2007 Jan 08

Kate Winslet vanishes into her roles

Sarah Pierce, the central figure in Little Children is a mess. It goes beyond her uncombed hair, baggy overalls and rat’s-nest purse. She’s a smart woman who has somehow ended up in a dumb life that doesn’t feel like it belongs to her. In this she seems very different from the famously grounded Kate Winslet, who plays her in the Todd Field film of Tom Perrotta’s story of suburbia and its discontents.

Ms. Winslet, whose finely wrought performance has already won her a Golden Globe nomination and could well land her on this year’s Oscar ballot, deliberately rejected a dumb life after Titanic made her a worldwide celebrity at 22. She refused to become a Hollywood cliché, embarking instead on a decade of playing chewy, interesting parts in a series of films ranging from offbeat indies like Hideous Kinky and Holy Smoke to prestige projects like Iris and Quills She was the flaky, bewitching Clementine in Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and the teary, overwrought Ophelia in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet. She has mastered the role of glamorous yet gracious luminary, dolling up for the red carpet and dishing on the talk shows with what appears to be genuine relish.

Stopping for coffee recently in the far-from-glamorous seating area above Balducci’s market on 14th Street in Manhattan, not far from where she lives, Ms. Winslet demonstrated that graciousness immediately, going to fetch the drinks herself and returning with two chocolate truffles in addition. And she confirmed that Sarah, a neglected wife and a disaffected mother, was not an easy fit, especially for an actress who believes “it’s important to learn to love the person that you’re playing”.

Sarah, she said, “has some qualities that I didn’t necessarily respect or like. The way she conducts herself in this sort of lonely life of hers” — having a torrid affair with an equally unhappy stay-at-home father, played by Patrick Wilson — “is not something that at face value I could really understand”.

Having spent this rainy December morning seeing her 3-year-old son through a stomachache, and on her way to pick up her 6-year-old daughter from school, Ms. Winslet said she also had trouble with Sarah’s glaring deficiencies as a parent. And she was thrown by the character’s willingness to stay put in a bad marriage — Ms. Winslet herself quickly bailed out of her first marriage, to James Threapleton, then an assistant director, before settling down three and a half years ago with the director Sam Mendes.

Comparing herself to Sarah, she said: “I cannot sit back and just say, ‘Oh, well, this is my lot’. If I don’t like something, I go off and I fix it. It was really, really hard for me to dampen down those impulses in myself, and to stop myself being frustrated with her.”

But that, as she likes to say, is the job. Having grown up in a theatrical family in England, having wanted to be an actress from the age of 5 and having worked in television as a girl, she talks about acting as if it were bricklaying or dentistry: something you get good at as you do it. The period films she began with — Heavenly Creatures, Sense And Sensibility — taught her how to do research. Titanic taught her how to act in dialect. And she’s done enough nude scenes almost to take them in stride. “Nobody likes walking around naked in front of a stranger, let alone a roomful of strangers”, she said. (It helps that the big sex scene in Little Children is raw rather than pretty, and that she’s not required to be anything other than “my naked 31-year-old self having had two kids”, she said.)

All that on-the-job training, however, has little to do with why a nomination for Little Children would be her fifth. (She’s already the youngest to earn four). She has disappeared not just into the roles she has played in big Oscar contenders but also into everything she’s done: the nerdy code breaker in Enigma (who not surprisingly becomes the love interest when she takes off her glasses); the big-shot reporter who tries to save Kevin Spacey in The Life Of David Gale; the fragile mother befriended by J. M. Barrie in Finding Neverland.

“She really is a natural”, said Susan Hegarty, who worked with Ms. Winslet on her American accent for Titanic and who has been her dialect coach on several subsequent pictures, including Little Children. “She started young, she didn’t go to drama school. She has these brilliant natural impulses”.

But Ms. Winslet isn’t content with being a natural. “I crave knowledge”, she said. “As an actor you can never know enough”.

That attitude endeared her immediately to Mr. Field, whose first feature, In The Bedroom, had loomed large at the Oscars for 2001. He called Ms. Winslet’s agent to say he was interested in having her read for the role of Sarah, but he wanted to meet her first. The agent said, “I’ll get back to you”; minutes later Mr. Field was dispatched to a deserted office building in Santa Monica, Calif., where, he recalled, he found Ms. Winslet sprawled on the floor in jeans surrounded by pages and pages of notes. When he asked what she was doing, she explained that she was working on her part in All The King’s Men: “I just know there’s something I’ve missed here”, she told him.

Speaking by phone from his home in Maine, Mr. Field added that it was February 2005, two days before the Oscars. She had been nominated for Eternal Sunshine, but she wasn’t busy trying on gowns or having her hair done or picking up Oscar freebies. And the things that impressed him in the first minutes of their meeting — her lack of pretense and her work ethic — are, he said, “completely consistent” with the person he came to know making the film.

“In the course of a day”, he said, “I’ve seen her bandage the hand of an electrician and knock out a very difficult speech, and do it all with equal enthusiasm”. Early in the Little Children shoot, he recalled, he was surprised when, turning away from the scene he was setting up, he saw her still on the set instead of in her trailer. When he asked her why, she said, “I don’t want you ever waiting on me”. This, Mr. Field made clear, is not standard behavior for actors. He’s even forgiven her for ignoring his request that she not read Mr. Perrotta’s novel. “It’s hard for someone who’s built like Kate”, he said. “She’s so engaged and interested. She’s like a child with her hand in the cookie jar.”

Among the things Ms. Winslet said she asked Mr. Field to retain from the novel were Sarah’s feet. “Blue toenails!” Ms. Winslet said. “It says so much about how tragic she is. She’s feeling a little bit sexy, she’s trying to make a bit of an effort, and she paints her toenails blue — not pink or silver or even gold. It’s so ’80s, it’s so teenage. It’s so completely without grace”.

Whatever struggles Ms. Winslet may have had with Sarah and her gracelessness, they are not visible on the screen. With irritated glances, heavy posture and dull eyes, Ms. Winslet conveys Sarah’s misery just standing in the playground watching her daughter and the clutch of chattering mothers. As the affair begins to restore her to emotional life, Ms. Winslet’s face flickers with what Ms. Hegarty, the dialogue coach, calls “micro-internal adjustments”. In one sequence that lasts just a few seconds, we watch Sarah’s mood change from jealous to quiet to slightly pleased to out-and-out delighted as she learns that her lover, Brad, has had a really lousy weekend with his wife and young son.

Ms. Winslet’s face is her greatest asset as an actor, and for all her thoroughness in researching roles, in perfecting accents, in getting the right hair and wardrobe and toenails, she seems to know this. “There’s nothing I love more than cutting dialogue”, she said. “Often you can achieve the same effect through looks or gestures or touches. With Sarah and Brad, it’s so much about the space between them”.

And when Ms. Winslet talks about the acting she admires — which she does a lot — it’s usually about what she sees, not about what she hears. Even in her very first moments on screen, as the new girl in school in Peter Jackson’s 1994 Heavenly Creatures, her face, still softened by the last traces of baby fat, is an astonishment. With her blond hair curved in a ’50s pageboy, her blue-gray eyes coolly assessing both her classmates and the impression she’s making on them, Ms. Winslet instantly telegraphs the conceit and the intelligence of her character, whose passionate friendship with another girl will devolve into folie à deux and matricide.

But on rare occasions that marvelously expressive face undermines the story. In Quills, as the saucy laundress who smuggles the Marquis de Sade’s pornographic novels out of the insane asylum where he’s locked up, Ms. Winslet is questioned by the villain of the film, played by Michael Caine. When she claims to know nothing about how the manuscripts are getting out, Mr. Caine spits out: “She’s lying! Look at her face!” So we do. Instead of seeing a liar, we see Ms. Winslet’s limpid eyes, her bountiful mouth, assuring us that every word she speaks is true.

It becomes easy to understand how Mr. Field felt when, once Little Children was done, he took a print to England, where Mr. Mendes and Ms. Winslet have a house, to show his star the movie. Trouble was, he couldn’t quite recognize her. “It was almost disturbing”, he recalled. “I thought: ‘This isn’t Kate Winslet. That’s not what her face looks like. Something’s happened to her. Who is this woman I’m showing the film to?'” He had managed to forget that despite all the evidence to the contrary, the person who had been showing up on the set every day was not actually Sarah Pierce, but someone else — someone who was, in fact, nothing at all like her.

Source: The New York Times