The perennial contender on the pleasures of a quarantined awards season, the pride that came from choreographing her own sex scenes with Saoirse Ronan, and why a virtual Toronto Film Festival isn't the end of the world: "I can be barefoot and I don't have to put a dress on. It's awesome."
On March 13, the day the United States morphed into something barely recognizable, Kate Winslet was on a set in Philadelphia shooting HBO’s limited series Mare of Easttown. With just 21 days to go on a grueling 116-day shoot, the production shuttered, and she hopped on a flight back to her home in the London countryside, where she has been riding out the COVID-19 pandemic for the past five months.
“I think it’s the unknown element of this virus — we just don’t know how it’s going to affect any given individual — I think that was what’s so terrifying,” she explains. “I’m a very practical, straightforward person, and if I have to respond to an emergency, I just go into that zone.”
Perhaps it was only fitting that the actress, 44, who once embedded with CDC epidemiologists to research her role in Steven Soderbergh’s eerily prescient Contagion, became the one on set best prepared for a coming plague.
“People thought I was crazy because I had been walking around [Philadelphia] wearing a mask for weeks, going into the grocery store and wiping everything down with isopropyl alcohol and wearing gloves,” she says of the time when early reports of the virus had started to emerge from Wuhan and Europe. "Then all of a sudden March 13 came around, and people were like, 'Fuck, where do I get one of those masks?'"
Her early caution proved predictive. She notes that two close friends have been impacted by COVID-19.
“One was in L.A. and was very lucky to get on a trial using convalescent plasma and did really, really well in the space of, like, 72 hours after the treatment,” she says. “And a dialect coach who lives in London has had it, was in hospital for 11 weeks, is out, and has had every lung test, blood test, blood pressure test, and is clear of everything but just cannot get better — is breathless, lethargic, still feels very unwell.”
On this August evening, Winslet looks every inch the pragmatic woman. Wearing a white T-shirt with a brown sweater draped over her shoulders, she’s drinking a mug of breakfast tea even though it’s well past the dinner hour. The Wi-Fi is spotty at her house in Sussex, so she’s sitting in the kitchen of a neighbor “who is in our bubble,” she says, echoing the new lockdown vernacular in which people keep a tight-knit group of family and friends with whom they socialize. If all goes as planned, she will return to Pennsylvania and the Mare of Easttown set in September. There’s a degree of trepidation, albeit unrelated to the virus.
“Now that I’m going to have to go back to work, I’m like, ‘Oh fuck, I’ve forgotten how to act,’ ” she says. “It will be with some extraordinary back-to-work protocols, which are great. But when you’re an actor in a film or a TV piece, social distancing is obviously sometimes just not possible, based on the scene.”
Take Winslet’s latest film, Ammonite, which will make its world premiere Sept. 11 at the Toronto Film Festival. Distancing would have been unfeasible considering the love scenes she shares with co-star Saoirse Ronan, with one so intimate that it makes the 2015 lesbian love drama Carol, an awards contender starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, seem tame. Set in 1840s England, the Francis Lee-helmed Ammonite depicts the forbidden romance between real-life fossil hunter Mary Anning (Winslet) and the timid married woman (Ronan) she takes up with.
“Saoirse and I choreographed the scene ourselves,” Winslet explains of the most explicit one. “It’s definitely not like eating a sandwich. I just think Saoirse and I, we just felt really safe. Francis was naturally very nervous. And I just said to him, ‘Listen, let us work it out.’ And we did. ‘We’ll start here. We’ll do this with the kissing, boobs, you go down there, then you do this, then you climb up here.’ I mean, we marked out the beats of the scene so that we were anchored in something that just supported the narrative. I felt the proudest I’ve ever felt doing a love scene on Ammonite. And I felt by far the least self-conscious.”
Ronan, who dubs Winslet preternaturally organized, says her “performances are incredibly human.” The two knew each other only casually before Ammonite. “Obviously, she’s incredibly skilled, but she’s also someone you always feel you can identify with, and I think that says a lot about the kind of person she is,” says Ronan. “It’s sort of in [her] bones.”
The buzz about the film has been building since spring, when it was selected to make its world premiere in Cannes (those plans were scrapped due to COVID-19). To date, only festival programmers have seen Ammonite, which will kick off a surreal 2021 awards season when it’s screened in front of a live audience in Toronto (because of government restrictions, only locals can attend, which means Winslet will videoconference in for the premiere and when accepting the prestigious Tribute Actor Award).
“I can be barefoot and I don’t have to put a dress on and feel sick. So it’s awesome. I can have my glass of wine just out of frame, like that,” she says with a laugh, pushing her mug a few inches.
Still, expectations are high for Ammonite considering that it’s this season’s main bet for Neon, one year after the red-hot distributor upset the big-budget competition with a best picture Oscar win for Parasite.
“It’s clearly the film for us this fall and is something we’ve always planned on being an awards contender across multiple categories,” says Neon CEO Tom Quinn. “I think Kate is discovering new levels of what she can do as an actress with this role in a way that took our breath away.”
Winslet may be the most decorated actress of the 40-something set — known for doing the work while others work their brand. She largely eschews doing press and avoids the awards-season circuit of panels, parties and tastemaker screenings (“I don’t campaign,” says Winslet). In addition to her best actress Oscar win for The Reader, she’s received six nominations (for Sense and Sensibility, Titanic, Iris, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Little Children and Steve Jobs) as well as an Emmy (Mildred Pierce). Oh yeah, she won a Grammy for the audiobook Listen to the Storyteller — too. Though Winslet would appear poised for an eighth nod for Ammonite, the thrice-married mother of three isn’t taking any of it too seriously.
“It was the sixth time I could have lost, right? ” she says of her Reader win in 2009. “I have it at home. It’s awesome. The kids have fun with it. It is the stuff of dreams. And that little dream came true for me right there, and you just move on. You just go back to the hard work. It’s just a fucking Oscar at the end of the day.”
Growing up in a cramped home in Berkshire, England, Winslet experienced her acting epiphany at the age of 5, in a peculiar place.“I was sitting on the toilet,” she recalls. “Truly. I could just hear the sounds of the household. I had three siblings and my parents. It was a very small house. They didn’t have much money, and the walls were paper-thin. If ever there was an argument or something, you could hear everything — ‘rar rar rar.’ You could even hear the neighbors through the wall. So, I was sitting on the toilet and I could just hear the busyness of life around me. My mom was yelling something up the stairs to my sister about her tap shoes. And I had this moment of thinking, 'Wow, if there was one of those video cameras filming and following my mom, it would seem like she was acting but she’s not, she’s just being herself.' And then I thought, 'Ahh. So, acting is just being. Yeah, I want to do that. That’s what I want to do for a job.'"
To this day, she’s unsure why she thought about a camera. The family didn’t even own a VCR, just a standard TV with three channels and crackly reception.
As she matured and began to dabble in theater, Winslet dreamed of professional acting, but she wasn’t envisioning stardom.
"I never had huge ambition in the way that I thought, 'I’m going to be in movies, and this is my five-year plan,' " she says. "My father was an actor, my mother was not an actress, but both of her parents were, she had two brothers who were sort of doing it, and all I saw were these people being happy, being different characters and playing through life. And because my parents didn’t have any money, they didn’t talk about money. So, I was never driven by that. I just thought, 'Maybe I’ll do theater, and if I’m lucky I might get an episode of something.'"
Fast-forward some 10 years, and Winslet did land her first TV role on the sci-fi BBC series Dark Season, playing a student who helps her classmates fight against a nefarious man distributing free computers. It might explain her aversion to all things blinky. She keeps clear of social media. "I don’t even really know what TikTok is," she insists. "It’s so much harder now for young actors because social media meddles with their natural progression of self-esteem. I am so blessed that I missed all that. We didn’t have to keep pleasing, feeding, likes, dislikes. We could just figure out who we were."
After a trio of small-screen turns, she landed her breakthrough role as the star of Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, a film based on a true story about two teenage girls who plot to murder one of their mothers when she tries to stymie their budding lesbian romance. Winslet beat out 175 hopefuls.
“I remember it all very clearly, how wonderful Peter was and his partner, Fran Walsh. They were so protective and nurturing of myself and [co-star] Melanie Lynskey. I just felt so looked after.”
On just her second film, Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, she landed her first Oscar nomination. But nothing prepared her for the abrupt fame that came with James Cameron’s Titanic. Suddenly, Winslet was a household name, and every studio head was courting her.
“I was really freaked out, to be honest,” she says. “I was 21. I wasn’t ready for fame. And it’s not that I was pushing it away or rejecting it. Of course, I felt enormously grateful, privileged, proud, all those things, but I didn’t know enough as an actor. I still felt like I was really learning. I was nominated for an Academy Award, but that doesn’t mean fucking shit. If you haven’t got the chops and you don’t believe in yourself, you’re going to do crap work.”
By her account, a self-protective mechanism kicked in, steering her away from splashy studio fare, and she followed up her Titanic mega-success with the small single-mom drama Hideous Kinky. She married first husband Jim Threapleton, an assistant director on the film, and gave birth to their daughter, Mia, in 2000. “I really felt the juggle of being a working mum,” says Winslet. “Obviously, I had her with me, but I was so insanely busy and immersed in the job. That was very hard for me.”
For years to come, Winslet stayed firmly planted in the indie space, fearful of overexposure.
“I didn’t want to burn out,” she says. “There was Winona Ryder. There was Uma Thurman. There was me. There was a gaggle of us.” (Like Winslet, both Ryder and Thurman became critical darlings in their early 20s.)
She intentionally chose parts that were the polar opposite of the prim English rose characters that she was best known for, from playing a rebellious Australian being forcibly deprogrammed from a cult in Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke!, in which she did full-frontal nudity, to one half of an estranged couple who erase each other from their memories in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (opposite Jim Carrey in his dramatic breakout).
In the five-year span between Holy Smoke! and Eternal Sunshine, she divorced Threapleton and began dating director Sam Mendes, then a recent Oscar winner for American Beauty. (They met when Mendes approached her for a play, a role she turned down.) They married in 2003, and Winslet gave birth to their son, Joe, that same year. Their film collaboration Revolutionary Road became the most anticipated movie of 2008, given that it reteamed Winslet and her Titanic co-star Leonardo DiCaprio. But the film was largely rejected by critics and overshadowed by a different Winslet film that year, Stephen Daldry’s The Reader, in which she played an unsympathetic Nazi prison guard.
“Stephen is a great leader, and he doesn’t profess to know the answer to everything,” she says of the experience. "Sometimes I’d say, 'Help me, help me.' He’d say, 'Don’t look at me. I don’t know what the fuck you’re supposed to do.'"
The Reader’s success over Revolutionary Road — ironically, a dark take on a crumbling marriage — didn’t help the Winslet-Mendes union, and, a year after her Oscar win, the power couple separated, officially divorcing in 2011. Not long after, she took up with Edward Abel Smith, nephew of Richard Branson (they met while Winslet was vacationing on Branson’s private island in the Caribbean), and a year after their 2012 nuptials, their son, Bear, was born.
Teenager Joe takes after father Mendes as a budding cineaste — “very interested in and interesting about film,” she gushes — and wound up having a voice in Winslet’s choice to make Ammonite. She and Joe had watched Lee’s debut film, God’s Own Country, and responded similarly.
“At the time, he was 15, and everyone else was out, which was just a rare moment when you have three children,” she says. “To be at home on a rainy day and able to watch the movie together on the couch, it was quite a memorable experience. And we both wept.”
When Lee sent her his script in the fall of 2018, she committed just 12 hours after reading it. As she dug into the role of Anning, a woman whose contributions to paleontology and science were co-opted by undeserving men, she became more obsessed with the preparation, prompting her to drop out of another role — she won’t say which — in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch.
“I had to pull out because I was so entrenched in Ammonite that I just freaked myself out thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’d have to go to France. Come back. Then I’d only have three weeks until starting shooting Ammonite,’ ” she says. “And I just knew that I wasn’t going to do my best, and so I had to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ I pulled my name out of the mix.”
She and Lee worked together for about five months to build the character and a shared vision. They created a rich backstory for Anning to fill in the early gaps in her biography, and workshopped everything about the trailblazer that brought her up to the moment when the film begins. The result is a performance that relies almost entirely on nonverbal communication and sees Winslet scaling seaside cliffs (with no stunt double) in search of rare fossils.
“Every time there was a moment where maybe a choice would be to externalize an emotion or thought or a feeling, we pulled back as much as we could,” says Lee, whose minimalist style offers a stark contrast to Winslet’s performance for her most recent Oscar nomination, in Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, which featured rapid-fire dialogue by Aaron Sorkin. “I kept getting Kate to pull back, work the stillness. I would say to Kate, ‘We can have her smile. We can have her express herself, but let’s really work for those moments because then when those moments come, they will be so much more meaningful.'"
As such, Ronan relished the one scene where they were able to talk at length. It comes near the end of the film when the characters meet up in London.
“That was a scene that we had worked on quite a bit,” says Ronan. “There’s so much said between them that they held in to that point. We were very excited to get a chance to properly bounce off each other because so many of the other scenes are quite still and quiet. Just properly getting to spar with Kate is really fun.”
Winslet finds the lack of vanity for both women refreshing, from the severe clothing and hairstyle to the nudity. She laughs at the idea of a body double, noting that the budget was too small.
“I’m nearly 45, and Saoirse is almost half my age. And to have an opportunity to be my real 40-something self, post-children, you know? Women aren’t really having the courage to do that,” she explains. “I was just excited to say, ‘This is what it is, peeps. This is how I am now, and it’s very much not the body I had 20 years ago. And I also worked on maintaining that sort of heftiness to Mary. There is a grit to her, there’s a weight to her. I changed up my exercise a little bit. I made sure that I didn’t lose weight — which I do a lot, actually, on films. I hate to talk about weight, but I only say it in the context of, it was a conscious effort on my part to really make sure that I didn’t shrink or change myself for the sake of being naked. I did the opposite.”
As Winslet continues, she grows more animated. “It’s a story about women speaking up, speaking out. I think uncovering stories where women were repressed in such a systemic way is highlighting how history has covered up those successes. We’re not going to do that anymore, world.”
On that note, the conversation veers to her industry’s own 3-year-old reckoning, in the wake of revelations of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual predation. Winslet worked with multiple men who have faced accusations of sexual abuse, including Roman Polanski (Carnage), Woody Allen (Wonder Wheel) and Weinstein himself, on The Reader, but she refused to thank him during her Oscar speech.
Asked whether she can corroborate the accusations against those men or others, Winslet refuses to call out anyone by name but adds, “It was very fucking real. Casting couches existed, yeah. All I can tell you is I was safe. I made sure I was. But this is a different time, and we’re [now] protected by the stories of the brave people who have spoken out, and we have to look after one another, and we will not be disrespected, degraded, marginalized and undermined any fucking more. That’s it. We’re done. Boom!” she says, laughing and slamming the table.
As Winslet sweeps her long blond hair into a ponytail, her neighbor walks into his kitchen, carrying a paper bag filled with groceries. That reminds her to have him call Joe and let him know she’s still on a Zoom call and that everything’s OK.
For the first time in her career, nothing new is imminent in terms of work. The future is too uncertain. Sometime next year, she hopes to star in Ellen Kuras’ untitled film about Vogue cover model turned World War II photojournalist Lee Miller. To keep herself occupied, she’s refashioned her basement laundry room into a mini sound booth to do audio work on an upcoming Black Beauty film for Disney+. She’s also made two recordings for the Calm meditation and sleep app, including a children’s story. “I’m just trying to be present at home, making the most of this family time,” she says of the lockdown.
What is certain is that, in the coming years, she will appear in two of the most anticipated movies of all time: Avatar 2 and 3, playing a character named Ronal. It marks her first time working with performance capture and her second time teaming with Cameron (she shot the films back in 2018 in New Zealand).
“I had to learn how to free-dive to play that role in Avatar, and that was just incredible. My longest breath hold was seven minutes and 14 seconds, like crazy, crazy stuff.” She stops herself, afraid that she’s given away too much on the top-secret project. “Oh no, actually, I can’t. Yeah, I play a water person. I am a water person,” is all she will offer, instead shifting to praise of Cameron.
“It was so wonderful to work with Jim again,” she says of a director known for both his brilliant innovation and his hard-driving personality. “Time has changed him. Jim has become a father a few more times over. He is a calmer person. Chilled. You can just feel him enjoying it more this time.”
In a few weeks, she will return to Mare of Easttown, playing a small-town detective trying to solve a murder and keep her life from spiraling. “Shit, I can’t remember how to play that character,” she says, referring to the titular messy detective, Mare Sheehan. “So I’m slightly panicking and realize that I need to stop drinking rosé and eating potato chips.” All she has to do is remember how to act. If history is any guide, she will.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.