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Kate Winslet raises every role she takes to an art form

Joe Neumaier
New York Daily News
Kate Winslet stars as "Sarah" and Sadie Goldstein stars as "Lucy" in New Line Cinema's new film, "Little Children."

It's to Winslet's credit that, despite being in movies for a dozen years, her persona is so normal and humane, yet diverse.

NEW YORK - Before Kate Winslet's arrival at a Chelsea bistro recently, a strange occurrence takes place. Suddenly, women on the street seem, from a distance, like they could all be Winslet: The bohemian with the shaggy bangs. That mom wrangling a dog and a baby stroller. The woman bobbing her head as she listens to an iPod.

It's to Winslet's credit that, despite being in movies for a dozen years, her persona is so normal and humane, yet diverse. And when she arrives, the 31-year-old English actress - who has homes in both New York and London - doesn't disappoint. She is all of those things, as well as earthy, smart and friendly. And busy: Within three months, she will have starred in four films. First came last month's political drama "All the King's Men." Then there's the dark contemporary drama "Little Children," out this weekend. Then she's a starring voice - as a punky girl rat in Union Jack hot pants - in November's animated "Flushed Away." And in early December comes the romantic comedy "The Holiday."

"I've always applied the same attitude to things, an impulsive, instinctive reaction," says Winslet over a crumbly croissant. "It's hard to describe, but I often get a sense of absolute certainty - like, 'Yeah, that's the thing I really would want to do.'

"Maybe this is the part of me that's not very business-savvy, but I never think, 'Oh, this or that will be good for me.' Only afterward will it dawn on me, where I say, 'Oh, this is good because I haven't played an everyday American woman as I do in "Little Children," or a modern Englishwoman as I do in "The Holiday."' It's only after I've finished it that I realize something worked out.

"Which is very typical of me in life. I've never been a good planner. I can plan my life and kids and everything, but in terms of work, I've never been good at it. I like the flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants thing. Life is more interesting then."

Those kids - Mia, 6, and Joe, 3, Winslet's family with her husband, film and stage director Sam Mendes ("American Beauty," Broadway's "Cabaret") - have grounded her, she says. But Winslet reveals that even before she first appeared onscreen in Peter Jackson's "Heavenly Creatures" (1994), face covered in cinematic gore and screaming bloody murder, she was pretty matter-of-fact about things. It's all part of being from a middle-class family and the daughter of two working stage actors who valued every paycheck.

"I very clearly recall the moment I wanted to be an actress - I was 5, and sitting on the toilet," she says, nodding at the silliness and remembering. "I actually do most of my best thinking there. Anyway, my mom was in the kitchen and I could hear her cooking and doing things, pots and pans clacking, and I sat there and thought, If this were on television ... people would think what my mom is doing now is very good acting, because she's doing these things but being real.

"And I realized two things: That that's what acting is - being real - and also, that I wanted to do that."

Her first audition for a film, after some English TV, was "Creatures," and Jackson's film about real-life 1950s teen murderesses was a critical success. She followed it with Ang Lee's "Sense and Sensibility" (the 1995 film brought the first of her four Oscar nominations so far) and Kenneth Branagh's 1996 "Hamlet" (as Ophelia). Then she did "Titanic" (1997), but the film's insane popularity didn't really get to her.

"My life did change from 'Titanic,' and for the better in many ways - but I was only 21, and there were some things that were so tough," Winslet says. "I just thank God I never stuck a needle in my arm, or snorted tons of cocaine or was found drunk in a gutter - I never, ever even skimmed the edges of that world. And that's really because of my parents, how they raised me and my two sisters.

"But my life is so drastically different now from what it was then, my day-to-day life. I have my two kids and my marriage, and it feels like it happened to another person, which makes it easier to think through."

She followed "Titanic" with characteristically quirky roles (1998's "Hideous Kinky," where she met her first husband, Jim Threapleton) and 1999's "Holy Smoke." Then came more high-profile roles in quality art films: "Quills" (2000), "Iris" (2001), "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (2004). And her reputation steadily grew, from being the go-to girl for period films to being an overall stamp of quality.

And, apparently, to being someone unafraid of showing a little skin, though Winslet good-naturedly disputes that.

"Oh, I am very much afraid of it!" she says. "But I do feel that the nudity I've been asked to do was absolutely not just necessary, but crucial to the story. And in 'Little Children,' there's something very European about it. Though I do now find myself saying, 'Okay, that is it, no more nudity, I'm done with it! I have two kids, and there's some s- I just can't get away with!'" she laughs. "Time to stop!"

"Little Children," directed by Todd Field ("In the Bedroom"), is getting attention, however, not for Winslet's show of skin, but her show of emotion. The film, a rich, twisted tapestry about life in a Massachusetts suburb and the damaged and desirous souls who live there (played by Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly, Jackie Earle Haley and Noah Emmerich), is already generating talk of another Best Actress nomination for her. It also offered her a chance to play a close-to-the-bone modern woman (she does it again, comedically, as a Londoner who trades homes with L.A.-based Cameron Diaz in "The Holiday.")

"There was so much about this character in 'Little Children' that I related to, but there were parts of her I didn't respect," she says. "I had to accept the things I didn't like about her - her weakness as a parent, for instance - but it was very liberating to just not care about whether I liked her, and to throw myself in.

"And in 'The Holiday,' I kind of didn't like playing a contemporary English person!" she says. "It was a very uncomfortable feeling, because in a period film, you dress a certain way, you speak a certain way; it's a whole different ballgame. It turned out fine, but initially I thought, Damn! I can't hide behind anything. There's no wig, no corset, no dialect. It's just me, me and me!"

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