Kate Winslet on Woody Allen, Idris Elba and career longevity

The actress talks about the freezing challenges of filming ‘The Mountain Between Us’, the ‘acting pills’ she took with Elba and her terror at reading Allen’s script for ‘Wonder Wheels’ 

Melena Ryzik
Friday 15 September 2017 12:27
Winslet stars as a woman who unravels in the new Woody Allen film 'Wonder Wheel'
Winslet stars as a woman who unravels in the new Woody Allen film 'Wonder Wheel'

Kate Winslet is the type to take her work home with her. The actress has two films coming this year – and making them has haunted her nights.

After filming The Mountain Between Us (due out 6 October) in which she and Idris Elba play strangers stranded on an icy, desolate mountain range when their plane crashes, she says she would have “panic dreams” about her children being trapped under ice – nightmares that are just now subsiding.

And for different reasons, she also lost sleep shooting Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel, set in 1950s Coney Island, in which Winslet is caught in an unfulfilling marriage and a dead-end job as a waitress in a clown house. Enter mobsters, and Justin Timberlake as a charismatic lifeguard. “It’s a character who really, truly not just unravels, but becomes so utterly undone by what happens to her during the course of the story,” Winslet says.

From Wonder Wheel, she went right into The Mountain Between Us, directed by Hany Abu-Assad and shot in the mountains of Western Canada. “We would fly up in helicopters to work every day,” she says. “We were very, very high up,” about 10,000 feet, “and very, very cold.” 36 degrees below zero, to be exact. To Winslet, that was the appeal.

Winslet and Elba in the forthcoming film ‘The Mountain Between US’ (Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

“There’s a certain sense of satisfaction after having had three children and being 41 years old, and actually feeling probably fitter and stronger than ever,” she says. “It was like, I can put some of that physical strength to good use.”

From her home on the south coast of England, Winslet spoke about the terror and inspiration of working with Allen, the “acting pills” she and Elba took, and career longevity. Though she has had an intense year, she says, she is in a buoyant mood, and cursed liberally. These are (edited excerpts) from the conversation.

Why pick an endurance test like ‘The Mountain Between Us’?

I’m much more taken by an extreme set of circumstances than an easy, comfortable route. I like a challenge, and it’s been a long time since I’ve done a film that required such a level of physical exertion and stamina and commitment – and also overcoming a certain degree of fear every single day. Plus, I’m a much more cold than hot sort of person. If a script says, “It’s a sweltering hot day on a beach in Tahiti,” I’m less interested.

What was scary about this?

We would go into work and there would be six different scenarios, based on whether the helicopters could fly that day, based on the weather – howling gale, blizzard. It was bitterly cold. It would take me 45 minutes to dress in the morning: clever layers under those costumes, so we didn’t look like Michelin men. And then I would have heat packs stuck to me – three on my arms, a couple across my chest. They give out really fast when you’re at altitude.

A couple of moments, we would lose the feelings in our toes and have to stop for half an hour, and someone would put their gloves on our feet. We were in full survival mode.

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Winslet winning Best Supporting Actress for her work in ‘Steve Jobs’ in 2016 (Getty)

I bet a lot of people would be thrilled to be stranded on a mountain with Idris Elba.

Hell yeah! [Laughs] I could think of worse people to be trapped with. I haven’t worked with him before. I was really grabbed by the huge challenge [of] putting two actors on screen for the entire length of a movie. I remember thinking, “Oh my God, we’ve got to keep this interesting, otherwise we’re doomed.”

I think it was really good that we didn’t know each other – we discovered a lot about the other person. We got quite good at reading what the other person was thinking and needing – hot packs and hidden candy supplies. We would eat Maynards wine gums [a British gumdrop-like candy]. We called [them] our acting pills.

Do you prefer playing strong people facing a vulnerable moment, or vulnerable people finding strength?

I like characters who are completely unafraid of showing all their flaws. I think often people associate me with strong characters who are daring and reckless. But it’s very interesting to play a character who actually is vulnerable.

I’m a very open book. I don’t believe in hiding emotion. The character in The Reader [the 2008 film for which Winslet won an Oscar] is totally closed off and that was very hard for me, largely because it was so opposite who I am. There’s nothing more exciting than reading a script and going, “How am I supposed to play this part?” [Laughs]

When I read the Woody Allen script, I thought, “Oh my God, I can’t do this.” I read the script sitting on the staircase in my house, and didn’t move until I finished reading. I just sat on the staircase for an hour, in complete shock and panic. But that’s the best feeling, because sheer terror sometimes is the greatest challenge of all.

The actress played SS guard Hanna Schmit in ‘The Reader’ for which she won an Oscar in 2009

What was the catalyst to get you from sheer terror to playing the part?

Here’s the catalyst – probably wasn’t going to get another go-round with Woody Allen, so it’s now or never. And it was an extraordinary part, that I could not believe he was asking me to play, so just the flattery of being offered the role was enough. The only reason I wouldn’t have done it would have been fear, and that is no way to live a life, man. Plus I knew my parents would be incredibly proud of me working with Woody Allen.

My mother passed away in May. Every day I would call her on the way home [from the set] and she wanted to know absolutely everything about the day. It was a really big part of the last few months of her life. I feel grateful that I did it.

Did shooting the film live up to your expectations?

I loved every second. Those stories that you read of him being aloof, not talking to people, not rehearsing – he was fully engaged. He gave such good direction. We would rehearse every scene for most of the morning and then shoot, and yes, there were lots of 11- and 12-page scenes we were filming entirely in one shot.

Some weeks, I would have 35 pages of dialogue. It was the most white-knuckle ride I have ever had in my life. I would wake up in the middle of the night, in sweats, about going to work the next day. And my hands would hurt – I had been sleeping with a clenched fist and pressing my nail into my fist. Now that is proper anxiety. So going from this unbelievably demanding character to 10,000 feet and minus 38 Celsius was like a holiday.

Did the allegations against Woody Allen give you pause?

Of course one thinks about it. But at the same time, I didn’t know Woody and I don’t know anything about that family. As the actor in the film, you just have to step away and say, I don’t know anything, really, and whether any of it is true or false. Having thought it all through, you put it to one side and just work with the person. Woody Allen is an incredible director. So is Roman Polanski. I had an extraordinary working experience with both of those men, and that’s the truth.

You’ve been acting since your teens. When you were starting out, did you think much about career longevity?

I very much thought about that, probably do still. You’re only as good as your last movie. When I started, I couldn’t believe I was really being cast until four or five movies in, and even then I couldn’t quite believe it. I was very much aware of watching young actresses come and go. I just have always felt that you have to dig deep and work hard. And I see it as real work. I don’t leave anything to chance. In terms of longevity, I always hope to be invited back, because I love it.

© New York Times

‘The Mountain Between Us’ is out 6 October

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