Oscar-winning actress dives into her 'Divergent' role with malevolent gusto

No offense to entertainment journalists and film critics, but Kate Winslet doesn’t read what they write about her. It’s nothing personal. And it’s not as if she’s inaccessible. In fact, she’s one of the more engaging interviewees one is likely to encounter: sharp, unguarded, down-to-earth, hilarious in a salty-tongued way. This willful indifference to the media is more an act of preservation than anything else.

“It’s the only way I’ve been able to stay sane in these last 20 years,” says the oft-decorated actress, who’s being honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on March 17.

The sentiment is not a recent affectation. Back in 2007, when she was being honored with a Britannia award from BAFTA/LA and had just garnered her fifth Oscar nomination, the message was the same. “It’s sort of a survival instinct on some level,” she told Variety at the time. “In some way I’m protecting myself against changing the way I do my job. I live and breathe and exist in a world where confidence is everything. I avoid reading reviews in the hope that I’m contributing to my little confidence tank.”

If anything, Winslet’s “confidence tank” should be filled to the brim, since she routinely benefits from the kinds of reviews most actors only dream of. Even when the material doesn’t rise to her level of commitment — such as “Revolutionary Road” (2008) and the more recent “Labor Day,” highly pedigreed films with disappointing receptions — Winslet has managed to escape unscathed.

Regarding “Road,” David Edelstein of New York Magazine wrote: “There isn’t a banal moment in Winslet’s performance — not a gesture, not a word,” before declaring Winslet “the best English-speaking film actress of her generation.” “The performances are superb,” added USA Today’s Claudia Puig in her otherwise lukewarm assessment.

“Labor Day” encountered an even rockier road, having been neglected during the recent awards season almost entirely, save for Winslet’s Golden Globe nomination. The issue for most was credibility in this tale of an agoraphobic divorcee who provides safe harbor for, then falls in love with, an escaped convict, despite the danger to her adolescent son.

And yet Winslet was praised for her “warmth, intelligence and sincerity” by the notoriously thorny Rex Reed of the New York Observer, one of the film’s few champions. “Kate Winslet has such sound and reliable dramatic instincts she very nearly makes something of Adele,” chimed in the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips in his pan of the film.

Her role in the upcoming “Divergent,” the first of a planned trilogy based on Veronica Roth’s bestselling novels, could pose a similar challenge of acceptance. The parallels to another franchise based on popular young-adult fiction set in the dystopian future, “The Hunger Games,” could work for or against the series. The initial film, being released March 21 by “Hunger Games” distributor Lionsgate, will see Winslet play her first true villainness, Jeanine Matthews, leader of the Erudite Faction, an intelligence group at odds with the other factions (Abnegation, Amity, Candor and Dauntless).

“She has grand designs on pretty much taking over the entire factions system in not necessarily the most sound ways,” explains Winslet of her character. “She’s a pretty nasty piece of work. I find myself likening her to sort of a female Hitler.”

The part is not only a departure for Winslet, but a night-and-day about-face from the role she tackled immediately prior, a French landscape gardener at Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV in “A Little Chaos.” Alan Rickman, who directed, also plays the Sun King. The concentrated timetable on the overlapping productions was partly due to the impending birth of Winslet’s third child, which arrived in December.

“It was such a huge jump and I just had to throw myself at it,” Winslet explains about wrapping one movie in England before flying to Chicago for “Divergent.” “Everybody was suddenly cramming everything in before I got too pregnant. I was on set wearing a corset on a Monday, and on a completely different set by the Friday, wearing four-inch heels and a blonde, blunt-cut wig and wanting people dead.”

The new film also marks the first time Winslet will be playing a recurring character, having signed on for at least the second installment, “Insurgent,” which will be released a year down the line. “I feel right about it because by the time I come to do the second one, I won’t have gone away and played another character in between.”

The last time that happened was when Winslet took a hiatus from a TV show, “Get Back,” in her teens to play the homicidal Juliet Hulme in Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures,” her feature debut. “I’d gone off and played a schoolgirl who murdered somebody with a brick in a stocking,” she recalls, “and suddenly coming back playing a slightly chubby 15-year-old with Ray Winstone playing my father in a sitcom — it was like, ‘Whoa, I don’t know who I am anymore.’ ”

The heroine of “Divergent,” Beatrice Prior — the tale’s equivalent of Katnis Everdeen — is played by rising star Shailene Woodley, whose career at this juncture Winslet likens to her own when she starred in the box office behemoth, “Titanic.”

“She’s really such a wonderful, special girl,” says Winslet about Woodley. “And I feel very protective of her and I feel very excited for her as well. There are lots of things that are going to open up for her. And she’s going to know how to make the right choices and she’s going to absolutely navigate (her career) very steadily.”

With an Oscar for “The Reader” (2008), an Emmy for the miniseries “Mildred Pierce” (2011), three SAG awards and two BAFTAs, among several other kudos, Winslet nevertheless keeps raising the bar on her own career. After all, she’s still in her 30s, which is remarkable given the fact that she’s already worked with such directors as Jackson, Ang Lee, Roman Polanski, Todd Haynes, Steven Soderbergh and Jane Campion, to name just a few.

“I suppose the ultimate goal for me is to really keep doing my best and reinventing the wheel and to keep doing this,” she says. “And to never become complacent and to always strive to do better and work harder and think bigger. And when I say ‘think bigger’ I don’t mean in terms of fame; I mean in terms of challenges that I hope I’m able to take on.”

Would that include acting on stage?

“To be honest, things come up often,” she says. “And I end up feeling agonized over turning things down or not being able to make something quite work because I have a family.

“I do yearn for the sort of brutal and raw challenge of theater because I know how much I would love it and I know how much I would get out of it. And I know much it would sort of keep everything awake. But I just can’t do that right now.”

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