Kate Winslet: Coming of age

Kate Winslet talks to Leslie Felperin about Finding Neverland, the joys of getting older and turning down Woody Allen

Perpetually described as an English rose, Kate Winslet was planted firmly in the film landscape more than a decade ago now and keeps on flourishing. It comes as something of a shock to be reminded that she's still only 29 years old. She was just a 17-year-old slip of a thing when she made her big-screen debut playing a hysterical teen murderess in Peter Jackson's
Heavenly Creatures - if you don't count that Sugar Puffs commercial made when she was 11.

Perpetually described as an English rose, Kate Winslet was planted firmly in the film landscape more than a decade ago now and keeps on flourishing. It comes as something of a shock to be reminded that she's still only 29 years old. She was just a 17-year-old slip of a thing when she made her big-screen debut playing a hysterical teen murderess in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures - if you don't count that Sugar Puffs commercial made when she was 11.

Today, despite the creamy skin and satiny upswept hair, her manner is almost matronly. It's easy to imagine the grande dame of cinema she will inevitably become someday - perhaps in the sexy, Helen Mirren babe-of-a-certain-age vein, still dishing out saucy swear words in that slightly plummy Reading Valley RP accent of hers.

Partly it's having two children, whom she mentions several times during the interview, both in response to questions and of her own accord. "I really like getting older and I still love birthdays," she says cheerfully, in her optimistic head-girl way. "I'm going to be 29 [her birthday was 5 October] and I'm like 'yeah, that feels a bit better'. I've got two kids and I've done a lot with my life. To be 29, feels fitting."

The film she's promoting when we meet in Venice is Finding Neverland. In it, Winslet, warm and fetching even when her character catches consumption, plays Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, a widowed mother of four young boys who, along with her sons, befriends the Scottish playwright J M Barrie (Johnny Depp). The family inspired Barrie's 1902 book The Little White Bird, which eventually evolved into Peter Pan. Although on paper it sounds like another whimsical costume drama, director Marc Forster ( Monster's Ball) has shot it through with a brooding grittiness. Death, the awfully big adventure itself, haunts the story like a wraith.

Winslet speaks especially highly of her co-stars Julie Christie ("I'd say to her, 'Julie if I look as good as you when I'm your age I'm actually going to run naked down Oxford Street.' ") and Depp. "I've always been a fan of Johnny's work," she says. "I think the choices he's made are just exceptional and very brave. He's a great guy, a wonderful dad, and he's quite childlike as well. It was a very collaborative experience. He likes to share ideas, so we worked in quite similar ways, and you don't always get that. He would say to me, 'what do you think of that?' and I would say 'great, but try this'. And I would say the same to him, like 'oh god, was that alright?' But then I'm like that, always saying 'that was pathetic'. And we both hate watching ourselves on screen, too - so we got on really, really well."

Though the film has been generally well received, it has received strong criticism from two distinct quarters.Davies's descendants have criticised the movie for inaccuracies in its depiction of their family; while other interpreters have conjectured that Barrie was secretly gay and more interested in Sylvia's sons than in her.

Winslet defends the script and points out that it's not a conventional biopic but a "fictional retelling." On the more contentious point concerning Barrie's sexuality she insists she is "comfortable with it because no one knows if that's true or not." She says firmly: "And who are we to comment on speculation or rumour, frankly? I just always felt that the story dealt with the situation beautifully. You have a great friendship with four wonderful, animated young boys. Why should that be so weird? But of course in the world we live in today, that would be very bloody weird. But we couldn't have dealt with it in the film. It would have been a bloody disaster if we had."

Her frankness is admirable, but then that's the Winslet style. She comes across as very no-nonsense, and will touch on issues in her private life even when you don't ask for them. For example, when blandly questioned about her preference for playing strong women she's winningly direct. "I think maybe I've been quite brave in some of the choices I've made, and listen, I've been lucky enough to have the choice," she remarks. "I don't know where that comes from. Maybe from my parents, being in a family of actors and just having strength of conviction. And you know, when you live your life publically as I have done - not so much now, but in the past with Titanic when I was all over the place - people felt they had a right to access my private life and that does really toughen you up. It is pretty frightening, but it makes you stronger."

She's alluding, it seems, to the well-publicised break-up of her first marriage to Jim Threapleton, father of her oldest child, Mia (now four years old), which unfolded in the glare of the tabloid flashbulbs, and her relationship with the director Sam Mendes, whom she wed last year. Their son, Joe, was born in December 2003, and their domestic situation seems to be peachy keen. "I'm very hands-on as a parent," she says. "My daughter doesn't even think I have a job because I've been so around so much this year."

Indeed, Winslet famously turned down the chance to star in Woody Allen's newest movie which was shot in the UK this summer. I gingerly ask about it, expecting her to keep schtum. "No it's fine," she says, surprisingly: "Here's what happened. Woody asked me to be in this film, and when he asked me he was going to be shooting something like six weeks later. And originally I said 'yeah, of course, I'd love to do that.'

"But the reality was he was filming right the way through the summer when I had planned to be home with my children. I woke up one morning and said, 'My heart isn't in this.' And I knew that Woody Allen surely would not want me to feel like that, so I wrote him a letter explaining why I felt I couldn't be in his film and he was incredibly gracious and sent me a letter back immediately saying 'Dear Kate, don't even give this a second thought. Of course, it's disappointing, but your reasons are admirable.' And he was really a gentlemen about it. And it's fine."

Many of Winslet's past roleshave been in costume dramas. "It was just the way the cards fell until 2002 when we shot this film," she explains. "But since then everything I've shot has been contemporary which has been great, because when Neverland came along I was like, 'Enough, no more period dramas for a while!' I really wanted to do more contemporary things. It's just that I kept being drawn to these characters who were so strong and so interesting who happened to be in period pieces."

The most famous example being Titanic, of course. In the past, Winslet has frankly discussed what a gruelling shoot it was and how exacting a director James Cameron was. Did the experience put her off making another film that big? "Did it scar me, do you mean?" she asks semi-jokingly. "No, I'd never say never. If it was a great part and a great script, I'd absolutely consider it. Now that I've been around the block a bit and I've had a couple of kids, I'm older and wiser; I can pretty much handle whatever is thrown at me. I'd be better equipped to deal with something like that now, just through life experience. But I haven't read anything yet where I thought, 'Yeah that's the one.'

"But then neither have I been looking for a blockbuster. Look, I'm not a blockbuster star. I was in Titanic and I see it as the one time that I was. I've been pleased actually to not do that since, which is why I went off and made Hideous Kinky and other smaller things. I never saw Titanic as a springboard for bigger films or bigger pay cheques. I knew it could have been that, but I knew it would have destroyed me. I always wanted to be able to say I love my job and never want to be bored by it. And thankfully I do love it and I'm still thrilled by it."

She certainly struck out in a new direction with her turn as a fickle punk princess in this year's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind which, along with Neverland, may have put her in the frame for a fourth Oscar nomination next year. Along with demonstrating her flair for comedy, Eternal Sunshine also opened up the possibility of roles in more indie movies. "My agent will call up and say, 'So-and-so has just seen Eternal Sunshine and called and said 'Oh my god! I didn't know she could do that,' " and I'll say [with a bit of edge in her voice] 'Well, it's my job,' " She says, with a touch of ladylike irritation, "That's the thing; I love to be able to take risks and surprise people. And for me, Eternal Sunshine was a surprising film. I had no idea what it was going to look like and seeing the end result was so thrilling. I couldn't believe how cool it was."

Get ready to be surprised when you see her next film, Romance and Cigarettes, a musical set in modern New York directed by the actor John Turturro, in which Winslet will show off her quite reasonable singing voice. Of the film, which wrapped at the beginning of this year, Winslet gushes: "The cast was just incredible. James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Christopher Walken, Steve Buscemi - these are the people I have watched all my life and loved so it was a wonderful experience.And it was a great way of getting back into shape after having my baby because I had to get into dance rehearsals when he was three months old so I was leaping around the room in four-inch heels, which is why I ended up twisting my ankle while dancing around a hotel room with James Gandolfini and going home on crutches."

Is she playing an American in it? "Funnily enough, no." she explains. "I thought she was going to be American, and I went in there all guns blazing, but on the first day John turned to me and said, 'I feel like this character, Tula, she's from somewhere else. Give me some accents.' So I'm like reeling off these accents and ideas and he loved the northern English accent I did, so she's ended up being from up north; that's all I can tell you."

Where exactly up north, I ask. "Probably, sort of Sheffield," she says, giggling a bit at the geographical vagueness. We've seen her do posh, kooky, deranged and religious (in Holy Smoke), but never northern. Now that will be an awfully big adventure.

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