The Oscar winner disappears into her role in 'Steve Jobs'
Credit: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Ten minutes in to a recent New York Film Festival screening of Steve Jobs, the dark silence of the theater was pierced by a man in the audience whose whisper voice needed some work: “WHO’S THAT ACTRESS?”

Michael Fassbender is the charismatic but difficult Apple icon in the film, and during the outburst of audience interaction, he was engaged in a tense, onscreen conversation with Joanna Hoffman, the company’s put-upon but undaunted marketing chief. She’s played by Kate Winslet, the Oscar-winning actress who’s been nominated for six Academy Awards, including one for her role in what was then the biggest movie of all time, Titanic.

“OH,” said the non-whisperer.

Winslet would probably be pleased with the confusion. The actress, who just turned 40, said she told director Danny Boyle that her goal with Hoffman was to disappear into the part. “It would be very cool if we could have people wondering who that is,” Winslet said. “It’s a great trick. That’s what acting is supposed to be like, and feel like, and if you can pull it off, if you can actually convince an audience that you really are somebody else, that’s a great feeling.”

Kate Winslet is a capital-M movie star, but she’s never really felt — or acted — that way. “I think of myself as a character actress,” she told Kent Jones, director of the NYFF, during an intimate gathering of friends of the Film Society of Lincoln Center on Tuesday night. “I was never particularly pretty when I was younger. I was quite chubby actually and teased for it. And I think when you have that in your mind, you don’t ever see yourself as this sort of beautiful swan or anything like that. So I think I was automatically drawn to these kind of more interesting, not necessarily glamorous roles, just because it felt closer to who I felt I was.”

But glamorous roles are kind of what made Winslet famous, and it’s easy to make assumptions of grandeur about her. She was a perfect Jane Austen lady in Sense and Sensibility (her first Oscar nomination) and her Rose was the model of elegance and refinement in Titanic, the blockbuster that changed her life forever when she was only 21. Combined with the British accent that conveys an air of erudition to many American ears, Winslet seems to belong to the club of classically trained British actors who forged their acting instrument at an elite drama academy.

Not true. Not even close.

Winslet described how her modest beginnings birthed one of the most decorated acting careers of the last quarter century. “I grew up in a tiny, tiny house in a family of impoverished actors … I mean, we didn’t get a VCR until I was 15,” she said. “We were all sort of wandering players, you know. [My father] would work in a post office and then go for auditions in the afternoon. It was really very much a fun, lovely childhood on a shoestring … And I just thought, ‘Well, that seems like a hell of a great gig to me. I’m up for the impoverished actor life, you know.'”

But whether it was instilled by her parents’ passion or simply part of her DNA, Winslet has always possessed a laser-focused drive to succeed. Luck helps too. Her first movie audition was for Heavenly Creatures, a fact-based Australian feature directed by some relative newcomer named Peter Jackson. Not only did she land the role, but the film was excellent and people took notice. “That was a stroke of luck,” she said. “Lots of actors will toodle around making small films and … then 10 years into their career, they might get that great lucky break. Well, I had those lucky breaks straight away.”

Rather then go the academy route to perfect her chops, Winslet quit school at 16 and received her education on movie sets. Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (on which she and Emma Thompson became lifelong pals) and Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet only reinforced her prestige bona fides, positioning her perfectly for the female role in James Cameron’s epic blockbuster.

The runaway success of Titanic threw her for a loop, though, one that she responded to with indie films, like Hideous Kinky and Holy Smoke. “Call me naive, but I had no idea that that was what was going to happen with that film and to my life,” she said. “I look back, and I just remember thinking, ‘I don’t really know how to do this being-famous thing. And I’m not sure I really like it, and I’m not sure I’m ready for it either.’ And in a funny way, I also didn’t feel particularly like I’d earned it. I was only 21, and I still had so much to learn. I was learning everything on the job, and I just knew that if I allowed myself to really catapult myself into that world, if I really went with it, I think it would’ve made me unhappy possibly.”

Winslet has never succumbed to the pressures of careerism, although she’s not a snob either, what with her role in the Divergent franchise. Eclectic would be an appropriate word for her movie choices — Eternal Sunshine, Iris, Little Children — and she’s not necessary enamored by the privileges of stardom. She still sees herself as one of the players. Back in 2008, right before she was nominated for The Reader, the role that won her her Oscar, she explained to EW the joy and excitement she feels when working. “If I have down time, I’m literally sitting on the [trailer] step, like, ‘Have they called for me? Well, can I just go anyway?’ I just want to stay on the set. You come up with ideas the whole time if you’re on the set and it’s a constant flowing thing. Plus, no one’s waiting for you. I hate that feeling that people are waiting on the actors. I can’t stand it. So I’m just there. And sure enough, 9 times out of 10, ‘Is Kate around?’ ‘Yup, right here. What do you need?’ If you’re on the playing field, you might as well stay on the playing field.”

Steve Jobs, then, was a dream come true for Winslet. True to form, she aggressively pursued the role, even before she’d seen a script. “Okay, there’s woman’s part in this? I need to be in this,” she told EW. “I want to work with Michael Fassbender and Danny Boyle and it’s written by Aaron Sorkin? F—, I’m there. I didn’t even care what role it was. I just wanted to be in it.”

She did a quick Google search for Joanna Hoffman’s photo, purchased a short-haired dark wig, and sent a photo to producer Scott Rudin. Boyle arranged a meeting shortly thereafter, and presto, Winslet was in.

The unconventional three-act structure of the film — with each chapter set around a tech product launch between 1984 and 1998 — is very theatrical, and the prep emphasized all the things that Winslet loves about acting. “We would rehearse each act for 10 days, and then we would stop for a day and then we’d shoot the act,” Winslet said. “There was this great moment that would happen on the last day of each rehearsal. We would just run it twice, like a play. It was fast-paced and fabulous, with all the actors in the room. There was no space for egos. Because we were all there, building this thing together. And everyone’s opinion counted for something.”

People have asked Winslet if she ever plans to direct herself. After all, she’s learned from some of the best, including Boyle, Cameron, Jane Campion, Michel Gondry, Todd Field, Todd Haynes, Roman Polanski, Stephen Daldry, and her ex-husband, Sam Mendes. Maybe, she told EW earlier this year, but directing doesn’t seem like a box she feels like she has to check right now. Her passion is acting with others who share that same enthusiasm. “Acting, it’s playing,” said Winslet. “It’s just dressing up and pretending to be somebody else. And it’s the most fantastic thing in the world.”