Kate Winslet: The golden girl

She's beautiful, self-deprecating, hearty and a little bit posh. But is Kate Winslet really the perfect English rose she seems?

In the firmament of embarrassing speeches Kate Winslet, the entertainment world decided this week, ranks fairly high. Having been nominated 10 times for an Oscar – or its slightly poorer relation, a Golden Globe – the British actress this week picked up not just one but two in one night. As a result she was all too literally lost for words.

The showbiz writers ransacked their lexicons to describe the Beverly Hills awards ceremony. Sobbing, snivelling, gushing, huffing, puffing, tear-stained, over-emotional and hyperventilating were a representative selection. One reporter analysed her three-minute, four-second acceptance speech and declared it to contain "five excruciating 'my Gods', four loud sniffs, three shoulder-heaving pauses, two dramatic brow-wipes and 11 individual thank yous".

It's all relative, of course. Gwyneth Paltrow at the Oscars once extended the thank yous to various deceased members of her family. Halle Berry, thanking everyone she could think of, including Oprah Winfrey, expressed gratitude that she had been chosen "to be the vessel from which this blessing might flow". A blubbing Charlize Theron thanked the "whole of South Africa". And Forest Whitaker went even further, concluding: "I want to thank God, who believes in us all."

By comparison – and you can see them all on YouTube – Kate Winslet's breathy excitement, after winning both the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress awards, won the approval of large numbers of fans on the internet who found her performance, in the words of one blogger, "rather sweet".

Winslet's problem was that her momentary lack of composure stood in stark contrast to the grace, poise and composure of her usual public image. One of the things her fans like about her is her quintessentially British understatement – a fact which was celebrated by the Los Angeles Times just before the awards in a report which described her as "a study in restraint" for preparing for the event using a £6 lipstick and a £4.10 eyeliner, albeit applied by Hollywood's top make-up artist.

But the contrast goes beyond questions of image. For Kate Winslet is one of the most interesting and adventurous of the current crop of British screen actresses. Since coming to the attention of the world as the heroine in Titanic – which remains the biggest grossing movie ever made – she has offered up a series of roles of considerable versatility in which she has routinely eschewed the blockbuster in favour of films that have been bold and brave and consistently attracted critical praise.

She was marked out for success from early on, as much for her acuity as her acting talent or good looks. Born into an acting family – her grandparents founded the Reading Repertory; her uncle was in the West End, and her parents were actors – she went to Redroofs Theatre School in Maidenhead. There she was a "very conscientious and extremely dedicated" head girl who, according to one of her teachers, knew "how to handle her luck – when the breaks came she was ready for them".

It was there that she developed her slightly posh RP accent. And if she was a stage kid – appearing alongside the Honey Monster in a Sugar Puffs advert – she also acquired an irreproachably sensible middle-class outlook on life. It all stood her in good stead, she later told one interviewer, for a life in the spotlight. "When you live your life publicly 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."

The oblique reference to "being all over the place" hides one of the most painful periods in Winslet's life. As a schoolgirl she had been was teased and bullied by her classmates who called her Blubber because of her weight. It was not until she was 15, and a boy named Stephen Tredre entered her life, that became emotionally secure. At the age of 16, just 10 days after finishing her GCSEs, she began work on her first television drama, a BBC children's science-fiction serial called Dark Season. While on the set she started a five-year romance with Tredre, a fellow actor and writer. "Stephen made me feel embraced," she later revealed. "He was the most important person in my life, next to my family."

The couple moved to London as her career took off, with more TV drama and then a film part, aged just 17, in Peter Jackson's acclaimed movie Heavenly Creatures in which she played a teenage murderer. Next came a part as Emma Thompson's younger sister in film Sense and Sensibility and then as Ophelia in Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film of Hamlet. But after Winslet had landed and filmed the part in Titanic which was to make her world famous, Stephen Tredre died of bone cancer. Winslet missed the Hollywood premiere of the film because she was at his funeral in London.

Whether the stimulus was grief or artistic intelligence, Winslet – having become at the age of 22 the youngest person ever to receive two Oscar nominations – turned her back on Hollywood. "Look, I'm not a blockbuster star," she later told an interviewer, "which is why [after Titanic] 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."

It was on the set of the low-budget Hideous Kinky that she met assistant director Jim Threapleton whom she married just a year after Stephen Tredre's death. Two years later their daughter Mia was born. But the marriage was not to last. "I was dealing with the pain of having lost Stephen. Jim was just a regular guy, and that had a big impact on me," she later said.

By 2001 they had split. Two years later, when she married the director Sam Mendes, several British papers accused her of "trading up" to a more successful spouse. "It was shattering," she said, "but it was nothing compared to losing Stephen. Looking back, I see I was confused about who I was."

Even so she maintained a clarity of vision about the kind of work she wanted to do. She turned down the lead in Shakespeare in Love to make Hideous Kinky. Indeed, throughout her career she has been happy to reject roles in high-profile films such as The Lord of the Rings or Woody Allen's Match Point. Instead she has played a wide range of characters in a diverse films that have attracted her because of their challenging material.

Quills, whose subject was the Marquis de Sade, explored sex, mental illness and morality. Iris, in which she and Judi Dench played younger and older versions of Iris Murdoch, tackled dementia. The indie movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind combined sci-fi and surrealism to examine the nature of memory. Amid romantic comedies such as The Holiday and Romance and Cigarettes were movies such as Little Children in which a paedophile was a central character. Most recently The Reader – the film for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe – navigates the emotional and psychological contradictions of the generation in Germany that became aware of the extent to which their parents had acquiesced in the war crimes of the Nazi era.

"Artistically she has always taken risks," one of her circle told me. "She's not the kind of actress who thinks she always has to look beautiful. She is very down to earth, and not at all 'full of it'."

"Actually, she is someone who strikes you as having quite a bit of self-knowledge," said an intimate from New York where Winslet and Sam Mendes now live. "You see that from her outspokenness on the female body issue." She has hit back at those who teased her for her weight at school, and those newspapers that have relentlessly documented her fluctuations in weight over the years, by extracting an apology from GQ magazine when in 2003 it published photographs of her which had been digitally "enhanced" to make her look significantly thinner than she really was.

Her friends, and acquaintances, are fiercely loyal. "She is the epitome," said one, "of a certain type of English rose – beautiful, a bit posh, hearty, unaffected, practical and self-deprecating." And if she didn't come across that way at the Golden Globe awards ceremony, part of what is engaging about Kate Winslet is that she won't care a bit.

A life in brief

Born: 5 October 1975, daughter of Roger John Winslet (actor and swimming-pool contractor) and Sally Ann (actor and barmaid). Two sisters, Beth and Anna, also actors, and a brother.

Education: Redroofs Theatre School, Maidenhead, Berkshire.

Career: BBC children's serial Dark Season, 1991. Casualty, 1992. Debut film Heavenly Creatures, 1994. Bafta for Best Supporting Actress, Sense and Sensibility, 1995. Oscar nomination for Titanic, 1997. Nominated for Golden Globe Best Supporting Actress for Iris, 2001. Oscar nomination for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind "the 81st greatest film performance of all time", 2004. Bafta's British Artist of the Year for Little Children, 2006. Golden Globe awards for Best Supporting Actress for The Reader and Best Actress for Revolutionary Road, 2008.

She says: "You have to forgive me because I have a habit of not winning things."

They say: "Well done, Winslet! I told you, do a Holocaust movie and the awards come." Ricky Gervais

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