Kate Winslet on Going Big With ‘The Regime,’ Those ‘Stupid’ James Cameron Feud Rumors and Getting ‘Beaten Up’ by Body-Shamers: ‘This S— Went on for Years’

Kate Winslet
Photographs By Zoe McConnell

In 2022, Kate Winslet went to the London home of director Stephen Frears to discuss HBO’s political satire “The Regime.”

She’d been cast in the role of Elena Vernham, a narcissistic European autocrat, and Frears had been pinpointed by the production as a potential director.

“I was offered a cup of tea, which I then ended up making myself because he clearly had no intention of making the tea for me at all,” Winslet says. “In fact, he didn’t even seem to know where the cups were.” (The British use the phrase “Shall I be mother?” when offering to be in charge of the kettle at teatime, and Winslet, a mother of three, has some experience there.) Over the tea and some chocolate biscuits, she asked the director how he believed Elena should be played.

“He said to me, ‘Well, it needs to be quite high,’” Winslet recalls. “And I didn’t have a fucking clue what he meant. And as I walked away, I realized I totally knew. It was his way of saying, ‘Go big or go home.’”

Mission accomplished: In the limited series “The Regime,” the actress’s third collaboration with HBO (after 2011’s “Mildred Pierce” and 2021’s “Mare of Easttown”), Winslet deploys a lisp, a blocky way of moving and a racing mind.

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Elena, who can’t live up to her late autocratic father’s outsized reputation, has restructured her national government around her neuroses. The series tracks her attempts to grow her power in the face of mass discontent, which she incrementally brings upon herself with blunder after blunder. It’s a character drama with jokes, or a satire with global stakes — a tricky juggling act to keep aloft. The show received respectful notices but found only a small audience, and should Winslet end up an Emmy nominee, more may discover a star turn that is risky and daring. Her Elena is charming and vile — you see why some of her countrymen have fallen for her act and why to others she’s a threat to be overthrown.

And Elena is emotionally fragile — she relies on a body man turned Svengali (Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts) to run her life for her, even as she projects supreme confidence to subjects and rivals. Winslet perceives Elena as haunted by her childhood, and the actress prepared obsessively with that in mind, including speaking to a psychotherapist and a neurologist about the after-effects of trauma. And then she let it go.

“All the homework and the prep is just so I can cut myself a bunch of slack,” Winslet says. “It means I’ll always have the robust trampoline to come back and bounce on, and it’s not going to rip or give way, and I’m not going to show the universe my undergarments.”

Frears — who has directed his share of leading ladies in films from “Dangerous Liaisons” to “The Queen” — draws a distinction between reliance on training and the sort of instinct that fuels Winslet. “If you were to ask me about Annette Bening or Glenn Close or Judi Dench or Helen Mirren, they’re all highly trained theatrical actresses,” he says. “They know how to do it. They’re very, very skillful. Kate just sort of does it on willpower. She just jumps, and she’s not wearing a parachute.”

James Cameron, her director on “Titanic” — the movie that made Winslet a superstar in her early 20s — agrees. He’d resisted casting her, noting that her nickname, as a frequent star of period literary adaptations like “Sense and Sensibility,” “Jude” and “Hamlet,” was Corset Kate. “It seemed like lazy casting,” he says — it was almost too apt a choice. “But then wiser heads prevailed, and I could see what everybody was talking about. She’s very alive. She comes into a room with a great deal of confidence, and she’s got that spark of life.”

Elena is only the latest meaty role for a performer who’s found great success in playing things quite high. Winslet’s last TV show wasn’t satirical like “The Regime” — its jokes were mainly biting — but was big, bold and messily human. “Mare of Easttown” captivated viewers and became a massive hit as the world haltingly reopened in early 2021; eventually, Winslet won the second of her two limited-series acting Emmys. (As with “The Regime,” Winslet was an executive producer of “Mare of Easttown.”) The character, Mare Sheehan, a dogged cop in the throes of grief over the death of her son as she tries to crack a pernicious case, combined roughness with big-hearted, sloppy humanity. “You just wanted to cozy up on the couch with her and watch some shit TV and eat cheese balls,” Winslet says. “It was probably quite nice for audiences to see an actress typically known for being a leading lady in films become completely undone. Playing her was like that: I felt refreshed and rejuvenated by how disgusting she was every single day. And she was warm and funny, and her ability to see everyone was fucking gorgeous.”

So much so that there’s been some mixture of anticipation, speculation and hope among the viewing public that Mare could return. Would she ever play the character again? “Probably,” she says after a substantial pause and an audible sigh. It’s a difficult decision, as the character represents a moment in time — Winslet calls her “the Vera Lynn of the pandemic,” referring to the singer whose “We’ll Meet Again” buoyed spirits during World War II.

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Winslet has been plainspoken throughout our conversation, but whimsically erudite too; now, her tone is suddenly direct. She’s not interested in going further: “Move on.”

But HBO, at least, isn’t willing to: After Winslet and “Mare” castmates Evan Peters and Julianne Nicholson won Emmys, “we did run to have discussions about a Season 2,” says Francesca Orsi, the network’s head of drama. “But it did feel too soon.” Now, though, “while there’s nothing in the works, we are having early discussions about whether it might be time to start thinking of building something. We might be willing to figure out with Mare, years later, picking her up — not on the heels of where she ended, but there have been years for the character that have passed. Who is she now?” Orsi plans to speak with Winslet as well as series creator Brad Ingelsby and EP Mark Roybal “and see if there’s any viability to everyone saying yes again.”

The notion of Mare facing new conflicts and challenges in a different season of her life certainly holds appeal — and if there’s one thing Winslet knows how to do, it’s convey the passage of time. The question Orsi posed about Mare rings true for Winslet, a mutable actress for whom transformation is the goal: Who is she now?

Winslet views her career as a series of turning points, ones that, in a May Zoom conversation from her home in rural England (periodically interrupted by her youngest son, 10-year-old Bear, in search of snacks and cuddles), she happily lists off. There’s “Titanic,” “for all the obvious reasons.” Then there’s the 2006 Todd Field crisis-in-suburbia drama “Little Children,” on which Field solicited her creative input. “He made me feel that I was able to contribute in a grown-up, more educated way about the world of film.” Then 2008’s “The Reader,” her Oscar-winning role as a woman who’d been a guard at a Nazi concentration camp: “It was the first time I had worked with a director who could be openly nervous and vulnerable. Stephen Daldry would say, ‘Why are you looking at me? I haven’t got a fucking clue how you’re going to play it either. We’ll do it together.’”

“She goes through a huge amount of prep, finding the accent or voice for the character, which is painstaking,” says Daldry. “She’ll do all sorts of physical work, where the center of gravity of the character is. She comes with a lot, but it never feels like a preprepared dinner. It feels like you’re cooking together.”

Another turning point was Roman Polanski’s 2011 bougie-parents-at-war comedy “Carnage,” because she got to work with Jodie Foster, who’d been her childhood idol. She’d marveled that a kid could be in movies — it seemed impossible. Growing up, Winslet had been locked into the idea that she could not be a screen actor because her training, though not extensive, had been for stage acting. Now she looks back with a sort of surprise at how she’d been holding herself back.

“I don’t believe that ‘I’m this kind of person’ chat. It’s like people who say, ‘I’m not really a morning person.’ It just irritates me. It’s like, ‘Well, you’ve decided that about yourself. But maybe you are — and you could be missing the most phenomenal sunrise by choosing not to be a morning person.’”

Winslet has had the experience of rejecting an image of herself at least once in her career: Already a respected performer and an Oscar nominee for “Sense and Sensibility” when she filmed “Titanic,” she emerged from that movie — at the time, the highest-grossing in history — as the subject of intrusive mockery. The jokes about her body — which was, in the heroin-chic era, unfashionably curvy — were at times sneeringly concealed as critiques of her personal style. And they were relentless.

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Rose DeWitt Bukater, a lovelorn passenger on a doomed ocean liner, was a role she’d lobbied hard for — “She even sent me a single rose and said, ‘I have to be your Rose,’” Cameron recalls — but being a celebrity in a harsh spotlight was a part that felt less comfortable.

“I actually felt a bit beaten up by it, truth be told,” Winslet says. She couldn’t talk about it to her parents for fear of disappointing them — so excited were they that their daughter had booked her star-making role. “I had a lovely family, but all my family saw is ‘My God, Kate’s got work in a really big film.’ One doesn’t want to turn around to your mum and dad and say, ‘It’s really hard, actually.’”

We’re speaking the day after the Met Gala, and Winslet notes she spent the morning on the BBC News website, looking at photos of stars ascending the steps in elaborate fashions. “I really was smiling, because every single image of the women on the red carpet, every woman is sharing their body in the way they want to, on their terms. And knowing they can do that safely, because the media is not going to criticize them. And that is completely different from the way it used to be in 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002.” Her voice builds in intensity in each year she lists — all the years in the immediate wake of “Titanic,” all the years her body was a trending topic. “This shit went on for years.”

“The admiration is one thing, but the trolling is another thing,” Cameron says. “People body-shaming her, dissing her. It was right at the advent of the internet coming into its own.”

Winslet’s early experience of fame came with a series of awkward growing pains: Some incautious remarks she made about the rigors of filming “Titanic” in interviews were interpreted as the start of a feud between Winslet and Cameron — a topic that was revived when she played a motion-capture character, the Na’vi free diver Ronal, in his 2022 film “Avatar: The Way of Water.”

Despite public perception, “there was never a rift between us,” Cameron says. “She had a little postpartum depression when she let go of Rose. She and I have talked about the fact that she goes really, really deep, and her characters leave a lasting, sometimes dramatic impression on her.”

“There’s a part of me that feels almost sad that stupid, speculative ‘Titanic’ stuff at the time overshadowed the actual relationship I have with him,” Winslet says. “He knows I will be up for anything. Any challenge, any piece of direction you give me? I’ll try it.”

Winslet will be back in the next installment of “Avatar.” “I’m in the cutting room now,” Cameron says, “and I work with her performance every day.”

That Winslet was ambitious was always clear. “Sense and Sensibility” director Ang Lee recalls with a laugh that Winslet “lied to us” in her audition. “She was supposed to be a much smaller role, but her agent told her to prepare the wrong thing for the read.” Instead of the supporting role of Lucy Steele, Winslet declared that she’d be reading for second lead Marianne Dashwood, and the part was hers. “As soon as she walked in — we call it ‘chi’ in Chinese: the vibe,” Lee says. “You can sense something coming in. She walked in as Marianne, who’s very vibrant, very refreshing. A budding-flower fresh energy. She just explodes.”

But in the years following “Titanic,” Winslet needed to downshift. “I felt, ‘OK, Kate. It’s going to be fine. You just need to choose carefully.’ And I instinctively knew that saying yes to the bigger things that did come along would not have been right for my mental health,” Winslet says. The period travelogue “Hideous Kinky,” as small as “Titanic” had been massive, took Winslet off the superstar track. The choice to play the role was met with cautious encouragement from a team who had thought Winslet was bound for the A-list. “That was possibly the only moment when the people in my working life were like, ‘OK. We’re just going to have to support this,’” she says.

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With Jane Campion’s sex-and-spirituality comedy “Holy Smoke!,” “I could feel the agents going, ‘OK, this is the trajectory that we were kind of hoping for.’” It was indie, but it was Jane Campion — the kind of collaborator who could put Winslet in her best light. (Winslet was pleased that Campion asked her to audition: “There’s something really gratifying about getting a role, knowing you’ve walked into that damn room and you’ve bloody well put your fucking guts on the floor and you’ve earned it.”)

By the time she played the novelist Iris Murdoch in the 2001 film “Iris” — for which she received her third Oscar nomination before the age of 30 — things were back on track. Still, Winslet faced anxiety about playing a cerebral writer: “Any intelligence I have has come through the life I’ve lived,” Winslet says. “I’ve taught myself so many things. And I like it that way. I’m proud, because it means that I’ve really lived a life.”

And that life — professionally, at least — has played out on the screens: Later that decade would come nominations for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (which Winslet thinks about every time she sees a young woman with blue hair, knowing that she’s clocked a fan of her character Clementine), “Little Children” and “The Reader.” Turning point after turning point.

There’s an American Express ad from 20 years ago that seems to sum up the Winslet approach to acting as lifestyle. As she walks through London in the ad, Winslet muses to herself about the parts she’s played, conflating them with real life. “At 17, I went to prison for murder,” she remarks about “Heavenly Creatures”; “I almost drowned at 20,” before Leonardo DiCaprio let her climb onto the floating door and save herself. The ad closes with the declaration “My real life doesn’t need any extra drama,” as a refreshingly bare-faced and luminous Winslet walks blithely past a giant advertisement of herself, elaborately made up and blown out.

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It’s not extra drama that Winslet takes from the parts she plays, but extra life — that she’s self-taught comes in part from the fact that each role brings with it extensive preparation, work that she does in private and doesn’t allow the director to see. When she was pursuing the role of stern Apple marketing executive Joanna Hoffman in Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs,” screenwriter Aaron Sorkin says, she bought a wig that resembled Hoffman’s hair and had it professionally fitted, and then sent photos of herself as Joanna to producer Scott Rudin. Rudin “sent me a picture of Kate as Joanna and actual Joanna side by side,” Sorkin says, “and I wasn’t immediately able to recognize that it was Kate.”

Winslet seemed like perfect casting. Says Sorkin: “There are a couple of things an actor can’t fake. An actor can’t fake being smart, and an actor can’t fake being funny. And Kate is very smart and she’s very funny.” But she needed to lock down the part. Then Danny Boyle paid her a visit on the Australian set of her film “The Dressmaker.”

“I just thought, fuck it,” Winslet remembers, “and I said, ‘Look. You should just ask me to play this part. Because I’m going to be the one person you don’t have to worry about. I know exactly what to do. I will just show up and do the thing.’” If she could do it, prepare assiduously and show up on set ready to take the leap — others would come along with her. Boyle cast her, and 2015’s “Steve Jobs” earned Winslet her seventh and most recent Oscar nomination.

Winslet does the thing under sometimes challenging circumstances. On “The Regime,” which shot in Austria and the U.K. for nearly six months, the series’ two directors, Frears and Jessica Hobbs, were filming simultaneously, on parallel tracks; Winslet shot her final speech to her people in the first week.

And she fueled a certain esprit de corps as the shoot wore on. “It’s very nice to see somebody being so silly, so free and so courageous,” says Schoenaerts, the actor who plays Elena’s personal guard and eventual lover. “It’s a punk energy. Like punk music — there’s nothing careful about it.”

The punk approach comes with a human touch — if Winslet is taking risks, she also wants to make it safe for others to. “She completely understands her value, her power, and she uses it in a really profound way. She would use that power for good, to make you feel brave about risk,” Hobbs says. “It takes a certain type of charisma to do that. Because there are times when it’s easier to take the less scary option.”

Winslet recently encountered a younger actress in a hair salon. (“I don’t get my hair done very often,” she says, “but my hair was practically black. I can’t show up to Variety looking like literally Mare Sheehan.”) This younger performer “is about to go off and play a character who is a real person, who really exists to this day. And she’s in the prep part. And I know exactly how she’s feeling right now — she’s feeling sick every day, she’s full of self-doubt, she’s looking at herself in the mirror and thinking, ‘I’m wrong. It’s all wrong.’”

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Winslet reassured the actress, about to set forth on a frightening adventure. Fear motivates — and it means you care. “Everything you’re feeling is absolutely right,” she recalls saying. “Keep doing everything you’re doing. And when you get to day one, just throw yourself in and get messy.”

On “The Regime,” Winslet, as executive producer, tried to advocate for the cast in the same way. “Sometimes when you’re an actor,” she says, “you quietly sit there and think, ‘Am I the only one who thinks this doesn’t make sense?’ So it’s lovely to be a producer. I’m able to hold up that hand for everybody.” Winslet’s other responsibilities include keeping spirits light. “To be No. 1 on a call sheet, you have to earn that place. On a Monday morning, when you didn’t feel like leaving your family and coming to work for the week, you walk on set and go, ‘Morning!’” Her voice gleams with a just barely false cheer.

She’s also now in the position to offer support to one particular younger actress — her eldest child, 23-year-old Mia Threapleton, who has appeared in the Netflix film “Scoop” and the Apple TV+ series “The Buccaneers,” as well as an episode of the British anthology series “I Am …” alongside her mother. Threapleton is making her first steps into an industry that had been fairly harsh to Winslet. Is Winslet nervous for her? “Thank God, this terrible criticism that could be actively damaging — that has stopped,” she says. “If that part’s gone away, she can figure out the rest herself. She’s so emotionally robust and true to herself, I don’t worry.” And if Threapleton feels nerves before a big day of shooting, it’s just proof she’s in the right line of work.

The passage of time hasn’t just healed Winslet’s mixed feelings about her experience as the star of the biggest movie in history. She also perceives a change in the dynamic between actresses — a sense that the competition the media or the Hollywood ecosystem has forced upon them has eased up.

In her early days, “you’d have to try and muscle your way to the front, and that’s not my nature at all,” she says. “I was always very fucking happy to be ‘W,’ at the end of the line. Now it feels really different; it feels celebratory when your peer is pulling something off that they have been driving at for years. It’s a really exciting time — and I don’t feel like an old-timer.”

Much lies ahead for Winslet — the next “Avatar,” and possibly more “Mare of Easttown,” should the stars align. And while “The Regime” was a ratings disappointment, she’ll get another at-bat with HBO, where she’s executive producing and starring in an adaptation of Hernan Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Trust.” (Todd Haynes, Winslet’s director on “Mildred Pierce,” will write and direct “Trust,” and will produce it along with Killer Films’ Christine Vachon.)

But if it were up to her 20-year-old son, Joe, Winslet would be heading to the New York stage. About five years ago, Joe pulled her aside for an urgent chat. “Mum, we need to talk about you doing theater,” she recalls him telling her. It hadn’t been something she’d considered, as it was a prohibitive challenge: She is the common denominator for three children with three dads. (Bear’s father, Edward Abel Smith, has been Winslet’s husband since 2012.) And leaving the nest is hard. “I have been so devoted to my little unit and keeping everyone together,” Winslet says, “that it has meant there has just not been space for me to give up bedtimes and weekends.” But Joe was insistent; he’d just learned a new entertainment industry fact. “Did you know,” he asked her, “that there’s this thing called the EGOT?”

That, Winslet makes clear, is not why she’d ever do a play on Broadway. But lately she’s been feeling the stage calling her again. After reading an article about actors’ backstage rituals in The Guardian, Winslet says she felt “a yearning.”

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“The last time I was onstage,” she says, “I was 18 years old, in a production of ‘What the Butler Saw’ in Manchester. And every night, I was fucking terrified. But I loved it.” She could — maybe — be ready to tread the boards once more. But she knows the pressure would be on. “Now that I’ve left it so long,” she says, “I’d better be really good in whatever it is! I can’t get away with it!”

It’s that old question of nerves. Winslet struggled with the start of “The Regime,” which began six weeks after she wrapped on “Lee,” a biographical film that Winslet produced about war photographer Lee Miller. “Lee” played at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and is slated for a September release. The short recovery time, far less than Winslet was accustomed to, “was real white-knuckle,” she says. Other actors she knows move from job to job: “It must be such a skill to shed the skin so quickly and slip into another one. I just don’t know how they would do that.”

Winslet was discussed as a best actress contender at last year’s Oscars for her role in “Lee” — but the film was kicked to this year amid an unusually competitive actress race led by Emma Stone and Lily Gladstone. The wait hasn’t been easy, not least because Winslet has been working behind the scenes on the film for years.

“The role of a producer can take so many forms,” Winslet says. “On ‘Lee,’ what I did was shepherd the thing up a mountain, sometimes single-handedly. It was like having another baby.” She hired crew members and department heads from past films — a hair and makeup designer from “The Reader,” a costume designer from “Quills.” Winslet was revisiting the moments of her career again to figure out, as an actress and as a leader, what brought her here, and who she was now.

The wait for “Lee,” after Winslet spent eight years pulling together financing in an increasingly precarious indie-film market, has been painful. She quotes her favorite line of Clementine’s in “Eternal Sunshine,” in a perfect American-accented whine: “You know me, I’m impulsive!” But she’s working to see the delay as a good thing — the film will come out when the audience is ready to receive it. She senses the iconoclastic Miller’s spirit in every setback: “I sometimes palpably feel her manipulating situations.”

And though Winslet may not like waiting, she’s become adept at holding her breath. Learning to free dive without oxygen for more than seven minutes for “Avatar: The Way of Water” has become the stuff of legend. She requested that the production send a trainer to her home pool after, Cameron says, her kids insisted she not turn down a shot at starring in the film.

“It’s all mental. It’s not physical,” he says. “Kate and Sigourney [Weaver] as well — these are strong-willed people that have mastery over their complete instrument, their mind, their voice, their body, everything. And what makes them a good actor also made them good at learning how to free dive.”

“I think we all decide these things about what our bodies are capable of, and what our minds are capable of,” Winslet says. And testing her capacity, pushing for more, had changed her outlook. “It gives one a sense of incredible hope about all the things I might still be able to try and do.”

She hadn’t been satisfied to settle for the familiar; she decided, every day, to be a morning person, after all. “I know,” she says, “that some of the most magical things I’ve ever seen in my life are sunrises.”

Styling: Miranda Almond/One Represents; Makeup: Lisa Eldridge/Streeters; Hair: Nicola Clarke/Streeters; Production: Joel Gilgallon/JOON; Look 1 (cover): Shirt: Alberta Ferretti; Pants: Barbara Bui; Shoes: Jimmy Choo; Earrings: Tilly Sveaas; Look 2( green rose wallpaper room): Jacket and pants: Joseph; Shoes: Church’s; Earrings: Completedworks; Look 3 (garden and window): Trench and pants: Alberta Ferretti; Vest: American Vintage; Shoes: Jimmy Choo; Look 4 (black): Jacket: Joseph/The Outnet; Bodysuit: Bluebella; Skirt: Kamala Normani/Matches: Shoes: Church’s

From Variety US