Kate Winslet has come of age. The down-to-earth British star, one of cinema’s most acclaimed actors and a proud champion of real curves and onscreen nudity, meets life head on.
Basking in the notion of the shining (albeit metaphorical) title “Beacon of nudity” that inspires Hollywood counterparts, Winslet explains: “It means I can keep being curvy and that’s fantastic. It’s wonderful to hear, and I’ll tell you why,” she says, and stops. “Actually, can you hang on a minute while I get my tea?” She’s on the phone from her Manhattan apartment. A minute later a distant voice can be heard: “I’m coming …” After some rustling at the end of the phone, she resumes. “Okay. As I was saying, at the end of the day, on a deeper subconscious level, one of the reasons why I’ve allowed my stupid self to be so naked onscreen is partly because it’s right for the story. But also, I’m sure there’s a part of me that’s been able to go there because I know not many people do it.
“Lastly, and more importantly, I’m a normal person. I look like the people who walk down the street. I don’t have perfect boobs, I don’t have zero cellulite, and if that’s something that makes women feel empowered in any way, shape or form, that’s great.”
It’s partially amusing to hear one of the world’s most glamorous women refer to herself as “normal” looking, and equally disturbing, for obvious reasons. For many of us, the image we see in the mirror remains in a state of arrested development from our adolescence. But with Winslet, whose looks have spawned much discussion and employment opportunities, it’s confounding to hear that her level of self-awareness hasn’t transcended those formative years, either.
Heralded as the pinnacle of natural beauty, her face has adorned beauty campaigns for the likes of Lancôme, and her famous curvy figure has designers salivating over which of their creations she might wear on the red carpet. There’s nothing very “normal” about that.
“Well, I was bullied at school. I was chubby, and teachers liked me. Very good reasons for being bullied, wouldn’t you agree?” she says rhetorically, with a hint of defensiveness. “But it’s part of childhood, isn’t it? It’s part of growing up and these experiences are what shape and mould us. But in those moments when it’s happening, it hurts like hell. I was bullied quite significantly for a large part of my early education. It was terrible at the time, but it definitely made me stronger, that’s for sure.” Those experiences put her in good stead for what was to come many years later.
“So, given that, it’s hilarious to me that anyone considers me in those terms. I’m glamorous but only on red carpets. But even then, it’s always a shock to the system. It’s like: ‘Oh my God, so I have to take off my sweats and squeeze into a dress now? My God.’ It still really takes me by surprise how odd it feels every time.”
Surely, there must be some self-congratulatory inner fistpumping when remembering those horrors of the schoolyard? “Well, yeah,” she relents, giggling. “It is funny. I do look back on those earlier years when people were mean to me. And yes, I allow myself a moment of feeling fairly smug. Like, where are those bullies now?” she laughs. Call it karma, or comeuppance, it’s those gleeful moments in one’s life that are to be savoured.
Raising two kids, including an 11-year-old daughter, she’s cognisant of helping to build a child’s self-esteem. “It starts very young. As a child, I never heard one woman say to me: ‘I love my body.’ Not my mother, my elder sister, my best friend. Not one woman has ever said: ‘I am so proud of my body,’” she says. “So, I make sure I say it to Mia, because a positive physical outlook has to start from a very early age.”
Her climb to the A-list was relatively effortless. She was born into a family of actors, which in itself implies a certain entrée into the theatrical world in which she has thrived. However, her thespian roots, although legitimate, did not guarantee a childhood of privilege and wealth. The second of four children, she was born in Reading, Berkshire. Her maternal grandparents founded and operated the Reading Repertory Theatre, and her uncle appeared in the original West End production of Oliver!.
“I come from a family of very hard-working actors who went through a lot of struggle,” she says. Her mother Sally worked as a barmaid and her father Roger as a swimming pool contractor to support their acting. “So I came into this business thinking: ‘Okay, I’m going to be lucky if I get a job.’ That was the first thing. Then I thought I’d probably do a lot of theatre for no money, and to make ends meet I’d have another job, probably working in delicatessens.” Winslet began studying drama at Redroofs Theatre School at age 11. When she was 12 she landed her first television advertisement, followed by a few roles on British TV. Then her life changed when she was cast in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, opposite Melanie Lynskey. In 1995 she landed the coveted second lead in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility. This would earn Winslet, at the age of 20, her first Bafta, as well as an Academy Award nomination. Two years later, her name would become synonymous with the worldwide phenomenon of Titanic, the highest grossing movie of all time until Avatar in 2010. It would seem that a future spent behind a sandwich counter between sporadic theatre gigs was not to be.
“From Sense and Sensibility, Emma Thompson became my mentor. I don’t think I even realised it at the time but still now I thank her and we’ve always remained close. Can you imagine how grateful I am to have had that so young? I could have turned into a right little shit, especially after Titanic, if I hadn’t been shown by her on the set of Sensibility the way to behave. Even though my family is solid and would have never allowed me to become that way, I was so lucky that she was there as an example to me.”
Now she’s no longer the novice, how does she feel when she sees an ill-behaved, wet-behind-the-ears brat? She laughs. Although an interview with Winslet is largely unfiltered and her words delivered with some expected bawdiness, she restrains herself from specific examples.
“When I come across a young actor who I think might be out of line or getting a little bit too pleased with themselves, I know that I have to really set my good example and set it well. I make sure that they know that kind of shit is not going to go down,” she says, sternly. “I make sure they see that I’m a normal person who has no airs and graces, no extra add-ons. In England, you can’t carry on like a wanker,” she says. “I might be playing the lead but no-one’s trailer is going to be bigger than anyone else’s. No-one is going to have all these stars flopping around them, or need a big entourage. A lot of famous people tend to do that, but I go to work on my own and I don’t need two assistants to help me get there. I count the number of assistants someone has sometimes and think: ‘You fucking wanker.’ I’m the kind of person who’s mortified by that.”
Having met Winslet several times over the years, I find her words ring true. When an actress becomes a movie star, it’s the seemingly insignificant nuances that become jarring. Manners diminish a little and an increased curtness towards assistants and publicists reveals itself, which says a lot about a person. Winslet, however, exhibits the same natural warmth to those around her that is in sync with the manner in which she expresses herself verbally. The last time we met in person, in an Upper East Side hotel in Manhattan, she politely refused to be waited on by a studio publicist. She poured her own tea and offered to do the same for me. It was a pleasant and relatively normal exchange between two women, if one could forget that one of us was an international movie star attracting a herd of paparazzi outside.
Although she’s led a charmed career, like anyone at the top of the proverbial heap she’s been dogged by jealousy and negativity. The British press accused her of being “too emotional” and “embarrassing” in her acceptance speeches at the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards in 2009 when she won the best actress Oscar and Golden Globe for The Reader and best supporting actress Golden Globe for Revolutionary Road. At the time, she lamented she’d wished her compatriots were as pleased for her as the rest of the world.
Humility invariably comes easily to those who have been publicly chastised. “In the British media … rather than saying: ‘Well done!’ they’ll say: ‘Oh really? If you think you’re so special, then prove it.’ That’s the attitude. When someone gets a bit of a bashing in a fairly public way, it’s not easy. Now I just don’t read anything,” she says. “I would have had a hard time being as famous as I became through Titanic at the age of 21 if I was that famous at 21 now.”
Her personal life has not run quite as smoothly as she may have wished. She was married to director Jim Threapleton, whom she met on the set of Hideous Kinky in 1997. She gave birth to their daughter, Mia, in 2000, and the couple divorced in 2001. She then married director Sam Mendes in 2003. They had a son, Joe, the same year, then separated in 2010. Since then, there was a brief fling with Burberry model Louis Dowler, and she is currently in a relationship with Richard Branson’s nephew, Ned Rocknroll. Love, marriage, divorce and re-entering the dating world is a messy business. As a mother of two, she’s understandably reticent about this part of her life. Taking a breath, she offers: “It doesn’t matter if you’re a successful individual or not, you’re still a human being. And, it’s tough.” She pauses. “But, I think, I’m not going to talk about any of it,” she says, adding. “Sorry.” Headstrong, intelligent and a woman not to be messed with. We move on.
In Carnage, directed by Roman Polanski and based on Yasmina Reza’s Tony Award-winning play God of Carnage, Winslet stars with Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly playing two couples who meet to discuss their young sons’ fight in the school playground. Is governing playground disputes familiar territory? “Well, yes. I do have two kids and sometimes I might have to phone so-and-so’s mum because Mia or Joe came home and so-and- so had hurt their feelings. But I’m not the kind of parent who jumps down the next parent’s neck and says: ‘My kids are perfect. Yours is an arsehole.’ I really do feel kids should work it out on their own, especially when they’re 10 or 11 years old. Other than if a child has caused the other some significant bodily harm. Then yes, I’m pretty sure I’d step in and have quite a lot to say about it.”
The film is simultaneously shocking and amusing due to some questionable behaviour from the parents. “Yes,” she agrees. “We’re allowed to laugh at that. I find school playground politics quite funny. You have to get along with the other parents because your child goes to school with theirs. Often you find yourself having conversations or striking up a friendship with people whom you wouldn’t ordinarily have even a reason to talk to, so there’s a certain air of something being slightly phony, sometimes,” she laughs. “That, I find so damn funny. I really do.”
By the age of 33, Winslet was the youngest actor to have earned six Oscar nominations (Sense and Sensibility,Titanic, Iris, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Little Children, The Reader). She’s even won a Grammy in 2000 for best spoken word album for children for Listen to the Storyteller. “The Meryl Streep of her generation” is a phrase often used to describe Winslet due to her versatility and knack for vocal mimicry. In fact, so flawless are her American accents that many in Hollywood have forgotten that the woman taking many of their plum roles is, in fact, British. In another quintessential American role, last year she won an Emmy and this year, a Golden Globe for her portrayal of the titular character in the TV miniseries Mildred Pierce, set in the Great Depression.
“I’ve heard the Meryl Streep comparison about Cate Blanchett, and I believe it to be absolutely correct and an extremely adequate thing to say about Cate. I don’t see myself in that same way at all, but one thing I would say is that I feel that right now, being 36, I feel like I’m part of a really fortunate generation of actresses.
“We have great women to look up to, women we’ve admired for years, like Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Susan Sarandon. We’ve had all these glorious women who haven’t … adjusted themselves, who are still giving incredible, admirable, powerful performances,” she says.
Presumably, the names that she’s referring to are the relatively few women who haven’t “adjusted” their faces with plastic surgery. “Yes. I don’t know how to say it without possibly saying something that might get picked up and make me sound like I’m being an arsehole … but I don’t know how else to say it, really. I think I’ve got a fairly good eye, and to me, they don’t appear to have paralysed any part of their face, should we say. I think it’s important not to do that.”
In fact, there’s a growing number of Hollywood actresses whom directors refuse to hire due to their otherworldly appearance. “That’s interesting. I wasn’t really aware of that. God, if that’s the case, then yeah, the tide really is turning.”
Outspoken about the business of ageing, she declares: “I couldn’t give a shit about getting older. I’m much less self-conscious and more accepting of myself nowadays. I think confidence comes with time, and I’ve been surprised by that.
“I remember being 21 years old, imagining that at 36 my tits would be around my knees, I’d have bad hair and terrible teeth. And when you are younger, your 30s seem really old. But I’m fitter and more comfortable in my own skin now than I’ve ever been. So I think that’s definitely something that comes with age. And, of course, it’s easy for me to say those things. I have this lovely career and two beautiful children, and I get all that,” she says.
Winslet leads an examined life and one in which the lessons are not lost on her. “As a woman, I think hanging on to your sense of self in spite of having children, in spite of going through a lot of fairly big things in my personal life, I’m just like anyone else, and lots of us have been there. I think having emerged from some of those times feeling genuinely good and strong is something you might not imagine you’re going to feel more of as you get older,” she says. “But for me, I am feeling it more, most definitely.”