With Ammonite, Kate Winslet finds herself rethinking her career
The idea of awards season gives Kate Winslet hives. Same with the mere word campaign. It’s like “an allergic reaction,” the Oscar winner says. The kind you probably get when you’ve been making the rounds since 1996, the year Winslet was nominated for her first Academy Award (for Sense and Sensibility). "Not to try to sidestep the importance of these moments, but frankly I’ve never been very good at handling any of it. I just roll with it, with as much good humor as I can.”
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And this season, perhaps the strangest amid an ongoing global pandemic, has already offered plenty of comedy. For Ammonite (in select theaters Nov. 13), Neon’s next big contender after the distributor’s Parasite Oscar triumph earlier this year, Winslet, 45, recently sat down in her home on England’s southern coast to record a film-festival panel with costar Saoirse Ronan and director Francis Lee (God's Own Country). Set to talk about her role as 1840s paleontologist Mary Anning and the intense romance she strikes with Ronan’s repressed housewife, “I did the whole entire Q&A in my undies because I couldn’t find appropriate trousers,” Winslet admits. “I was like, ’Oh, f--- it.’ ” Then the internet crashed and she had to triage with her husband, businessman Edward Abel Smith. Weeks later, she had to record an acceptance speech for the Toronto International Film Festival, which was honoring her with a Tribute Actor Award. More technological shenanigans ensued. "My husband and I just couldn't get the tripod thing to work and the lighting was all funky. We were a disaster team and it just took forever," she admits. “I’m the worst person to be figuring out all this virtual stuff…. I’m not the techie person. I can cook and I can act. And that is it.”
It’s clear which skill Neon is banking on as Winslet reenters the awards conversation for the first time since 2015’s Steve Jobs. "Perhaps some of the characters that I play can often be quite strong and active," she says. Certainly with that Danny Boyle-directed film, there was a “snappiness" as a result of Aaron Sorkin’s writing. Playing Joanna Hoffman, Winslet remembers how her "hands were constantly moving" and how "quick on her feet" the character needed to be. Ammonite, set in a time where women were societally silenced, was more internal.
There's very little dialogue in the film, but it was the subtle beauty and nuance of Lee's writing that Winslet found gratifying. “Everything comes from an extremely steady, still place,” she says. “I had to focus a lot on that because movement and expression for Mary is used as communication. I had to be very careful about when those moments would be. We have to really choose when she would smile. She doesn’t smile that often. When she does, it’s an important vocal moment that comes from that expression of joy.”
This type of work isn’t unfamiliar territory for the actress who once shadowed infectious-disease specialists to prepare for 2011’s Contagion — a movie she still hasn’t seen in full and definitely won’t now, due to COVID-19. When the pandemic began, friends and family texted Winslet about how they "blindly saw Contagion" and joked that they could have "warned" her. "I was like, 'Well, don't f---ing watch it! It will scare you,'" Winslet says. "The story is alarmingly accurate. We did work with a remarkable team of people who would listen to the CDC, who advised on the film and gave us incredible information daily and helped design the virus and work with [screenwriter] Scott Burns on the script."
It’s that kind of experience in crafting performances that made Winslet laugh in early talks with Lee: “Francis is like, ‘We’re going to be doing a lot of writing things down and build a whole backstory.’ I’d be like, ‘Francis! You don’t need to say this to me like this is new. I’ve been doing this.’ I'm taking no offense, just finding him actively endearing. And, at the same time, [feeling] hugely relieved to discover that was what he wanted, because that's what I do anyway."
Ammonite is as deep and rich a performance as Winslet’s ever given; in her deliberateness, she’s mesmerizing. She doesn’t compare herself to Ronan but finds they’ve had “similar career paths”; both started young and quickly garnered Hollywood attention. The shorthand that comes with experience became a “blessing,” Winslet says. Watching the film, especially the much-talked-about main love scene, stirred more memories.
Winslet rescheduled shooting that particular scene to coincidence with Ronan's birthday. "I just wanted her to have, frankly, a great memory in her film life, regardless of how the scene played out or the movie turned out," she says. "I knew that it would be [great] just because of the experience that we would share together. I knew that it would be very equal."
Lee was "really nervous" for this moment in the production, Winslet recalls, adding, "He was so concerned to be appropriate in terms of his behavior." Winslet and Ronan choreographed the scene themselves with no rehearsals or anything blocked beforehand. Only female crew members were allowed in the room for filming. “We had a female boom operator who was actually six months pregnant,” she notes. “So, we were all quite focused on making sure that she had enough space because the room was quite small.” There was dim lighting and handheld cameras. "I just could feel that Saoirse and I had the same ideas in terms of what we wanted to express in the scene," she says, "the emotional underpinning of the scene, the connection between these two women — which is, of course, more important than anything in any love scene. We were on the same page in terms of that."
Watching it play out during her first viewing of the finished film offered a different experience. “I almost felt a little bit angry at myself when I thought about how, perhaps, I have conducted my own female self when I participated in intimate scenes in the past,” Winslet reflects. She clarifies she never “felt overpowered or overruled or even instructed in ways that [she hadn't] ultimately agreed with,” but is now more aware of how most cinematic sex scenes are narratively informed by male characters, where the woman is "taken" in some way.
“There are moments when the director or a cinematographer might say, ‘Ideally, I'd like to light it in this direction,’” Winslet elaborates of her own past. “And so you automatically, as actors, are respectful. You don't question it.” Alluding to the #MeToo movement, she says, “We all have to question ourselves so much more now than ever before.” With her acclaimed (and exposing) roles in Little Children (2006) and The Reader (2008), Winslet says “there was a huge amount of collaboration with all of those scenes.” But, she adds, “this is why I feel a responsibility checking myself. Were my thoughts coming from a truly integral place within myself, or was I just automatically being accommodating?”
That she’s asking these questions now speaks to what Ammonite taught her — not only as a performer, but as a human. “[The film] was very equal, very safe, completely neutral and respectful and connected,” she says. “It was a dialogue between two people. That was it.” Who knew that could contain so much?
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