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Kate Winslet, ‘Little Children’

Lead actress contender

You’d think being a parent would have prepared Kate Winslet to play Sarah Pierce, the bored young mother and housewife in Todd Field’s suburban drama “Little Children.” If only.

“It made the experience of playing her much more painful,” says Winslet. “The things that are given to you when you become a parent are so extraordinary and overwhelming, and Sarah was so wrapped up in her own misery, she was completely incapable of seeing how life-changing this child could be.”

Fortunately, Winslet’s range isn’t limited to life experience. In 12 years as a film actress, she’s received Oscar noms for playing an idealistic Englishwoman in “Sense and Sensibility,” a spoiled debutante in “Titanic,” the young Iris Murdoch in “Iris” and a free-spirited neurotic in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

With “Little Children,” Winslet again demonstrates her ability to slip easily between British and Yank roles, as well as between period and contempo settings. Her sensitive performance as Sarah required a feat of empathy as much as acting.

In the film, Sarah’s boredom and curiosity lead her into the arms of a good-looking house husband (Patrick Wilson), a decision that causes her to simultaneously exploit and neglect her young daughter.

Seeing “Little Children” for the first time, Winslet could scarcely believe her own actions.

“Todd screened it for me in London, and I turned to him and said, ‘What the fuck is she doing? She’s out of her mind!'” she says. “For the first time ever, I was forced to play a person with some qualities that I didn’t really understand and didn’t respect. I had to find my own quiet ways of understanding why she was making the decisions she was making.”

Crucial to Winslet’s understanding was her collaborative relationship with Field, who cemented his reputation as an actor’s director with his debut feature, “In the Bedroom.”

Winslet says Field often would call her the night before a shoot and ask her advice about the scenes in question.

“Todd decided I was going to be his partner in crime,” Winslet says, adding that Field’s acting background made him a veritable wellspring of compassion. “He knows how hard some of that stuff is to do. I really love acting, but there are days when I really don’t find it easy. It doesn’t just come to me.”

Most difficult of all were the love scenes with Wilson. Though Winslet has never been shy about doing screen nudity, she doesn’t pretend it’s something she gets used to. More than once, Winslet and Wilson had to find amusing ways to break the tension.

“We’d just get on with it. We’d just be like, ‘Hello, oh, that’s right, we’re fucking today. I’m Kate, by the way.’ You had to laugh, because otherwise you would cry.”

Favorite film of the past five years: “I loved ‘Being Julia.’ Annette (Bening) is just breathtaking.”

Actor who impressed you greatly after working together: “Jackie Earle Haley. When I did that scene with him on the swing set … it’s the first time I have ever been doing off-camera dialogue for somebody and actually crying.”

Next project: “I genuinely don’t know. I think my next project is kids and family.”

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