Look at Kate Winslet’s film credits - a list that includes five Oscar-nominated performances and began when she was 17, with Peter Jackson’s trippy tale of true-life matricide, “Heavenly Creatures” - and you won’t see much that’s light and breezy.
There’s only one romantic comedy in the bunch (2006’s “The Holiday”). There is much tortured, thwarted love, and a fair amount of doom and death. (Glug-glug, there goes “Titanic.”)
And now, just in time for the holidays, comes the British actress in two extremely tough, troubling roles: Hanna Schmitz, a onetime SS guard who initiates a vigorous affair with a 15-year-old boy in post-war Germany, in “The Reader”; and April Wheeler, a 1950s wife and mother trapped in a bum marriage in “Revolutionary Road.”
“The Reader” co-stars Ralph Fiennes (and David Kross as the teen seductee). “Revolutionary Road,” with “Titanic” shipmate Leonardo DiCaprio as the callow spouse, was directed by Winslet’s husband, Sam Mendes, from an adaptation of the Richard Yates novel.
Winslet, 33, did the two projects back-to-back - it’s hard to say which is the more disturbing. Her choices down the years make one wonder whether there’s some serious angst at work. Does Kate sit around smoking cigarettes, pondering the bleak nothingness of it all? (Yes on the cigs, and no on the rest, it turns out.)
“I am asked this question and I always find myself almost struggling to answer it,” says Winslet, sounding spry, on the phone from her adopted hometown, New York. “And I think the truth is I don’t know. I really don’t know why. I don’t have a darkness in my soul - no, I don’t.
“But I am interested in the human condition, and the emotional journeys that we all have to go on in order to figure out who the hell we are. ... It’s the actor’s privilege to be able to play those roles and to try and find out how complex and sometimes messed-up people are.”
Last week, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association announced its nominees for the Golden Globes - the forerunner (and often the forecaster) of the Academy Award nominations. Winslet was named in two categories: best actress in a drama for “Revolutionary Road,” and supporting actress for “The Reader.”
That’s one way to avoid the problem of competing against yourself, but the supporting actress nod does a disservice to her work in “The Reader,” directed by The Hours’” Stephen Daldry. This is a lead role, and a rich, morally tricky one.
With studios strategizing about Oscar campaigns, how is Winslet grappling with the dually lauded - and competitive - performances?
“Look, I’m going to be lucky if I get there at all,” she says about the possibility of a sixth, and perhaps seventh, Oscar nod. (Winslet has never won.) “It is out of my hands. I don’t know how those things work, I really don’t. All I can do is what I would always do when I have a film coming out, which is to support it. But in this case I’m supporting both because they’re coming out within weeks of each other.
“The only issue for me is physically creating the space and the time to be able to give that commitment to both of these films. Yeah, in equal measure. Because I’m not backing a horse at all.”
Commitment is a big deal for Winslet. She grew up in a financially strapped family of actors and artists, and she’s been making her own way since landing that key role in “Heavenly Creatures.” She was Marianne Dashwood in Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility,” Sue Bridehead in Michael Winterbottom’s underappreciated “Jude,” and played Ophelia in Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet.” And then came “Titanic,” James Cameron’s box-office behemoth, a movie that made Winslet and DiCaprio not just A-list stars, but pop-cult icons to boot. Much of Winslet’s career since the 1997 blockbuster has fought against that image: little, eccentric films like “Hideous Kinky” and “Holy Smoke,” lit-based period pieces like “Iris” and “Finding Neverland,” the sublime “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and the profoundly unsettling, sexually superheated “Little Children.”
She and Mendes, the director behind the Oscar-winning “American Beauty,” have been together seven years. Winslet’s 8-year-old daughter, Mia, from a first, short-lived marriage, and Joe, Mendes and Winslet’s son, live together in lower Manhattan, with a country house outside of London.
A few years back, when director Daldry first offered Winslet the job in “The Reader” - based on Bernhard Schlink’s bestselling novel - she had to decline. At that point, the shooting conflicted with “Revolutionary Road’s.” Nicole Kidman was going to be Hanna Schmitz instead.
“But then that became impossible for her because she was having a child,” Winslet explains. “And then, when it came back to me, the schedule had changed and I was able to do it. Fate had worked in my favor - and Nicole’s - in these wonderful ways.”
So Winslet had to wrap her head around the role of an uneducated and emotionally repressed woman who sent Jews to their deaths during World War II, who teaches a curious youth about sex and love, and then falls in love herself.
“I was terrified, because I had nothing of my own life experience that I could use to play Hanna,” Winslet says. “All I knew I could do was ... understand her. You know, she’s an ordinary person, and at the end of the day the Holocaust was created by ordinary people. And I never viewed her as a monster.
“She was a woman who had limited choices in life, and through a choice that she made in becoming an SS guard, she ended up contributing to some of the greatest crimes committed against humanity. And it was very difficult to play that.
“But as I say, I had to understand her, and I had to embrace her. I didn’t necessarily have to sympathize with her. Nor did I have to forgive her.”
As for “Revolutionary Road,” Winslet says that there was no downside to having her husband on board, even if it meant going home at the end of the day and talking shop.
“The only thing that Sam and I had to deal with very early on was - and this was really more for him than for me - was that he realized that I live it and breathe it 24/7. And whilst he knew that about me - because on films I would come home and I would just get the kids to bed and then I would rant until I passed out - he had sort of forgotten that. ... So we’d walk through the door having had an exhausting day of shooting and I would still be going on, and he would say, ‘Babe, babe, let me take my shoes off. Let me have a cup of tea.’
“And I would say, ‘No! I don’t have time for that, I have to say this now. Now now now! Because if I wait to say it tomorrow ... the thought won’t come out the same. And I really want to know what you think right now about this.’”
Winslet had to explain to Mendes that if they weren’t living together she’d still be on the phone, firing questions at him at all hours.
“I had to remind him: ‘Don’t you remember on ‘Jarhead’? Because I was there when Jake (Gyllenhaal) would call you in the evening and you’d talk for two hours on the phone,’” she says. “Even if we were in the middle of a dinner that I’d spent hours cooking, he would take the call. And quite right, too.
“And so I just had to remind him: ‘Sorry, pal. ’ And ultimately, he was very happy that we had that, because it made a big difference to the preparation we could do, the work, the forward thinking that we could do, and the constant debate about April Wheeler and these characters and what was going to happen tomorrow.”