Stories of actors’ challenges are a trope, whether it’s tales about the physical demands of a tough shoot, or the responsibility of playing a real-life figure. But for Kate Winslet, her latest role came with a different kind of problem: She really didn’t like her character.
“I think I had to accept quite early on, that I was going to feel profoundly irritated by Ginny, all of the time,” Winslet said. “And, also, that I had to stay the right side of the line with her.”
Set on Coney Island in the 1950’s, Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel” follows Winslet’s Ginny, a perennially disappointed housewife who sees an opportunity to change her fortunes when she falls for a handsome local lifeguard (Justin Timberlake). It’s a questionable choice from the start, one made even more complicated by the sudden arrival of her stepdaughter Carolina (Juno Temple), who also falls for Timberlake’s Mickey. As Mickey and Carolina’s romance unfurls, Ginny grows increasingly desperate, pushing her to unhinged ends and a seemingly dark conclusion.
“There’s this really interesting thing that happens as an actor, at a certain point in one’s life, you have to realize — and this probably happened to me in my mid-twenties — that you just can’t like every character that you play,” Winslet said. “It isn’t right to try and make the audience like them, because that doesn’t make for an interesting performance all the time, and it also doesn’t make for truthful storytelling, either.”
When it came to taking on the tricky task of being Ginny, being honest was at the top of Winslet’s list. For one thing, Ginny doesn’t do anything lightly, and that comes with its own demands.
“Ginny was, without question, the most complex and layered female character that I think I had ever read,” she said. “Everything she feels is very powerful. She’s never meek and mild. She never feels things in half measure. Nothing was by half. If she was drinking, she was drinking. If she was smoking, she was smoking.”
When she was first approached to play the female lead in “Wonder Wheel,” Winslet said she balked at the challenge. Just reading the script made her nervous, uncertain that she could pull off a character that requires both honesty and wildness. The actress remembered telling her own family, “I don’t know how to play this part. I’m just going to have to let it go, and it’s going to be one of those moments I’ll probably regret, and I’ll look at someone else playing the role, brilliantly. Much better than I would. Just, that’s it. Forget it.”
Fortunately for Winslet, both her husband and teenage daughter encouraged her to take on the part, the kind of complicated role that few actresses get. Some might describe it as a “strong female character” — another kind of trope — but Winslet doesn’t really like that designation, either.
“That word ‘strong,’ I think it means prominent, dominating, female-driven. I think it means that we are taken through the thrust of a story by a woman, as opposed to a man,” Winslet said. “To be ‘strong’ sometimes isn’t the most interesting thing. It is more interesting to be complicated, and vulnerable, and real, and terrified, and hopeful, and full of regret.”
Ginny is all of those things, and Winslet worked to mine small details about her character’s past to round out the story. A failed actress who never got past bit parts, a wife who has fallen out of love with her husband (Jim Belushi), a woman who no longer feels secure in her daily life, Ginny’s present is tainted by the failures of the past.
“She still believed that, on somewhere, in some way, and on some level, her past life is having a daily impact on the life she doesn’t want to be living right now,” Winslet said. “She’s so racked with guilt and regret. I’ve never known a character live so much embroiled in the turbulence of her past as Ginny was.”
While the first act of “Wonder Wheel” suggests an escape for Ginny in the form of Mickey, a handsome lifeguard who dreams of being a playwright, even that is tinged with the knowledge that it can never make up for sins of the past.
“She meets Mickey and genuinely starts to believe that it can all be different. She could be given another go-around, another chance at life, that she would throw it all away again, on the slim, veiled hope of some dream coming true,” she said. “It’s just crushing. It’s so terrifyingly tragic.”
With less than three months to prepare for the role, Winslet used that time to memorize most of the very wordy script, to steep herself in the culture of the period (listening to a lot of period-appropriate music), and to brush up on her New York accent (Winslet easily demonstrated the sound she wanted to avoid, which she described as a stereotypical “Noo Yawk chew”).
Preparation was key when it came to playing pages and pages of dialogue. “You can’t make mistakes when you do 14-page scenes in one take,” she said. “There is no backing up. You have to stop, and start, all over again. I would just hate that. I have personal standards. I would be devastated.”
Winslet wasn’t bothered by Allen’s approach toward his actors, which is usually skews toward keeping them at arm’s length. “I do pride myself on being fairly self-sufficient, a director can say anything to me, anything at all, and I’m not offended,” she said. “I would rather be told, and I can always tell if I’m not being told the truth.”
Another possible hurdle for Winslet: leading a cast of supporting stars better known for lighter fare, including Belushi, Temple, and Timberlake. But the demands of Allen’s style of production stripped any expectations away.
“There’s no ego, there’s not film-star stuff. I don’t like being around that, anyway,” she said. “I find that very difficult, but, luckily on Woody Allen films, there’s no time to have issues; actors’ picky issues at all. You’re all thrown in together. You share trailers, literally. You can hear each other peeing through the tiny, little walls.”
Allen notoriously doesn’t rehearse before production starts, instead opting to practice scenes immediately before filming them, but Winslet said she and her cast members would make the time to run lines as they traveled from set or had a day off. It bonded them and kept them pages ahead of a bulky script.
Despite all that preparation, Winslet is candid about the toll the part took on her.
“I would wake up with a racing heart, in the middle of the night,” Winslet said. “It was like this feeling of stop, go, stop, go, being ready to run. Being ready to strap into the white-knuckle ride. This constant adrenaline-fueled state that found myself in, that was not very nice, and not very comfortable at all.”
“Wonder Wheel” wrapped in November 2016, but Winslet is still reeling from the experience of being Ginny. (She shot the physically taxing “Mountain Between Us” immediately afterward, and while she remembers it as “a great adventure,” she also said that “playing Ginny was like climbing 50 mountains”).
“I’m still not very good, actually, at letting characters go. I’m not,” she said when asked how she feels about Ginny now. “I look at photographs of myself, immediately after that shoot… and I just look horrific. I just look like a different person. Shellshocked or something, at having come out the other side of playing such a gigantic, all-consuming character.”
On her final day of filming, Winslet wrapped while standing underneath the eponymous boardwalk ride on the shore of Coney Island, and she remembers nearly collapsing under the weight of what she’d just completed, almost taking out script supervisor Diane Dwyer along the way.
“I was standing there, and she comes over, and she goes, ‘You’re done.’ She gives me this huge hug, and she goes, ‘Oh, my darling. Let her go,'” Winslet said. “And I thought, Oh, I could have collapsed. I literally could have. It was as though I had to keep my legs steady underneath me, for the whole of that shoot.”
And, she adds, she wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“It’s an actor’s dream, that feeling,” she said. “What you hope for. You want to feel as though you’ve done absolutely everything you could to try to make that character yours.”
“Wonder Wheel” will be in limited release on Friday, December 1.