‘I wanted to hug her and make it stop’: Kate Winslet on making the devastating drama I Am Ruth with her daughter

The latest instalment in Dominic Savage’s ‘I Am…’ series on Channel 4 sees Winslet and Threapleton portray a mother and daughter in crisis. At the launch Q&A, Ellie Harrison hears how the feature-length episode was almost entirely improvised, and about the all too close-to-home dynamic between the actors

Monday 05 December 2022 09:00 GMT
Art imitates life as Kate Winslet and Mia Threapleton play a mother and daughter in ‘I Am Ruth’
Art imitates life as Kate Winslet and Mia Threapleton play a mother and daughter in ‘I Am Ruth’ (Channel 4)

Kate Winslet had to fight every ounce of maternal instinct in her body on the set of her latest project, I Am Ruth. In the feature-length Channel 4 drama, Winslet and her real-life daughter, Mia Threapleton, star as a mother and her child caught in the cold, lonely grip of a mental health crisis. “There were moments when I would look at Mia and go, ‘Oh my god, she’s doing it. She’s really doing it.’ And I wanted to hug her and make it stop,” Winslet told press at the event’s launch last week, blinking back tears as she recalled her 22-year-old acting out a panic attack. “My instinct was to go, ‘I’ve got you,’ straight away, and I had to resist it at every turn.”

The drama, which will leave any parent, and anyone who remembers being a teenager, shaken, is the latest in writer-director Dominic Savage’s female-led anthology series I Am..., which has previously seen him collaborate with actors from Vicky McClure and Letitia Wright to Lesley Manville. Savage works with his leads to find a subject close to their hearts – with McClure it was coercive control; with Suranne Jones it was anxiety. This time, it’s teenage mental health and the tyranny of social media. The result of Savage and Winslet’s collaboration is a claustrophobic, gut-wrenching two-hour game of cat-and-mouse, as a deeply depressed Freya (Threapleton) sinks further and further below the surface and Winslet’s Ruth struggles to pull her out of the riptide.

Winslet was approached by Savage for the project, and after considering a long list of young actors to play Freya, the pair eventually settled on casting Threapleton, who went through an official auditioning process. When Savage first got in touch with Winslet, she immediately said, “Yes, whatever it is, let’s do it.” Winslet pounced on the project because she knew how Savage worked. “I knew he created the story with the lead actor and that everything was improvised,” she said. “The idea of that was fascinating and terrifying all at the same time. Not one word that comes out of our mouths is scripted. Every single thing we say we made up on the day in the moment. Nothing is written on a piece of paper.”

Savage worked with the actors to create a loose structure, but when the time came to actually shoot the drama, they hardly glanced at the call sheet. “We didn’t look at the content of the scenes that were planned,” Winslet said, “because it’s very experimental. It would change all the time. Sometimes the takes would be very long – one of our takes was 59 minutes, with a female camera operator just following us around the house with a camera on her shoulder.”

Winslet, who entered the I Am Ruth screening and Q&A brandishing her phone in the air, with a tiny, blushing Threapleton saying a quick “hello” on FaceTime (she couldn’t attend the event as she was working in Edinburgh), said that there was certainly “personal overlap” when it came to Freya and Ruth’s relationship. “It’s a mother-daughter story, so that was inevitable,” she said. “And we know how to push each other’s buttons... I’ve been a parent to teenagers and have been on the periphery of friends raising teenagers who have gone through some absolutely horrific things. A lot of the things you hear in the film are direct from things that friends have said to me. There’s the scene when Ruth sits on the bed and says, ‘I don’t know who I am, I’m really struggling, I don’t like myself, I don’t look forward to anything.’ That’s literally a conversation I had with a very close friend a couple of years ago.” Winslet even enlisted one of Threapleton’s old drama tutors to play a concerned teacher in the show.

In making the film, Winslet wanted to tell a story “about our time” and “create an avenue for conversation”. “I wanted to say to people, ‘I didn’t know what to do either, it’s alright,’” she said. “There are some moments when, as parents, you look at each other and say, ‘What the f***, what do I do? Where’s the manual?’ and so much of it we do make up as we go along. When you’re a person in the public eye, the media enshrines you in this bulls*** perfection and I’ve always hated that, and been a rubbish famous person anyway. So I just wanted to tell a story that felt timely and visceral and truthful, even though there are parts of it that are very hard to watch.”

Kate Winslet and Mia Threapleton in ‘I Am Ruth’ (Channel 4)

The film is set in unidentified suburbia, and one of the priorities in making it was that it would feel relatable and accessible to people of all different socio-economic backgrounds. “I wanted to identify specifically with parents,” said Winslet, “and I certainly wanted to be able to cover things that are often, I think for parents, enshrouded in shame. ‘Did I fail? Was I too busy? ‘Did I not listen?’ Sometimes I think the world we live in suggests that we have to be strong and have the answers, and now, more than ever, people don’t f***ing know what to do.”

“We wanted to tell a story that would resonate,” she said, “and open up a conversation for people who just don’t know how to have it.”

‘I Am Ruth’ airs on Thursday 8 December at 9pm on Channel 4

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