A woman of substance
Kate Winslet sits down with VCReporter and tells it like it is
By Ivor Davis 03/12/2009
At the comparatively young age of 33, Kate Winslet has a filmography of which actresses twice her age might be proud. At the same time, she’s carved a unique niche for herself separate from almost every other actress of her generation, which guarantees her a continuing stream of first-class work.
At last month’s Academy Awards, millions around the world witnessed Winslet finally getting what she deserved — a best actress Oscar for her role as a tortured woman in The Reader, beating out such luminaries as Meryl Streep and Angelina Jolie. It was the sixth nomination for the talented Brit, who admitted she had first amusingly practiced an acceptance speech 25 years earlier.
In the film, based on Bernard Schlink’s grim l995 novel set in post World War II Germany, she’s an illiterate, tram ticket taker who begins a secret affair with a teenage boy. For her, the real attraction is that after torrid sex (and there is a great deal of male and female nudity in the film), he reads to her.
Ten years later, the young man (first played by David Kross and then Ralph Fiennes) shows up in a courtroom with his law class to observe the trial of a female concentration camp guard. To his horror he discovers that the woman on trial is his former lover, the one who introduced him to love and sex, and with whom he has been obsessed ever since. She is the centerpiece of this major war crimes trial.
Winslet’s performance is remarkable for its self-effacement. While in the early part of the film she shows the kind of emotion-free ruthlessness that makes her subsequent career credible, she also makes us believe that this is a woman who has no idea of the depths to which she has sunk, as well as no real comprehension of the hideousness of the work to which she was ultimately driven by the fact that she was illiterate and could qualify for little else.
Winslet has demonstrated that she can go from the uber-sensitive romantic Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility to a war criminal — and thus deserves the Meryl Streep award for versatility at the very least. Her fragile English side adds a kind of incandescent serenity to films like Jane Austen adaptations or as the mother in Neverland and Ophelia in Hamlet. Her quirky “out there” intelligence can go from the whacky, spaced-out Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to the young genius Iris Murdoch in Iris.
The offspring of show business parents, she’s managed her career deliberately, but somehow without giving the impression of either driving ambition or calculation, and always with a humility that seems unforced.
We caught up with the effervescent actress shortly before she headed home to London, the gold Oscar statuette carefully tucked in her carry-on bag.
VCReporter: How did the part in The Reader come to you?
Winslet: I had read the book seven years ago when I was pregnant with my son, Joe. I read it in a day [and] I'm not a particularly fast reader. I absolutely loved it, of course, was devastated and tremendously moved by the story.
VCR: What took you so long to do it?
I was 27 at the time, never saw myself as Hanna Schmitz. I'm now 33, but 27 and 32 seemed like a big age difference to me. I never thought, "God, wouldn't that be incredible to play Hanna Schmitz one day?" I thought to myself, "Wow, what an amazing role. I wonder who could play that part." I had a list of a few people in my brain.
I'm not telling [Laughs] but I really didn't put myself in that role. So when [director] Stephen Daldry came to me in April 2007 when we were in rehearsal for 'Revolutionary Road' and asked me to play this part I had to really kind of go, 'Hang on a second. Did I just hear you correctly?'
VCR: What changed your mind?
When I read it again, I said, "Hang on, she's my age and I can do it."
But then we were shooting #Revolutionary Road# and the role went away. Then it became Nicole's [Kidman] part. I thought, "Oh, yeah, that's absolutely right. I'd be first in line to see that movie." Then she became pregnant and it came to me. I was just so grateful that I had yet another extraordinary opportunity to play two great roles in the space of less than a year.
VCR: Some say The Reader manages to summon some sympathy for a Nazi?
The actor's job is to understand a character that they're playing and to ultimately love them in order to be able to accept who they are for all their marks and scars and all their crimes even which is certainly the case here with Hanna. I did understand her, yes, absolutely. I knew that it wasn't my responsibility to make an audience sympathize with her and that was not part of this process for me.
VCR: Did a story about a woman having sex with a 15-year-old bother you? Some might call their affair statutory rape.
This is not a story about a woman having sex with a 15-year-old. That boy knows exactly what he's doing, and for a start, Hanna Schmitz thinks he's 17. She's not doing anything wrong. They enter that relationship on absolutely equal footing. Statutory rape? Please don't use that phrase. I do genuinely find it offensive.
VCR: How would you describe it?
This is a beautiful and very genuine love story and that's how I always saw it. I was very moved by how these two people met. This is his first experience of intimacy in that way, and love in that way, and understanding of what love is and can mean, and how deeply it affects the rest of his life. He loved that woman. She wasn't cruel to him. She didn't force him into anything. There's nothing that I believe to be remotely inappropriate or salacious about that relationship. Yes, she's 32. He's 15. But Hanna hasn't experienced these emotions ever in her life. That's why the relationship becomes so dear to her and why she longs for it and yearns for it so many years later. It's what keeps her alive for the 18 years that she spends in prison up to the point of her death. #The Reader# is about a young man's experience of falling in love with somebody who turns out to have made some choices that were unavoidable in her life that resulted in horrific crimes against humanity. He in some way had to deal with the fact that he had loved her and she had loved him. I'm going to stop there.
VCR: Some say #The Reader# manages to summon some sympathy for a Nazi.
The actor's job is to understand a character that they're playing and to ultimately love them in order to be able to accept who they are for all their marks and scars and all their crimes, even, which is certainly the case here with Hanna. I did understand her, yes, absolutely. I knew that it wasn't my responsibility to make an audience sympathize with her and that was not part of this process for me.
VCR: So how did you get into her skin?
I could hope audiences might understand her, and I could also hope that if they did find themselves feeling any empathy towards this woman at all, that would morally make the audience say, "I forgive you." No one wants to say that. But I understood her as a woman. I knew that it would be wrong to humanize her and wrong to give her a very, very warm center. But I did have to make her a real person. The truth is that the Holocaust was started by real people, husbands and uncles and brothers - real people, normal people like us. My goal was to capture the oddness of that, given the backdrop and given her illiteracy and how disconnected and ashamed she is because of her illiteracy. And how lonely she is, too.
VCR: Was #The Reader# the hardest role of your career?
Unbelievably so. It took me a heck of a long time to come out the other side of playing that character. In the case of #Revolutionary Road# as well, but with Hanna I've had to really kind of figure out who the heck I am again because I walked away from that like someone who had walked out of a car crash and somehow survived it.
VCR: Did you identify in any way with Hanna and the way we judge her?
We live in a very judgmental world and it makes me really sad. Wouldn't it be great if we could just simply do what we wanted to do, be ourselves, wear what we wanted to wear and not worry about the exterior and the trappings of life and could literally go and be free. It's hard to do and it's a lot to do with the media's obsession with celebrity, what they're wearing, what they did yesterday, what they're doing tomorrow, etc.
VCR: So how did you get into her skin?
I could hope audiences might understand her and I could also hope that if they did find themselves feeling any empathy towards this woman at all that would morally make the audience say, 'I forgive you.' No one wants to say that. But I understood her as a woman. I knew that it would be wrong to humanize her and wrong to give her a very, very warm center. But I did have to make her a real person. The truth is that the Holocaust was started by real people, husbands and uncles and brothers - real people, normal people like us. My goal was to capture the oddness of that given the backdrop and given her illiteracy and how disconnected and ashamed she is because of her illiteracy. And how lonely she is too.
VCR: Was it love at first sight with your husband?
No way. I first met him at a London theater. He was doing Twelfth Night and Uncle Vanya and he wanted me to be in it. I turned him down flat.
VCR: Does fame intrude in your private life?
We manage. But the public on some level feels like they have a right to know what's the next installment. I think about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who I don't know. They're a sort of walking soap opera, and the public wants to know what's going to happen next. For them, it must be so hard to hang on to any mystery as actors. I'm going wildly off the tack, aren't I?
VCR: How else were you affected by that role?
After the film I went home and lost weight, which was just weird. I was just shattered and felt very sad. Yet every day was an absolute joy as well as being extremely demanding.
VCR: Why are you attracted to such downbeat movies?
I like surprising and challenging myself as a person and as an actress. I like doing things that are completely unpredictable. I like the idea of not shocking people, but just throwing people off, doing something that makes people go, "What? Whoa, she did that? Wow."
VCR: Are you unpredictable in private?
Well I'm a crazy mum who loves my kids. Away from work, I prefer jeans and I've been known to dye my hair and do some pretty eccentric things. People don't get to see that as much. Not long ago, I did a silly thing. At midnight on New Year's Eve, I jumped in a lake completely naked.
VCR: Does your husband get jealous when he sees you working with some of the hottest talents in the business?
Of course not. I'm not a porn star. I'm not actually walking out there and having sex with other people for my job. Sam wants to make sure I'm comfortable and that I feel that being a part of any love scene is absolutely relevant to the story. I've always felt, because I have done a lot of nudity, I'm very fortunate to have really and truly believed in those relationships and those very intimate moments. Nudity in the films that I've been a part of has enhanced the story.
VCR: Where will you put your Oscar?
Next to Sam's Oscar, in our loo. [Bathroom]