Kate Winslet never tires of playing the strong-willed woman. So many years after establishing herself onscreen with her Titanic success, she’s lived up to that role herself, often eschewing roles that might make her a bigger star in favor of the ones that will challenge her abilities and teach her something about herself and her craft. She’s an actor’s actor, and this month sees her meet one of her most ambitious challenges yet in the title role of HBO‘s five-part original series, Mildred Pierce (premiering March 27), based on the James M. Cain novel of how a single mother’s pathological devotion to her daughter invites her own undoing. We caught up with Winslet — as she started a new project in Paris — to discuss her work and her world since her Academy Award win in 2009.
You had been on voluntary hiatus for a good while. You didn’t start with an easy one, did you?
Kate Winslet: Hands down, it is absolutely, by far, the most demanding production that I have been involved in since Titanic. Without question. By so far, I can’t even tell you.
How did this character resonate for you? What made this the role to get you back in the game?
Personal reasons. Lots of personal reasons and not just those. … You know, I had 22 months out when we started shooting this. And I really was excited by the idea of throwing myself, heart and soul, into something again. Because I hadn’t worked since The Reader, by choice. And I mean, look at the character — what an incredible female role. Playing a woman who is a wife and a mother, becomes a single parent very early on in the piece? It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that there are some similarities between Mildred’s life and my own. And you know, that was all very helpful to me. I’ll be honest — it was. There was a lot going on in my life last year, but I’m very grateful that I had Mildred to focus on during that particular time. Because there were days when I would think, “Oh, my God. How am I going to get through this? What’s going on?” But now I am really just very grateful that it was a part of my life and was just, creatively, incredibly rewarding.
You also seem to be drawn to playing strong-willed women who persevere in difficult circumstances. Is that more a function of the roles you’re offered, or are you simply attracted to those parts?
That’s a bit of a tricky one to answer, in many ways, because subconsciously — listen, if I had a therapist, I’m sure they’d be able to give you a sort of brilliantly succinct answer to that. Much more succinct than the one that I’m about to give you, but I don’t have a therapist, so I’m not so well educated on parts of myself, perhaps. But I think there’s always a subconscious attraction to any character that always has some resonance with one’s own life in some capacity. … But there were things to do with my memories of my own mother that struck me about Mildred. My memories of myself as a child that struck me about not just Mildred, but Veda — not the older Veda, but more the younger Veda, actually. And just that sense of family. There were many things that drew me to this character. But you know, I think just to touch on what you say about playing roles who are defiantly finding a way out of their particular circumstances — how can I say this? … I’m a very positive person. And if ever I’ve had some down moments in my own life, I am always able to say, “It’s going to be fine. Because I’m strong enough. And it will be.” And that’s just it. That’s just a bottom-line fact, for me — the world is not going to end. I am going to get through this. That’s just who I am. That’s just what I do. But also, I’m often really struck by how unfortunate people’s circumstances sometimes are. Men and women. That’s life. That’s where real life happens. Real life doesn’t happen in all the glorious, glowing, happy moments. You know, bits of life absolutely happen there, and that’s incredible, but real life and learning, and learning from mistakes and regret, and needing change and wanting something more, and a sense of adventure, and compassion and determination — that’s life. That’s where life happens.
Mildred is so indulgent of Veda — did you find yourself being more aware and careful about indulging your own children?
I really sort of fight internally with myself and my own beliefs and morals as a parent how I want to raise them. They’re children who sometimes experience very privileged moments. Whether it’s staying in a hotel or traveling first class, those are privileges for any child — for any human being. And I want them to know, in every single one of those moments, that they are fortunate, and that their friends, by and large, don’t get to do things like that. They aren’t indulged. I can tell you that with my hand on my heart — they absolutely are not. And so that’s why, I think, I found it so difficult, really, playing the older Mildred to the older Veda, because there are parenting choices that she makes that I would just never make in a million years.
It would be a shame to play a role and not learn something from it. What did Mildred teach you while working on this project?
One thing that Mildred really did teach me, actually, because we did kind of have to fly by the seat of our pants such a lot of the time, just in terms of how much we actually had to do, it kind of taught me that sometimes being too prepared isn’t a good thing, because then it’s harder to throw literally everything up in the air and see how it feels when it lands. It’s up to the actor to reorder it, put it in the right pattern, fit all the bits into the right boxes and hope that it’s watertight just for the bit that you’re shooting that scene for. And then walk away and do the whole f***ing thing again. It did really teach me — it just kind of refreshed all of that stuff in me. It was so very different, so very, very different from a lot of the things that I’d done for a very long time. An extremely different process.
It [also] really did help me American-dialect-wise. Whenever I do an American dialect, I always feel, “Oh, I’m just a little bit freer again,” “Oh, I’m just a little bit more comfortable again.” Because there’s always that funny thing when you’re from another country and you’re doing a different dialect. When you open your mouth to start shooting a scene on day one, often, you just become really paranoid, and just think, “@#$%! No one said anything about my dialect! All the Americans must think it’s complete @#$%.” I still do that thing of thinking, “Oh, my God, everyone thinks my dialect’s crap.” Four months of just saying more Mildred Pierce words than Kate Winslet words, it certainly made me feel very, very free with the American dialect all over again, which is always just a lovely thing to have. Also, it is a different dialect, too. It’s different from Revolutionary Road, it’s different from Eternal Sunshine. They all have different, sort of, colors to them.
You’re rather, um … exposed in this series, as you often are onscreen. But this time you were with Guy Pearce. Was it any different?
This is not the first time this’ll be written, because I’m going to continue to say it during press. When I was a teenager, I didn’t have pinups or idols or crushes. I didn’t have any of that stuff. Except I did on Guy Pearce. I had a big crush on Guy Pearce, from the age of about 11 to about 15. I even knew, before meeting him, that our birthday was on the same day.
So this was creepy, in a way?
[Laughs] No! It was fantastic! The morning that we were shooting that scene, I just kept running up to him and going [squealing], “I get to kiss Mike from Neighbours!! I get to do a love scene with Mike from Neighbours!! I can’t believe it!” And then my sister was texting me all day, saying, “How’s the love scene going with Mike?” Guy will not mind you writing this. And I have no shame. I have no shame, whatsoever. It was such a thrill to work with this man, because he is an absolute honey, and he’s brilliant!
You picked up an Academy Award in 2009, after numerous nominations. Has that altered life for you in any meaningful way?
To be honest with you, I can safely say it hasn’t really changed anything at all. Which is great, believe me. But the one thing it really has done for me is, just, after having been there so many times and lost — which was always fine — the internal fist-pumping moment? Nothing will ever surpass that feeling. And I still have it. “Yes! I did that! I’m really proud of myself!”
But — I do feel as though if I had won, like, 10 years ago for something else when I was nominated in my early 20s, then maybe it would have made a big difference. I have tremendous admiration for so many of the early-twentysomething actors and actresses that are out there at the moment. I think we’re very, very lucky. But I also feel for them, because it gets bigger all the time. The awards season, and the shows, and the stuff — there’s so much stuff surrounding them. They can’t just do their job. I think it’s rough, and it wasn’t like that when I was — 13, 14 years ago — it wasn’t quite the same. I was able to see the path clearly that I wanted to be on, and I was able to walk down it fairly undisturbed. So I was fortunate — very fortunate.
This is your first role since winning your Academy Award. Some might say it’s an unusual follow-up, doing television — did you have any misgivings about that?
I guess because of how established I was at the point that I had won an Academy Award, turning around and doing a five-hour miniseries for HBO was not going to impact on my career path because of that choice. … Gone are the days where people would have turned around to me and said, “Are you crazy? You’re going to do TV after winning an Academy Award? What is wrong with you?” Gone are those days, because of the age I am, and because of how long I’ve been doing it now. It doesn’t make any difference. Those choices are the choices that I’m fortunate enough to get to make. Because I believe, whether Mildred is a success or is not a success is completely beside the point, because I know and believe in that character and my own reasons for doing it. That’s all that really matters to me, you know, is what I believe and how I feel.
And as we’re talking, you’re in Paris working on something new with Roman Polanski. Are you even allowed to talk about it yet?
I actually probably am not, but I think I can go so far as to say that it’s a way of working that both myself and the other three actors have never experienced before on film. It’s wonderful. And we’re just doing our thing. … It’s God of Carnage. It’s based on a play written by Yasmina Reza, which has been translated and performed in many countries. It’s largely like working on a play, in many ways — which I have not done since I was 18 years old — because the whole thing takes place over an hour and a half, basically, in one apartment, one day. And it’s just the four of us. So you can imagine, it’s just very, very different. A very different way of working. And it’s great.
And now you’re fortunate enough to be working with Steven Soderbergh on Contagion as well.
I’m so lucky to get to work with these people who are all so nice. It’s such a luxury. I’m really happy right now. I’m just feeling very fortunate, you know? I’ve worked with some incredible people in the last few years in particular, and I’m just feeling good and strong. It’s a good place to be, you know?