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'Labor Day' Star Kate Winslet on Defying Expectations, Onscreen and Off (Q&A)

The pregnant Brit opened up to THR about growing up on aid and being bullied, the challenges of life after "Titanic," having kids with different fathers, why she plays so many depressed women, the forthcoming "Divergent," tweeting and more.

Kate Winslet Oscars 2010 - H 2013
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Kate Winslet

The first movie star I ever fell in love with was Kate Winslet. When Titanic came out 16 years ago, I wasn't quite old enough to drive but I wanted to see what all the commotion over the film was about, so my friend and I got his mother to take us to see it. Over the course of the next three hours I became smitten with the beautiful redhead, my trance interrupted only briefly, when my friend's mother's beeper went off. (What can I say, it was the '90s.)

Who was this girl? I didn't know, but names really weren't important -- I just knew I wanted to see her again.

Fortunately for me and for movie lovers the world over, there have been many opportunities to do so over the ensuing decade and a half, during which she has become universally regarded as one of the greatest actresses of her generation.

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Even before James Cameron's film about the ill-fated ship, it was clear that Winslet was something special. She shined in her big-screen debut, Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures (1994), and received a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for her work in Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility (1995). She then received four more acting noms, the last of which, for 2008's The Reader, finally bagged her a little gold man. She also won Golden Globe statuettes for The Reader and then-husband Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road (on the same night!). Even in relatively weak movies -- and Winslet has done a few, such as 2006's All the King's Men and this year's Movie 43 -- she is always good.

For this reason, I was delighted when the latest film in which she stars, Jason Reitman's Labor Day, screened as the surprise opener of the 40th Telluride Film Festival in August. In the dark drama, adapted from Joyce Maynard's 2009 novel of the same title and to be released by Paramount on Christmas Day, she plays Adele, an agoraphobic and depressed single mother of a teenage son (Gattlin Griffith) who is forced to harbor -- and, against all odds, bonds with -- a fugitive (Oscar nominee Josh Brolin) over the Labor Day weekend in 1987. I can't say that I loved the film -- it's a little too out there for me -- but, as always, I loved Winslet, who manages to communicate more with glances and gestures than most actresses can with pages of dialgoue.

I mention all of this to convey why I was so excited to recently interview the 38-year-old, who married Richard Branson's unusually-named nephew Ned Rocknroll last year and is now pregnant with her third child, and her first with Rocknroll. Following are highlights of our conversation.

You come from a family of actors. How much did that influence your decision to go down that path?

My parents met because my father was an actor friend of one of my mom’s brothers, but my mother has never set foot on the stage -- she’s quite shy. So it’s a strange thing because people say, “Oh, coming from acting parents,” when the idea of acting would literally make my mother just want to throw up. I did absolutely grow up in a world surrounded by people who were always performing and being flamboyant. I’m from a family of impoverished actors, not the highly RADA [Royal Academy of Dramatic Art]-trained classical actors at all. I’m from a pack of almost traveling players, as I describe it, and I just sort of grew up surrounded by, I don’t know, an attitude towards performing that was absolutely full of just complete joy, really, really just true joy. And I think I just always imagined that I would end up doing it as well. I mean, I certainly don’t remember ever thinking I would be a movie star; that never crossed my mind at all. I lived in a home where we didn’t get a VCR until I was 12, and we were on free meal benefits, and we were supported as a family by a charity called The Actor’s Charitable Club, who would literally help with the basics of living because the life of a starving actor for my father was extremely hard and he would take lots of other parts and other jobs to make ends meet. My older sister, who is now 41, always very much wanted to be an actress and was quite vocal about that. And then I started showing kind of wanting to do it, too, when I was about 8 or 9. It was literally as though if she had gotten a pair of ice skates and wanted to learn how to skate, I’m sure I would have wanted to get a pair of ice skates and wanted to learn how to skate, too. She wanted to be an actress, and so I wanted to be an actress -- I mean, that seemed like a hell of a good idea to me. [laughs] My younger sister also does it. And my brother -- we have one brother, who’s the youngest -- he does not act whatsoever.

He missed the gene ...

Yeah, he got off lightly. The poor soul was just surrounded by a pack of screeching, hysterical women. [laughs] My grandparents -- both of my mother’s parents -- were actors, and they ran the Reading Repertory Theatre Company, through the town of Reading, where I come from. Back in the old days, there were these wonderful companies, they were called repertory theater companies, and the theater was in the back garden of a house that my mother lived in, so she was really surrounded by it. And my grandmother went to theater school with Noel Coward. What I like about it is that it was just this sort of pack of crazy people doing it for the love of it, you know? It’s really not a glossy, polished band of people at all. So I’ve always just considered myself so lucky, from the word go, that I was even able to get a job.

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You started doing commercials at 11 and then TV shows after that. Can you talk about the acting opportunities that led up to your first real film job in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures?

When you're 11 years old in the U.K., what happens is the equivalent of moving from one school into middle school. I wanted to go to another school that had a really great drama department, but it was out of catchment area; this was not private education -- if you lived too far away from the school, your name just didn’t go on the list. So I was then going to be going to a different school, where a very horrible girl who had bullied me at my primary school was also going to go, and we were going to be in the same class, and I was absolutely beside myself. I just thought, “I can’t go through this anymore. I’ve got to get away from this girl.” And my older sister and I were in an outside amateur dramatic company and there were a couple of children who went to this company who, lo and behold, went to something called a theater school. Well, I had never heard of a theater school before, simply could not believe that it existed and couldn’t believe that these kids would get to go to school and do math, and English, and art and then do tap dancing and drama and singing. I thought, “Well, that sounds amazing. How do I get to go to one of those?” So I did an audition and was given a place. The thing I was most grateful for was that they operated as an agency, so I would find myself thrown on the minibus with 16 other kids, and we’d be taken up to London and every now and then there’d be an audition for something or other, whether it was an episode of a drama or a commercial or something. So, that was how I was chosen to be in that commercial at the age of 11. I was always quite good with accents -- I always had quite a good ear -- so from the age of about 13, I used to do a lot of voiceover and dubbing for foreign films. And then, when I was 15, I did a drama series. [After] my school exams, I started a sitcom, which lasted for two months of my life. And then I came out of that into the big wide world and got an audition for my first-ever film and was given the part in Heavenly Creatures.

I’ve read that you were up against 175 others for that part. How did you get the news that it was yours?

One of the things that I was always, and still am, is quite resourceful. So, from the age of 14, I was trying to find summer jobs. Whenever there was some down time, I would go off and get myself some kind of a job because I needed to actually have money for train fare to get myself from Reading to London to go to auditions. And, at the time that I was doing Heavenly Creatures, I had finished doing the sitcom, which obviously was my first properly paid job -- but, you know, when I say "properly paid," I mean, I’m talking about, I don’t know, 750 pounds a week, 800 pounds a week. At the age of 16, that was unbelievable. But, at the same time, that money was going to run out. Anyway, I worked in a really fantastic delicatessen in the town of Reading, and every day I would go into work, and every day I would hope that phone was going to ring and it would be my agent from the school saying that I had gotten this part in Heavenly Creatures. And honestly, I promise you, I was in the middle of making someone a sandwich, and the telephone rang and I just had a feeling in my gut that it was going to be for me. And, sure enough, my boss walked around from the office, peeked his head in, looked towards the sandwich counter and went [whispering], “The phone’s for you." And it was the agent from the school, and she said, “Well, who’s the clever girl there?” I’ll never forget it. And I actually remember kneeling down. I knelt down on the ground and I said, “Hang on, hang on, stop, stop. What? What?” And she said, “They’ve just phoned and they want you to play the part in the film of Heavenly Creatures.” And I was on my knees in this tiny little office, where we would all go and have a cigarette and a cup of tea at lunch time, and there I was, in my sandwich-making uniform, literally. [laughs] I’m not making this up. That really is how it happened. It was amazing, and I remember it, you know, like it was yesterday. And then, of course, I was desperate to go home and tell everybody what had just happened, so I ran home; I would normally take the bus. I remember it was raining and I said, “Please, can I go? I’ve got to go!” And I ran, and ran and ran home.

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How much did that open the door to everything that’s followed?

This is really where the luck does begin because Heavenly Creatures could have been a nothing film, you know? Sometimes people are on their ninth movie and it’s a movie that just never sees the light of day, or goes straight to video, or, you know, might be just the TV movie that’s always on on a Sunday afternoon. But, anyway, the biggest stroke of luck for me was that it was a wonderful part, in an extraordinary true story, being directed by a wonderful director, and had been co-written by a wonderful co-writer, Fran Walsh [Peter Jackson's wife and producing partner]. And Peter and Fran then became Peter and Fran. And there were many things about the experience that really launched me into a world where I truly, absolutely loved acting. "Oh, my God. I want to do this forever!" Because, the research I got to do, teaching myself how to get into a character-- I learned on the job and still do, to a certain extent. But on that one in particular, every single day I learned how to be an actor in film. And Peter Jackson, who really is just a wonderful man and wonderful director -- it was like every day was some kind of acting master class. And I was in New Zealand for nearly four months, by myself at the age of 17 -- no mobile phone, just a good old stack of airmail paper and the one phone call home I allowed myself a week. I don’t think there were even fax machines at that point. And I had a boyfriend, and I would write him and he would write me; we actually had been together for, like, two years, at that point, and he couldn’t come out there to see me because he was a struggling actor and had a job, and there was just not enough money for the plane fare.

I guess, then, that the first time that you could really apply everything that you learned and fully dive into the preparation and research for a character would have been Sense and Sensibility, right?

Yeah, it was Sense and Sensibility. But I want to tell you this: I do remember very instantly feeling at the end of Heavenly Creatures, "Oh, my God, is that it? Hang on! Now we have to do it all properly!" I really remember feeling that I wanted to go right back to the beginning and do it all over again because I’d learned everything, I’d rehearsed it all and I wanted to go back and do it properly. [laughs] But then being cast in Sense and Sensibility? Well, I absolutely got the audition for that because I was this English girl who happened to have found my way into this New Zealand movie that some people were kind of talking about; otherwise there’s no way I would’ve been auditioned, I’m sure. Because the truth is there was a very big age gap between myself and Emma Thompson, and those two sisters in that film are meant to be much closer in age, and so I was again astounded that I got this part.

I can’t imagine that feeling was ever greater than when Titanic came along. You were just 21 when you made the film and 22 when it came out. How did you handle the new level of celebrity that film launched you into?

Someone asked me this morning, “So when you did a red carpet, when you were younger, did you get, like, training for that?” And I turned around and I said, “Not in those days you didn’t.” Now, I think kids do. I certainly know that the actors in Divergent, some of them who haven’t had that much experience at all have been given a little training. Well, my God, I would’ve given anything for that, but no one ever offered it to me. From the outside looking in, everyone imagines that these little actors who go from nothing to something, they think that it means that they go from living in a two-bedroom flat to suddenly living in a mansion. Well, of course they f---ing don’t! I was still living in my two-bedroom flat that Titanic bought me here. It is hilarious, because the fact that I was in Titanic makes people think that Leo [DiCaprio] and I must have both together been paid, I don’t know, $10 million or something like that. I mean in those days we weren’t really anybody, you know? We weren’t! Leo was a little more well known than me because he had been in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and The Basketball Diaries, and also he had Romeo & Juliet that came out right in the middle of us shooting Titanic, so he had more under his belt. And I was just this English girl who’d done a couple of movies and “Oh yeah! She had a supporting actress nomination for that film, what was it? Oh, Sense and Sensibility? Oh yeah! Oh, that’s her? Oh, that’s the same girl?” That’s who I was.