they are playing and to ultimately love them in order to be able to accept who they are for all their marks and scars and all their crimes even, certainly in this case with Hanna. And I did understand her, yes, absolutely. I knew that it wasn’t my responsibility to make an audience sympathize with her. That was not part of this process for me. I could hope that they might understand her and I could also hope that if they did find themselves feeling any empathy towards this woman at all that that would morally make this audience member feel extremely uncomfortable. That is interesting to me, you know, to feel sympathy for an SS guard? No one wants to allow themselves to feel that, even myself. No one wants to say, “I forgive you.” No one wants to say, “Oh, I understand.” Of course not and I’m certainly not saying those things either because you can’t generalize this. But I understood her as a woman and I knew that it would be wrong to humanize her. I knew that it would be wrong to give her a very, very warm center, but I did have to make her a real person. And the truth is, the Holocaust was started by real people – husbands, and uncles, and brothers real people, normal people like us. And that was very important to me to capture the oddness of that given the backdrop, and given her illiteracy, and how disconnected she is from society because of her illiteracy, and because of how ashamed she is, and how lonely she is. It was an unbelievably difficult part for me to play and it’s really only in these few weeks now talking about the film that I’m actually able to sort of deal with it a bit because we only wrapped on July 12th and it takes me a heck of a long time to come out the other side of playing any character. But, it was the case with “Revolutionary Road” as well, you know, with Hanna, I’ve had to really kind of figure out who the heck I am again because I walked away from that like somebody who’d walked out of a car crash and somehow survived it. I went home, I’d lost weight which was just weird, and I hadn’t even realized that that had happened. And I was just shattered, and felt very sort of empty and sad. And so it’s really interesting now for me to talk about it and gain a little bit of perspective actually on what I went through and what we all went through making this film. It was an incredible experience in the sense that you know, being in Germany, working with this wonderful German crew and these extraordinarily gifted German actors who we were blessed to have. Every day was an absolute joy, but it was also extremely demanding.

Q: Are you attracted to stories that aren’t black and white, that are kind of gray?
Winslet: What do you think? (laughter) Yes, I am very much so. Yeah, and I don’t even know why sometimes, you know? I suppose because I like surprising myself most importantly and scaring myself, and challenging myself as a person, as an actress. And I like doing things that are completely unpredictable. I like the idea of, not shocking people, but just throwing people off. Doing something that makes people go, “Whoa, whoa, she did that next? Wow, didn’t think she was gonna do something like that next.” That makes me feel like I’m able to do something interesting.

Q: Can you talk about the accent work a little bit? British accents normally stand in for German accents in big productions. Can you talk about the decision you had to have a German accent and how strong to make it?
Winslet: Yes, I can. There are two English actors in this film and that’s Ralph Fiennes and myself and that’s it. Everybody else is German… and Lena Olin obviously is Swedish. It’s a German novel. Either they were going to make it with German actors and have every single person speaking German and therefore subtitle the movie and have it not be as accessible perhaps as a story–and it’s an important story and it’s an important film I think. To be able to speak to the universe, everyone had to be speaking the most spoken language in the world. There was never any discussion about playing these characters as English people with proper English accents, not at all. But what Stephen Daldry decided to do was to have a dialect coach named William Conacher work on the film and design a dialect that everybody would do. So that’s why when you hear the accents in the film, it sounds as though we all absolutely come from the same world. So for my part, I had to learn that dialect. It’s absolutely a genuine German dialect, but they, rather than saying (in German accent) this and that, instead of (in English accent) this and that, they had us use the ‘th’ vowel because it just clarifies things somewhat and strange sounds often can get in the way of the dialect and distract you from the characters. So it was just a lot of work, you know, it was a lot of listening to lots and lots of voice tapes. Listening to David Kross a lot on tape myself just so I could hear the rhythms in his voice and speech patterns and so on and so forth, and sounds that he was making. I also felt with Hanna, because she is so completely classless, and she is essentially a peasant woman and she’s been working all of her life, I wanted her to sound a little bit rough around the edges. So I tried to make her rhythms – and the way that I decided to do that – was to make her rhythms a little bit more chopped up as opposed to poised and elegant in the way the David speaks. I mean, he comes from a very, very nice family and so on. Hanna just had to sound a little bit more like a carhorse, and I, along with William Conacher and Susan Hegarty who I’ve been working with since “Titanic,” we found moments throughout the film to specifically build in these strange rhythms that I was trying to find.

Q: Which love scene did you think was more awkward, the one with Leo or the one with David Kross? Or did you not find either awkward?
Winslet: You know, to use the word awkward it’s not kind of accurate in a way to describe what it’s like shooting a love scene. It’s not awkwardness, it’s just a feeling of unpredictability. It’s the element of the unknown about shooting a love scene of any kind no matter what actor you’re working with that is often more nerve racking than the reality. I think with Leo, because we know each other so well and because we’ve always had this very strong friendship and really trust each other, it was certainly easy to I suppose just get on with it. But with David Kross, David and I just spent a lot of time just simply talking about those scenes before we did them because I didn’t want him to feel awkward. I wanted him to feel as calm as possible, as looked after as possible. And at the same time, he’s not a child, he’s eighteen, he’s an adult, you know. He’s older than I was when I went and shot “Heavenly Creatures” in New Zealand by myself for three and a half months at the age of seventeen. So he didn’t need a huge amount of looking after to be honest with you, but I know that he definitely appreciated benefiting from my experience having been in that position myself as a younger actress doing scenes of this nature, which can be very daunting. Being able to turn to him and say, “Okay, listen. This is what’s gonna happen, okay? They’re going to clear the set, there’s probably going to be a maximum of three people in the room with us.” And he was like, “Really? Oh my God. So what about all this crew? Where is everybody going to go?” And I said, “They’re just going to go outside and we’re going to be the people.” He was so relieved to hear that, and it hadn’t occurred to anybody else to tell him that it was going to be very small, so he wasn’t going to have to wander around naked in front of the entire crew. That was music to his ears. Just explaining to him things like you know, the length of the take, how long they tend to go on for, that there’s usually much more setting up time for that type of scene because it has to be lit in a certain way, shot in a certain way, very, very well rehearsed. Being able to say to him, “Look, I know you might not believe this now, we will be laughing. We will be laughing about this while those scenes are happening and for a long time afterwards.” I know that he was very grateful to have had just that much explanation because as I say, the elements of the unknown are so scary especially when you’re younger and don’t have that much film experience.

Q: How does your husband Sam Mendes deal with the fact that you have love scenes with all these actors and appeared nude on the cover of “Vanity Fair”? Does he get jealous and how do you deal with it?
Winslet: Of course he doesn’t get jealous. I’m not a porn star. I’m not walking out there and actually having sex with other people for my job. It’s part of my job. No, he doesn’t get jealous at all, not in the slightest. It’s really not a big deal. No, it’s not. It’s something that, believe me, he’s used to. And it really just isn’t discussed. He’s always just concerned to make sure that I feel comfortable. Do I feel that being a part of any love scene is absolutely justified, absolutely relevant to the story? And I’ve always felt–because I have done a lot of nudity–I’ve always felt very, very fortunate to have really and truly believed in those relationships and those very intimate moments. In every single case, I feel that any level of nudity in films that I have been a part of has been absolutely relevant and actually has really enhanced the story, and Sam has supported me in all of that and has felt the same way.

Q: Hanna in the movie is exposed to a lot of judgment so were you able to identify with that and are you sometimes afraid of judgment yourself since you are on so many people’s radar all the time?
Winslet: I think we live in a world today where it’s almost impossible not to feel judged, and that’s for myself, and I think for all of us. We live in a very judgmental world. It actually makes me really sad. Wouldn’t it be great if we could just simply do what we wanted to do, be ourselves, wear the clothes we wanted to wear, not worry about the exteriors and the trappings of life and just literally go and be free? I think it’s harder and harder to do that and I think that’s a lot to do with the media’s obsession with celebrity: what they’re wearing, what they did yesterday, what they’re doing tomorrow, etc. etc. I think it’s gotten to a point where the public I think on some level feels like they have a right to know what’s the next installment. I think about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who I don’t know at all, but I think about them and it’s like they’re sort of like a walking soap opera and that the public wants to know, “What’s going to happen next?” You know, “Coming soon to (laughs),” you know, dot, dot, dot. I think for them, it must be so hard to hang onto any mystery as actors. I’m going wildly off the track, aren’t I? But, do I feel judged? Yeah, yeah, absolutely. The trick is to try to find a way of just ignoring it and not letting judgment affect one’s sense of self and one’s choices and one’s priority in life. Luckily enough, I am a strong enough character to be able to hang onto that.

Q: Can you talk about doing the nude “Vanity Fair” cover and how women might react to seeing you with such a perfect body on the cover like that?
Winslet: I do know what you mean, but quite honestly, I didn’t go into that shoot knowing that the concept was the concept that it was. I didn’t. It doesn’t happen that way honestly. Any time you turn up to a photo shoot, the photographer will come to you at the beginning of the day, and say, “Okay, do you want to know the concept?” And you say, “Oh, yes. Great.” And they say, “Right, this is what I was thinking.” So it was literally on the day that I was shown the Catherine Deneuve reference and it was a very highly conceptualized shoot and it was like being part of a little film. So to me, I was playing a character almost number one, that was really how I felt. Secondly, I didn’t feel that I was going against anything I said before, not at all, because I’m still just me. I still believe all of those things and when you’re asked to be on the cover of “Vanity Fair” and be photographed by Steven Meisel, that’s a wonderful thing to experience. It’s a fantastic opportunity just to be able to have that memory in your lifetime, and I felt really lucky. I absolutely had a moment of thinking, “My God, am I really going to take my clothes off here?” and then in the next breath I thought, “Yeah, damn it I am. I’m thirty-three, I’ve had two kids, Steven Meisel wants to take pictures of me naked. This is never gonna happen again! Man, oh man, I’m gonna make the most of this!” It was one of those things – I kind of thought of myself thirty years on and wanted to be able to say. “God, yeah, I did that. That was one of those crazy things and I’m really happy to have that memory.”

Q: Did you have control of the retouch?
Winslet: Actresses, actors, and models never ever have any control or say over any retouching at all. I will tell you because I have the prints that Steven gave me at the end of the day that came straight out of his camera and were blown up – I will tell you the only thing they retouched was my skin tone. And I’ve got the prints to prove it.

And now, here’s some stuff from Kate from a press conference for her other movie Revolutionary Road, which ComingSoon.net attended just days earlier:

Q: “Revolutionary Road” is obviously a movie about a troubled marriage. Would you say it’s because of a failure to communicate? And how do you feel about competing against yourself in the awards races this year?
Winslet: I’ll answer the last part of your question first. I feel very proud of both of these films, and proud to be a part of them, and quite honestly, I don’t know how categorizing of actors even happens. I really truly don’t. It certainly has nothing to do with me. It’s incredible to be talked about in that way, and I can only hope that I can live up the expectation. I hope the work speaks for itself, and it’s my job to make myself available to promote both these films equally. Now to the first part of your question, yes, I think it’s an inability to communicate, or certainly more to do with the fact that they have forgotten to communicate with each other for some time. It’s only when April turns around to him and says, “We can’t go on pretending that this is the life we wanted,” that they are both then truly forced to question exactly that. For April, it’s very clear that this isn’t the life she expected for herself, and Frank is then forced to question that too. And it’s at that point that they realize maybe they aren’t the people they were when they first met, and they’re wanting different things from life. And April, ultimately, is so determined to find happiness; to feel something again other than what she has, that she’s prepared to risk anything in order to get that, which to me is a very heroic act, and not a cowardly one.

Q: Having famously worked with Leo before (on “Titanic”), what was it like this time around and were there any major surprises?
Winslet: Any major surprises… I think he’s nicer than he was (even if that’s possible); he’s funnier than he was (even if that’s possible); and he’s a better actor than he was (even if that’s possible). And quite honestly, playing Frank and April Wheeler, there was a surprise every day. I just loved so much playing some of the difficult scenes with Leo, knowing that because of the trust we have as two people having known each other for so long, that there were no boundaries; that was a real gift to have as two actors playing these parts. To be able to do off-camera dialogue for him, and to have to stop myself from crying because I was seeing someone for whom I have so much respect doing things as an actor that I’ve never seen him do before, and morphing his face into positions that I’ve never seen him morph his face into before, as an actor and as a person. There were moments like that pretty much every single day.

Q: Could you talk about the plight of oppressed women in the days of “Revolutionary Road?”
Winslet: One of the things that was so touching to me and moving to me about April Wheeler was that this was a woman who seemed to me, like so many women of that time, whose interior world was so much bigger than her exterior world. I’m very different to her, and I had to find a way of understanding her and loving her, which I do, but which was not always easy. She’s a very complex and complicated women, who has no emotional outlets. I’m lucky, I get to express my passions and the spirited side of myself and the strong-willed side of myself through the jobs that I do. I was so moved by April’s lack of emotional outlet, and it was just crushing to me, and it was very difficult to play. Frank and April, they do see themselves as being slightly more glamorous than everybody around them, and in many ways I think that that’s the one thing that’s kept April going, living this life that she’s really unhappy living. She’s convinced herself that everything’s okay, because they’re not like the Campbells, they’re not like the Givings, they’re just a little bit better than everybody else. She goes to Frank, “We can’t go on pretending that this was the life we wanted,” and in many ways she’s incredibly brave, even to be able to admit that to herself. So many women were coasting along and living this lie because they simply had no other option, and as Leo said, prescription medication and sneaking beverages midday all began during that time.

Q: Kate, was your character a heroic figure? (Note: There’s a fairly major spoiler in this response.)
Winslet: I feel that April is a heroine. I didn’t feel she was a coward, neither did I feel she was suicidal, and I certainly didn’t think she was bipolar. But I do feel that this was a woman that was taken to an emotional brink in her pursuit of happiness, and I think it literally sent her mad. In giving herself an abortion, I don’t think that she was intending to kill herself, but she knew that it was a very big risk, and there’s something incredibly courageous and stoic about that. It’s a fine line. It’s very difficult to translate those two things simultaneously.

The Reader is now playing in select cities and will expand even wider on Christmas Day then again on January 9, 2009. Revolutionary Road opens in select cities on Friday, December 26.