As well as being a five-time Oscar nominee, Kate Winslet is also a working mother with many of the everyday worries we all recognize.
And she has a refreshingly down-to-earth take on her image â€“ in fact, she’s on a crusade to make women everywhere feel better about their bodies, beginning with her six-year-old daughter
Kate Winslet, firmly established as the leading British screen actress of her generation thanks to five Oscar nominations and a string of film successes, has always striven to retain the image of a down-to-earth working mother, with day-to-day concerns no different from the rest of us.
Life with her director husband of four years, Sam Mendes, and her children Mia, six (by her first husband) and Joe, three, may seem impossibly glamorous, and their homes â€“ a New York apartment and a Cotswold manor house â€“ are certainly a world away from the terraced house in Reading where she grew up.
But still she is at pains to stress that she is one of us.
“I am not a big luxury person. We don’t have seven cars and 25 houses. Or even 25 bedrooms. That would make me feel extremely uncomfortable.”
In interviews, she draws attention to her foibles – saggy boobs, bloated belly, chocolate-cake induced spots – and punctures any remaining vestige of herself as an English rose by swearing like a trooper.
To understand Kate’s frankness, you first have to understand a little of the conflicting forces behind her success. Acting is in her DNA. Her grandparents founded Reading Repertory Theatre, her parents Roger and Sally both acted, as do her sisters Anna and Beth.
Her parents often struggled for work and plugged the long periods of resting with part-time jobs. As Kate saw it, that was how it was for actors, and it was the life she envisaged for herself.
“I didn’t think I was going to do films. To me, film actors were a whole other level. I thought I would do theater and, if I was lucky, get the odd TV part.
“When I was 17 and I did my first film, it was such a shock that I didn’t actually entertain the idea that people might really see it.”
The film was Heavenly Creatures, the compelling true story of the cloistered relationship between two adolescent girls, Juliet and Pauline, who go on to murder Pauline’s mother.
Kate played Juliet and so immersed herself in the role that the director had to remind her, “This isn’t really happening”.
Emma Thompson recognized her ability and recommended her to Ang Lee, who cast them both in Sense and Sensibility. Kate’s depiction of Marianne Dashwood won her her first Oscar nomination at 19 and launched her Hollywood career.
“Basically, I was Emma Thompson’s sister. I’m English, so people assumed I was classically trained, but I didn’t have that. I’m not particularly well read in Shakespeare. I learned through experience.”
What Kate may lack in schooling â€“ she attended Redroofs Theatre School in Maidenhead, and left at 16 â€“ she has more than made up for with passionate involvement in her work.
“Look, you really do need to cast me in this role,” she told Titanic director James Cameron.
“If you don’t, you’re going to regret it.”
She knew she was right for Rose, and the film’s success â€“ it remains the highest grosser in history â€“ confirmed it.
Kate inhabits her characters â€“ so much so that “I’m always sort of sad to say goodbye’. She was particularly attached to Clementine from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: “There was a confidence and a nonchalance about her that I really loved,” she concedes.
Less comfortable to live with was Sarah, the unfaithful wife and mother she portrayed in Little Children.
For the first time, she was playing a character she didn’t instantly adore â€“ an unhappy, complex woman who suffered from that ultimate taboo, a lack of maternal instinct.
In real life, Kate works with a charity that helps women with post-traumatic birth syndrome.
“The syndrome kicks in if a woman has difficulty bonding with her baby and she doesn’t know why.
“More often than not it is related to circumstances surrounding the birth – perhaps they had a doctor or midwife who wasn’t sympathetic, or they had an emergency cesarean or a lengthy labor,” she explains.
During her own second pregnancy, Kate realized that this was what had happened when she had Mia.
“I had a relatively lengthy labor, she was late and I had to have an emergency cesarean. I didn’t have trouble bonding with her, but I did have trouble nursing, and for a really long time I couldn’t talk about her birth without crying.
“When I got pregnant with Joe, I was determined to have him naturally, but in order to do that, I had to get rid of these ghosts.
“I had a wonderful birth counselor who encouraged me to talk about Mia’s birth, and every time I did I cried, but it got me to the point where I was able to realize that I wasn’t a failure and that it wasn’t my fault.”
Kate may exude confidence, “but trust me, the day before shooting begins on anything I do, I always feel that I’m useless and I’m going to get fired and I can’t do it. We all have those moments”.
She has had bouts of desperately low self-esteem.
As a 13-stone teenager, she was known as ‘Blubber’ and was bullied at school; she became anorexic. She remembers arriving in LA at the age of 19, and her stomach rumbling for two days straight ‘because I was so screwed up trying to be thin’.
Since then, however, she has campaigned vehemently against what she calls “stick-insect” culture.
“I realized recently that not one woman I know has ever said to me, ‘You know what, I love my body.’ No one. People always say, ‘I need to try a new diet,’ or ‘I’m too fat’ or ‘I’m too thin.’
“It’s always the negative. I’ve just started subtly telling Mia, ‘I love my belly. You and Joe came out of there. I’m proud of my belly and I’m proud of my hips. I love my body’.
“I want to give something to her that is empowering so that when she comes into her teenage years she feels confident in herself. I’m sure at some point she’ll have a confidence crisis because that is part of life. But I would like to do what I can to soften it.”
The paradox of being a movie star yet also trying to stay “normal” can only be heightened by Kate’s latest role in a glamorous advertising campaign for the LancÃ´me fragrance TrÃ¨sor (her predecessors include Isabella Rossellini and InÃ©s Sastre).
But she approached the task in the only way she knows.
“It felt like an acting role in a way. It didn’t feel that I was being asked to be the face of something. It was about me as a person. They talked to me a lot about my message to women, about being real in who you are.”
LancÃ´me wanted something beautiful and enigmatic â€“ and Kate has delivered, but on her terms.
“I really do think I look normal. And that is the whole point.
“I want people to see that I’m the girl next door. I’m just like everyone else â€“ but with a great hair stylist, great make-up and a fab frock.
“I feel comfortable with the fact that it is putting on a persona. It is two hours of hair and make-up. I don’t wake up looking like that!”
The resulting images, shot by top fashion photographer and film director Peter Lindbergh, are stunning. At first glance, they could be candid photos from a private album. The strand of hair across the forehead; the eyes that gaze intently, then appear lost in thought; the sunlight on a luminous cheek â€“ all hint at the capturing of random moments.
Lindbergh’s brief was to depict Kate as a woman in love. ‘We’ve all been there. Everybody wants to be loved. It is the fundamental feeling that we’re all looking to experience in our lives,’ says Kate. It’s the feeling upon which she has built her career, yet an advertising clip offers none of the cinematic scope she is used to. In a tight time frame, conveying authenticity becomes more, not less, of a challenge.
“It’s about the emotion, and that’s where Peter is such a master,” she explains.
“He captures who people really are â€“ he doesn’t try to change someone with his lens. That is important to me because I like to be myself. I like to be raw and real.”
There was certainly an appealing sense of reality about Kate’s first marriage, to Jim Threapleton, shortly after Titanic shot her to A-list stardom in 1997.
He was a third assistant director on Hideous Kinky (the film adaptation of Esther Freud’s autobiographical novel) and she gloried in his ordinariness; their wedding reception was a decidedly unstarry affair â€“ bangers and mash washed down with beer in the pub.
But within three years, they were divorced, and Kate experienced the swirling vilification of the ‘real’ world â€“ according to the tabloids at least â€“ at first hand.
Weight troubles, marital breakdown, the angst of motherhood â€“ they are the battlefield of millions of women and inadvertently, through her candor, Kate has become, for those women, a champion, the one who says “it’s OK to accept yourself the way you are”.
She could withstand and deflect most criticism, but not the implication that she was a bad mother, because motherhood is so intrinsic to who she has become.
“It’s changed my whole world. It just changes you so completely, it’s beyond comprehension. I remember, after having Mia, thinking I must have wasted so much time.”
“I thought, ‘What on earth did I used to do before this amazing little creature appeared in my life?’
“You give birth and you’re handed this baby, but you’re also given this symbolic golden key to a treasure chest overflowing with emotions that you’ve never felt before. I love being a mother. I completely live for my kids.”
Kate and Sam Mendes met five years ago when he approached her about roles in two plays he was directing.
“I immediately thought, ‘Well, I don’t want to be in the plays.’
“It would have been a huge commitment, and Mia was considerably younger at the time. But I also thought, ‘I’d like you to take my phone number.’ It was one of those very immediate moments.”
Now, at last, they are working together on Revolutionary Road (due for release late next year), an adaptation of a novel about marital life in 1950s American suburbia. Sam is directing, and Kate is starring opposite Leonardo DiCaprio, a decade after Titanic.
“I’m very aware of expectations,” she says.
“And there is also this buzz around it because me and Leo are working together again. Sam said to me, ‘It’s great â€“ it’s a bigger story that you and Leo are working together again (than it is that) you and me are working together for the first time!’
“And it means Sam has been able to concentrate on doing his thing, and we don’t feel that he and I are the ones that are going to be under the microscope. So it feels like a very natural thing we just slid into.”