Casually dressed in a gray T-shirt, black pants, and flats, Kate Winslet has just descended from the rooftop deck of the downtown-Manhattan loft that she shares with her husband, film and theater director Sam Mendes, and their two children. The family set up house in a formerly rough neighborhood several years ago, long after the trannies and sex shops had been replaced by art galleries and high-end clothing boutiques. She admits she has just been upstairs indulging in her only known vice—smoking. Winslet, 33, rolls her own cigarettes; she picked up the habit on the set of Sense and Sensibility when she was 19. “I don’t smoke around my kids,” she’s quick to point out. “Like that makes it any better that I smoke at all, because obviously it doesn’t. But I don’t smoke in the house. I mean, I had a cigarette this morning, which is because I hadn’t been. Coffee and a cigarette: bingo!” She pauses. “I’m not sure if I want you to print that,” she says. Then she laughs.
For someone whose résumé includes five Oscar nominations—at 31, she became the youngest actress to have achieved that milestone—Winslet exhibits a refreshing lack of pretension. Hang around her for five days or only five minutes and you get the same woman: unfiltered, frank, sometimes blunt, though her British accent and her musical intonation make her speech, even the way she uses the word “fuck”—and she does use the word a lot, for comma, period, and exclamation point—sound like poetry.
But no movie star—especially a female movie star known for her occasionally Rubenesque figure and one who was also the star of the biggest blockbuster in film history—can be completely unself-conscious. Winslet is well aware she’s the subject of intense scrutiny in both her professional and private lives. “You know why I fear people’s judgment?” she’s asks. “Because I know they’re judging. I know they are.” She talks about walking to school with her kids—Mia, eight, from her first marriage (to Jim Threapleton, an assistant director she met while filming Hideous Kinky, in 1997), and Joe, five, her son with Mendes—and catching looks from the other parents. “You know, these mothers are going to read this article and they’re all absolutely great, but I know when I walk into that classroom in the morning, even if it’s for a split second, at some point I’m being checked out. And some of them will even say to me, ‘O.K., what’s the secret with the skin?’ At which point I’m like, ‘Oh my God, there’s no secret. I have makeup on. And by the way, since I turned 30, I’ve had an acne problem on my chin. I’m just like everybody else—I just know how to cover it. If you’d like me to show you how, I’d be more than happy.’ ”
Her loft is as relaxed, figuratively speaking, as she is. The ceilings are high, yet the rooms are cozy and comfortable. A large, round, well-worn table with perfectly mismatched chairs seems to be the center of things, and every cupboard in the open kitchen is covered with artwork by the two kids. She and Mendes, an accomplished stage director who won an Oscar in 2000 for his first film, American Beauty, have been together for seven years. They met when he, taken by her performance in Iris (2001), wanted to cast her in two plays he was directing at London’s Donmar Warehouse theater (where he was artistic director from 1992 to 2002). Winslet knew she didn’t have space in her schedule to do the plays, but as she puts it (affecting a brogue), “You’re not going to say ‘no’ to meeting with Sam Mendes, are ya now?” She was smitten after their first lunch. “Didn’t want to do the plays, definitely wanted to get his phone number.” It was her good friend Emma Thompson, her Sense and Sensibility co-star, who eventually orchestrated the match. She hosted a casual barbecue and made sure they “happened” to run into each other again. The two were married in 2003, in a ceremony in Anguilla with just three attendees, plus Mia.
When Winslet and Mendes are not working, they split their time between New York and their country house, in the Cotswolds, in England. But the last two years have been particularly busy for both of them. They spent much of 2007 planning and shooting Revolutionary Road, a film directed by Mendes that represents the couple’s first collaboration and also re-unites Winslet on-screen with Leonardo DiCaprio for the first time since Titanic. Then, this past January, with Revolutionary Road in postproduction, Winslet signed on for The Reader alongside Ralph Fiennes. Nicole Kidman had been scheduled to star but dropped out while the film was in pre-production due to her pregnancy. Ironically, Winslet had originally been considered for the part but feared it would conflict with her commitment to Revolutionary Road. Both films have fancy literary pedigrees, not to mention Oscar hopes, but in one of those seemingly mule-headed conflicts that periodically afflict movie schedules, the two pictures will be released within two weeks of each other this December, setting up a potential Winslet-versus-Winslet battle for a best-actress nomination.
Revolutionary Road has long been scheduled for December 26. Worried about having enough time to edit The Reader, which only finished shooting in July, the director, Stephen Daldry, hoped to release his film sometime next year, but producer Harvey Weinstein, whose Weinstein Company is distributing the picture, insisted on putting it out this year, leading to some ugliness in the press between him and Scott Rudin, another of the film’s producers and a producer as well of Revolutionary Road. Eventually the principals settled on a December 12 release for The Reader, though Rudin ultimately decided to take his name off the film. (Depending on which report you read, Weinstein moved the movie up for financial reasons, or Oscar reasons, or both.) Winslet, who wasn’t involved in the machinations, acknowledges that the back-to-back schedule puts some pressure on her, but prefers to view her glass as half full: “How the hell did I get that lucky [to have two compelling roles] in the same 12-month period? It’s really rare and remarkable, and I don’t take that position lightly. It might not happen like that again—I’m well aware of that. You know, the truth is, I’m just going to bloody well make the most of it.”
The Reader, Daldry’s first feature film since The Hours (2002), is based on the controversial 1995 novel by Bernhard Schlink, an Oprah’s Book Club selection about a young boy’s obsession with an older woman in post–World War II Germany; the screenplay is by David Hare, who also adapted The Hours. (With the story spanning almost four decades, Winslet performs much of the part in age makeup.) The Reader was filmed on location in Germany over the course of five months—the longest Winslet has been away from her children, although there were frequent visits on both sides of the Atlantic.
Shot in New York City and Connecticut, Revolutionary Road was the more family-friendly production. It was adapted from Richard Yates’s 1961 cult novel, a meditation on suburban anomie. If Titanic was about the thrill of romantic attraction (at least before the hull hit the iceberg), Revolutionary Road charts a more mature, complex, and fraught relationship. The story involves Frank and April Wheeler, a married couple with two young children, who struggle with the quiet dissolution of their dreams, both as individuals and as a couple. It’s familiar territory for Mendes after American Beauty, and for Winslet too in the wake of Little Children (2006). She read the script, by Justin Haythe (who previously wrote the Robert Redford kidnap drama The Clearing), was moved by it, and thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if Sam directed?” Once he signed on—he had been working with Haythe on an earlier project—Winslet says, her next thought was: “How do we get Leo?”
Winslet and DiCaprio had become friends while shooting Titanic and have remained close. She thought he would be perfect for the role of Yates’s restless but cautious young husband. “I mentioned the script to Leo because we’d always have conversations about interesting things that either one of us has read, and we’ve just consistently done that over the years. When it became much more concrete with Sam’s involvement, the conversations really started with Leo, and then it all happened very quickly: he read it, loved it, said ‘Yes.’ And I’m not kidding you—within three months we were on set and doing it.”
The re-uniting of Hollywood’s most iconic screen couple since Bogart and Bergman gives the film an obvious commercial hook, one that might be especially welcome for an adaptation of a bleak and not that well-known novel. “Leo and I were always aware that if we were going to do something together again that there would be a sense of expectation,” Winslet says. “It was going to have to be the right thing. We could see ourselves playing that married couple. The friendship that we have and the solidity of that was something we would be able to use. There’s an emotional shorthand that Leo and I have and a physical ease because we’ve known each other so long.… Leo and I, you know, are sort of kindred spirits—we’re cut from the same cloth. Both of us just got lucky [at a young age], started working and kind of learned on the job. We’re sort of self-educated actors in a way, and we’ve just been lucky to work with unbelievable directors and actors who have taught us so much. I mean, it’s been spectacular.”
“We both knew if we were to work together again we couldn’t tread on the kind of similar territory as Titanic,” says DiCaprio, via e-mail. “The characters [in Revolutionary Road] were a departure from what we did together before, and we knew we could push each other as actors to get some interesting performances out of each other.” Asked how Winslet approaches a role, he observes: “Her working script is riddled with notes, with different colored bookmarks, every page has detailed reference points for her to infuse into her role. She takes on her characters like a detective might survey a crime scene.” He adds—no ifs, ands, or buts—“Kate is the most talented actress of her generation.”
For his part, Mendes had to navigate a kind of de facto triangle offscreen. “Leo and Kate’s instinctive, almost wordless understanding of each other saved us weeks of work,” the director says. “I encouraged them and wanted them to go off into a corner together. I wanted them to be the unit of the movie—not me and Kate. For me it was a lot about Leo: I wanted him to feel that she and he were on each other’s side and looking out for each other, rather than me and Kate. Because the person who was in the most complicated position in many ways was Leo, because he was there having to be married to, you know, the director’s wife. And also I made a decision very early on, in rehearsals, that I just had to treat Kate as I would treat any other leading actress of her stature. And I had to do it 24 hours a day because otherwise it would be confusing. Because if I came back and started talking as her husband, rather than her director, then it would have been very, very confusing for her, and for me too.”
Marital status notwithstanding, Mendes is passionate on the subject of his lead actress: “I didn’t realize the extent of her absolute dedication—and I know it’s such a corny word to use, but I really didn’t—until I worked with her. I had seen every aspect of her in many ways except the professional side of her and how incredibly focused she is. I mean, she makes me look like a sort of tired slug.” He adds, “I think there’s quite a lot of talented people and there’s very few gifted people, and I think that she genuinely has a gift. I can’t tell you where it comes from, and I’m not sure she can either—and I think that’s probably a good thing—but when she goes into that place, those strange secret rooms that she unlocks to explore these people that she’s playing, it’s sobering for those of us who don’t possess that kind of pure gift.”
After taking the role in The Reader, Winslet had only two months to prepare—an unusually short period for her, and even more so in this case. “It’s a part that is incredibly complicated,” says Stephen Daldry, the director. “Not just in terms of the age span that the character makes, which is huge, and not just because it’s an extraordinary character, but also because she’s performing in the film where the majority of the actors are Germans speaking in English, and she’s English speaking in a German accent, and so the issues of matching accents are crucial to make sure everybody’s in the same world. What she had to do in two months is climb a mountain.”
Of course, even in the best of circumstances, preparation can take an actor only so far. There’s always a leap of faith to be made in front of the camera. Says Winslet (who threw up before shooting one of Revolutionary Road’s most emotionally painful scenes), “I know that in order to do my job as truthfully as I can—because to me that’s everything—you really have to not give a fuck [about what people think]. You have to be prepared to look stupid and you have to be prepared to walk around naked in front of a crew of people you’ve never met before and may never see again. And it is scary.”
Born in Reading, England, into a family of actors, Winslet is the second of four children. As it happens, Mendes was born 10 years earlier in the same small local hospital. “It’s round the corner from where my parents now live, in my grandmother’s old house,” Winslet says, then laughs. “We were fucking born in the same hospital! Every time we have to drive past it, when we go to visit my parents, I can feel myself say, ‘O.K., I’m not going to say it today.’ And Sam can feel me grinning, and he’s like, ‘Go on, say it.’ And I’m like, ‘Mia, Joe … we were born there!’ Every time I have to tell the story.”
At 16, after a couple of years of acting school, she had her first film audition. It was for director Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994). She got the part, playing a schoolgirl involved in an obsessive relationship with a girlfriend that ends in a plot to kill the friend’s mother. Over the next three years Winslet starred in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (1995), Michael Winterbottom’s Jude (1996), and Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996, as Ophelia)—a run that culminated with Titanic, for James Cameron. By the age of 22, she had already been nominated for two Academy Awards—best supporting actress for Sense and Sensibility and best actress for Titanic. Her three subsequent nominations: another best supporting actress, for Iris, and two more best actresses, for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Little Children.
Having accrued so many nominations at such a young age is a record Winslet doesn’t take for granted. (Others in the five-nomination club include Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Susan Sarandon, Glenn Close, and Cate Blanchett.) “I remember when somebody told me [about the record], I did allow myself a serious fist-punching-in-the-air moment,” Winslet says, laughing. “By myself in the apartment, you know, just leaping around and screaming and going, ‘Fuck yeah!’ This wasn’t supposed to happen to somebody like me. I’m not the pedigree kid. I’m not classically trained. I didn’t come from the fancy home, no. My mother had to put her family allowance, the money that she would get from the state for me and my three siblings, she had to put the whole lot towards [acting school] tuition. And my grandmother contributed, and then as I started to get a little bit of work, television and stuff like that, I started to put it straight into my school-tuition bin. I mean, I seriously struggled through, and so for me to be me in this position, having had these nominations—it doesn’t happen that way, you know? It doesn’t.”
Excited and grateful as she was to be nominated each time, Winslet said she always had a feeling she wasn’t going to win. This year she hopes not just to be nominated but also, she freely confesses, to take home some hardware. “Do I want it? You bet your fucking ass I do! I think that people assume that I don’t care or don’t want it or don’t need it or something. It’s hard to be there five times, and I’m only human, you know? But I don’t go home and cry, because we’re all grown-ups here.”
In the past, the actress has served as a notable exception to the rule about Hollywood weight obsessions, her full figure celebrated as proof that not all leading ladies have to be stick-thin to be successful. In Winslet’s teens, her weight fluctuated dramatically; at one point she stood five feet six inches and weighed nearly 200 pounds. But now the baby fat from her early years is gone, and after having two children, her body has settled into itself, giving rise to those beautiful cheekbones and gorgeous curves. (She doesn’t profess to be much of a gym rat. “Everyone can commit to 20 minutes,” she says of working out, “especially if there’s a glass of Chardonnay afterwards.”)
“This is going to sound really weird,” she muses, “but I never had a desire to be famous. I never had huge ambitions—never.… I was fat. I didn’t know any fat famous actresses. I just did not see myself in that world at all, and I’m being very sincere. You know, once a fat kid, always a fat kid. Because you always think that you just look a little bit wrong or a little bit different from everyone else. And I still sort of have that. I often look at women who wear great jeans and high heels and nice little T-shirts wandering around the city and I think, I should make more of an effort. I should look like that. But then I think, They can’t be happy in those heels.”
Happiness for Winslet, outside of work, seems to hinge largely on simple pleasures. “I need to be looked after,” she says. “I’m not talking about diamond rings and nice restaurants and fancy stuff—in fact, that makes me uncomfortable. I didn’t grow up with it and it’s not me, you know. But I need someone to say to me, ‘Shall I run you a bath?’ or ‘Let’s go to the pub, just us.’ I mean, the things that make me happiest in the whole world are going on the occasional picnic, either with my children or with my partner. Big family gatherings, and being able to go to the grocery store—if I can get those things in, I’m doing good.”