Winslet ways

 

SENSE and Sensibility, the must see movie of the season, has arrived beribboned with Oscar nominations. Borne high on the hullabaloo is Kate Winslet, nominated for Best Supporting Actress, who in less time than it takes to curl a ringlet has become, as her co star Greg Wise remarked to her earlier this week, "Trousers of the Year, Baby".

The big screen's newest English rose is 5' 6", and as graceful as an octopus. She doesn't so much come into a room as burst in. The door opens and there's this blur of legs, knees, elbows, boots and fags enmeshed in a tangle of red, waist length hair. If you could plug her in she'd cut your electricity bill by half.

Beneath the boots, socks, cycling shorts, zipped top, (all black bar the boots) Kate Winslet's skin has the milky radiance of her age. She is, after all, a mere 20. Like her screen persona, Marianne, she wears no make up and, apart from the perfectly plucked eyebrows ("my real hair colour"), this morning's version of the vision is as far removed from Jane Austen's heroine as she is from the Vivienne Westwood clad babe in this month's Vogue.

"I don't give two hoots about what I'm wearing. I'm not one of those people like Liz Hurley, looking good every time you step out the door to buy a pint of milk. The glamour side of it and the actual reality of what I exist for, my work, don't connect at all. But it's so much fun dressing up. So why not? I mean you have people doing your hair, doing a manicure. And you get to wear these fantastic clothes." Her face goes into overdrive with glee.

In repose, Kate Winslet doesn't move a muscle - a key perhaps to her magnetic screen presence - but when she talks she is as active as a Geiger counter near radium. Brows knit, eyes narrow and widen, cheeks puff, hands fly, bare knees are clutched and accents change, her booted feet take turn on the table while her perfectly shaped, generous mouth pulls on a succession of cigarettes.

In a world where self doubt is endemic, Winslet's self confidence is extraordinary. She owes it all, she says, to her "amazing" family. "I consider myself to be one of the luckiest people I know. We've never had any money but we really are a happy family."

It is also a theatrical family, if rather lower key than the Cusacks. Her grandparents ran the local repertory theatre in Reading; her father is a sometime actor, her older sister is "in the business" and her younger sister is "desperate, ridiculously desperate" to join them. ("And I know she'll do it. She's so bloody minded and driven like me.") Only her brother, ("shy like my Mum") shows no inclination to shine on the silver screen.

"From a ridiculously early age I made it clear it's what I was going to do. Just like getting up and brushing your teeth, it was part of my life. Not in terms of being used to people going off filming or rehearsing shows, because work was always pretty thin and my father has never really made a living from acting or my sister or anybody else in the family apart from my uncle Robert who was relatively well known while he was alive.

For most people an Oscar nomination is the summit of their career. Yet Sense and Sensibility is only Kate Winslet's second film. Her performance as Marianne Dashwood, the over romantic sister to Emma Thompson's sensible Elinor, is a power house of emotional energy and adolescent turbulence known to us all perhaps, but rarely so poignantly captured on celluloid.

Winslet seems to have cornered the market in girls on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Heavenly Creatures, her first film, told the unnerving story of two schoolgirls, Juliet (Winslet) and Pauline whose intense relationship leads to the murder of Pauline's mother. Last autumn came Jude The Obscure (to be released in the autumn) and now she's Ophelia (hence the hair - I get to inspect the extensions) to Branagh's Hamlet. . . all are to a greater or lesser degree "loopy".

Is she concerned about typecasting? Not really. Not that she's really thought about it. "Although they are absolutely different people, they do have that slightly mad edge to them and I think Ophelia just about rocks the boat. I mean she is mad. I was thinking about this the other day, I mean, what is it about her that attracts me? It must have something to do with myself." Brows knit. Otherwise her body is entirely still. I suggest that the parts are just really strong. The Winslet engine revs up again. That's not enough. "This isn't self flattery or in any way patting myself on the back but I know that I'm different to other 20 year olds, people of my age. And even when I was much younger I knew I was different, I was always in my own world."

Whether drawing on her own intense relationships or the imaginative world of her childhood, Kate Winslet's total identification with her roles spill way beyond the director's call of "Cut". The much vaunted, but very real off screen friendship that developed between Winslet and Thompson on Sense and Sensibility mirrored their sisterdom on screen. But in spite of her "big sister's" advice to pace herself; Winslet twice went into a real life swoon when the intensity of her feelings took over and, according to a fellow member of the cast, had the rest of them "pretty worried".

It had been the same on Heavenly Creatures. "After shooting finished, I lost the plot. Because didn't know you have to prepare yourself, physically and mentally prepare yourself or you're bolloxed. When I came back from New Zealand I was so looking forward to telling my family about it. But I couldn't say anything. I would just sit and sob my heart out. I had been her for six months, read the transcripts of the trials, the diaries, read letters, saw photos, met people who knew them. I knew everything about her until I felt that I was her. I realise now I'd been traumatised. I had to get rid of it in some way. It was quite scary."

Equally scary from the outside is how she describes the intensity of the relationship she developed with her co star, Melanie Lynskey. "Mel is like the left side of my body. Mel and I had the exact relationship in terms of communication and love that Pauline and Juliet had. From the minute we saw each other." When the film ended, Winslet says, she could hardly bear to return to England because it meant leaving Lynskey. An eerie mirror of the film itself.

Taking each feature individually, Kate Winslet is no classic beauty. Her eyes are a bit too prominent, her nose a bit too big. But her mouth is generous, sensuous and naturally as red as blood. She's lucky. Beauties remain beauties until their beauty fades. Actors whose stock in trade is something other have no sell by date. And her rising star has nothing to do with looks.

If anything, Kate Winslet is embarrassed by the Oscar nomination. When I mention it her face flushes near purple, as it memorably does on screen when she reads her lover Willoughby's dastardly letter of rejection. Like Marianne's, Kate Winslet's emotions lie very close to the surface.

"I think it's wrong to think that I sort of know how to do it now. So much of the time I find myself thinking `I haven't got a clue and what the hell am I doing here'. On Sense and Sensibility, every day I kept thinking `This is so ridiculous, I'm working with Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Imogen Stubbs'. They saw me as one of them, on their level. But I felt like an absolute newcomer, which I was and feel that I still am genuinely. But it is such a godsend to have had such knowledge and wisdom around me. I can do nothing but absorb it."

Hamlet seemed an even greater test. "The first week I couldn't get through a day without spending the whole time with hot cheeks, my face would go bright red every time I opened my mouth."

Because although Thompson's and Branagh's tight knit companies provide a reassuring framework for Winslet's risk all style, it can all be a bit daunting to a 20 year old (which, I have to keep reminding myself, is what she is). "Those amazing actors; Shakespeare; those words; and having to hit a certain level of intellect that I don't believe I have."

Kate Winslet left school at 16. As a dedicated stage school (not to be confused with post 16 drama schools) the establishment's ordinary education left much to be desired: certainly no Austen or Hardy was read and Romeo and Juliet for English literature at GCSE was the only Shakespeare on offer. Nonetheless, the claim by journalists that Winslet had never heard of Jane Austen has the actor huffing and puffing (quite rightly - this girl is as bright as they come). "I've known about Jane Austen since I was born. Put that right, will you?"

"It's the Oxbridge thing. They have an intellectual library that I just don't have yet. It's not daunting exactly, a bit scary but exciting at the same time. But I don't believe in fear any more. I used to just back away but now if I'm scared of something I will try and overcome it, challenge it.

"I am very much an all or nothing sort of person. Playing Ophelia is just so exciting and so unpredictable, particularly in terms of the madness. Ken and I have discussed the madness, but as for how it turns out I've no idea. That's what makes it so exciting."

Whether Hollywood will offer roles that will prove as challenging is, as yet, shrouded in secrecy. Winslet flew to Los Angeles last week for a screen test ("I would kill to do this film" hands, legs and face fly). But what it is, she won't say. "Who knows if I will ever work in America. At the moment I love England, working here, being near my family, I could never ever move away from here and I want to do more English films and theatre. There's so much over here. What about our brilliant telly? I hate this notion of being an actor who only gets asked `What's your next movie?'"

WHAT a Hollywood crown could bring her, however, is money which until now "has never been humungous," she explains.

"It's a bonus because it means I can be financially independent but also I can take care of the people that I love, my family. So that I know when they get into despair about a humungous phone bill I can say, `It's no problem. Please don't think about it. Let me take this worry off your head.' That is the best thing about this. The best thing. That I can give something back."

In the meantime there's the Oscars ceremony on March 25th; a frock to chose ("understated is the way to go I think"); and a speech to write. ("Em and I are going to sit down and have a bit of a chat because she knows what it's all about.") Exciting? Yes. But there's a downside. Winslet's "Mrs Transparency Honesty Tell The Whole World About Your Life Person" has to go, she realises. She's beginning to be recognised in the street. Her romantic life threatens to be lived out in the glare of the paparazzi's flash.

"It's ridiculous. Coming out of my house this morning, checking to see if there were any photographers sitting in cars; putting on my sunglasses. I mean, in this weather!" Kate Winslet opens her arms in theatrical supplication to the grey heavens outside and laughs like a drain.