Kate Winslet has been an undeniable talent for over 25 years, dating back to her breakout turn in 1994’s “Heavenly Creatures” from Peter Jackson. This year, she teamed with Francis Lee for his relationship drama “Ammonite” from Neon. Playing Mary Anning, an English fossil collector, dealer, and paleontologist, the Oscar-winner displays new colors of her acting technique, delivering one of her strongest turns opposite Saoirse Ronan.
With seven career Oscar nominations from collaborations with Ang Lee (“Sense and Sensibility”), James Cameron (“Titanic”), Richard Eyre (“Iris”), Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), Todd Field (“Little Children”), Stephen Daldry (“The Reader”) and Danny Boyle (“Steve Jobs”), the 45-year-old actor reflects on her early days in the industry in a candid, no-holds-barred interview.
“You’re getting the most real version of me,” Winslet says from her home kitchen on the south coast of England. “I’ve been doing these Zoom calls for a few hours with the general press, having to be a little bit put together, and all that shit that I can’t stand. I just would much rather be myself.” And that she was.
The British performer also gives fun bits about the upcoming “Avatar” sequels, which reunites her with Cameron, and how she reacted when she heard her name dropped during the final season of the Emmy-winning “Schitt’s Creek.”
How did you get involved with “Ammonite”?
I had seen “God’s Own Country,” which was the first film that Francis Lee had directed. I truly loved that film and was very moved by it. So there was something very striking to me about the quality of Francis’ work and how it really captured that sense of humanity and reality. It also presented a same-sex love story that fell into a more mainstream place within the market than a heterosexual love story could also hold. I knew very little about Mary Anning, and I was overwhelmed by how much admiration I immediately felt for her, given that she never achieved notable success or financial gain from this extraordinary work that she did. Because she was a woman, she never got that notoriety. Francis imagined a version of this window into her world that was so beautiful and so pure.
This upcoming Oscar ceremony year will mark 25 years since you were first nominated in best supporting actress for “Sense and Sensibility.” Do you feel as if you blinked and you’ve gotten to this moment, or has it felt like a very long road?
My 16-year-old, who is obsessed with dates and records, is always telling me things like “the number of nominations that so and so has racked up” and then says, “But Mom, do you know if this happens?” and will start all these names. He tells me stats, and I’m like, “why do you know that?” It’s borderline sinister.
In so many ways, yes, and in many ways, no. I happened to have an amazing memory for dialogue, occasions, and moments. I remember Mira Sorvino because she kept winning everything and I can remember exact conversations I had with people on the set of “Sense and Sensibility.” It was this formative seismic time in my life. When you’re an English actor, there is this assumption, regardless of what you know to be true, that English actors are trained. We were taught to speak well, to act, project, and perform. I am not that. The only reason I speak nicely is that my grandmother on my mother’s side did go to drama school and was taught to speak well.
I’m a working-class scrapper who got fucking lucky. So to be in a situation where I’m auditioning for a film at age 17, let alone cast in the goddamn role, that was not supposed to happen to anyone with a surname that was Winslet. We were grafters who did acting in the back garden and maybe got paid for it sometimes. If you were lucky, it was on stage. When I did “Sensibility” at 19, I was still pinching myself and was convinced for the majority of that shoot that they had got the wrong person when they phoned me. But they didn’t have the heart to tell me because they thought I was a nice girl.
And then to be nominated for an Academy Award. It was the stuff of dreams. Whenever I’ve been to the Academy Awards since then, I still think that it’s the stuff of dreams. I love seeing it happen to other people for the first time. Young people just wide-eyed and completely terrified and thinking, “What the hell, how am I here?” It’s an extraordinary moment.
Let’s talk about “Titanic,” which was your big introduction to the rest of the world, and was at the time, the highest-grossing film ever?
That’s the role really that gave me my career freedom. Lately, I have found myself feeling comfortable saying I was not ready to be famous. I still had hardly been doing it. I didn’t know myself. I didn’t know what I was doing in the world, and I certainly didn’t know Hollywood. I was deeply fearful of it. All of these things that people assumed that I was, I was still grappling with. It’s not something that I feel comfortable necessarily saying out loud very often, but since you paid me a compliment, rather cleverly, I’ll just hand you this one at the top of the interview there. I’ve never been driven by financial gain. I grew up in a world of people who always struggled and were always happy. It was never a contributing factor or a desire to press forward. That was one of the greatest gifts my parents ever gave me — that money does not bring you happiness at all. They raised us in a very unprejudiced, liberal, equal family. I’m so grateful because it meant that after “Titanic,” I was able to look back to that.
I was scared. I did things that made me feel I could cope. I had turned 21 on that shoot, and Leo turned 22. If that were happening now, I can’t imagine the extraordinary pressure because the media are no longer newspapers and magazines. There’s something very terrifying and unknowable about the world of social media and the internet. If someone said something not nice about me, it was gone the next day. It was replaced by some other mean story about somebody else.
Do you feel that you and other celebrities are too often not seen as “real people” with real feelings and insecurities?
Winslet: Yes. I’m glad that you said that because it remains essential for me to tell real stories. As I’m getting older, showing my age, and allowing my age to be a part of the stories that I tell, it’s valuable. Especially now as I go through this process, being five years away from 50. I don’t feel that pressure anymore. The only pressure I ever feel is just to do good work, and that’s a pressure that comes from myself. I have a genuine desire to disappear into characters. And you can’t do that by shoving a bit of dirt under your fingernails and putting on a costume. It’s so much more layered than that, and the stakes are only getting higher. And as my Dad always said to me when I was a young girl, “you’re only as good as your last gig, baby.” I still believe that.
Talk about your time during and surrounding “Iris” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Are those time periods just as clear for you?
Every single film that I have ever been a part of, I could always remember exactly what was happening in my own life at the time. I had just had my daughter Mia, who’s now 20, who is completely amazing and so fucking talented. She was about six months old when I did “Iris,” and actually, her father and I had just separated, so it was a very turbulent, bizarre time. And a very bizarre time to be working through it with a small child, who I was still nursing. I remember thinking, this is the juggle. “Iris” was a wonderful experience because it gave me quite a lot of confidence back. I had lost quite a bit of confidence.
Then I did “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” which was the biggest turning point for me because that was when people stopped seeing me as the “English Rose In a corset” from an industry perspective. People saw that I was capable of other dimensions. I find it quite hard to form an opinion about almost everything I’m in, but I can say that “Eternal Sunshine” is a wonderful film and out of everything I’ve done, has translated best to this generation that is now my children’s ages.
What about Todd Field’s “Little Children,” with one of the finest best actress lineups of the last 30 years?
I remember clinging to Penelope Cruz a lot on the red carpet. I turned 30 either just before that Oscars or towards the end. It was a challenging shoot. We did incredibly long hours. We also had many great New York actors, and I was living in Manhattan at the time. I felt like I had a real New York filmmaking experience. I loved working with Todd Field.
Do you think Todd Field will ever make another movie?
No. I think he’s done. I think he’s just writing and has a rhythm to his life that he really likes. He probably will, but I think not until he’s quite a bit older.
Is there anything you can share about the “Avatar” sequels?
When Jim [James Cameron] asked me if I would do the films with him, I asked him to describe the character. He said, “Well, she’s basically the female leader of a water tribe. And I immediately said, “YES! YES!”
I’m happy with anything to do with water. Then to discover that I had an opportunity to learn how to free dive and breath-hold to play the role. It was incredible. So I trained for about a month and was able to really hold my breath for a very long time.
How long can you hold your breath?
The tank had a lot of people in it. It wouldn’t just be the actors. There are water performers, safety divers, about four or five camera people, and then safety divers for those camera people. And all of those people are also holding their breath. Typically, we might be down for between three and a half and four minutes on any take. But that’s not my longest breath-hold. My longest was seven minutes and 14 seconds. Absolute truth.
What did you think when you heard your name in the final season of “Schitt’s Creek,” when Alexis says she showed up to your wedding a month late. Would you ever be open to acting out a scene with Annie Murphy so it can break the internet?
I definitely would and I completely wet myself when I saw it. I tried to immediately contact Dan Levy to thank him for putting me in my favorite show. I don’t watch a lot of television, and I’m obsessed with “Schitt’s Creek.” I think it’s the only show I watch, along with “Normal People” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” I think those guys are so clever.