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Kate Winslet Held Her Emotions in ‘Ammonite,’ Letting Them Show When It Counted

Kate Winslet takes chances every time she shows up for a role, and here she talks her latest in Francis Lee's period romance.

Kate Winslet in "Ammonite"

Kate Winslet takes chances every time she shows up for a role. She wasn’t chasing likability when she earned the Best Actress Oscar for playing Nazi Hannah Schmidt in “The Reader.”

“I think I’m attracted to things that are going to be a challenge and scare me and pull on something of myself that’s different from the last time,” said Winslet in our Zoom interview (above). “You’re only as good as your last gig. If I don’t keep reinventing the wheel, how can I expect people to hope for different things from me? I step out of my comfort zone.”

Back in her 20s, Winslet realized that she was “trying to get audiences to like me and the characters I was playing,” she said. “That’s fucking bullshit. You can’t do that as an actor. I want to be prepared to get offered interesting parts that run the gamut of range, that require different emotional rhythms and stages to a character. Empathy is okay to ask for, but not sympathy. Why would you sympathize with Hannah Schmidt? It’s all right to empathize and understand the things she did, but you can’t trick or manipulate your audience. All you can do is be truthful and grounded in the part.”

This time, she connected with Yorkshire filmmaker Francis Lee, who had broken out with gay love story “God’s Own Country.” His second film, “Ammonite” (Neon), is a true 1840s story a story about the working-class, self-taught paleontologist Mary Anning, who trawled Lyme Regis, the rocky Jurassic Dorset coast in West England that served as the dramatic setting for “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.”

Kate Winslet in “The Reader.”

The Weinstein Company

Winslet agreed to take on this quiet, restrained, painfully lonely collector of extinct mollusks, a poor woman with scant education who “through ingenuity and skill and determination and will to survive, became one of the best paleontologists of her generation,” said Lee. His script attracted three other top actresses: “God’s Own Country” star Gemma Jones as Anning’s sour, widowed mother; and as her love interests, Fiona Shaw (“The Lady Eve”) and Saoirse Ronan (“Lady Bird”), respectively.

Winslet felt that she and her director were “cut from the same cloth,” she said. “He’s very working class, but so am I.” The reason people think she’s not is because she’s a classically trained, successful actress who speaks well, which she inherited from her mother and actress grandmother. “I’m proper working class with real socialist parents.”

Lee also trained as an actor. “So he has a tremendous understanding of actors,” said Winslet. “I felt supported right away. I knew playing Mary was going to be frightening for me; I knew it wasn’t going to come naturally. I was nervous about playing her even though I knew I wanted to be part of the challenge.”

"Ammonite"

“Ammonite”

See-Saw Films

Lee wanted Winslet to earn the movie’s few scenes with emotion. “Playing Mary, there were two emotions I wasn’t allowed to show very often,” she said. “Almost no happiness: no smiling, no sadness, no tears. Those are two emotional actors lean on a lot, emotions I’m no stranger to in my life. Learning to use anything between those two powerful emotions was very odd.”

When she did get to show what was going on inside her, “I had to earn it,” she said. “Learning how to internalize pride, happiness, sadness, joy, longing, and find ways to express those things without words and using my face was terrifying, and very unnatural.”

To repress so much inside this “unknowable figure,” Winslet relied on building Anning’s backstory. “That helped me to understand not just who she was but why she did things the way she did,” she said, from losing her father to her tricky relationship with her mother. “When she formed a closeness with someone, it would get to the point where all she would know how to do was to keep that person in a private, isolated world to herself. For me, it’s a film about how we choose to love and how that ends up defining who we are.”

"Ammonite"

“Ammonite”

Neon

In one intense scene between Mary and an old love (Fiona Shaw), Winslet was able to reveal some feelings. “Fiona and I were nervous,” said Winslet, “because our dialogue was so exquisite and the camera was close on our faces. You could read everything. It was Mary’s only moment of actual emotion, in terms of sadness and tears. I felt quite sick. It was such a relief for something to move from your esophagus and come up instead of holding it in.”

Winslet also appreciated being able to open up in the intimate love scene with Ronan behind closed doors. “Because so few words are shared between the two women,” she said, “as longing and desire and passion starts to develop, it’s so subtle and quiet without being romantic. It was an opportunity to express the romance…It’s so much about how who we choose to love can end up defining who we are. There’s space for longing and desire, and those things are kept away from romantic tropes. It’s a story about how two women discover more about themselves because of their love for each other. It’s also a story about the power of finding love unexpectedly in a place you may never have expected to find it and getting totally lost in the love you feel for the person.”

And it helped, when playing this rugged outdoor woman climbing craggy cliffs in hobnail boots and skirts and hammering at ancient fossils, that Winslet is “a very hardy person,” she said. Her family likes to go on wilderness camping holidays, “not on beaches being waited on with stormy daiquiris, not fancy schmancy.” She required no stunt double. (In fact, on this low-budget independent feature, that was not an option.) “I climb up, I go down, I go up, and down I come. To me it is not a big deal. I am aware of my physical self, I am strong, I know how to not get hurt.”

To get closer to Anning, Winslet gave up central heating and booked a Jurassic Coast shanty close to the water, which was buffeted by the elements. “I lived in the house Monday to Friday alone, with no television,” she said. “It was a very quiet, isolated life, quite frightening with the winds and rain and hail and waves’ spray hitting the window. ‘It’s for the good of my work, do not go get a latte right now!’ I’d listen to the radio and do my drawing.”

Having survived shooting six days a week for seven and a half months with James Cameron on “Titanic,” Winslet welcomed her recent return to working with him on the New Zealand set of “Avatar,” in a gigantic aircraft hangar surrounded by some 200 cameras and technicians at computer banks. That’s when Winslet learned how to free dive, and hold her breath underwater for over seven minutes.

“It was not just, ‘I can do this,'” she said, ‘but ‘humans can do this,’ unless you have a medical condition. It’s something with training that people can do. I love the water, I am a strong swimmer, the first one in on a cold October day when I was little. To be able to achieve something physically that I would never be able to imagine, was amazing. And very relaxing. Sometimes when I am feeling stressed, I say to my husband, ‘Let’s do a breath hold!'”

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This Article is related to: Awards Spotlight Winter 2021 and tagged , ,


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