Skip to main content

Kate Winslet On The Roles That Scare Her And How 'Titanic' Shaped Her Career

Winslet stars in the new HBO series, Mare of Easttown. She spoke to Fresh Air in 2020 about her breakout turn in Titanic when she was in her 20s. "I was learning on the fly," she says.

20:20
This recent segment plays exclusively on
Why is this?
Due to the contractual nature of the Fresh Air Archive, segments must be at least 6 months old to be considered part of the archive. To listen to segments that aired within the last 6 months, please click the blue off-site button to visit the Fresh Air page on NPR.org.

Other segments from the episode on April 30, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 30, 2021: Obituary for Michael Collins; Interview with Kate Winslet; Review of film 'About Endlessness.'

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon on July 20, 1969, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Collins piloted the Apollo 11 command module as it orbited the moon above them, waiting to take Armstrong and Aldrin back to Earth. Collins died Wednesday at the age of 90 from cancer. Today, we'll listen back to our 1988 interview with him.

Collins was raised in a distinguished military family. He graduated from West Point in 1952, became a jet fighter pilot, a test pilot, and eventually one of the astronauts chosen to participate in the Apollo mission to the moon. Before piloting Apollo 11, Collins piloted the Gemini 10 flight and walked in space, attached to his capsule only by a high-tech umbilical cord. In doing so, he was the first astronaut to walk from a spacecraft to another object in space - in this case, a rocket left orbiting from an earlier Gemini mission.

After he retired from the space program in 1970, Collins briefly worked as an assistant secretary of state for public affairs, a position he described as a plush purgatory. He felt more fulfilled in his next job as director of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Collins wrote a bestselling autobiography called "Carrying The Fire." During the Apollo 11 mission, he said his big fear was not being able to reconnect with his crewmates after their moonwalk, meaning he would have to return to Earth without them. Let's hear the moment when he's talking to mission control after Armstrong and Aldrin have returned safely to the command module.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: How's it feel up there to have some company?

MICHAEL COLLINS: Damn good, I'll tell you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'll bet. I bet you'd almost be talking to yourself up there after 10 REVs or so.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: ...Commander.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Roger.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: OK.

COLLINS: No, no. It's a happy home up here. It'd be nice to have some company. As a matter of fact, it'd be nice to have a couple hundred million Americans up here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Roger. Well, they were with you in spirit.

COLLINS: Let them see what they're getting for their money.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Roger. Well, they were with you in spirit, anyway - at least that many.

DAVIES: When Terry spoke with Michael Collins, he'd written a book about the U.S. space program called "Liftoff."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: In the very beginning of your new book, "Liftoff," you describe how it feels when a technician snaps the helmet down into the neck ring. Would you describe that for us?

COLLINS: Well, that's when you sort of say goodbye to the world because even though you're still on the surface, you can no longer smell or really touch or even hear something unless it's electronically piped in. So when that neck ring goes click, click and locks into place, you're hermetically sealed. And your space voyage has really begun then, even though you're still standing on the ground.

GROSS: When you were strapped down in July of 1969, waiting to head for the moon, and you heard the countdown, what were you thinking about when you heard the countdown?

COLLINS: I don't like countdowns. I don't like - I think you're nervous enough without someone yelling in your ear, 10, nine, eight, seven. I think what they ought to do instead of having those backwards numbers is have someone with a sweet voice like yours, Terry, say, hey, I think it's about time to go.

GROSS: Now, are you serious about that? I mean, would you really - I can't tell if that's just what you're saying, or if you really think that they should change that because the countdown causes a lot of extra attention for the astronauts.

COLLINS: No. I - no, no, no. I'm kidding. But to be serious, I think it's totally unnecessary as far as the crew's concerned to tell them every last second preceding. I mean, we know. We have a clock right there in front of us. We know pretty much when the thing is going to go. But it's a small point. Either way they want to do it is fine with me.

GROSS: I'm really interested in the sensation of taking off. I'm thinking - just when you go up in an airplane, your ears lock. What happens to your body when you're propelled into space at this incredibly high velocity?

COLLINS: Well, the motors are very, very powerful, but they're lifting a gigantic weight so that when you first leave the launch pad - and you can see this on your television screen - the thing doesn't, you know, disappear instantly. It's a very slow and stately ride at the beginning. Then the thing is that the engines keep churning away at full speed. The fuel tanks begin to empty so that the weight is decreasing, the power remains the same, and then you really begin to accelerate. It's as if a giant hand were pushed down on your chest. And you find it very difficult to move. You can't really move your arms or legs very well. And even your breathing gets a little bit forced.

GROSS: When you were heading toward the moon, it was Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin who were going to walk on the moon. And you were going to be in the control room circling the moon as they did their walk. Why was it you who was chosen to stay in the command capsule?

COLLINS: Gee, that's something that evolved over a long period of time. I became a specialist and the mother ship, the command module. Aldrin had been an expert in rendezvous. And Neil Armstrong was the most experienced test pilot among our astronaut group. So these sort of specialized skills of ours, the three of us, fit together nicely. But it was something that developed over a long period of time. It wasn't that all of a sudden one Friday morning, someone said, you, you and you, and you're going to do this, and you're going to do that, and you're going to do the other.

GROSS: When you were alone in the capsule and they had taken off, what happened? Did two capsules break apart so that they could go to the moon while you stayed where you were?

COLLINS: Yes, that's right. The machines were quite specialized. The one that I was in, which was called Columbia, was the base camp, you might say, and the one that made the final approach and landing was called Eagle. And it was a specialized machine, had two parts. The bottom half of it, which had the landing gear, stayed on the surface of the moon, is still there, and it acted sort of as a launch pad for the top half. The top half blasted off from the surface of the moon, came back up and found me in orbit overhead. And then we dumped. We just jettisoned, left old Eagle in orbit around the moon, and the three of us came home in Columbia.

GROSS: Now, you confess in your new book that your big fear when you were alone in the command capsule was that you wouldn't be able to make contact with the other astronauts and you'd have to leave without them.

COLLINS: Well, that's certainly true. I think a trip to the moon and back is a long and fragile chain of events. I think of it almost as a daisy chain. Any one link in that chain can break the entire sequence. But of all the links, the one that clearly, to me, was the most complicated and the most hazardous was the rendezvous, bringing them back up from the surface of the moon and having us meet at the proper time and place and join and go back home together.

GROSS: So when you were alone, how did you occupy your mind to prevent yourself from obsessing with fear that you wouldn't be able to hook up again? Or was that not a problem?

COLLINS: Oh, I had a lot to do. I had to - you know, I had to get the newspaper in, put the cat out, make sure the fireplace was in good shape.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLLINS: I had a lot of a lot of housekeeping chores to do. The command module, Columbia, was a very large and complicated machine. And you have to keep paying attention to it, make sure all the temperatures, pressures and so on are within limits and that the thing is humming along in good shape. So that took a fair amount of my time. The rest of it, I'd have to say, I really enjoyed. It was wonderful to have an occasional break from the constant chatter on the radio and get off behind the moon and the utter and complete silence of being the only human being on that side of that planet.

GROSS: And this is the dark side, the side we don't see from Earth.

COLLINS: Yeah, it's the far side, the back side. Sometimes, it's dark. Sometimes, it's light. It depends on the angle to the sun. But regardless of light or dark, it's utterly quiet, completely serene. I knew that over on the other side, there were 3 billion on that funny-looking little planet out there and two on the surface of the moon. But where I was, that was all - just me.

GROSS: How did you know that it was going to work, that you were going to be able to meet up and return together? I mean...

COLLINS: Well, I did not know.

GROSS: When was that moment when you knew, this is it? We've made it. We've made it.

COLLINS: Well, I did not know. I was worried about it. It's - the rendezvous process is a relatively straightforward one, provided everything goes exactly right. But if, for example, they don't take off from the moon on time, if they're late by a few seconds or a minute, then all kinds of bad things start happening, and you have to change your entire strategy for bringing the two vehicles together. Likewise, if their gyros, let's say - their gyroscopes were tilted a little bit and they went up into some kind of a lopsided orbit, I might be able to go get them, and I might not. I had some extra fuel on board, but it's very costly of fuel to change your orbit much, especially to change the direction of your orbit.

And so there were just a lot of unknowns, in my mind, at least. And therefore, I was pleased beyond measure to see them coming, like, right down the centerline of the highway below me. I could see that from the - from my computer and from the information coming from their radar that things were going well. And as they got closer and closer, I started feeling better and better and more and more confident that we were going to carry the whole thing off.

GROSS: You wrote that when they returned, you wanted to give Buzz a big smooch on the forehead. And then you were too embarrassed, so you just shook his hand (laughter).

COLLINS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I didn't - I wanted to greet him like a parent might greet an errant child who'd been out late, and you're so worried about where they are. But when they finally appear, you're just delighted. You give them a big hug.

GROSS: You know, all of us got to see the moonwalk on television. Did you get to see any of it on a monitor while you were in space?

COLLINS: No, I had no way of seeing what was going on. I could talk to them. I had two different ways of talking to them while they were on the surface. One was, when I was overhead, I could speak to them directly for a couple of minutes. And then when I went over the horizon - their horizon - I could talk to them by relay back to Earth. I could say something to the Earth, and then my voice would be bounced back to them on the surface. And then for the rest of the time, when I was behind the moon, I wasn't talking to anybody, nobody there.

DAVIES: Former Apollo astronaut Michael Collins speaking with Terry Gross in 1988. Collins died Wednesday at the age of 90. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LES DEUX LOVE ORCHESTRA'S "LES MODERNES")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to the interview Terry recorded in 1988 with astronaut Michael Collins, who was on the Apollo 11 mission that carried Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the surface of the moon. Collins died Wednesday at the age of 90.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: I want to ask you about another really momentous space accomplishment in your life, and that was in July of 1966 when you were, I think, the first person in space to leave the vehicle and make contact with another space vehicle. Is that right?

COLLINS: Yes. There was a spacewalk leaving Gemini - Gemini No. 10 and floating over to an Agena, another unmanned vehicle that had been left in orbit, and retrieving from that Agena an experiment package and then bringing it back to the Gemini. And that was a little strange and a little bit different, and that's not something that you can quite choreograph like you can other parts of space. You just sort of have to see how it goes as it goes. And I had a few problems. I was trailing this umbilical cord, and there were loose pieces of metal flapping off the end of the Agena. And I was afraid that the cord was going to get entangled with the Agena and that I was going to get wound up in a horrible mess, a ball connecting these two spacecraft. And poor old John Young, who was back in the Gemini, would have no choice but to snip my umbilical cord and leave me up there. And so it was a little tense for a while.

GROSS: When you left the capsule for the spacewalk, did you have to just kind of jump the way a lot of us jump into deep water for the very first time, thinking, well, I hope I float? This is it, got to go (laughter).

COLLINS: Well, what happened is the - yes, the first time John maneuvered the Gemini under the end of the Agena and we were about, I guess, 10 or 12 feet away from it, and I gave a little tiny nudge - I didn't want to get going too fast. And I floated up and almost missed the thing, but I barely snagged it. And - but then as I was going hand over hand around to where the experiment package was, I fell off. And so I had to reel myself in on the umbilical and come back into the Gemini cockpit and then try again a second time. And the second time, I had - instead of just pushing off, I had a little a little gun, it was called, where I could squirt out nitrogen gas and propel myself. So I aimed the gun right at the tip of the Agena and started squirting gas, and then I just kind of slowly rose up out of the cockpit and floated over to it and grabbed it once again.

GROSS: Wow. Well, I think if there's any experience in the universe that could really make you think about how small each person is compared to the universe itself, it would be your experience walking in space like that. Did you think about that at the time? Were you too preoccupied to think about it?

COLLINS: You know, actually, during that Gemini flight in Earth's orbit, we were really busy. We had - we were working about 16 to 18 hours a day. And we were overloaded. During the flight of Apollo 11 to the moon, I did have a chance to look back and give it some thought. If you look at the Earth as it is from the moon, first you find it's a tiny little thing once you locate it. You may look out all your spacecraft windows and not see it at all. But once you swing around and it comes into view, you're startled by how tiny it is. It's about the size of your thumbnail if you hold your arm out in front of you. And it's very, very bright, very, very shiny. The sunlight bounces off it.

It's almost like a small headlight out there, blue and white, primarily the blue of the water, the white of the clouds. You do see some land, but your primary impression is a little blue and white marble and no sign of human beings, no sign of any habitation. The overriding impression I got was one, oddly enough, of fragility. I mean, I walked the surface of this planet all my life. I know it's rock solid. But from space, it appears to be very, very fragile. And if we think about that view, it's an accurate one. Our little planet here, with its very thin atmosphere, is a fragile entity. And it makes you want to really nurture it and protect it once you've seen it from outer space.

GROSS: When you were doing your spacewalk, what could you actually see?

COLLINS: Oh, you can see wonderfully well. You have the whole world at your feet. Come roaring in over the Pacific Ocean, you can see in one glance all the way from Alaska to Baja, Calif. You go across the United States in something like six minutes. And if you miss something, not to worry, you'll be back again in another 90 minutes and get a second look at it. This is true when you're inside the spacecraft peering out a small porthole. It's even more true when you're outside, and you've got this wide angle view of the whole world below you.

GROSS: I'll tell you something I don't understand, and I don't know if you could explain it in lay terms, but when you're out dangling from this umbilical cord in space attached to a spacecraft, the spacecraft is speeding around in orbit. How do you keep up a relative speed with the spacecraft?

COLLINS: Oh, gee. That's hard to explain. It's sort of like driving down the highway at 55 miles an hour in your station wagon. And you've got the kids in the back seat. And if one of the kids jumps up off the seat, that kid comes down in the same spot. It doesn't come down somewhere else because the car has moved out from under him while he was up in the air. You see what I mean? The car's going 55 miles an hour. The kid's going 55 miles an hour. But the kid bounces up and down, lands in the same spot in the car because he's going zero miles an hour relative to the car. Does that make any sense?

GROSS: Yeah, it does, except that you're outside of the car, so to speak.

COLLINS: All right. Make it a convertible then instead of a station wagon.

GROSS: Right, OK. (Laughter) I got it. OK. Do you think that most astronauts who've gone as far away from their home planet as you have are changed very much by that experience? It seems like the kind of experience that would lead you to go - undergo either a religious conversion or to come back thinking about things in ways you've never thought about it before or that you might be very depressed afterwards because nothing could ever measure up to the climactic experience of walking on or orbiting the moon.

COLLINS: Well, I think all of those elements you mentioned are certainly there, Terry. I think I can only speak for myself. And in my case, they were there. They are there. But they're not - they're are relatively small things. I think I'm still fundamentally the same person that I was before I flew in space. You see things that will remain with you all your life. I've been privileged to see things that earthbound people will never see. And I won't forget those things. But I think I'm probably fundamentally the same person I was before.

DAVIES: Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins speaking with Terry Gross in 1988. He died Wednesday at the age of 90. Coming up, actress Kate Winslet and a review of the Swedish film "About Endlessness." I'm Dave Davies. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: T minus 15 seconds. Guidance is internal. Twelve, 11, 10, nine. Ignition sequence start. Six, five, four, three, two, one, zero. All engines running. Liftoff. We have liftoff 32 minutes past the hour. Liftoff on Apollo 11.

NEIL ARMSTRONG: Neil Armstrong reporting the roll and pitch program which puts Apollo 11 on a proper heading.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Roll's complete. (Unintelligible).

ARMSTRONG: Altitude's 2 miles.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Houston, you're good at 1 minute.

ARMSTRONG: Down range, 1 mile...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Next we're going to listen to some of Terry's interview with Kate Winslet recorded in December. Winslet is starring in the new HBO series "Mare Of Easttown" in which she plays a divorced police detective in the Pennsylvania town she grew up in. Here's a clip from the first episode. A neighbor has called the mare after she finds a man peering into her window.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MARE OF EASTTOWN")

KATE WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) Oh, you're here.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I'm here. I want to make sure you knew about this right away, so the community's safe in case the pervert's still on the loose.

WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) Well, next time, you just call the station. Do you have the main number?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I don't remember. But I trust you when I don't know who the station will send over.

WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) I understand, but I'm a detective sergeant, which means I investigate the burglaries and the overdoses and all the really bad crap that goes on around here.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Sounds awful. Maybe you should look into a different line of work.

WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) Here it is, Mrs. Carroll (ph). See this? That's the main station number. All right? That's the one you want. I'll put it right in the center. So you call them - OK? - next time, instead of waking me up.

TERRY GROSS: Winslet started her film career at the age of 17 and became a star three years later with her role in the blockbuster "Titanic." Her other films include "Sense And Sensibility," "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind," "Revolutionary Road" and "The Reader." "Mare Of Easttown" airs Sunday nights at 10.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

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 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: 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 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 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? And they were like, oh, can you? Could you fit? It would just be lovely to have someone there. And 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. 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: You've talked about how, when you were young, you were fat. And you 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 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.

DAVIES: Kate Winslet speaking with Terry Gross recorded last year. Winslet stars in the new HBO miniseries "Mare Of Easttown," which airs Sunday nights at 10. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXADRE DESPLAT'S "TRAINS 2")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're listening to the interview Terry Gross recorded in December with Kate Winslet, who stars in the new HBO miniseries "Mare Of Easttown." It airs Sunday nights at 10.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: 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.

GROSS: Wow.

WINSLET: 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 and 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 scrap 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 like, oh, my God. That's an old draft of "Eternal Sunshine." OK, we can't leave these in the restaurant.

GROSS: (Laughter).

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 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, 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, 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 truly - 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 that might never come around again. And I would say, yeah, but I like that low-budget film called "Hideous Kinky" that's filming in Marrakesh. And, yeah, but that don't - you know, 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 felt 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.

DAVIES: Kate Winslet speaking with Terry Gross recorded last year. Winslet stars in the new HBO miniseries "Mare Of East Town," which airs Sunday nights at 10. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the Swedish film "About Endlessness," which he says strikes an exquisite balance between deadpan humor and acute despair. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEITH JARRETT TRIO'S "WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS")

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our film critic Justin Chang first saw the film "About Endlessness" at the 2019 Venice International Film Festival, where it won a directing prize for the Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson. Justin recently re-watched the movie and found it just as funny and captivating as the first time. It began streaming this week on major platforms. Here's Justin's review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "About Endlessness" is a fitting title for a movie about the futility of the human condition. But happily, the movie itself is anything but a slog. For one thing, it's only 76 minutes long. And in every one of those minutes, it strikes an exquisite balance between deadpan humor and acute despair, offset by the faintest glimmer of hope. It's the latest film from the great Swedish writer-director Roy Andersson, who isn't as well-known as he should be in the U.S. But if you've seen his movies, like "Songs From The Second Floor" or the wonderfully titled "A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence," you couldn't mistake his style for that of any other filmmaker.

In almost all his movies, and now in "About Endlessness," life unfolds as a series of highly stylized, bone-dry comic sketches. Each sketch is like a diorama, shot with a fixed camera on a studio set that makes intricate use of miniatures and digital effects. Against these meticulous backdrops, filmed in deliberately muted colors, Andersson shows us people going about their crushing routines, sometimes in dreary-looking rooms and offices, sometimes in bars or on the street. If that sounds unbearably heavy, it somehow isn't. Even at the grimmest moments, Andersson has a bracing sense of the absurd.

"About Endlessness" begins with an eccentric flourish - a shot of a man and a woman clinging to each other as they float through gray, cloudy skies. Andersson's tableau-like images have always been strongly influenced by painters, especially Goya and Edward Hopper, and this ghostly couple evokes the surrealism of Marc Chagall. They set an otherworldly tone that persists even as the movie falls to Earth and introduces us to the people below.

Rather than situating his characters at the center of a plot, Andersson gives each of them just a moment or two that captures the entirety of their existence. There's a middle-aged miser who keeps his savings tucked in a mattress, and an older couple who lay flowers at the grave of their long-deceased son. We meet a man who holds a petty grudge against a childhood friend, and a woman who breaks the heel of her shoe while pushing a baby stroller.

Some scenes are shockingly dark, like the one with a man who's just committed a horrific act of violence against a family member. Others are almost sublimely lovely, like the one where three young women break into a spontaneous dance outside a cafe. Each new scene is accompanied by the voice of a narrator who sums up each vignette in a few words, like, I saw a woman who loved champagne, or I saw a man who had lost his way. That last description could apply to more than a few characters. One figure to whom the movie keeps returning is a middle-aged priest who's lost his faith in God and fallen into a deep despair. He's a pitiable and sometimes hilarious character, whether he's breaking down while administering communion or desperately seeking help from a not-particularly-helpful therapist.

The absence of God is a theme that recurs throughout Andersson's work. He also likes to suddenly cut away to the distant past, as if to suggest that nothing ever really changes. At one point, we see a line of defeated World War II soldiers marching to a POW camp - a moment that's shot with the same glum matter-of-factness as the moments set in the present day.

Whether his characters are moping in private or humiliating themselves in public, it's hard not to laugh at their many foibles, sometimes with a sense of relief and sometimes in recognition. Even still, "About Endlessness" is a mellower, more melancholy piece of work than some of Andersson's previous films, and its short running time carries with it a sense of finality. It's been rumored that this may be the 78-year-old director's last movie. I hope it isn't, though it would hardly be the worst swan song.

Andersson's vignettes may be tidy and compact, but somehow they managed to distill what feels like the whole range of messy human emotion. There are scenes here as strangely moving as any in his earlier films, when all the misery suddenly evaporates and you're swept up in a surge of feeling for the people on screen. My favorite might be the shot of a depressed-looking dentist hanging out in a bar while snow falls outside the window and "Silent Night" plays on the soundtrack. Suddenly, the mood breaks, and another man in the bar starts shouting for no apparent reason, isn't it fantastic? Everything is fantastic. This beautifully bittersweet movie comes awfully close.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is the film critic for the L.A. Times. On Monday's show, we hear from writer Nicole Lynn Lewis, whose new memoir tells the story of her teen pregnancy and her determination to get to college despite the many challenges she faced, including an abusive boyfriend and being temporarily homeless. She graduated and eventually founded the nonprofit Generation Hope to help other teen mothers who get to college. Her memoir is "Pregnant Girl." I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON DIEHL'S "EPILOGUE")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. 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. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON DIEHL'S "EPILOGUE")

Transcripts 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.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

Inner Workings Of DarkSide Cybergang Reveal It's Run Like Any Other Business

New York Times investigative reporter Michael Schwirtz gained access to the dashboard of DarkSide, a Russian ransomware operation that's pulled in more than $90 million since it began last August.

42:32

'Mercury Rising' Explores The U.S.'s Treacherous Attempts to Control Space

In his new book, Mercury Rising, Jeff Shesol writes about Friendship 7, the United States' first mission to put an astronaut in orbit around the Earth and, more broadly, about how Cold War fears fueled the early days of the space program.

08:58

Time-Traveling TV Romp 'Loki' Satirizes Comic-Book Conventions

The new Disney+ series takes one of the most charismatic actors and characters in the entire Marvel Universe — Tom Hiddleston as Loki — and puts him in a show that's lots of fun.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue