Kate Winslet’s Road Map to Building a Life in the Performing Arts

Kate Winslet knows the secret to a successful self-tape: the flat bit of wall behind her bedroom door. It’s become the go-to spot over the last year in quarantine for her daughter, actor Mia Threapleton, to film auditions—and she’s now got “two really good jobs” to show for it. 

“We were doing this self-tape the other day, and she was getting frustrated; she was struggling with it. And I was just like: ‘Relax. It’s fine. You’re doing absolutely great,’ ” Winslet recalls, speaking by Zoom from the comfort of her home in the English countryside. “And, hands on her hips, she looked at me, and she was like, ‘When did you last do an audition, mum?’ And I said, ‘Well, darling, I did have to audition for “Titanic.” ’ ‘And how old were you?’ ‘I was 20—your age.’ And she just went:

‘…Bitch.’ We were cracking up laughing!”

Playing the iconic Rose Dawson (née DeWitt Bukater) opposite Leonardo DiCaprio launched Winslet into household-name status and earned her the second of seven Academy Award nominations. (Her first was for “Sense and Sensibility” in 1996, and she won in 2009 for “The Reader.”) It also cemented her as one of the preeminent movie stars and most reliable performers of her generation—one who, admittedly, hasn’t had to audition since the 1997 James Cameron epic. But still, she misses the practice of, in her words, “learning more about acting through the process of auditioning.”

“I miss that—the adrenaline of wanting something that much when you go into a room for something. That’s a really important part of a young actor’s life, because you learn your adrenaline levels, you learn how to calm your whole nervous system down,” she explains. “And the process helps enormously in terms of becoming unselfconscious—being able to walk onto a film set and not have that devil on your shoulder going, ‘They think you’re shit. You shouldn’t be here.’ It takes a lot to get through those feelings and move beyond them, and the audition process is helpful in that.”

That devil on the shoulder, however, never does go away for a working actor. Even today, it’s only the innate drive to hold her work and herself to an ever-higher standard in the face of self-doubt that keeps Winslet’s own devil at bay. She grew up in Reading, Berkshire, England, to a family of actors, among them her father and her maternal grandparents. But her success from an early age, most notably booking Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures” at age 17, isn’t a case of true-blue nepotism. They were all gig actors—actors who “were not really actors most of the time”; actors who “were waiters and worked in shops and sold Christmas trees and laid tarmac on the roads and drove minivans” to pay the bills. They were actors, therefore, who were only “doing it for the sheer love of it. They never made any money from it at all.”

Winslet’s father, Robert, used to tell her as she was coming up, “You’re only as good as your last gig, babe.” She remembers it as “a great thing to have been told, because it means, ‘Alright, that one’s done. On to the next.’ ”

“I’ve still got to do the same amount of work. I never take it for granted. I’d never just ‘show up,’ ” she says of her work ethic today, widening her eyes. “God, the idea of that makes me feel slightly nauseous—I would never just wing it. It’s a terrible thought to even contemplate! Because you can never rest on your laurels. Never expect that the world owes you anything. You have to go out there and get it and make the most of the opportunities that come your way, and that’s what I’ve always tried to do.”

And so it was, with that mindset in place, that Winslet began a modest hobby in the performing arts, first filling her creative well in youth theater programs and later at the Redroofs Theatre School in Maidenhead—her only formal training in the craft—and at Reading’s own Starmaker Theatre Company. “What I dared to hope was that I might get a bit of theater [work] here and there,” she remembers of her career aspirations at the time. But soon enough, screen work came knocking. She notched her first recurring role at 15 on BBC One’s “Dark Season.” From there, true crime thriller “Heavenly Creatures” was the job that changed everything, between its worldwide festival tour (which included stops at Venice and Cannes) and an Oscar nomination for best screenplay. Even at 17, Winslet recalls taking the demands of being an actor seriously, scrupulously working through her script, developing her process, and, when the time came, going to New Zealand all on her own to film with Jackson and Melanie Lynskey. 

“I think there’s a difference between being brave and being determined to be courageous,” she says of what gave her the spine to move halfway around the globe. “Being brave, to me, seems that it’s sort of an inherent quality that you either have or don’t have, or that you sort of accumulate over a period of time. You can’t just go, ‘OK, I’m brave.’ It’s like going ‘OK, I’m happy.’ It’s just not that easy for a lot of us! But I’ve definitely always been quite resilient—that’s one thing I will say.”

Resilience further served her when auditioning for Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s “Sense and Sensibility.” She all but conned her way into reading for the part of Marianne Dashwood, despite being asked to prepare for the smaller role of Lucy Steele. Chalking it up to a miscommunication from her agent, she walked into producer Lindsay Doran’s audition room gushing that it was “completely bizarre how similar” she was to Marianne and that she couldn’t wait to read for her, inspiring Doran to begrudgingly shrug and see her for the younger Dashwood sister instead. 

“I mean, I went off on this whole bullshit. And [Doran] was like, ‘Oh, OK…. So did you prepare something?’ And I was like, ‘Yes! I prepared two scenes.’ And suddenly, I’m in there! I just completely went for it,” Winslet says, laughing. “I’d prepared my Marianne scenes, and that was that.”

That was that, indeed, as her back-to-back turns in “Sense and Sensibility” and Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet” put her on Cameron’s shortlist for “Titanic” screen tests, and her career changed seemingly overnight. That said, she was a young, impassioned artist, and the fame that came along with starring in literally the biggest movie ever made was not something she allowed to inform her next steps. Leaning into character roles, Winslet later did “Iris” opposite Judi Dench and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” opposite Jim Carrey. Then came a string of features examining suburban restlessness and female ennui, including “Little Children,” “Revolutionary Road,” and, yes, “The Holiday.” Her first major small-screen project was a goliath five-part turn in HBO’s Emmy-winning “Mildred Pierce.” 

Last year’s “Ammonite,” from filmmaker Francis Lee, is also a standout thanks to Winslet’s quiet, insular work as unsung 19th-century paleontologist Mary Anning, a role that required as much physical dedication as emotional rigor. And her return to television this month on HBO’s small-town murder mystery “Mare of Easttown,” in which she stars as the titular detective who harbors ghosts and traumas of her own, may go down as some of her very best work yet.  

Through the years, Winslet’s acting education has largely been of a self-taught nature, learning on the job and through collaborations with co-stars and filmmakers in a way that only someone with her natural vigor could metabolize. Because of that, she’s quick to advise upstart actors to not “get caught in thinking that you’re supposed to be a certain way or do a certain thing or have prepared a certain amount.” No two people’s processes are exactly the same. But the tenets of the Kate Winslet Technique, as it were, she admits to “really like talking about,” if only in hopes that sharing one of the infinite options out there will help someone else find their way. 

Creating an “enormous amount” of backstory is her first key to unlocking a new role. She’ll go all the way back to a character’s childhood, writing meandering thoughts down until she has a sketch of a biography. The question she asks from there is: “What can I get for free?”

In the case of Mare Sheehan, that meant playing off her physical space. The limited series from writer Brad Ingelsby and director Craig Zobel was filmed on location in Pennsylvania’s Delaware County, where she was able to absorb the people, the culture, and the accent. (Dialect coach Susan Hegarty was also on board to work through the area’s unique demands.) She also serendipitously has a longstanding friendship with Julianne Nicholson, who co-stars as Lori alongside Evan Peters, Jean Smart, and Guy Pearce, among others. Nicholson’s husband, Jonathan Cake, is godfather to Winslet’s son, Joe, which naturally served the friendship and shorthand that’s captured onscreen between Mare and Lori. “We were able to literally just pick up parts of our own time together and dump it right onto those characters,” Winslet says. 

Of course, not every project allows for such anthropological immersion or personal touchstones. As needed, Winslet uses her own experiences to fill in the gaps. 

“I will look at my life and see, not necessarily what I can mimic, but what things I can call upon—and they could be things that happened to me a long time ago,” she says, drawing a comparison to therapy. “I haven’t had a huge amount of therapy in my life, but therapists get you to work through things and then move beyond them. I will do the opposite; I’ll go, ‘Oh, I’ll go back into that shit thought and that painful time and just dredge it right up again!’ So, with Mare, I did a huge amount of that, this kind of emotional layering and stacking of stuff—most of which, I will say, was really Mare’s stuff that I just immersed myself in and hung on to.”

The goal, Winslet says, is to build a character up to the point where it feels like her own, and to the point where she knows that no other actor could play it the way she’s chosen to. 

“I’ve taken it off the page, pulled it out of the writer’s hands, and absolutely made it my own, so that, at the end of the day, I feel confident about playing her. Because so much about acting is about being brave enough to play that part and not having that evil voice in the back of your head that says, ‘So-and-so would’ve been a lot better than you!’ ” she says. “Whatever you can do, even if that means doing silly walks and taking up smoking again, or whatever the hell it might be—I’m not advising that people take up smoking again, by the way, but as an example—anything goes. 

“When you start dreaming as the character, you know you’re in there.”

In the end, one of the unexpected gifts of “Mare of Easttown” was, nearly 25 years after “Titanic,” the opportunity to go back into the audition room. As a first-time executive producer, it was Winslet’s “first proper experience of watching self-tapes” and seeing actors flesh out Mare’s world. 

“I felt so, first of all, overwhelmingly impressed by pretty much every single tape that I saw, particularly of young actors, because the hunger is right there,” she remembers. “Those are the things that I admire: actors that go for it, heart and soul. It’s a wonderful thing when you really see it come to life. Sometimes, a performance can actually make you, as a creative team, rethink how you’d imagined that character might be.”

Winslet’s lasting advice for those looking to get cast, leave their mark, and build a career in the arts—and navigate the highs, lows, ebbs, and flows that come with it—goes back to the self-tape guidance she shared with her daughter just days before our interview: Breathe. Slow down. Relax. All will come in due time, and “when you end up getting a job or two, there’s no better feeling than that.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” she concludes. “You have plenty of time to be hard on yourself later.”

This story originally appeared in the April 15 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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Photographed by Jeremy Liebman / trunkarchive.com