November 11, 2013 12:19pm PT by Scott Feinberg
'Labor Day' Star Kate Winslet on Defying Expectations, Onscreen and Off (Q&A)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Has anyone ever told you precisely why they decided to cast you?
No, I haven’t ever been told that. But I do remember someone saying that they wanted to find an actress who wasn’t that well known, because the story was so magnificent in its size, they didn’t need to put big stars in those two roles. But I don’t know why they cast me. I mean, I went for it -- I auditioned, and they screen tested me, and they screen tested me some more and I went for it. I loved the part and I loved the script. And the truth is, I knew that it was the biggest thing I’d ever auditioned for and I knew it was a big film, but I didn’t come from the movie world. I wasn’t living in Hollywood; I was living in north London in an apartment with a friend of mine. So in a way, navigating the way after Titanic was hard, and I’d like to think that I handled it in a way that was true to me. On the professional side, I know that I did, with my hand on my heart, because I do remember, suddenly, that yes, I was offered a lot of gigantic films, and I didn’t know really what I was doing. It sounds terrible to say that, but I didn’t like this being suddenly famous thing of being told that I had to be one thing, or another, or be thinner, or be more this or less that. I didn’t feel like myself. And I, thank God, was smart enough to know that I still had a lot to learn and just was not ready to be this great, big, famous person. I remember thinking, “Okay, I need to try and somehow work against this” -- not rebel, not push away, but work against it and stay steady. I’ve never fallen over drunk in a gutter, I’ve never had paparazzi finding me snorting cocaine, I’ve never even been offered cocaine, I’ve never even taken drugs -- and that is really, hand on the heart, the absolute truth. So I felt somehow I navigated a way for myself and managed to not fall apart.
Before you became too closely associated with period pieces and corsets and all of that, you did Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which was completely in the opposite direction ...
I’ve often looked back and consider that experience a real personal turning point, as well as a professional one, because what it did for me as an actor was it exposed me to a whole new -- not just learning, but confidence-building. Because when I do an American accent -- and I love doing accents -- I'm always comfortable. I’m more comfortable playing an American because I’m so comfortable with the process that I go through to play those parts. Weirdly, when I’m playing an English person, I feel like I’ve got nothing to hang on to and it feels a bit strange and exposing. So when I did Eternal Sunshine, I knew it was the type of film where we might end up improvising, and I knew that a lot of it was going to be handheld and I had to be loose, I had to be free. But also, God, what a string of luck that was: It took me right away from that English period-film thing and it put me in the market in the U.S. It just put me right there. And it gave me tremendous opportunity, that film in particular, it really did. And I think from then, I felt very much that I’d be lucky enough to be offered a huge variety of different roles over the years. I’ve always been able to search for something new, and so far, have always found it. You know, I couldn’t honestly tell you that I feel there are characters that I play that have just been the same as another one. They all feel like they’re different to me.
One of the next big milestones that I have to ask you about is when, after five previous nominations, the Academy finally recognized you with an Oscar, for The Reader. (See video here.) What did it mean to you to not only win, but to be presented the award by five past winners and to receive a standing ovation?
It was really funny because we’re actually just moving house, and I honestly just took my Oscar off the shelf in the bathroom, wrapped it in a black sweater and put it in a box. And even as I did so, I thought, “Wow, that is mine.” And whenever I hold it, which is very rare, I do stare at it like a little girl and I think to myself, “My God, this is mine.” I remember watching the Academy Awards when I was a little kid and just being so thrilled by the whole experience and imagining what it must be like to win one, and stand there and make that speech. And so it felt unbelievable. And I think just being nominated that number of times, and almost having gotten to the point of being -- I wasn’t despondent, never despondent. Being nominated for an Academy Award is what it is. It’s being nominated for an Academy Award; f---ing get excited, everybody! It’s like the most amazing thing in the world; it’s so extraordinary. And so I was always truly just amazed to be there. And then, when finally it was the year for The Reader, I do remember walking into that room that night and it felt different. I did think to myself, “Oh, wow, maybe, maybe I’m going to be in with a chance this time.” And people stood up. I remember getting up onto the stage, and it was only when I turned around that I was like, “Wow! My God, people are standing up.” I suddenly felt like Sean Penn, you know? [laughs]
And then came your dad’s whistle. That was great!
Oh, my dad, I know -- my dad’s whistle. That’s the whistle that we heard when we’d all be running up and down the beach as kids on holiday to get us all to come back at the end of the day when it was getting dark.
It seems like you’ve avoided career dips by really carefully plotting your choices of projects.
I guess I was blessed because I came from a family with no money, and I was very happy; we were a really great bunch of people who managed to find fun in a cardboard box, so I was never driven by money or fame. I had that in my belly and I still do. So I was never driven by the wrong thing. So even when, after Titanic, I was offered X, Y, and Z for X, Y, and Z millions of dollars, money was not important to me. Even then, learning was more important. If I wanted to always be an actor, I had to get better. I knew at that stage that I still had a long way to go. I didn’t want to jump in there and be -- it sounds horrible to say this, but you know when Winona Ryder was sort of "that girl" in everything? It was right around then that all of this was happening to me, and I remember thinking, “God, I hope people don’t get bored of that actress because she’s so good, but she seems to be doing a lot.” I just observed it, and I remember thinking, “Ah-ha, I mustn’t do too much.” And I remember Emma Thompson saying to me, “It’s equally as important not to work as it is to work, and don’t you forget that.” And that was a very fortunate friend to have, that I obviously still have. I was set some really remarkable examples of just how to behave when I was younger, by Emma and by people like Hugh Laurie, who was also in Sense and Sensibility. I hadn’t been trained, but suddenly, here I was, surrounded by all these hip, intellectual trained actors. It was f---ing terrifying, but I was smart enough to know that I couldn’t waste this opportunity to learn from them. I still very much feel that way, and I really, really enjoy being able to impart that information to other younger actors along the way, and also being able to say out loud, still truly with my hand on my heart, “I f---ing love this job.” When I turned up on the set of Divergent, they were all wonderful actors who are extremely professional and really full of zest for what they were doing. But I came into the shoot towards the end, and they’d been on it forever -- it was the equivalent of me coming to the end of shooting Titanic -- and they were all really, really tired. And I said, “Well, my God, aren’t we lucky?” And they look at me like I’ve got seven heads, like, "We’re f---ing exhausted." And I can see them all going, “Holy shit, she’s been doing this for 20 years and she’s still saying this stuff?” And later, Shai -- Shailene Woodley -- she actually came to me and said, “Thank God you suddenly showed up and you had this energy that we all just needed because this was so exhausting.” [laughs] I still have that, and that is because I don’t do it all the time.
Do you see any sort of connectivity between the women that you played in Little Children, Revolutionary Road, Mildred Pierce and now Labor Day? Each of them are different, but it seems to me that each of them experience a little bit of depression, midlife crisis and uncertainty about life.
I think you’re absolutely right. There is, sort of, a common thread that runs through all of them, which is that they’re in situations that they are trying to basically find their way out of -- and find themselves at the same time. There’s got to be something on a subconscious level that I relate to that maybe I’m not even aware of. I would certainly say that relationships in my own life, from a young age, have featured very heavily. I’ve always been in a committed, strong relationship, from when I was 16 years old. You know that phase that you’re supposed to go through between the ages of 16 and 25, where you really just date and have fun? I didn’t do that. I was having fun, but I was in lovely relationships -- and sometimes not necessarily so lovely. [laughs] I was a serial monogamist. I just didn’t do the flings and things; I just couldn’t do it because I’m a very determined, committed, passionate person. If I’ve ever been in a situation in my own life that hasn’t been going the way that I had thought it would, I sure as hell wasn’t going to walk away without giving a fight, you know? And so that, I suppose, is what I have done in my own life, and, as a consequence, I’ve ended up playing characters who, in tandem with those periods in my own life, subconsciously, were in something that they were trying to get away from. And also, I’m a real adventurer. I’m not the kind of person who’s going to look at the top of a mountain and go, “Oh, look at that! That’s lovely. That’s lovely, that top of that mountain.” I’m the kind of person who’s going to go, “Oh, my God! That's so lovely! Let’s go climb up it!” And also, my attitude is I don’t live my life with any regrets because, frankly, they’re a waste of time; you learn in the moment and then you just f---ing move on. That is the kind of girl I am. And I’ve never actually -- in spite of your observations -- I’ve never suffered from proper depression of any kind. I really haven’t.
Which is amazing in itself because of the kind of pressure that comes with loss of privacy.
It is, yeah, it is. I mean, when that was taken away, I think in the early days of Titanic -- you know, it’s not like that now. It’s all different now because there’s so much cyber stuff. Thank God that wasn’t around when I was becoming a well-known person. There was no tweeting, there was no Facebooking, none of this stuff -- none of these online comments endlessly, sort of, poisoning people's spirits. I would never have to tweet; if something tweeted up my ass I would never tweet! You know, I don’t have a Facebook account; I wouldn’t go near it. And I just don’t Google myself. And I think that the not caring what people think is very important. Leo has mastered this more than anyone I know. It’s not that he’s sort of brazen like, "I don't give a f--- and I’m going to be rebellious and behave badly." It’s not that. It’s genuinely not caring what people think because he will not allow other people's judgments to have any kind of impact on his life and who he is. And I have really admired that so much in him. I think it’s harder for women to do that in this industry, but I have really learned that from him. I care about my family; I care about doing my job as well as I can; and I care about having fun. Being a fun parent, being a fun person in the world and making the most of all of these, you know, wonderful opportunities that have come my way. I care about the things that are important.
It does seem like the one thing that has consistently brought you the most pleasure is being a mother.
[The conversation is briefly interrupted by someone accidentally picking up the phone.]
And that there was Ned Rocknroll! [laughs]
Could you have played a role like Adele in Labor Day had you not experienced motherhood in your own life?
No, I wouldn’t have thought so. My kids are absolutely my everything. It’s no secret my children do have different fathers and I have been married before now. The funny thing is, even as I say that, I want to laugh because I’m like, "Oh, my God, that’s the shit that I read about other people!" [laughs] That’s the stuff that I read about other people and I think, “Oh, God, where did they go wrong?” I’m so steady that I can’t believe that life dealt me those cards, but life just did, you know? Life just gave me those cards, and I have these two wonderful children. But because they do have different fathers, it means that my desire to have unity, and equality and absolute family -- even though mine, I don’t know, could be deemed unconventional to a certain extent, it’s nothing less of a family, you know? And thank God we live in a world now where some kids have two mommies and some kids have two daddies. I don't particularly know Brad [Pitt] and Angelina [Jolie], but look at their amazing family, and it’s a family. When I did Divergent this year, I had to go to Chicago for three weeks, and I had never, ever, ever gone away to do a job for three weeks. I couldn’t actually bring my daughter. She’s 13 now, and she was like, “Mom, I can’t come.” They very rarely have missed school because of my job; I haven’t dragged them all over the place. I’ll often try and ask a production company, “Oh, can you just wait until Easter? Or, can you just wait until it’s summer? And then we can just all go?” Frankly, I just turn things down if it’s shooting from January to March in South Africa; I mean, forget it. Of course I can’t go. I mean, that’s just the way that it’s been, and it’s really fine. But with Divergent, it was just three weeks and I thought, “Oh, gosh, I wonder if I could pull this off?” And I'm lucky I’m with somebody who looks after all of us, in the sense that he is parenting with me, and so it was absolutely brilliant. I mean, he really stayed with the children; my son came in the middle for a week. But my daughter, she said, “Mom, I can’t. I’ve got a school play. I just can’t miss it.” And she’s a funny one. She doesn’t like missing school. She’s really sweet. It’s adorable. But yeah, that is my absolute everything, yeah. And now I’m having another one!
You’re close, right?
Yeah, not too long to go. But to come back to the question about being a parent -- I think it would’ve been really hard if I didn’t have not just that experience but that instinct as well. When you become a mother, there are instincts that kick into your DNA that just never leave you. I was as protective of Gattlin, just from one actor to another, as I was as an onscreen mother to an onscreen son. I wanted to make sure he was okay, felt comfortable, felt confident. And I understood that a film set can be a wonderful place, but it can also be a really daunting place, especially for a child. And I felt incredibly proud of him and impressed by him every single day. I mean, it took me about four weeks just to get him to call me "Kate" and not "Ms. Kate." Yeah, he was really very special, a very, very special boy.
You're coming up next year on the 20th anniversary of your first film. Do you ever stop and wonder what you might be doing today if you had not become an actor?
I honestly don’t know because there was nothing else that I was interested in and there was nothing else that I could do. I always loved children, so there were definitely moments when I thought, “Wow, if I wasn’t an actor, maybe I would’ve opened my own nursery school or something like that." Something to do with children, I’m pretty convinced. I don’t have a massive business brain; I’m sensible, but I don’t have a business brain. And I’m not one for offices and wearing high heels to work every day -- forget it. It was all about acting, always, it really was.