What Kate did next
INTERVIEW:KATE WINSLET IS TERRIFIED. "Absolutely terrified, to be honest," she adds by way of emphasis. She is not alone. It's that time when anxieties are running high among actors and filmmakers as the announcement of the Oscar nominations looms. Standards are high in what is a particularly competitive year, with many deserving contenders hoping for a place among the final five nominees in the principal categories, writes Michael Dwyer
What complicates Winslet's prospects is that she has two new movies. To ensure that she's not competing with herself and splitting her vote, she is being promoted as best actress for Revolutionary Roadand as best supporting actress for The Reader, even though she gets top billing and has the most substantial role in it. That strategic positioning is working, given that she has been nominated in both categories for the Golden Globe awards to be presented in Beverly Hills a week from tomorrow.
It helps that Winslet has earned the admiration of the Oscars electorate. Now 33, she holds the record as the youngest actor to have received five nominations - for Sense and Sensibility, Titanic, Iris, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mindand Little Children. And given the emotional depth and hypnotic quality of her performances in both her new films, she really should have no reason to be worried, not to mind terrified.
She is anxious for another reason when we meet at a London hotel shortly before Christmas. "I'm sort of reeling today because my parents saw The Readerlast night," she says, rolling a cigarette. "It's always a big milestone for me when Mum and Dad go to see my films because it really matters to me what they think."
Based on Bernard Schlink's novel, The Readerfeatures Winslet in a riveting portrayal of Hanna Schmitz, a German tram conductor haunted by her experiences when she was recruited as a Nazi collaborator, and becoming passionately involved with a 15-year-old schoolboy (played by David Kross) after a chance encounter.
There have been many movies in which older women have sexually initiated younger males, but Winslet must be the youngest actress to play such a role.
"You're absolutely right," she says. "I'm just under twice David's age. It's not a huge deal. What was important about that age gap was you needed it see how a new generation dealt with the terrible crimes committed by the previous generation. If you don't have that gap, there's no story."
She was bemused that Kross didn't know any of her work apart from Titanic. "That's okay," she laughs. "That's the case with most people. I was coming from the US the other day and I was going through security. This guy was checking my boarding card and he said, 'Aren't you that chick from Titanic? Why don't you make movies anymore?' It was so funny. What can you say?"
At 17, Kross was around the same age as Winslet was when she made her breakthrough in her debut film Heavenly Creatures, and it probably was less daunting for Kross not to be aware of the remarkable range and versatility she demonstrated in her subsequent movies. "One of the wonderful things about working with David," she says, "was that very rare thing of meeting a younger actor who will turn around to you and say, 'I don't know how to do this. Can you help me?' He was so honest about not knowing how to act a certain scene, which can be bloody scary, especially with the nudity in the film."
The sex scenes in the early stages of The Readerare frequent and surprisingly candid, and the production notes go to some pains to explain that those scenes were not filmed until after Kross turned 18. "Apparently, it's a German law, but believe me, nobody thought that was more ridiculous than David," Winslet says. "One of things I wanted to make sure David understood was the actual logistics of shooting those scenes. I knew that the thing that was making him nervous was the idea of it, and not knowing. I promised him it wouldn't be as bad as he thought.
"He thought the whole crew would be on the set for those scenes. I told him there was no way I was walking into that room with the whole crew around. I explained to him that usually there's only about three or four other people there for those scenes - the camera operator, the focus puller, the boom operator and sometimes a male or female dresser to bung a sheet over you at the end of a take. Just hearing that was music to David's ears. I saw weeks of worry just fall away off the poor boy's shoulders.
"The only difficulty for me, if there was any - and the taking your clothes off part doesn't bother me any more, although it's a little bit weird - was that I just knew I couldn't allow there to be any room for my nerves. It's a little like being on a plane in bad turbulence. You get a bit panicky and then you look at the cabin crew and as long as they're smiling, you feel okay. I had to be like that for David, no matter how I was feeling inside. And I wanted us to be free of any anxiety so that we could act those scenes. They had to feel very genuine, very loving."
The sex scenes have prompted "such bizarre mixed reactions", she says. "I had a radio interview this morning and the journalist asked me how I felt about Hanna Schmitz being a paedophile. It was as much as I could do not to gouge his eyes out. Did he not watch the film?
"I am lucky in that, whenever I'm called upon to do any nudity in a film, I've always had to agree 100 per cent with its presence in a scene and its contribution to the character and the narrative before I would do it. In this case, there's actually a lot more of it in the novel, and it would have been monotonous to use it all in the film. But what is so touching about those scenes, I think, is that you get to see not just his fascination and love for her, but her fascination and love - and need - for him."
As the film spans several decades from the late 1950s onwards, the application of make-up is subtly effective as Hanna ages. "The process itself was very carefully planned," she says. "For one of the later sequences in the courtroom, we decided just to use actual make-up to shade different areas parts of my face and to make me look older. And there was a gravity and a sadness to the costuming during that sequence. I was surprised how many people asked me if I gained weight for those scenes. Of course I didn't because I would be playing the older Hanna one day and the younger Hanna the next day.
"Ann Roth, our wonderful costume designer, gave me a padded suit that was quite rigid and added bulk. I told her that I didn't think that would work, that I had to wear a prosthetic suit so that it would move and I would feel the weight of it. It was around 15 pounds, so when I stood up, I had to raise myself up. And I had spent months watching how older people stood up in cafes."
Equally subtle is how Hanna's posture changes gradually from when she's the boss in the bedroom and on the tram to when all power is taken away from her and she is tried for war crimes. "The empty life that Hanna had was briefly filled by the love she feels for this young man, and then she loses that and more," Winslet says. "Having that level of vulnerability and inability to articulate even how she feels, it meant that she was completely incapable of dealing with any social situation."
By complete contrast, one of the other women on trial is shown to be so cool that she occupies herself with knitting all the way through it. "You wouldn't believe how many bootees she had knitted by the end of those scenes," Winslet says. "In the research material we had, I cannot tell you how many of those f***ing women were sitting there knitting when they were on trial. It was unbelievable. They had been brainwashed by that system to believe that they were doing their job.
"They didn't start as monsters. The Holocaust was started by ordinary people. One of the eye-opening experiences I had in preparing for this role was learning that these young women aged 18 or 19 were told by the Nazis to take those jobs, or else they would end up with the rest of the so-called riff-raff. They had no choice. Of course, their crimes were horrific and nobody's sympathising, or forgiving them.
"However, I find it very interesting for an audience member to be morally compromised and even for a split second to feel some degree of sympathy for an SS guard. That's what films are. You're supposed to ask questions of yourself and sometimes you won't have the answers."
Nicole Kidman had been cast to play Hanna, and when she became pregnant, Winslet took on the role, even though it came so soon after she finished shooting Revolutionary Road.
"I only had two months to get ready for it, and that, for me, is a very fast turnaround," she says. "I had to treat the preparation like going to school every day. I actually rented a room for the two months and I went there from nine to four every day. If I'm at home, I end up making soup and doing the laundry and making the beds. I'll do anything to avoid dealing with what's terrifying the hell out of me."
Her home life revolves around two children, Mia (eight) from her first marriage to director Jim Threapleton, and Joe (five), her son with her second husband, director Sam Mendes. In one of life's coincidences, she and Mendes were born 10 years apart in the same Reading hospital.
Revolutionary Roadmarks the first time they have worked together. "Sam and I had actively been looking for something we both could do," she says. "Every now and then, he would read a script and say that he thought he found something, but I would read it and say I wasn't so sure. The same happened with scripts I read until I got Revolutionary Road and we both felt so mutually passionate about something."
Based on the highly-regarded 1961 novel by Richard Yates, the film is set in suburban Connecticut in the 1950s and it reunites Winslet with her Titanicco-star Leonardo DiCaprio, as April and Frank Wheeler. Whereas Titanicfollows the tentative build-up of a relationship between their characters, Revolutionary Roadbegins when they fall in love and then closely observes them as their marriage falls apart.
"It couldn't be more different from Titanic," Winslet says. "I was sent the script first. It just landed in my lap. I immediately dared myself to dream that Leo might play Frank and that Sam would direct it. In order for that to happen, we all had to feel as strongly about the material, and lo and behold, we all did. And then somehow we made it work.
"The dialogue in the book is so amazing and all of us as actors wanted to use as much of it as possible in the film, which is very faithful to the book. How could you possibly meddle with this piece of literary genius? I felt I had to downplay some aspects of April and to internalise her emotions. She is so highly strung in the book, and I had to be careful of that in the film because that can become quite repetitive for an audience. I wanted her to be understood for what she was really feeling inside as opposed to how she was externalising everything. That was a huge challenge."
Vanity Fairrecently described DiCaprio and Winslet as "the most iconic screen couple since Bogart and Bacall". The comparison brings a beam to her face. "I love that, but to us, it's slightly daft because we're Kate and Leo. We're perfectly capable of being extremely childish and very, very silly. We have a very similar and pathetic sense of humour. Things will make us laugh that no one else will get.
"To have that relationship that Leo and I have as people - which we've maintained all these years as it just got stronger and stronger - it was crucial to us to have that in playing these parts, not just for the understanding we have for each other as people and as actors, but for the physical ease we have together. For Leo and me to become entwined is not a big deal because we have an emotional shorthand. We even finish each other's sentences when we do interviews together.
"Leo and I have a relationship that predates my relationship with Sam. There are things that we shared that Sam was never going to be party to, and Sam thought it was great that we had that and could draw on it for the film.
"So there was no big deal if I spent a whole day in a corner with Leo, running lines and discussing scenes. In fact, so much of the rehearsing was almost done even before we went into the rehearsal room because we brought all that history with us. I don't have that with any other actor."
Working with her husband on such an intense, emotionally charged drama as Revolutionary Road must have made it difficult for them to switch off as a couple at the end of a day's shooting, I suggest. "We tried to do that because Sam is very good at switching off and really needs to do that so that he can quietly prepare himself for the next day. I had always claimed to be really good at not taking my work home with me, which was absolute rubbish.
"We realised in the beginning that we can't have any rules and that we should talk about anything in the film that we needed to talk about. Sometimes in moments of utter exhaustion, I would whisper in Sam's ear that I knew he was knackered, but we really had to talk about some detail or other that I needed to clarify before he fell asleep. To have that constant dialogue was really brilliant. Thank God we had it, although I totally abused the rights I had because I was living with the director."
The Readeris on release. Revolutionary Roadopens on January 30th.