The Oscar, Emmy-, and Grammy-winning actor details her “most exhilarating filming experience” yet in the woody Allen directed Wonder Wheel
by Matt Scanlon, with reporting by SUSAN HORNIK
In a time of sudden awakening to the apparently systemic sexual abuse that grips Hollywood, during which dozens of women and men have described predatory behavior among directors and other senior studio executives, Kate Winslet’s summing up of disgraced Miramax Films and The Weinstein Company founder Harvery Weinstein said nearly as much about her as it did about him. In detailing to the Los Angeles Times in mid October why she avoided thanking Weinstein for her 2009 Best Actress Oscar win for The Reader (a Miramax film), she described while not accusing him of sexual misconduct his “bullying and nasty” and “disgraceful” behavior. “[Not thanking him] had nothing to do with not being grateful,” she said. “If people aren’t well behaved, why would I thank [them]? The fact that I’m never going to have to deal with Harvey Weinstein again as long as I live is one of the best things that’s ever happened [to me], and I’m sure the feeling is universal,” adding that “I won’t be pushed around or bullied by anyone. I was bullied as a child. Never again.”
While growing up in Reading in the United Kingdom, Winslet recalled during a March talk at the WE Day U.K. event that “I was always comparing myself to others. They called me ‘Blubber;’ they teased me for wanting to act…locked me in the cupboard and would laugh at me. I wasn’t the prettiest, and I was even told that I’d be lucky in my acting if I [settled] for the fat girl parts,” adding that “this unkindness made me feel horrendous.”
Overcoming such treatment left the now 41 year old with undaunted passions for both the craft of acting and self assertion, both fueled in part by watching her parents make their way in difficult professions. Her father, Roger, struggled to find employment as an actor, while her mother, Sally Anne, worked as a waitress and nanny. The young Winslet was propelled by an even deeper family stage presence, however namely her maternal grandparents being both actors and running the Reading Repertory Theatre Company, and uncle Robert Bridges being a thespian fixture in London’s West End theatre district. While attending Redroofs Theatre School, she was cast in a number of its productions, and during time there made her TV debut in Dark Season, a BBC sci fi series. At 19, Winslet was famously one of no fewer than 175 who read for the role of Juliet Hulme in Peter Jackson’s 1994 drama Heavenly Creatures, for which she took home a London Critics Circle Film Award as British Actress of the Year. 1995 brought the role of Marianne Dashwood in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, but it was, of course, a dramatized disaster that launched her into the stratosphere co starring with Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic (1996) and being nominated for a Best Actress in a Leading Role Oscar for her performance as the unsinkable Rose DeWitt Bukater. She’s been a household name since, with 43 TV and cinematic roles under her belt from the memory erased Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) to the quietly frantic April in Revolutionary Road (2008), from the war crimes tribunal defendant Hanna in The Reader (2008) to the clinical and acerbic Joanna in Steve Jobs (2015).
Her latest part, in Woody Allen’s November released Wonder Wheel, was for the Oscar, Grammy, and Emmy Award winner, however, “the single most exhilarating filming experience I’ve ever had.” (The Grammy was for Best Spoken Word Album in 2000 for Children Listen to the Storyteller!, while the Emmy was given in 2011 in the category of Outstanding Lead Actress in a limited Series or a Movie for her performance in the HBO mini series Mildred Pierce.)
One of the largest and most pivotal projects for Amazon’s relatively new film production arm, Wonder Wheel revolves around four characters who live in 1950s era Coney Island. Ginny (Winslet) is a brooding ex actress who now works as a waitress, her husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi), is a hard edged carousel operator; the handsome lifeguard, Mickey (Justin Timberlake), dreams of becoming a writer; and Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty’s long estranged daughter, is now hiding out at her father’s apartment after getting into trouble with city gangsters. Neither comedy nor pure drama, exactly, the script touches on love, passion, and betrayal, with the iconic Coney and its otherworldly stores, sideshows, and rides as a backdrop.
In describing his affinity for such city staging, writer and director Allen, in a press statement, detailed happy memories of going to Coney Island as a child.
“Its heyday was long before I was born, but when I went it was still exciting,” he wrote. “It always impressed me. There were so many colorful people there and so many conflicting and complex activities going on…I thought it would be a provocative atmosphere to set a dramatic story in.”
At an October 6 event at the New York Film Festival (NYFF) entitled “An Evening With Kate Winslet,” the actress spoke of the moment she got the magic call.
“My agent phoned me and said, ‘Woody Allen wants to talk to you, and he’s going to send you a script,’” she recalled. “‘He wants you for the lead, but he wants to talk to you.’ I immediately went into a stage of panic incredible excitement, fear, trepidation, anticipation all those things you’d feel if someone told you Woody Allen was about to phone you up. He said these extraordinary things,” Winslet added, before launching into an impression of Allen saying, “Well I have this script I wrote and I very much thought of you. You’re probably gonna hate it, but if you don’t want to do it, you can go on and have a more fulfilling life.” The latest in an extensive list of complex Allen heroines (most recently Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine and Rachel McAdams in Midnight in Paris), the part of Ginny required.
“I knew I needed a tremendous actress,” said Allen. “There are only a limited number in the English language that are that deep and that great. Kate Winslet is one of them. When we started casting, her name came up quickly.”
At the NYFF event, Winslet described her reaction after reading the script for the first time.
“I just sat there. I was really so stunned by this character and this incredible film that he had written, and I promise you I said out loud, ‘I can’t do that,’ [Ginny] felt so far out of my grasp…so far away. She’s living a life that is so full of…not [really] shattered dreams, but proper mistakes that made a difference to the course of her life…. To play a woman like that, who also drinks and shouts and has a son who lights fires and [who] has a different accent to me…I just thought to myself, ‘Well, I don’t know where to begin.’ And then I looked at myself in the mirror and said, ‘Oh for fuck’s sake, just get your act together. Of course you’ve got to do it. Shut up!’ And so I did.”
In press notes for Wonder Wheel, Winslet offered more detail about tackling the part, including the observation that “[Ginny] demanded so much of me that, in a very strange way, I played second fiddle and she really took over. There are things that are so violently shaky inside of her…the way she thought and functioned was exhausting. It was almost like I was trapped in fight or flight mode. It was like 24hour theatre. I really did feel like I had a battery in me somewhere and had to keep permanently on charge, but still, there’s nothing about the experience of making this film including the fear and the stress of it all that I didn’t like. I loved that feeling of being utterly wrung out, challenged, and bled dry. It was the single most exhilarating filming experience I’ve ever had.”
To recreate mid century Coney Island, of which little remains, Allen and Amazon enlisted the help of Manhattan based Brainstorm Digital (visuals creator for productions like Boardwalk Empire and The Da Vinci Code), which recreated the boardwalk, including vintage rides, buildings, and concessions.
The film’s title, the director explained, is in part a consequence of the iconic Wonder Wheel ride being visible from Ginny’s home, but is also fueled by metaphor.
“As much as Humpty wants to change, as much as Ginny wants to change, they keep going through their same patterns,” Allen said. “It’s a vicious cycle of their lives and their co dependencies, and they can’t break out. It’s probably true that you can extrapolate some kind of symbol for life from any amusement park ride. Either you’re on the Wonder Wheel going inexorably round and round as life turns meaninglessly, or you’re riding a carousel trying to catch that brass ring that you’ll never really get. The view is beautiful from the Wonder Wheel, but you’re going no place. It has an element of romance to it, an element of beauty, but ultimately an element of futility.”
In addition to acting, Winslet is the face of cosmetics and perfume house Lancôme, joined Longines as its “Ambassador of Elegance” in 2010, and has been active in a number of philanthropic and social activist causes over the years, among them PETA and her own Golden Hat Foundation, which, according to its mission statement, raises funds to help people struggling with autism and “to change the way people on the autism spectrum are perceived by shining a light on their abilities and emphasizing their great potential.” She’s also been famously outspoken against the Hollywood conventions of plastic surgery, Botox, and weight shaming, and in 2015 narrated an animated anti cyber bullying film entitled Daisy Chain. She’s married to Richard Branson’s nephew, business man Ned Rocknroll (formerly Ned Abel Smith), with whom she has a son, Bear Blaze Winslet. She also has two other children from previous marriages, and makes her permanent home in Sussex, UK.
In preproduction for a 2019 release and co produced by YLE (Finland’s national public broadcasting company) is the animated family drama series Moominvalley, an adaptation of Tove Jansson’s much loved Moomin books, and for which Winslet will voice the character of Mrs. Fillyjonk. Further on the horizon will be a key role in Avatar 2, written and directed by James Cameron and scheduled for a 2020 release. The follow up to the 2009 original is one of four sequels planned, with a total budget reported to be an astonishing $1 billion.