October 31, 2008 at 04:00 AM EDT

Kate Winslet could be an animated Disney heroine. Sitting on a bench in a lush Greenwich Village garden on a warm October day, she is surrounded by butterflies and chirping birds that compete for her attention. The 33-year-old actress interrupts herself to point out the most flamboyant of her winged friends, and you half expect her to break into song. Maybe next time. Today the five-time Oscar nominee has a more solemn mission: talking about her two December releases, in which she plays emotionally complex characters of the sort that has become her trademark. In The Reader, she portrays an ex-Nazi accused of a war crime while harboring a personal secret. In Revolutionary Road, she and Titanic costar Leonardo DiCaprio reunite as an unhappily married 1950s couple. Don’t expect fairy-tale endings.

Entertainment Weekly: Revolutionary Road is about a crumbling marriage, and The Reader is about the Holocaust. Do you find some catharsis in playing such dark characters?
Kate Winslet: I still feel like I’m recovering from The Reader, to be honest. God, it’s pathetic, isn’t it? Really, I should be done with it, but it does take me quite a long time to just feel like I’m back in my own skin again. It’s really weird. I still find myself flicking through the novel. Even now. I can tell you what’s on page 109 of the book.

EW: It can’t be easy to play an SS guard accused of letting hundreds of women and children burn to death.
KW: Hanna Schmitz…[exhales deeply]…I mean, boy, oh, boy. I had to find things within myself that I just never explored before. To say I completely understood Hanna wouldn’t be entirely true, but I was able to come to terms with her actions, and to understand, on some level, why she did the things she did. And it was the most awful feeling in many ways because I didn’t really want to sympathize with her. I didn’t really want to have to understand what goes on in the mind of an SS guard. But I did. That’s the truth of it. I did. It’s kind of a confession when I say that, because I feel like I shouldn’t have understood.

EW: You have a unique ability to transmit your own intelligence into your characters…
KW: I’m so not intelligent, but I love you for saying that.

EW: …but Hanna is clearly less sophisticated than most of your characters. Does that make playing her more challenging?
KW: Absolutely, because there is so much that she is lacking. We made Hanna’s dialect a little rougher around the edges because of her social status and because she was a peasant. I didn’t want it to sound quite as clean as all the other characters. But when you’re a person who has to develop so many strategies to just get through life existing with a lie, you become such a good liar that actually you become quite smart.

EW: Did that accent follow you home?
KW: Oh, my kids got so sick of me trying to read them bedtime stories in German accents. My son would say, ”Don’t do that funny German.” They’ve had bedtime stories read to them in American, in German, in upper-class English, Boston, Long Island. [Mimicking her son] ”Mommy, just do it in a plain voice. Just be plain.”

EW: You practically produced Revolutionary Road, recruiting Leonardo DiCaprio to costar and Sam Mendes to direct. It must have been surreal to interpret a marriage-gone-wrong on film with your husband directing.
KW: We did discover early on that once I’ve started to work, I really don’t let it go. As soon as we got the kids to bed, I’d be thinking, ”Oh, goody, I can pick his brains about those things we discussed today.” Some mornings, I would be wide awake at five, literally propped up on my elbow watching him sleeping, waiting for him to wake up, and he’s opening his eyes and I’m going, ”Good morning. Now about April Wheeler…” [Laughs]

EW: You and Leo have been stubbornly eclectic in your film roles after Titanic. Do you ever consult with each other about your careers and the business?
KW: We do. Leo and I are very similar in the way we go about the decision-making process. When you say I’ve been stubbornly eclectic, the funny thing is that I haven’t. I’m not retaliating against what you said, but it’s just been instinctive.

EW: I intended it as a compliment.
KW: I don’t take it as criticism, but just to clarify that a bit: I think it would be fair to say that after Titanic, I definitely felt extremely overwhelmed at being thrust into this, how do I even put it…

EW: Machine?
KW: Yeah. Well, not even the machine of it, but just to suddenly be a famous person. I was a little bit known before Titanic. But then suddenly, it was just whhooosshh! And the truth is, and this is all in hindsight, I just wasn’t really ready. And I was also frightened I was going to lose a sense of myself. But the most important thing is to follow your heart, really, and so that’s what I’ve just always done. For better or worse.

EW: Was it easy to reestablish your rapport with Leo?
KW: No one makes me laugh like Leo. No one. And the same back. There were a couple of crew members on the film who have worked with Leo on various Scorsese projects, and they would sidle up to me and say, ”You know, you really bring out another side of him that we haven’t seen before.” Of course, we were serious, but we could also be found absolutely cackling in the corner sharing some ridiculous private joke that nobody else would find funny. The great thing was that we were able to hang on to this sense of physical and emotional ease with each other. There was nothing we were afraid to try — not afraid to look stupid, not afraid to yell at each other, not afraid to, as characters, beat each other up.

EW: After earning five Oscar nominations and starring in the biggest movie in history, do you find that the process ever gets easier?
KW: No. Actually, it probably gets harder. The stakes get higher. You can’t become complacent. I walk through the dark tunnel completely by myself, you know? And more often than not, I pretty well collapse when I get to the light at the end.

EW: There’s still fear?
KW: The fear of f—ing up? Believe me, baby. It’s there all the time.

EW: Were you surprised when The Reader‘s December release date was made official, placing it in competition with Revolutionary Road for Oscars?
KW: You probably know more than I do. On the whole, the politics of moviemaking is something that actors are kind of blissfully ignorant of. The fact that I’ve been given the opportunity to play these two incredible roles in less than a year, that might not happen again. The determination to really make the most of both those opportunities was huge. So I’m knackered. But it’s the best type of knackered in the world.

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