Dressed in jeans and a vest-top, hair bleached ash-blonde and pulled back in a ponytail, Kate Winslet sits in hubby Sam Mendes’ office in downtown Manhattan, confidently fixing us with cloudy grey-green eyes and tapping at her cigarette.
She’s here to talk about her career, but also to discuss the two roles that, judging by her current awards/noms tally, should finally see her win that much-nommed Oscar...
You’re renowned as a fearless actress but playing Hannah in The Reader is bold, even for you…
I knew I was going to have to raise my game. So I did something really mad. I rented a room, literally. If I’m in the house I’m washing up or tidying – I just can’t get myself out of it. So I had to isolate myself from 9 ’til 3 every day, to think, plan and read.
What were your instincts about the character of Hannah?
They were very different to other people’s. I realised I had to let it be OK for some people not to like her; I had to let it be OK for some people to want to see this woman locked up and the key thrown away.
And while it wasn’t my job to have people sympathise with her, it was absolutely my job to give people the option to understand her.
Did I understand her? Yes, I did. And I did sympathise with her – which is morally compromising to feel that way. But to say I sympathise with her does not mean I sympathise with SS guards. Absolutely fucking not.
Did you research the Holocaust?
I saw things that I cannot un-see, ever. There are images that will haunt me for life, that have left a fingerprint on my soul.
Which puts things in perspective, if and when the tabloids inevitably latch onto the ‘Kate sleeps with a 15-year-old boy’ story…
David’s not a kid. He was 18 [during filming] and he’s very much a young man. I didn’t feel he was a teenager or a child. It wasn’t a problem or difficult, no more than those scenes ever are for any actor.
The harder stuff was the very subtle emotional scenes between our characters, conveying that level of depth and the purity within the relationship. The love they share is extremely genuine.[page-break]
Talking of which… how was it working with Sam on Revolutionary Road?
It was really, really amazing. Honestly! I would sometimes look at him with other actors and think, “God, that is so clever”. He was quietly getting them to tap into something they weren’t planning on doing.
He would do it with me as well. He’d turn us all inside out. April feels so trapped. It’s painful to watch…
With April, her interior world is so much bigger and so much deeper than her exterior world, and of course the great tragedy of it is the parameters of her life never allow her to indulge in her deepest emotions.
That was the thing about April Wheeler that touched me so deeply. And I’m so different to her: I’m a happy, positive person, and if something isn’t working I don’t sit around and go [adopts plaintive tone], “Oh, maybe...” I just go, “Right, fuck it…” and I change things, sort it out.
Is it true that Sam treated you like any other leading lady… even when you got home?
The big adjustment that Sam had to make was realising that I take my work home with me, I really do. I just can’t let things go whereas Sam is really good at compartmentalising.
We’d get home and as soon as we walked in the door I’d say, “Oh my god, I’m so glad you said that thing…” and he’d say, “Whoa, babe, hang on, let me have a cup of tea!” and I’d literally wait for him to finish his tea and then I’d say, “Anyway, and another thing…” And it would go on.
Wasn’t there a worry in you and Sam taking on this material together? Examining a marriage in such unforgiving detail?
I think it was great for us because you can never know enough about the person you’re married to. Honesty is everything in a marriage, and we’ve always had that.
It didn’t have any negative impact on us as a couple. On a very basic level, it was just amazing to have so much time together. We got to see each other every day for three months! And it’s kind of sexy, too, to see each other really stepping up to the plate, being good at what we do.[page-break]
Do you accept the accolades though? Do you ever sit back and just say, “Yeah, I’m fucking good at my job”?
I am… Wait, I have to answer this carefully. [Long pause] I am proud of the nominations, unbelievably proud. Probably prouder than I’d care to admit a lot of the time.
There’s perhaps an assumption out there that I don’t really need it, but actors are insecure people; when someone pats you on the back and tells you that you’re good, it really bloody means a lot.
Because you don’t just walk to work and flick a switch. You do your homework, revise for the exam and if someone says, “Well done, you got an A!” it’s like [punches air] “Yeees!” It’s literally as basic as that.
It was a great quote in Vanity Fair, when you were asked if you want to win that elusive Oscar…
“You bet your fucking ass I do!” [Erupts into laughter] A lot of people think I’ve actually won. They’re like [slips into pitch-perfect LA accent], “So what did you win for?” and I’m like, “No, no, no, just let me remind you, I have this really great habit of not winning a fucking thing!” [laughs].
So you’re not like the Kate in Extras, ripping the piss out of the Academy?
Oh my god! I’m not like that at all. I mean, I have a very level head – I know that from the outside looking in it can seem extremely superficial – but it’s my peers who are voting, people who I really admire who have been around years, working really hard and forming solid opinions about films and actors and directors.
If someone like that ticks your box? It means a lot. There’s a myth about this industry being really bitchy and backbiting, but I’ll tell you now… if you’re on that red carpet with the other people you’ve been lucky enough to be nominated alongside, you all squeeze each other’s wrists and say, “Are you ok? Good luck…” You all turn into little children, playing movie stars!
If you do win…
[Laughs] Let’s just get the films out!
Ah, c’mon… if you do win, how will you get up and face your peers? Will you make a joke of the Extras episode or pretend it never happened?
This is the moment when Kate does something that is completely unnatural to her and says, “I’m not going to answer that!” How can you expect me to answer that? You meanie!
Your acting always seems so instinctive, but talking to you today it’s quite obvious that you’re also very practical and procedural in your approach…
You know, the really honest answer is that I really don’t know. I don’t. It’s not like it’s this magical thing or a gift. It’s nothing like that. I get incredibly nervous.
The preparation side is about building a character but also about giving yourself a safety net. [Lights a cigarette] And then the trick is throwing it all away when you get there. I’ve done the homework, now I’m going to burn it. It’s about being selfless and unafraid to let a scene take you wherever it takes you.
You’ve got to keep it fresh and not ever predict how you’re going to say anything. Don’t prepare a response to another actor’s line before they’ve said it because you don’t know how they’re going to say it, from take to take.
Leo… his skill is so sharp now that he can just turn a scene on its head.[page-break]
Let’s talk about nudity. it’s brought up in every interview and you must be sick of it…
A little bit. But go for it.
Well, let’s approach it in from a new angle, try to make it fresh for you…
Oh my god, that’s exciting!
It’s obvious you take your clothes off if and when you feel it’s necessary. You seek the truth. So what do you make of actors who have no-nudity clauses?
Isn’t that ridiculous? Everybody’s different and each to their own. I can’t judge. But, for me, I have absolutely gained from playing characters who take their clothes off.
I have gained being able to penetrate… [Pulls face, puts on a comically musing tone] interesting use of word, maybe we won’t use that word… I have been able to… understand those characters in a much more profound way. Some people say it’s unnecessary but of course it’s necessary.
It adds layers to who those people are as human beings. And for me acting is about being honest – not hiding behind anything. I can’t be dealing with the unspoken, in any part of my life.
Does the nudity get easier the more you do it?
The scenes don’t get easier. Because there’s always a scene going on, a performance to think about – it’s never nudity for the sake of nudity. But the physical act of taking my clothes off on film, in a roomful of people?
That gets easier because I’m used to it. And after you’ve had kids and you’ve been in that delivery ward… frankly? Goodbye vanity, goodbye self-consciousness! [Grins]
I’m not embarrassed about my body. I’m not. And the real me – the really, really real me – is something only my husband will ever see, because yes, there I am naked on screen, but it’s lovely lighting and you’ve got a bit of body make-up…
Of course, everything must seem easy after the urination scene in Holy Smoke…
I can’t believe I did that! How the hell did I have the courage to do that? [Laughs] That was really ballsy.
Would you have gone for it if Jane Campion had said, “Sod the tube, I want you to really piss yourself on camera…”
We tried! Belieeeve me we tried, we tried for the wee! We camera-tested the wee. But the reason it didn’t work was… [Stands up and plants feet firmly apart] if you’re a woman and you stand like this and you wee, it doesn’t go in a nice stream like it does for a bloke.
[Indicates an untrammelled gush] It goes all down the leg! It didn’t work for the shot. So we faked it and it was pretty funny.
The make-up artist got a bag and attached it by a wire to the back of my hair; it dangled down and sat in the middle of my back, and then it was pierced with a bit of surgical tube which went down, wedged in my bum crack, and I then had to wedge it [mimes pulling the tube up through her legs]…
Basically I had to wedge it by my wee-wee bits. Can you imagine getting ready for the scene? I mean, we were in hysterics!
I’m literally going, “Can anyone see the tube?” And they’re like [leans forward, acting out an inspection], “No, no, you’re fine.” “Really? Even when I walk? Watch when I walk…” [Waddles forward and then re-enacts the frenzied inspection] “No, we can’t.” it was absolutely mad.
Interview by Jamie Graham