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Kate Winslet On The Roles That Scare Her And How 'Titanic' Shaped Her Career

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Next we're going to listen to some of Terry's interview with Kate Winslet recorded in December. Winslet is starring in the new HBO series "Mare Of Easttown" in which she plays a divorced police detective in the Pennsylvania town she grew up in. Here's a clip from the first episode. A neighbor has called the mare after she finds a man peering into her window.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MARE OF EASTTOWN")

KATE WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) Oh, you're here.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I'm here. I want to make sure you knew about this right away, so the community's safe in case the pervert's still on the loose.

WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) Well, next time, you just call the station. Do you have the main number?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I don't remember. But I trust you when I don't know who the station will send over.

WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) I understand, but I'm a detective sergeant, which means I investigate the burglaries and the overdoses and all the really bad crap that goes on around here.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Sounds awful. Maybe you should look into a different line of work.

WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) Here it is, Mrs. Carroll (ph). See this? That's the main station number. All right? That's the one you want. I'll put it right in the center. So you call them - OK? - next time, instead of waking me up.

TERRY GROSS: Winslet started her film career at the age of 17 and became a star three years later with her role in the blockbuster "Titanic." Her other films include "Sense And Sensibility," "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind," "Revolutionary Road" and "The Reader." "Mare Of Easttown" airs Sunday nights at 10.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: You started your movie career in 1994, when you were 17 and made the film "Heavenly Creatures." A lot has changed in the movie industry since then, including, you know, a lot has changed for women. There are more directors and screenwriters. And I think it's fair to say more good roles for women than there were in the '90s, although, you know, "Heavenly Creatures" was a great film and a great role. But I'm wondering if there are things in terms of how men in the industry would treat you or what they would say to you on set or off that you thought, well, that's just the way it is, you know, I'll just kind of, you know, take it and, you know, move on, just like ignore it and move on - that you would feel differently about now that you would, like, say something?

WINSLET: Yeah. Things have changed. Things have changed, need to change more, but I think continuing to at least go in the right direction to the point that I don't think we'll ever go back to the way that it was. Yeah, I mean, without going into specifics of stories, you know, yeah, I would go into an audition room as a young person and would just learn to accept that if the male director felt like reading in the lines of the male actor role in that particular scene and would get a little bit too close for comfort, well, you just knew that that was just the way that it was. But it's not that way now (laughter). It is not that way now at all. And I certainly do feel much safer. And I feel much more looked out for now because there are specific ways in which people are just not allowed to behave anymore.

GROSS: You told a story to Vanity Fair about how - I think it's for the HBO series that you just finished shooting - that for one scene that a young actress in the movie had to do. You - the scene was going to be shot in the car. And it was a love scene, a lesbian love scene. And you stayed in the trunk of the car just to be there for her and make sure that she was, like, respected and treated well during the shooting of that scene. Can you talk about that a little bit? And also, did they know you were in the trunk of the car?

WINSLET: Yeah. So it was a night shoot. And there was a scene between two LGBTQ characters in our story. And one of the characters was played by an Australian actress named Angourie Rice, who's 18 - at the time, was 18, which was - is the same age as my daughter. And I could just sense that she was nervous. And I was worried that she wouldn't have - I don't know - just someone there in her corner. I wanted her to feel supported.

And I also wanted her to know that she could use me as a filter if she didn't feel confident enough to turn to the director and the writer and say, actually, I'm not sure about this or would it be OK if I did this instead? And so I said to her, listen. I would like to stay and just be here for you just in case you need anything at all. There were two camera operators in the car with them, lovely, dignified, respectful people who've been in the industry for years. But still, they were two men. And it was going to be the two of them filming these two young women. And that didn't sit right with me.

And so I said to both these girls, don't you think I should jump in the trunk? And they were like, oh, can you? Could you fit? It would just be lovely to have someone there. And so I did. I just - I sat in the trunk. And I was there for them. And between takes, I'd say, everyone OK? Anyone need water? Do you need me to pass anything along? And then I'd get out of the trunk. And I would go and pass something along to the director and grab some water. And then I'd get back in the trunk and hand them the water. And then we would shoot again.

And it just seemed to work in that particular moment for those actors to have that level of support. And I felt very honored that they wanted me to be there and that it was genuinely helpful to them. And, you know, the most important part for me was that they both knew that actually speaking your mind and being able to say, I'm OK with this and I'm not OK with that, trying to give them the tools with which to do that for themselves, that was very important to be able to sort of pass that along.

GROSS: Do you wish you had somebody like that when you were 17 in "Heavenly Creatures"?

WINSLET: Yes. Yes, I do.

GROSS: What did you need help with then?

WINSLET: I think, first of all, just the confronting nature of being half-naked in front of a crew of people you barely know. Actually, now, what happens more often than not on films, is we have something called intimacy coaches. And so that's where I do wish I had had that person in my corner when I had been 17 years old.

GROSS: You've talked about how, when you were young, you were fat. And you used the word fat to describe how you looked. And you said that when you were young, like in school, it limited the kind of roles you could get. You became known in movies for being, you know, beautiful. So I'm wondering if you felt, like, pressured to look that way in order to have a career?

WINSLET: Look. I think there's huge pressure on women in the public eye. And the film industry, you know, is no exception to that. And I just want to live my life with complete integrity and sincerity and to always be myself and to always be able to look another young actor in the eye and just say, look; people told me I was not going to have a career because I was the wrong shape. I was too fat. I had to lose weight. And look; I did it. I will be saying that to my grave. And even when the odds are stacked against you - I was called blubber, you know?

I had kids lock me in a cupboard and say blubber's blubbing in the cupboard. I was very badly bullied and teased at school. But somehow, I had this inner determination and would - you know, it was hard. It was horrible. I would go home. I would cry. I wouldn't want to go back to school the next day. But I knew that I wanted to be an actress one day. And I just had to push it to one side. I had to push those horrible bullies and those awful feelings to one side and just hang on to my dream. I was even told by an agent when I was much younger that I was only ever going to get the fat girl parts.

GROSS: Have you had to think a lot about, like, what is beauty?

WINSLET: I have had to, yes, think a lot about that. And, I think, when you're younger, when you're a young woman, I think, often, people think beauty is about their face or about their body or about how many boyfriends they have or how many invites on dates they get. And, of course, I've - I really, genuinely - I genuinely did suffer. I am going to use that word, suffer. I suffered a huge deal at the hands of, actually, the British press in terms of how I looked. And just recently, I had to - just for some legal things, I had to go through some old newspaper articles from years ago, from 1998 until 2007, 2008.

And I was so distressed to read how unbelievably brutal and cruel the press were. They would even talk about estimate what I weighed - looking a weighty, you know, 140 pounds. First of all, I didn't know 140 pounds was even weighty (laughter). So - but reading the things that they said, I was so staggered that I had somehow - how had I coped when I was subjected to such, really, truly, unkind, painful, public ridiculing for how I looked. So definitely, the question of what is beautiful had to come into play for me because I had to work hard to ignore this proper cruelty that I was subjected to.

DAVIES: Kate Winslet speaking with Terry Gross recorded last year. Winslet stars in the new HBO miniseries "Mare Of Easttown," which airs Sunday nights at 10. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXADRE DESPLAT'S "TRAINS 2")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're listening to the interview Terry Gross recorded in December with Kate Winslet, who stars in the new HBO miniseries "Mare Of Easttown." It airs Sunday nights at 10.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: So you come from a family of actors, I think, on your mother's side?

WINSLET: Yeah. So it's really interesting. The acting does come more from my mother's side. But my mother herself - and God rest her soul - she was never an actress. My mother was very, very shy and absolutely stayed at home and was a mom and cared for us all. She was also a brilliant chef. And one of my uncles was a chef. So for a time, when we were all at school, she worked for him for a little while. But you're right. The acting did come more from my mother's side. So both her parents were actors. My grandmother actually went to school with Noel Coward when she was younger.

GROSS: Wow.

WINSLET: Yeah. It's a fascinating story. And then she had six children and became more of a mother and less of an actress as time went by. And her husband was an actor as well. And they ran the old Reading Repertory Theatre Company. And, in fact, the theater was in their back garden. So my mom very much grew up with these, you know, mad, loud actors just sort of lashing through the house and rehearsing in the garden. And there was the theater. And so this kind of - I wished I could have seen it. I just would have loved to have just been, you know, a child standing in the hallway, watching all this wonderful sort of creative chaos go on and this artistry and sort of eccentric behavior. I would have absolutely loved it.

But my mom hated it (laughter). She always just hated it, which is interesting because then she went and married my dad, who was one of her brother's friends and was an actor. So my dad was an actor when I was younger and then later on, actually, became more of a musician. He's a jazz singer as well. But then my sisters, Anna and Beth - one's younger, one's older - they both also acted a lot, too. And it's amazing now, you know, to me. My daughter, Mia, who's 20, she's actually acting now as well. And so often in our house, we play kind of old-fashioned drawing games or parlor games. And someone's reaching for a piece of scrap paper. And it is always the back page - the back of a script, always. So I constantly find crazy drawings or games that we've played. And I'm like, oh, my God. That's an old draft of "Eternal Sunshine." OK, we can't leave these in the restaurant.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WINSLET: I'm like, quick, gather up the papers because it's always the back of some very important script.

GROSS: Was your mother baffled that you wanted to go into acting when she so much wanted to avoid it?

WINSLET: You know, I think - to be completely honest, she was always very encouraging and nurturing and supportive. Actually, it was more my dad who had been the out-of-work actor more than the in-work actor through much of my childhood. It was more my father who was very nervous because, of course, he'd spent so much of his life not getting work and having to support a family of four children. You know, my father was also a bricklayer and a postman and a Christmas tree seller. He was much more those things than an actually in-work actor.

So, you know, because of how I speak, it's so often the case that people assume that I'm trained and classically trained. And even when I say I'm really not, I really left school at 16 and I honestly got lucky, people somehow don't quite believe me. But because I speak well, which is because my grandmother did go to a theater school, was taught to speak well - that then sort of filters down through, I think, the mother's bloodline more than the father's quite often. So my mother spoke very well, so then we as children all spoke very well. But we were working-class.

And I never forget actually having a meeting with a director, who shall remain nameless, when I was 16 years old, a working-class Irish filmmaker. And he said to me, he said, oh, you're not working-class. I said, yes, I am. He said, listen to the way you talk. And it gave me such a complex. It made me feel so embarrassed that I spoke well. And it also made me think, well, does that mean, then, that I can't be honest about my roots, about my life, about my childhood and all of those things? And actually, I think it did make me kind of clam up for a while. And I didn't really talk about where I came from because people just simply didn't believe me because I've always - we always spoke well.

GROSS: So you left school when you were 16 because you didn't like school or because you wanted to become a professional actor?

WINSLET: Because I wanted to become an actor but also because I had to get a job. I had to work. My - you know, my parents didn't have any kind of money for college fees or anything like that. I wasn't very intelligent. I wasn't - I also wasn't really very happy in school, like, sitting down and really learning things. I wanted to be out in the world. And so I just imagined that I was going to just do my best and, you know, look in all those newspapers that advertised auditions for theater things. And I would try and audition and get jobs, and then I would work. I would do waitressing, or I would work in a - I don't know. I would work in a shop. And I did all of those things for the first few years. In fact, it wasn't until after "Sense And Sensibility" when I really was then officially able to start truly - I was then making a living from being an actor.

GROSS: How did "Titanic" change your life?

WINSLET: It definitely changed. It changed my private life. My private life suddenly wasn't private at all, and that was something that was very, very hard for me to come to terms with. And it changed my - I mean, it changed my career completely because, of course, what it did, as well as teach me a huge amount - you know, people often forget that "Titanic" was a seven-month shoot. I learned so much about acting, about the process of filmmaking. You know, there's so much to learn, and that takes a long time. And I hadn't been taught it in a school. So I was learning on the fly, really on the fly. And that experience of making that film was rich with wonderful things that I learned.

But it changed my life because it gave me freedom of choice. And that was incredible at the age of 21, 22. But I will be completely honest. I wasn't ready for that level of choice. I wasn't ready for this big, fat career. And so actually, what I did was I shied away from playing big roles in big studio films that had huge budgets because it didn't feel right to me. And people would say to me, you're mad. This is a moment in time that might never come around again. And I would say, yeah, but I like that low-budget film called "Hideous Kinky" that's filming in Marrakesh. And, yeah, but that don't - you know, no one's going to see that. Why would you want to do that?

But somehow I knew that I wasn't - I didn't know enough. I actually didn't feel that I knew enough as an actor to really be able to step into the shoes of sort of film star. Those are two words that I felt deeply uncomfortable with even today. I wanted to be an actress, and I had a lot to learn. And somehow I knew that I had a lot to learn. I didn't want to fake it, and I didn't want to feel under pressure. And also, I didn't want to fail. I wanted to be in a position where I could always say I'm an actress, to be 45 years old, as I am today, and to still be able to say I'm an actress and not to have fizzled out, not to have experienced burnout and not to have given bad performances because I simply didn't know how to do it enough in those days when I was that young. And so I was able to choose smaller things that made me feel a little bit more protected and a little bit more connected to smaller crews of people who I felt safe with and who I could learn from.

GROSS: Kate Winslet, thank you so much for talking with us. It's been a pleasure.

WINSLET: Thank you. Likewise. Thank you very much for having me.

DAVIES: Kate Winslet speaking with Terry Gross recorded last year. Winslet stars in the new HBO miniseries "Mare Of East Town," which airs Sunday nights at 10. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the Swedish film "About Endlessness," which he says strikes an exquisite balance between deadpan humor and acute despair. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEITH JARRETT TRIO'S "WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.