At the comparatively young age of 33, Kate Winslet has a filmography of which actors twice her age might be proud. At the same time, she’s carved a unique niche for herself separate from almost every other actress her age, which guarantees her a continuing stream of first-class work.
Today she is a front-runner for the Best Actress Oscar for “The Reader,” which is her sixth nomination. In the film, based on novel set in post-World War II Germany, she plays 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 public courtroom with his law class to observe the trial of women concentration camp guards. To his horror, he discovers that one of the women on trial is his former lover, the woman 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 and 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.
The problem here is that because Winslet is such a gifted actress, audiences will find it hard not to feel some sympathy for this woman who presumably had so little human feeling for the Jewish inmates under her control in the camp.
For her role in the gloomy but superbly acted “Revolutionary Road,” directed by her husband Sam Mendes, she re-teams with her “Titanic” co-star Leonardo Di Caprio. Her performance in this largely overlooked gem is even more nuanced and finely wrought than her work in “The Reader.” She is equally unsympathetic and her performance is entirely without sentimentality. But while the quixotic Hollywood Foreign Press awarded her a Golden Globe Best Actress award for “Revolutionary Road” and a Best Supporting for “The Reader,” Academy voters went only for “The Reader,” directed by Stephen Daldry.
However the Oscars turn out — and she has some pretty stiff competition — one thing is certain: Any actress who can go from the uber-sensitive romantic Marianne Dashwood in “Sense and Sensibility” to a war criminal deserves the Meryl Streep award for versatility, at the very least.
Her fragile, English side adds a kind of incandescent serenity to films from Jane Austen to her Sylvia Llewellyn Davies, the mother of the children who inspired Peter Pan in “Neverland,” to her 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” to the Marquis de Sade’s laundry maid in “Quills” to her 2006 role of the mother trapped in suburbia in “Little Children.”
Her career arc, too, has range, mixing monster commercial successes like “Titanic,” the most successful movie of all time, which took in over $1 billion worldwide — she smilingly calls it, “a small film I did about a boat” — with on-the-edge, indie pictures like “The Reader,” geared to small niche audiences.
After “Titanic,” she turned down “Shakespeare in Love,” which won an Oscar for Gwyneth Paltrow, and “Anna and the King,” which didn’t do much for Jodie Foster. Instead she went off to Morocco to play a ’60s-era hippie mother of two kids in the praised but barely seen 1998 film “Hideous Kinky.”
Child 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.
Married to the English, Jewish director Mendes, (his mother, Valerie, is a children’s book author) she has a son, Joe, with the director, a daughter from a previous marriage and makes her home in England.
We caught up with the effervescent actress one recent weekend when she came to Los Angeles to talk about “The Reader.”
Jewish Journal: How did the part in “The Reader” come to you?
Kate Winslet: I had read the book seven years ago when I was pregnant with my son, Joe. I read it in a day, which is remarkable that I even found time to read something from cover to cover in a day. I’m not a particularly fast reader. So I knew that this was pretty compelling material to have held my attention in literally one sitting. I absolutely loved it of course, was devastated and tremendously moved by the story.
JJ: So what took you so long to make the picture?
KW: At that point I was 27, and I never saw myself as Hanna Schmitz. I’m now 33, but 27 and 32 seemed like a big age difference to me. Not for a second did I think, “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.
KW: I’m not telling [laughs]. But it was lovely to kind of ruminate on the possibility that Hanna Schmitz may come to life one day, 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” — because I’d read this book and I didn’t think that I was right for this role.
JJ: What changed your mind?
KW: I read it again and said, “Hang on, she’s my age. I’m this age now, and I could do this. Could I do this? Yes, I think that I could.” 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. That’s great.” I’d be first in line to see that movie. And then she became pregnant and the role then opened up again for me, and we were able to make it work. 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.
JJ: Did a story about a woman having sex with a 15-year-old bother you, because some might call their affair statutory rape?
KW: 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.
JJ: So how would you describe it?
KW: 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 33. He’s 15. As I say, she thinks he’s 17. 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. She just wants to see his face again. She needs that communication. It’s the thing that feeds her. It’s the thing that 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.
JJ: Won’t some be disturbed by their age difference?
KW: Yes, some will have issues with that. There were 19 years between my grandparents, and I was in a relationship for five years, from the age of 15 to 20, with a man who was 13 years older than me who remains one of the loves of my life. He passed away when I was 20. So I think that we really are coming at this from a different angle. To me, both of these films are love stories essentially — very, very different love stories.
JJ: “Revolutionary Road” is also so tragic, but in a different way.
KW: It’s a fascinating study of the human condition, of a fragmenting marriage and the torment that these two people put themselves through in their efforts to try and find happiness and try and stay together, actually.
JJ: Some have criticized “The Reader” as being one of a number of recent films that have managed to summon some sympathy for a Nazi.
KW: 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.
JJ: So how did you get into her skin?
KW: I could hope audiences might understand her, and I could also hope that if they did find themselves feeling any empathy toward this woman at all that would morally make the audience say, “I forgive you.” No one wants to say, “Oh, I understand.” Of course not, and I’m certainly not saying those things either, because you can’t generalize this. 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. That was very important to me, to capture the oddness of that, given the backdrop and given her illiteracy, and how disconnected she is from society because of her illiteracy, and how ashamed she is about it and how lonely she is, too.
JJ: Was this the hardest role of your career?
KW: Unbelievably so. It’s only recently, in talking about the film, that I’m actually able to sort of deal with it a bit, because we only wrapped last July. 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.
JJ: How else were you affected by that role?
KW: I went home and lost weight, which was just weird. I was just shattered and felt very sort of angsty and sad. So it’s really interesting now for me to talk about it and gain a little bit of perspective actually on what I went through and what we all went through in making this film. It was an incredible experience. Every day was an absolute joy, but it was also extremely demanding.
JJ: Why are you attracted to such downbeat movies?
KW: That’s why I’m here. Yes, I am, very much so, and I don’t even know why sometimes. I suppose that it’s because I like surprising myself most importantly 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. I didn’t think she would do something like that.”
JJ: Can you identify in any way with Hanna — and the way we judge her?
KW: 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. I feel like it’s harder and harder to do that. I think that’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. It’s almost gotten to a point now where the public, I think on some level, feels like they have a right to know what’s the next installment. I mean, I think about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who I don’t know at all, but I think about them and it’s like they’re sort of a walking soap opera, and the public wants to know what’s going to happen next. “Coming soon….” I think 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, but do I feel judged? Yeah, absolutely. The trick is to try and find a way of just ignoring it and not letting the judgment affect one’s sense of self and one’s choices and one’s priorities in life. Luckily enough, I am a strong enough character to be able to hang on to that.
JJ: Does your husband get jealous when he sees you working with some of hottest talents in the business?
KW: 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. It’s part of my job. He doesn’t get jealous in the slightest. It’s really not a big deal. It’s something that, believe me, he’s used to and it really just isn’t [an issue]. He’s always more concerned to make sure that I feel comfortable, whether I feel that being a part of any love scene is absolutely justified and relevant to the story. I’ve always felt, because I have done a lot of nudity, very fortunate to have really and truly believed in those relationships and those very intimate moments, and in every single case I feel that any level of nudity in the films that I’ve been a part of has been absolutely relevant and has actually really enhanced the story. Sam [Mendes] has supported me in all of that and has felt the same way. He encouraged me to take the role.
Ivor Davis writes a column for the New York Times Syndicate and is a former West Coast correspondent for the Times of London.