Winslet is earning Oscar buzz (again) for her tour de force role in Woody Allen’s ‘Wonder Wheel’

Story by Ramin Setoodeh Photographs by Ioulex

With an impressive career that spans three decades, more than 40 movies, seven Oscar nominations and one win, Kate Winslet is the first to tell you that she doesn’t have a process as an actress.

“It’s really interesting how every single job I do I feel like it really is different each time,” Winslet says on a sweltering fall day in New York. “I think it’s kind of like staring at a really untidy room of mess and clutter. You think: ‘Oh fuck! Where do I begin?’ The clutter is different every time, and the piles will be different every time. It always feels a bit like moving trash around a room.”

Her latest role, as a deeply troubled housewife in Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel,” presented the actress with challenges she’s never had to face. Her character, Ginny, is an unpleasant narcissist in 1950s Coney Island, who carries on an affair with a self-absorbed lifeguard (Justin Timberlake) under the nose of her husband (Jim Belushi). Winslet wasn’t sure if she could portray the character when she first read the script. She compares the process to steering a car with broken parts: “She’s in a permanent state of falling apart.”

After signing on, Winslet spent a summer rehearsing on her own. On the shoot at the famous New York amusement park, Allen interrupted one of her early takes — he shuffled over, looked her in the eye and told her she was “too actressy.” Most stars would have buckled under such harsh directions. “I thought it was hilarious,” Winslet says. “OK, what should I do?” As she recalls, Allen responded: “You know what to do. Don’t do anything. Do it better.”

Since 1994’s “Heavenly Creatures,” Winslet has made it her mission to constantly reinvent herself on-screen. “One of the greatest gifts I’ve had in my life is to receive the sisterhood of Kate,” says her pal Shailene Woodley, who met her in 2013 while making “Divergent.” “It’s easy to forget the amount of courage it takes to be someone like her, to stand up and talk to young women for as many years as she has about body image, self-confidence, being your own person and loving yourself.”

Our meeting with Winslet took place two weeks before bombshell stories were published in The New York Times and The New Yorker, detailing allegations that Harvey Weinstein had sexually harassed and assaulted dozens of women. Winslet quickly released a statement to Variety condemning the actions of the mogul, who had worked with her on 2008’s “The Reader,” for which she won a best actress Oscar. “The fact that these women are starting to speak out about the gross misconduct of one of our most important and well-regarded film producers is incredibly brave and deeply shocking to hear,” Winslet said.

Since then, Hollywood has been grappling with what can be done to stop sexual predators. Amazon, which is releasing “Wonder Wheel” on Dec. 1, has found itself in the middle of that urgent conversation. The studio’s president, Roy Price, resigned on Oct. 17 over allegations of sexual misconduct. A spotlight has also been shone on Allen. In a 2014 open letter, his daughter Dylan Farrow retold a story of how he sexually assaulted her at 7. (Allen has denied any wrongdoing. Through a representative, he declined to be interviewed for this story.)

In the current environment, Winslet is facing backlash for agreeing to work with Allen. As she enters awards season with her Oscar-buzzy part in “Wonder Wheel,” the actress will have to walk a fine line.

There’s been a discussion about actors in Woody Allen’s movies as a result of the allegations against him. Did that factor in your decision to star in his new film?
Um. [Winslet narrates her own silence.] “She pauses.” It’s just a difficult discussion. I’d rather respectfully not enter it today.

There was criticism on social media of an interview you gave to The New York Times, where you said Allen provided “an extraordinary working experience.”
I don’t read how people respond to things. We’re always as actors going to say the wrong thing.

Allen had offered you a role before for his 2005 movie “Match Point.”
That’s true. Whenever this comes up, I always feel so bad for Scarlett Johansson. Things shuffle all the time. God knows how many times I’ve been the fourth or fifth choice for something.

Why did you turn it down?
It was Woody Allen, so that’s going to come around once — if ever. So of course I said yes. And very quickly, I realized I can’t do this. My son Joe was only 9 weeks old. I would have had to stop nursing. It would have been too much of a compromise to the rhythm of my life and my new baby. I just couldn’t do it. I said, “I’m really sorry, that wasn’t the right decision to have made.” I knew that there was a strong possibility that might be my one go-around.

How did you hear that he wanted you for “Wonder Wheel”?
I spoke to him on the phone, and he described Ginny to me, and the bones of the plot. He said, “I think this is a wonderful role for you.” And then he said something really funny too: “You know what? If you don’t like it, you can move right on and go back to your life and how nice things are.” He basically inferred my life would be easier if I didn’t take on this challenge. And so, someone did come over and delivered the script by hand and sat outside in a car whilst I read it. I’m actually quite a slow reader. So I remember thinking, “Oh God. This person is waiting outside.”

Winslet, here with Jim Belushi and Woody Allen, had trouble sleeping while making “Wonder Wheel.”

They wouldn’t leave the script with you?
It’s a good old-fashioned way of keeping things private. When I finished reading it, honestly, my first thought was “I can’t play that part. I just don’t know how. Oh fuck!” And my husband is leaping around, making a series of excitable noises.

You’ve done so many American accents now.
It’s not about sounding American, frankly. I’ve been doing it for 20 years. I’ve got no excuse. It’s about sounding completely different from every character I’ve played before. It’s about sounding absolutely Ginny. I love doing accents. Whenever I play a British person, I feel a little out to sea.

Did you get a lot of direction from Woody?
He’s a big observer. We could be midway through a take, and he’d be [imitating Allen’s voice] “This is too long. Are you still talking?” As the shoot went on, I would feel confident enough to say to Woody, “Do you know what? I think this scene is over by this line.” And there would sometimes be another half of a page. He’d say, “Yeah, you’re right. Let’s cut it out.” There was one scene with Justin and myself where we fully did take in a lunch break and he chopped the whole thing in half, which was very panic making. I turned into a crazy person. I’m like, “OK, hang on! Nobody talk to me!” I’ve laid out all the seven pages of dialogue on the makeup counter. I’m cutting it out like origami, and I’m taping bits together and just moving things around. And Justin is going, “It’s going to be fine.”

Did you enjoy having an on-screen affair with Justin Timberlake?
Yeah, we had a lot of fun. I would say to him, “It’s such a relief that you’re not what any of us thought you were going to be. Because that would have been such a nightmare.” We shared a trailer. We had a thin partition wall between us. I would hear him peeing in the morning and singing to himself, and I loved it.

I read that you were so focused on the role that you had trouble sleeping.

I found the only way I could clear my head was to go and do difficult yoga classes. I would go to these mad, hot, sweaty yoga classes right at the end of the day. Or even at the beginning, at 5 a.m. I was in that
running-a-marathon phase. So when I would sleep, it would be a little bit of an inconvenience because I had so much to do. I would be terrified I wouldn’t wake up in time. I’d wake up in the night, and I’d go, “Is it now?” There was one night I woke up and realized I had been sleeping with a clenched fist and I put nail marks in my hand.

"I do feel like change is happening. I think women are getting better at carving out their own path."

Kate Winslet

Had you done that before?
Never. The only really weird thing I had done on a job was “Titanic.” I dreamt that my bedroom was flooding, and I had gone out of bed in my dream and lifted everything off the floor so that it wouldn’t get wet. And I woke up, and I’d actually done it. I had lifted all my shoes off the floor.

Did you watch Woody Allen movies growing up?
I think I watched “Annie Hall” with my dad. I’ll try to say this without crying. [She starts to bawl.] Oh, I can’t. My mother passed away this year. She was very ill at the time we were shooting this film. And she was so proud I was working with Woody Allen. I would call her every day on the way to work. She loved the fact that Justin was so lovely. She thought that was so adorable.

How would you describe where you are right now in your career? 

I love acting, truly more than ever. I definitely love being 42 and not 22 anymore, and how intact I feel. But also, with the exception of “Wonder Wheel,” I do tend to get very creatively involved. I have had a very collaborative relationship with directors and producers. I am sneakily developing some things as a producer. I have not said this out loud.

Would you want to direct?
I would like to direct. I don’t know if I’d be any good at it. I love working with actors. People have asked me that question quite a lot. I suppose the reason I’ve prepared an answer for it is because creative people who I’ve worked with will sometimes
take me aside and say, “You should think about directing.” Cinematographers have said that to me quite a lot. One director who I worked with said, “You think like a director.”

Where’s your Oscar?

On the back of the toilet.

That’s where Emma Thompson used to keep hers.
I got the idea from her. Actually, talking of Emma, I’m so grateful I worked with her [on 1995’s “Sense and Sensibility”] when I was so young. I was shown the best example of just how to be.

There’s been an ongoing dialogue about women in Hollywood this year, with relation to pay disparity and better roles for actresses.
I do feel like change is happening. I think women are getting better at carving out their own path. Yeah, there aren’t enough roles for women. I can honestly join my peers and say the same thing. There are times when the girl’s part just isn’t as good as the guy’s part or doesn’t have as much of a thrust within the core of a story. That’s why I say I’ve been getting more creatively involved. “Big Little Lies” was a true triumph of female force. Good on those girls. It’s about joining forces and buddying up.

Do you think you and Leonardo DiCaprio will work together again?
I’m sure we will. But I don’t think it will be for a very long time. I think when we’re probably much older.

It’s been 20 years since “Titanic.” What’s your clearest memory of making that movie?
My clearest specific memory is us shooting the scene behind the gate, where he loses the key. That was genuinely scary, and I didn’t like shooting that at all. Actually, I also remember Peter Jackson [who directed “Heavenly Creatures”] and Fran Walsh were in L.A. at the time, and they said, “Oh, we must come down and see you.” I’ve never told this story. I took them on set on a Sunday afternoon. We got out back, and the security guard said, “You can’t be here.” Until that moment, it hadn’t occurred to me. They were my friends. What’s lovely now is that James Cameron and Peter Jackson have a lot to do with each other because of Weta and “Avatar.” Of course you wanted to come visit! You’re so cheeky. Duh.

Did you know how big that movie was going to be?
No idea. You never know. Sometimes the film that felt the best to shoot can be a little bit of a limp biscuit.

When did you first see “Titanic”?
My press for it was delayed because I was filming in Morocco at the time, and I couldn’t go to the premiere. I just went to a regular showing of the film uptown. I put on a baseball cap because someone told me I ought to do that. That was a real thrilling experience, to sit and watch a movie that I was in with a proper audience. I hadn’t done that before or since. The only film of mine I’ve seen more than once is “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” because my children love it. That’s really the only thing of mine they can actually see without their mother taking off her clothes or dying.

Postscript: After our conversation, we emailed Winslet about the announcement that she’s reteaming with Cameron on the “Avatar” sequels. “Well, at this point it’s requested that I don’t reveal very much,” she wrote back. “Needless to say that this has slightly come out of the blue (blue being the operative word! Ha ha...). Jim and I first spoke about this when he kindly donated some life jackets for the fundraiser Leo and I did in France back in July. He mentioned the character Ronal to me then, and he sent me the scripts. Performance capture sounds like a fascinating process, which I really look forward to experiencing. The first movie was awe-inspiring and my children have not stopped talking about the prospect of this for the past few months! And whilst my role is actually relatively small comparative to the lengthy shoot (I will only have around one month with Jim and the principal actors), it is a pivotal character in the ongoing story.”