TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest Kate Winslet stars in the new movie "Ammonite." Her film career started at the age of 17, when she starred in the 1994 film "Heavenly Creatures," based on the true story of two teenage girls in an obsessive friendship who murdered one of their mothers because she was trying to separate the girls. Three years after that indie film from New Zealand, she starred in the international blockbuster "Titanic." Her other films include "Sense And Sensibility," "The Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind," "Revolutionary Road" and "The Reader."
Her new film, "Ammonite," is an imagined version of the life of Mary Anning, a 19th-century self-taught paleontologist known for her groundbreaking fossil discoveries. Mary lives in poverty with her elderly mother, shut off from the world and emotionally withdrawn. She spends her days searching the shoreline for fossils to study, draw and sell. Sometimes she sells the fossils to men who claim them as their own discoveries. One day, a gentleman comes to their fossil shop and brings along his young wife, who's suffering from depression after a miscarriage. He tells Anning that he wants to observe her work and then explains that he's about to go on a paleontology expedition and would like her to watch his wife, Charlotte, while he's gone, hoping Charlotte will be in good hands and benefit from shadowing Mary Anning. Mary reluctantly agrees only because he's willing to pay.
A total contrast to rough-hewn Mary, Charlotte Murchison is a delicate, well-to-do lady. The women don't get along at first, but over time, a friendship grows into an intense romantic relationship. Our film critic Justin Chang wrote that Kate Winslet makes Mary a profound study in alienation and loneliness, ill at ease with other people and deeply protective of her secrets.
Let's start with a clip from the film. Charlotte has collapsed and is very ill with a fever, and Mary has grudgingly been nursing her back to health. As Charlotte recovers, Mary softens toward the young woman, and they begin to trust and confide in each other. Saoirse Ronan plays Charlotte. Charlotte speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMMONITE")
SAOIRSE RONAN: (As Charlotte) You look tired.
KATE WINSLET: (As Mary) I always look tired.
RONAN: (As Charlotte) You look after me like your child. You don't have any?
WINSLET: (As Mary) A lot of questions. I might have preferred it when you were unconscious. No, no children.
RONAN: (As Charlotte) Sorry.
WINSLET: (As Mary) For what? My mother had 10. I remember six of them dying and two before me. Eight babies dead, each one taking something of her when they went. I have my work. I don't need children as well.
GROSS: Kate Winslet, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with the scene that we just heard and what it was like for you as a mother to think about living in a time and a place so harsh that you can have eight children die.
WINSLET: Playing Mary Anning and having to carry an enormous amount of her personal history was really something that I had to spend a good deal of time preparing for. We don't meet any of the siblings that Mary has, of course, just talked about because they all died. You know, such was the time in the working lower classes in the very late 17th and early 18th century. And it was part of playing Mary that was fascinating to me. I'd never played someone of that class before and never that particular period in time. And I found myself coming to play this role, shamefully, fairly ignorant as to who Mary Anning actually was and her scientific significance in history. A woman of her class was never going to be recognized for any of her very significant achievements and successes.
GROSS: What were her scientific accomplishments? What were her greatest contributions to the field of paleontology?
WINSLET: So Mary Anning was completely self-taught. She was an uneducated child. Mary learns how to find fossils, how to be a paleontologist. She learned it from her father, who very sadly died when Mary was only 11 years old. And Mary was very close to her father. She had a really warm, significant, wonderful, strong relationship, strong bond with him. And because of him, she was eternally fascinated by fossils, by knowing how to identify what fossils were, not only to find ammonites, but to find dinosaur bones. She discovered the first ichthyosaur when she was 11 years old with her brother, Joseph - the two of them. It took them over a year to dig it out. But she was a child when she found that. She discovered what a coprolite was. That's fossilized feces. And so because of Mary, we were able to learn and know what dinosaurs ate.
So her role in that particular scientific field was really, really significant. And of course, what happened to Mary was that her finds were bought from her by rich, more powerful men who claimed them for their own and, therefore, took credit. She never took credit for anything. They actually put their name on her finds.
GROSS: You portray Mary Anning as somebody who is emotionally shut down. She later becomes awakened by this passionate affair with the character played by Saoirse Ronan. But, you know, in playing somebody who's emotionally shut down, it seems to me you have to do less to do more. Your character just does not convey emotion. And she's very - her life is all very interior. I think you play her almost as if she's on the autism spectrum. Did you think about that?
WINSLET: I did think about that. But I had to be very careful with making assumptions. And I - it certainly crossed my mind. I decided to build Mary based on the grief that I think she felt for her father, who had passed away, as I said before. And so I think she did develop, then, abandonment issues. And that came into play a lot in terms of how memory functioned in society. I think she was - not suspicious of people, but just didn't know how to be just a relaxed member of a community. I think she always felt different. I think she felt a little bit odd in comparison to other people. And because she was living a life of such extreme poverty, I think she was frankly embarrassed about how she looked and what she had to offer to just a functioning, small seaside community.
So Mary was a very - for me anyway, I felt she was a very emotionally complicated person who almost had emotional chips missing, just developmental stages that she perhaps hadn't gone through in her life, as a teenager, through the loss of her father, through the loss of so many siblings, that just meant that emotionally and socially, she was quite withdrawn and just different, and as a consequence, kept herself quite separate to other people and lived a fairly isolated and lonely life, which is why Charlotte brings so much joy into her world.
GROSS: You and Saoirse Ronan have some passionate and very uninhibited sex scenes together. And I read that you both choreographed those scenes rather than having somebody else do it. And Francis Lee, the writer and director of the film, points out in the press notes that this was a time in 1800s when the medical profession believed women had no sexual pleasure organs and that sexual orientation was categorized only for men. Did you think about that a lot while you were making the film, about the lack of comprehension of women's sexuality at that time?
WINSLET: Yes, yes. Yes, we did think about the lack of comprehension for women's sexuality, very much so, because, of course, it's - I think part of the reason why women in particular at that time seemed to form such incredibly strong bonds because women can share, women can express, women can emote and be honest with one another. And one of the things I did in terms of researching Mary and preparing for the part - I read a lot of letters that were written between women who had romantic relationships, women who were in marriages to men, some of whom had children. And those bonds, those friendships, became crucial to their sort of means of survival because women were pushed to one side. They weren't expected to speak their mind. They weren't expected to have emotions, let alone sexual pleasure organs. And discovering that women did have intimate romantic relationships that came out of these deep friendships as a means of survival was something that I did find very, very helpful.
And one of the things I feel very, very proud of when I talk about the film and having seen it now - because it always takes me a while to come around to actually sitting down and watching something that I'm in. It's just a nerve-wracking experience. But a part of our story is not to portray these two characters as though they're in some way having a secret or forbidden love affair. And I really appreciated that because it's storytelling that normalizes and expresses same-sex love without hesitation, without secrecy or fear.
GROSS: You've said you're attracted to roles where women broke norms. Do you feel like you've broken norms in your life?
WINSLET: (Laughter) I'm laughing because I sort of both feel like I play by the rules and very much don't. I think in my own life, I mean, I think - I don't know. So much of my life is my family, and that's very separate to my career. But then also, so much of my life is also my career. And I guess that is my opportunity to break rules and break norms. Actually, in life, in terms of the structure of life, I'm a pretty, you know, law-abiding citizen (laughter). But I suppose that's one of the wonderful things about being an actor is that you can just - you can experiment and play and break the rules and take risks and do things that do really challenge you and scare you.
I mean, playing this part, I was scared every day. I would go home, and I would think to myself, OK, what - did I actually do anything today that read on screen at all? Because, of course, the details - the emotional details of playing Mary are so subtle and so sparse. And there were two emotions that I wasn't allowed to show very often in playing Mary Anning - almost no happiness and sadness, no real tears. Now, those are two emotions that actors tend to lean on, I would say, a pretty good deal. So learning how to use up anything in-between those two powerful emotions was really odd and very nerve-wracking. So the sparse, pared-back emotion of quiet expression and limited physical expression and emotion was something I had a really hard time with. Obvious emotions like pride and happiness and sadness and joy and longing were all feelings I had to find other ways of expressing and sometimes just using my eyes or the backs of my hands. And there were days when I would just doubt whether I'd done anything that had actually registered at all.
And I had to earn every flicker of obvious emotion, you know? There are moments, a few moments, when you really do see Mary smile and express great joy. But Francis Lee was very clear with me - no, this is not the place. We have to earn it. We've got to get to that place, and then we've got to get to that place. Hold it back, hold it back, hold it back. And that was - it was - I had to learn to trust him. I had to really learn to count on him to guide me because I often couldn't count on myself to know. And I just had to concentrate all the time. And I don't think I was much fun to hang out with actually when we were shooting. In fact, I'm pretty sure I wasn't.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Kate Winslet. She stars in the new movie "Ammonite." It's streaming on video on-demand, including Apple iTunes. It's also playing in select theaters. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Kate Winslet. She's starring in the new film "Ammonite," which tells an imagined version of the life of Mary Anning, a 19th-century self-taught paleontologist who lived in poverty on the rugged southern shore of England, where she spent her days hunting for fossils on the beach. The film imagines her having a passionate affair with a prosperous married woman played by Saoirse Ronan.
So how are you spending the COVID era?
WINSLET: Spending the COVID area - era with my family, with my husband and my three children. Earlier on in the year, we had my brother-in-law and his partner in our bubble. And then when lockdown kind of eased somewhat, they returned to their life in London - but, you know, sticking to the rules and being extremely careful.
I did just return to work for nine weeks in Philadelphia to complete a television series called "Mare Of Easttown" that I've been doing for HBO. And that was extraordinary, experiencing actually returning to work and following COVID protocols, being tested every single day, everybody wearing masks and face shields and being as careful as we possibly could and existing in a - really, in a bubble, you know? Go home. Go to work. Go home. Go to work - and just, really, looking out for everybody and ourselves.
GROSS: You were in a movie a few years ago called "Contagion" that was directed by Steven Soderbergh that was about a pandemic. It was about a respiratory virus that originated in China. And, you know, people have to wear masks in the movie. It sounds like - I haven't seen the film, I'll confess. But it sounds like things are even worse in the movie, you know, more rioting and looting and you - just chaos in the streets. What was it like for you when the pandemic started having been in that film? And I should mention, you die of the virus - you're an epidemiologist in the film. And you die in it (laughter). So...
WINSLET: Yes. Yeah. That's true. I - yes, I do play an epidemiologist. You're right. The character was called Dr. Erin Mears. And we worked very closely with CDC in putting together that story. And I worked alongside epidemiologists in order to be able to play that part. And it was utterly fascinating. A lot of it - I have to be honest, the science just went over my head. I left school at 16 and was - you know, I didn't do much in the way of sciences and biology at school. And it was really eye-opening, learning to understand how a disease mutates, et cetera, et cetera.
But when COVID hit, because of my experience doing "Contagion," I was one of the first ones walking down the street in Philadelphia wearing a mask with people looking at me like I was absolutely crazy. And, of course, within weeks, a lot more people were wearing masks and gloves and walking around with hand sanitizer and wipes and spray and so on. But because I had that experience and learned how quickly a disease can spread, I was very afraid very early on. And that feeling of wanting to get out of a big city, get away from people, you know, protect your own family, I mean, I - yeah, I absolutely had that feeling quite quickly because I'd (laughter) been in "Contagion."
GROSS: It's hard to find the bright side of the pandemic. But you have pointed out (laughter) that it's been a relief not to have to travel to do press junkets to promote movies that you're in. Like, right now, you're talking to us from your home. And you don't have to dress up and get makeup and have your hair done and the whole bit, not to be on our show. Though, on radio, you wouldn't need to do that anyways. But what are some of the pressures that you typically do have when you do have to travel and do press junkets? What are some of the things you really dislike about that aspect of being an actress and, I mean, of being a woman in the movie industry?
WINSLET: Well, I try really hard and not use the word dislike because this - you know, I - it just always sounds like - I don't know. I would never want sound in any way ungrateful. But, for me, one of the hardest things - you know, it's a very difficult job to do. I will say, one of the things that is hard about doing press for a film, as you rightly point out, is traveling away from one's family is something that I've never gotten used to.
I don't have any systems or tricks or tips for anybody. How do you juggle it all? - I'm so often asked. It just is a juggle. And every job is different. Every press junket is different. Every part of it is different depending on the film. And one of the bright sides - the only thing about COVID and lockdown that for me and for us as a unit was wonderful is that my older two children are 20 and about to turn 17. And they'll be gone soon.
And I was very, very aware of really making the most of time with them. Play, you know, just play with them, mucking around, having a good time, really cooking together, teaching them how to cook things so that they can go off into the world and know how to, you know, whip up a basic, healthy meal for themselves or a few friends - and actually seeing the joy in their faces of really loving doing that and really wanting to make the chicken soup the way I've always made it. And now they can. And so being able to make the most of those experiences - and my father is 81 years old. We lost my mother in 2017. And, actually, to be able to give real time to him now that he's by himself, that has also been very, very special. And I'm - you know, I've been very grateful for those quiet family times that might not be here forever.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Kate Winslet. And she stars in the new movie "Ammonite." It's streaming on video on demand, including Apple iTunes. It's also playing in select theaters. We'll be right back after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF FRED HERSCH'S "ELF (ISFAHAN)")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Kate Winslet. She stars in the new film "Ammonite." Her other films include "Heavenly Creatures," "Titanic," "Sense And Sensibility," "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind," "Revolutionary Road" and "The Reader."
You've talked about how when you were young, you were fat. And you've used the word fat to describe how you looked. And you said that when you were young, like in school, it limited the kind of roles you could get. You became known in movies for being, you know, beautiful. So I'm wondering if you felt, like, pressured to look that way in order to have a career.
WINSLET: Look; I think there's huge pressure on women in the public eye. And the film industry, you know, is no exception to that. And I just want to live my life with complete integrity and sincerity and to always be myself and to always be able to look another young actor in the eye and just say, look; people told me I was not going to have a career because I was the wrong shape. I was too fat. I had to lose weight. And, look; I did it. I will be saying that, and to my grave. And even when the odds are stacked against you - I was called blubber, you know?
I had kids lock me in a cupboard and say blubber's blubbing in the cupboard. I was very badly bullied and teased at school. But somehow, I had this inner determination and would - you know, it was hard. It was horrible. I would go home. I would cry. I wouldn't want to go back to school the next day. But I knew that I wanted to be an actress one day. And I just had to push it to one side. I had to push those horrible bullies and those awful feelings to one side and just hang on to my dream. I was even told by an agent when I was much younger that I was only ever going to get the fat girl parts.
GROSS: Have you had to think a lot about, like, what is beauty?
WINSLET: I have had to, yes, think a lot about that. And, I think, when you're younger, when you're a young woman, I think, often, people think beauty is about their face or about their body or about how many boyfriends they have or how many invites on dates they get. And, of course, I've - I really, genuinely - I genuinely did suffer. I am going to use that word, suffer. I suffered a huge deal at the hands of, actually, the British press in terms of how I looked. And just recently, I had to - just for some legal things, I had to go through some old newspaper articles from years ago, from 1998 until 2007, 2008.
And I was so distressed to read how unbelievably brutal and cruel the press were. They would even talk about estimate what I weighed - looking a weighty, you know, 140 pounds. First of all, I didn't know 140 pounds was even weighty (laughter). So - but reading the things that they said, I was so staggered that I had somehow - how had I coped when I was subjected to such, really, truly, unkind, painful, public ridiculing for how I looked. So definitely, the question of what is beautiful had to come into play for me because I had to work hard to ignore this proper cruelty that I was subjected to.
GROSS: You started your movie career in 1994 when you were 17 and made the film "Heavenly Creatures." A lot has changed in the movie industry since then, including, you know, a lot has changed for women. There are more directors and screenwriters and, I think it's fair to say, more good roles for women than there were in the '90s. Although, you know, "Heavenly Creatures" was a great film (laughter) and a great role.
But I'm wondering if there are things in terms of how men in the industry would treat you or what they would say to you on set or off that you thought, well, that's just the way it is, you know - I'll just kind of, you know, take it and, you know, move on, just, like, ignore it and move on - that you would feel differently about now, that you would, like, say something.
WINSLET: Yeah. Things have changed. Things have changed, need to change more, but, I think, continuing to at least go in the right direction to the point that I don't think we'll ever go back to the way that it was. Yeah. I mean, without going into specifics of stories, you know, yeah, I would go into an audition room as a young person and would just learn to accept that if the male director felt like reading in the lines of the male actor role in that particular scene and would get a little bit too close for comfort, well, you just knew that that was just the way that it was. But it's not that way now (laughter). It is not that way now at all. And I certainly do feel much safer. And I feel much more looked out for now because there are specific ways in which people are just not allowed to behave anymore.
GROSS: You told a story to Vanity Fair about how - I think it's for the HBO series that you just finished shooting - that for one scene that a young actress in the movie had to do, you - the scene was going to be shot in the car. And it was a love scene, a lesbian love scene. And you stayed in the trunk of the car just to be there for her and make sure that she was, like, respected and treated well during the shooting of that scene. Can you talk about that a little bit? And also, did they know you were in the trunk of the car?
WINSLET: (Laughter) Yeah. So it was a night shoot. And there was a scene between two LGBTQ characters in our story. And one of the characters was played by an Australian actress named Angourie Rice, who's 18 - at the time was 18, which was - is the same age as my daughter. And I could just sense that she was - I could sense that she was nervous. And I was worried that she wouldn't have - I don't know - just someone there in her corner. I wanted her to feel supported. And I also wanted her to know that she could use me as a filter if she didn't feel confident enough to turn to the director and the writer and say, actually, I'm not sure about this, or would it be OK if I did this instead?
And so I said to her, listen; I'll - I would like to stay and just be here for you just in case you need anything at all. There were two camera operators in the car with them - lovely, dignified, respectful people who've been in the industry for years. But still, they were two men, and it was going to be the two of them filming these two young women, and that didn't sit right with me. And so I said to both these girls, don't you think I should jump in the trunk? (Laughter) And they were like, oh, can you? Could you fit? It would just be lovely to have someone there.
So I did. I just - I sat in the trunk. And I was there for them, and between takes I'd say, everyone OK? Anyone need water? Do you need me to pass anything along? And then I'd get out of the trunk, and I would go and pass something along to the director and grab some water, and then I'd get back in the trunk and hand them the water, and then we would shoot again. And it just seemed to work in that particular moment for those actors to have that level of support. And I felt very honored that they wanted me to be there and that it was genuinely helpful to them.
And, you know, the most important part for me was that they both knew that actually speaking your mind and being able to say, I'm OK with this and I'm not OK with that, trying to give them the tools with which to do that for themselves, that was very important, to be able to sort of pass that along.
GROSS: Do you wish you had somebody like that when you were 17 in "Heavenly Creatures"?
WINSLET: Yes (laughter). Yes, I do.
GROSS: What did you need help with then?
WINSLET: I think, first of all, just the confronting nature of being half-naked in front of a crew of people you barely know. Actually, now what happens more often than not on films is we have something called intimacy coaches, and so that's where I do wish I had had that person in my corner when I had been 17 years old.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Kate Winslet. She stars in the new movie "Ammonite." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Kate Winslet. She stars in the new movie "Ammonite," which is streaming on video on demand, including Apple iTunes.
So you come from a family of actors - I think, on your mother's side?
WINSLET: Yeah, so it's really interesting. The acting does come more from my mother's side, but my mother herself - and God rest her soul - she was never an actress. My mother was very, very shy and absolutely stayed at home and was a mom and cared for us all. She was also a brilliant chef. And one of my uncles was a chef, so for a time when we were all at school, she worked for him for a little while. But you're right - the acting did come more from my mother's side. So both her parents were actors. My grandmother actually went to school with Noel Coward when she was younger.
WINSLET: Wow. Yeah, it's a fascinating story. And then she had six children and became more of a mother and less of an actress as time went by. And her husband was an actor as well, and they ran the old Reading Repertory Theatre Company. And, in fact, the theater was in their back garden. So my mom very much grew up with these, you know, mad, loud actors just sort of lashing through the house and rehearsing in the garden. And there was the theater. And so this kind of - I wished I could have seen it. I just would have loved to have just been, you know, a child standing in the hallway, watching all this wonderful sort of creative chaos go on, this artistry and sort of eccentric behavior. I would have absolutely loved it.
But my mom hated it (laughter). She always just hated it, which is interesting because then she went and married my dad, who was one of her brother's friends and was an actor. So my dad was an actor when I was younger and then later on, actually, became more of a musician. He's a jazz singer as well. But then my sisters, Anna and Beth - one's younger, one's older - they both also acted a lot, too.
And it's amazing now, you know, to me. My daughter, Mia, who's 20, she's actually acting now as well. And so often in our house, we play kind of old-fashioned drawing games or parlor games. And someone's reaching for a piece of paper, and it is always the back page - the back of a script, always. So I constantly find crazy drawings or games that we've played and I'm - oh, my God. That's an old draft of "Eternal Sunshine." OK, we can't leave these in the restaurant.
WINSLET: I'm like, quick, gather up the papers - because it's always the back of some very important script.
GROSS: Was your mother baffled that you wanted to go into acting when she so much wanted to avoid it?
WINSLET: You know, I think - to be completely honest, she was always very encouraging and nurturing and supportive. Actually, it was more my dad who had been the out-of-work actor more than the in-work actor through much of my childhood. It was more my father who was very nervous because, of course, he'd spent so much of his life not getting work and having to support a family of four children. You know, my father was also a bricklayer and a postman and a Christmas tree seller. He was much more those things than an actually in-work actor.
So, you know, because of how I speak, it's so often the case that people assume that I'm trained and classically trained. And even when I say I'm really not, I really left school at 16 and I honestly got lucky, people somehow don't quite believe me. But because I speak well - which is because my grandmother did go to a theater school, was taught to speak well - that then sort of filters down through, I think, the mother's bloodline more than the father's quite often. So my mother spoke very well, so then we as children all spoke very well. But we were working class.
And I'll never forget actually having a meeting with a director, who shall remain nameless, when I was 16 years old, a working-class Irish filmmaker. And he said to me - he said, oh, you're not working class. I said, I - yes, I am. He said, listen to the way you talk. And it gave me such a complex. It made me feel so embarrassed that I spoke well. And it also made me think, well, but does that mean then that I can't be honest about my roots, about my life, about my childhood and all of those things? And, actually, I think it did make me kind of clam up for a while, and I didn't really talk about where I came from because people just simply didn't believe me because I've always - we always spoke well.
GROSS: So you left school when you were 16 because you didn't like school or because you wanted to become a professional actor?
WINSLET: Because I wanted to become an actor, but also because I had to get a job. I had to work. My - you know, my parents didn't have any kind of money for college fees or anything like that. I wasn't very intelligent. I wasn't - I also wasn't really very happy in school, like, sitting down and really learning things. I wanted to be out in the world. And so I just imagined that I was going to just do my best and, you know, look in all those newspapers that advertised auditions for theater things. And I would try and audition and get jobs, and then I would work. I would do waitressing, or I would work in a - I don't know - I would work in a shop. And I did all of those things for the first few years. In fact, it wasn't until after "Sense And Sensibility" when I really was then officially able to start - I was then making a living from being an actor.
GROSS: How did "Titanic" change your life?
WINSLET: It definitely changed - it changed my private life. My private life suddenly wasn't private at all, and that was something that was very, very hard for me to come to terms with. And it changed my - I mean, it changed my career completely because, of course, what it did, as well as teach me a huge amount - you know, people often forget that "Titanic" was a seven-month shoot. I learned so much about acting, about the process of filmmaking. You know, there's so much to learn, and that takes a long time. And I hadn't been taught it in a school, so I was learning on the fly, really on the fly. And that experience of making that film was rich with wonderful things that I learned.
But it changed my life because it gave me freedom of choice. And that was incredible at the age of 21, 22. But I will be completely honest. I wasn't ready for that level of choice. I wasn't ready for this big, fat career. And so actually, what I did was I shied away from playing big roles in big studio films that had huge budgets because it didn't feel right to me. And people would say to me, you're mad. This is a moment in time. It might never come around again. And I would say, yeah, but I like that low-budget film called "Hideous Kinky" that's filming in Marrakech. And yeah, but that - don't - no one's going to see that. Why would you want to do that? But somehow I knew that I wasn't - I didn't know enough. I actually didn't feel that I knew enough as an actor to really be able to step into the shoes of sort of film star. Those are two words that I feel deeply uncomfortable with, even today. I wanted to be an actress, and I had a lot to learn.
And somehow, I knew that I had a lot to learn. I didn't want to fake it, and I didn't want to feel under pressure. And also, I didn't want to fail. I wanted to be in a position where I could always say I'm an actress, to be 45 years old, as I am today, and to still be able to say I'm an actress and not to have fizzled out, not to have experienced burnout and not to have given bad performances because I simply didn't know how to do it enough in those days when I was that young. And so I was able to choose smaller things that made me feel a little bit more protected and a little bit more connected to smaller crews of people who I felt safe with and who I could learn from.
GROSS: Kate Winslet, thank you so much for talking with us. It's been a pleasure.
WINSLET: Thank you. Likewise. Thank you very much for having me.
GROSS: Kate Winslet stars in the new film "Ammonite." It's now streaming on premium video on-demand, including Apple iTunes. It's also playing in select theaters. This is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz won an Oscar with Orson Welles for writing the 1941 film "Citizen Kane," which is considered by many to be the greatest motion picture of all time. Now David Fincher has directed a new black-and-white drama called "Mank" about Mankiewicz's life and art and the inspiration for his work on "Citizen Kane." "Mank" is streaming on Netflix. Our film critic Justin Chang has a review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The delicious inside Hollywood drama "Mank" begins in 1940 at a ranch in the desert town of Victorville, Calif., where Herman J. Mankiewicz is holding up for a few months, recovering from a broken leg. He spends that time writing a screenplay that will yield one of the cinema's all-time masterpieces, "Citizen Kane," the tale of Charles Foster Kane, a newspaper tycoon, loosely inspired by William Randolph Hearst. The film's groundbreaking visual and narrative complexity will make its 25-year-old director and star, Orson Welles, a Hollywood legend. But "Mank" isn't out to burnish Welles' reputation. It's about the lesser-known Mankiewicz, a brilliant, acerbic, hard-drinking writer played by a superb Gary Oldman, who, after years of cranking out scripts for studios like Paramount and MGM, came to do the most meaningful work of his life.
"Mank" is a tribute to the art of screenwriters like Mankiewicz, many of them New York journalists, novelists and playwrights who flocked to Hollywood and, despite their skepticism toward the industry, helped make its movies great. Fittingly, "Mank" is also one writer's labor of love. The script was written in the 1990s by the journalist Jack Fincher, who died in 2003. Now, years later, it's been dusted off and directed by his son, David Fincher, known for earlier fact-based dramas like "Zodiac" and "The Social Network."
"Mank" is another dazzling feat of historical reimagining, exquisitely detailed and impeccably made. Its black-and-white surface is so rich and evocative that you want to sink into it. But you also want to lean forward so as not to miss a word of its mile-a-minute dialogue.
In one scene, Mankiewicz receives gushing feedback from his editor, John Houseman, played by Sam Troughton. Also present is his secretary, Rita Alexander - that's Lily Collins - who painstakingly transcribed every word of the script.
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CHANG: (As John Houseman) It's good, Mank - damn good.
LILY COLLINS: (As Rita Alexander) I have it on highest authority it's the best thing he's ever done.
SAM TROUGHTON: (As John Houseman) As a moving picture, it's more than good. I'm at a loss to even express how wealth and influence can crush a man, its leer the dark night of the soul. And I was completely mistaken. The shifting point of view is revolutionary. I never thought one could care so much about a sled.
GARY OLDMAN: (As Herman J. Mankiewicz) That's kind of you to say.
TROUGHTON: (As John Houseman) But (laughter) - but I hear it's 327 pages, an embarrassment of riches. When the dog-faced boy gets here, there will be plenty of branches to prune.
OLDMAN: (As Herman J. Mankiewicz) A far too long screenplay for the ages - John Houseman. I built him a watertight narrative and a suggested destination. Where he takes it, that's his job.
CHANG: Although the question of whether Welles or Mankiewicz deserves more credit for writing "Citizen Kane" is still disputed by some critics and historians, "Mank" the movie only briefly touches on the debate. Like many truth-inspired films, it's a playful weave of fact and fiction. And without disputing Welles' genius, it argues that Mankiewicz's role in the movie's authorship was not just essential, but foundational.
The story jumps back-and-forth in time, showing us Mankiewicz's steady rise through the industry ranks in the 1930s and the many friends and enemies he will make along the way who will influence the plot of "Citizen Kane." Mankiewicz's gossipy wit earns him a place in the inner circle of William Randolph Hearst, played by a reptilian Charles Dance. Mankiewicz becomes close friends with Hearst's longtime companion, the actress Marion Davies, who will serve as the basis for Kane's own paramour. Davies is played by a terrific, if underused, Amanda Seyfried. Hearst's castle in San Simeon, where Mankiewicz is a regular party guest, will become Kane's gothic estate, Xanadu.
But Mankiewicz's most significant influence isn't a person or a place. It's a political campaign, specifically the 1934 California gubernatorial race in which Hearst, conspiring with top MGM players like Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, torpedoes the Democratic candidate, Upton Sinclair, whose socialist views they deplore. This subplot, set against the labor struggles of Depression-era Hollywood, delivers some of the story's most fascinating and resonant moments.
The movie industry may be known today for its liberalism, but "Mank" returns us to a time when the studios were closely tied to conservative media and were not above manipulating voters with phony newsreels and other forms of propaganda. Mankiewicz has a naturally rebellious, anti-establishment streak, and he becomes deeply disillusioned by these political manipulations. And so years later, after he and Hearst have fallen out, "Citizen Kane" becomes a kind of revenge, a tragic, corrosive portrait of a man who gains a vast media empire and loses his soul. Once word gets out, Hearst and his Hollywood minions try to keep the movie from seeing the light of day. Mankiewicz's own brother, Joseph, who will one day write and direct his own Hollywood classic, "All About Eve," urges him not to bite the hand that used to feed him.
But Herman Mankiewicz doesn't back down, and Oldman's performance captures his complicated mix of affection and contempt for the industry that made and broke him. The actor lays bare Mankiewicz's vices, from his fondness for drinking and gambling to his neglect of his wife, Sara, played by Tuppence Middleton. He also shows us the man's underlying decency, whether he's condemning the fascist tide sweeping through 1930s Europe or mourning a close colleague who is chewed up and spat out by Hollywood.
Mankiewicz is ultimately both cynical and idealistic. He knows the toughness it takes to make personal art in a commercially driven medium and to get the recognition you deserve. "Mank" is a wondrous tribute to his fighting spirit.
COLLINS: Justin Chang is the film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed "Mank," which is streaming on Netflix.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be veteran rock 'n' roll photographer Bob Gruen. He didn't just shoot dozens of famous musicians, he traveled with many and drank with them into the wee hours. In a new book, he describes touring with the Sex Pistols, worrying once that Bob Dylan was about to hit him with a cane and his long friendship with John Lennon. I hope you'll join us.
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JOHN LENNON: (Singing) Whatever gets you through the night, it's all right. It's all right. It's your money or your life. It's all right. It's all right. Don't need a sword to cut through flowers, oh, no, oh, no. Whatever gets you through your life, it's all right. It's all right...
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHATEVER GETS YOU THRU THE NIGHT")
LENNON: (Singing) Hold me, darlin'. Come on. Listen to me. I won't do you no harm...ranscripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.