TORONTO — Before a reporter has barely entered the room, Kate Winslet has defused any formality. After shedding her heels, she announces her exasperation about actors (especially herself) talking about themselves.
“Don’t you find yourself nodding off and going, ‘Here they go again’?” she asks. “I know that I love my job. I (expletive) hate talking about how much I love my job because how can you talk about that without sounding really indulgent?”
She may be a regular honoree at awards shows and a constant presence in prestigious projects from “Sense and Sensibility” to “The Reader.” But Winslet, who grew up in a large, working-class family outside London, has an uncommon candor and easy uninhibitedness that has made her both an engagingly down-to-earth personality and a naturalistic actress with quick access to deep emotions.
Winslet was seven-months pregnant at an interview last September at the Toronto International Film Festival, where she debuted “Labor Day,” a Jason Reitman-directed drama that opened in theaters Friday. In December, she gave birth to a boy, her third child and first with her third husband, Ned Rocknroll, the nephew of billionaire Richard Branson. (Winslet has a child with each previous husband, Sam Mendes and Jim Threapleton.)
Parenthood was a particularly obvious conversation subject for Winslet, not just because she was pregnant at the time, but because she has recently strung together a series of memorable, varied portraits of motherhood. It’s no coincidence, she says.
“I have been a parent since I was 25,” says the 38-year-old Winslet. “That’s a large chunk of my adult life. Mother or father, it transforms you completely.”
In “Labor Day,” based on the Joyce Maynard novel, she plays a single mom, Adele, with a 13-year-old son (Gattlin Griffith) in a small New England town. An escaped convict (Josh Brolin) upends their domestic life when he kidnaps them and hides out at their house. But it’s not terror that follows: The convict is a gentle, welcome presence in a home that has lacked for a man. Left by her husband after several miscarriages, Adele had turned into a virtual shut-in, but is slowly awakened again by an unlikely love.
It’s a clear career pivot toward drama for Reitman. But he also sees a commonality in a tale of a kind-hearted convict following films about a big-tobacco lobbyist (“Thank You for Smoking”), a pregnant teenager (“Juno”) and a guy who fires people for a living (“Up in the Air”). “These apparently are my heroes,” he says.
Reitman wrote the screenplay from Maynard’s novel with Winslet specifically in mind, and waited a year for her schedule to open up. (He filled the gap with “Young Adult.”)
“I don’t know another actress who knows how to deal with this kind of brokenness and vulnerability and make it so sensual,” says Reitman. “There’re a lot of actresses who can play broken people, but she does it without judging them. She does them and allows them to bloom at the same time.”
Though playing a mother in movies often means being relegated to the outskirts of the drama, Winslet’s characters have had lives that aren’t defined solely by children, but remain passionate, complicated individuals.
In “Little Children,” she played an unhappy stay-at-home suburban mom drawn to a neighborhood father. “Revolutionary Road,” too, dealt with a loveless marriage in the suburbs, with a kid on the way. The play-adaptation “Carnage” presented a pair of Brooklyn parents arguing over their sons’ schoolyard fight, an evening that steadily dissolves into chaos. (The parents are no better, or are perhaps even worse, than the children.)
But the HBO miniseries “Mildred Pierce” was Winslet’s greatest examination of motherhood. She played a striving, Depression-era woman separated from her husband and heartbroken by a spoiled teenager daughter.
“That film kind of almost saved my life,” says Winslet. “It came along at a time when I was going through my divorce with Sam. Anyone who’s been through divorce will know that every day is really hard. There were days on ‘Mildred’ where I would just think, ‘I actually don’t know how I’m going to get through this day.’ Somehow, I think, because the character I was playing was actually my life, it was almost like therapy.”
Winslet’s acting, though, has been fueled by being an outlet from her more humble day-to-day life.
“As an adult and a parent, when I’m not acting, I’m not acting,” says Winslet. “I’m being a parent and I’m on the school run and I’m sowing labels onto socks. That’s what I’m doing. So when I do it, it’s just such a treat. It’s such a privilege and such a pleasure. It’s almost like my time. It’s the one thing I do that’s marked for me.”
For her previous children, Winslet largely cleared out her schedule entirely, deciding when to dive back to work after birth. Now, though, she says she has to carefully plan every film far in advance, scheduling around her kids. Also, the “Titanic” star adds, “I can’t leave it perhaps as much to chance as I was able to in my 20s when I was, I think, much louder and exploding in so many ways.”
She has several films upcoming, including the anticipated young-adult dystopian adventure “Divergent” (she plays the villain) and the Alan Rickman-directed “A Little Chaos,” about a pair of landscape gardeners who compete to create a fountain at Versailles. With family life making her particularly selective, she says she’s especially motivated to avoid anything “workaday”: “I never want to have that feeling,” she says.
“For me, the stakes get higher because I do so little,” says Winslet. “I do absolutely want to feel absolutely stretched and pulled and chewed and spat out and trodden on – all of those things. It’s my big burst of creativity and I want to be able to make the most of those moments.”
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