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The Reader - Kate Winslet interview

Kate Winslet in The Reader

Interview by Rob Carnevale

KATE Winslet talks about the pressures of playing an SS guard in The Reader and why – coupled with her performance in forthcoming drama Revolutionary Road – this has been a pretty exceptional, if challenging, period in her life.

She also reveals what it was like to get to grips with the make-up process that helped to age her in the film, as well as the importance of filming The Reader in Germany, with a German crew and cast.

Q. With The Reader and Revolutionary Road you have two very demanding roles. Take us through how you managed to do them?
Kate Winslet: Well, I’m still sort of a little bit recovering from the last 18 months of my life – just coming to terms with the fact that I got to play April Wheeler [Revolutionary Road] and Hanna Schmitz [The Reader] in one year, let alone in my lifetime. I’m very, very aware of how rare that is as an opportunity for any one person. I can’t tell you how much I’ve been able to take away from these experiences creatively. I really, really learned so much about acting, about myself… all of those things. It’s difficult to talk about the actor’s process without sounding like an arrogant asshole but they really were very challenging.

There wasn’t very much time between wrapping Revolutionary Road and starting The Reader. It was about five and a half months, which, for me, isn’t that long. Some actors are very good at just going from one thing to another but I’ve always been a bit useless at that. The preparation time is important for me, and it was particularly important for Hanna as well, just because when I first read that script I thought: “OK, I’m terrified!” Number one. And number two, there is literally nothing in my own life that I can draw upon in order to play this part… nothing, nothing, nothing. So, I knew that every day was going to be a bit like climbing a mountain. I knew there was so much that I didn’t know, that I would have to understand, the German accent, etc. It was a lot and it does leave you shattered.

Also for me, I don’t make endless movies back to back all the time, I really sort of come to understand and love the characters that I play. And with April and Hanna you sort of go through a weird period of feeling sad about letting them go. Sometimes that takes me a week and sometimes it takes me a couple of months, just so that I can feel I can realign my own thoughts again. I do feel really, really blessed that I’ve had these opportunities.

Q. What was your reaction when you saw the 65-year-old version of yourself looking back at you?
Kate Winslet: God, I was so fascinated by that whole process. I’ve never worked with prosthetics before in that sort of capacity. I did a bit of prosthetic work when I had to give birth in Jude, which is quite a different set of prosthetics. But I had so much admiration for the hair and make-up department and the prosthetics team, who are actually based at Shepperton, and who put together that look for Hanna. I honestly just loved it and was so amazed by the work they’d done. It was very difficult to wear and really uncomfortable… the teeth and the eyeballs and hands, feet and body. It took seven and a half hours to put on. So, we were all absolutely hanging in rags by the end because we’d start at 3.30am in the chair, and then we’d go on set at 10.30am/11am feeling like we’d been up for two days, and shoot for 12 hours. So, you’d get home at 11pm and then panic about the fact that we were so knackered, and only had two hours of kip to get, and what if I’m so tired I can’t fall asleep? There was one night where I couldn’t go to sleep. But it is one of the things about making films that can be so eccentric and so exciting. We know that we’re getting to experience things that very few people in the world get to experience and is very much part of why I love it.

Q. Given that Sam Mendes and Stephen Daldry both have backgrounds in British theatre, are they very similar in the way they work?
Kate Winslet: Yeah, very, very similar. The great thing about both of them is that they really enjoy the company of actors because it’s a comfortable place for them to be. So, yes very similar. Very thorough in the rehearsal process but more in terms of just understanding the characters, understanding where the actors are at with discovering those characters for themselves, and just setting an overall emotional tone for the piece as opposed to necessarily getting things up on their feet or staging scenes. Neither Steve nor Sam did that at all. They’re both very good at keeping things fluid and spontaneous. And also very prepared to say: “Anyone got any ideas, because I’m stuck?” And that’s impressive when you see a director do that, and then allow the actor to have an opinion. They both made it possible for their casts of actors to come forward with their thoughts and try anything out, which is a really luxurious position to be in, because not all directors are like that, believe me! Sometimes they just want you to step into their vision – even sometimes down to how you walk.

Q. How important was it to make the film in Germany, and how aware were you of German guilt while making it?
Kate Winslet: Well, the only way to make the film was in Germany with a German cast and a German crew and it absolutely helped. Amazingly for me, because I’m not particularly well read, I’d actually read this book six years ago. Another thing that was amazing about that was that I read it in a day, which nowadays with two children, I barely have the time to get through a whole script in a day, let alone a bloody book. So, I was just completely mesmerised by it – conflicted by it, churned up by it and moved by it. And I did sit there and think: “This would make an absolutely great movie. Somebody must have the rights.” And then in the next breath I thought: “I wonder who could play Hanna Schmitz.” A whole host of wonderful actresses ran through my mind. But I never thought of myself because when I read the book I was 27 and when you’re in your 20s, people in their 30s seem so much older. So, when Stephen came to me and said: “I’d love you to play Hanna Schmitz…” I didn’t think I’d heard that correctly because I was too young. And then it was: “Oh my God, I’m not too young. I am that age now! That’s really scary.”

But it made a big difference being around that German crew. For a start, they were unbelievable. Their commitment to this film was so impressive. Nothing was a problem. They never complained about long shooting days. They were so happy to be there. And they were very thorough. As for the German actors, we had people from the Brecht ensemble playing tiny, tiny parts just because they were so happy to be included. And that really makes a difference to the on-set atmosphere – this whole group of people just so thrilled to be there and really wanting to learn and see what everybody else was doing.

In terms of German guilt, when we shot the trial sequence in the middle of the film, for a start I really thought… [producer] Anthony Minghella died when we were shooting the scene when Hanna says: “We couldn’t just let them escape…” I looked at Stephen and I really didn’t know how he was going to get through the day. I really thought we were going to have to stop. But we didn’t, he got through it and then he made an unbelievable speech about Anthony to the whole company. It was just so heartbreaking. But when we were shooting those trial scenes I would look at the props department and grips and sparks sitting there shaking their heads – just so ashamed to be German, and so overwhelmed by how much more they were learning and realising – depending on their specific age – how much or how little they knew. It was really remarkable to be around that. David Kross, as well, had been learning about the Holocaust as school, but learned so much more as a result of being a part of this film. He’d say: “I can’t believe what happened. I hate it that I’m German.” He’d have those kind of days.

Q. Is there a moment when you think you finally get the characters you play. And if so, what was it for these two women?
Kate Winslet: There are fragments of that but in a way feeling like you’ve fully unlocked somebody can be dangerous sometimes, because you can never claim to know everything about the characters, and you can never claim to be the only person who is getting it right. You have to be prepared to listen to what the director has to say, and also feed off the other actors.

My emotional intent in a scene will often change quite drastically based on what Leo was doing in Revolutionary Road, or what David Kross was doing in The Reader. In The Reader, during the trial… one thing I thought I was able to unlock a little bit – whether that was right or wrong – was how incapable Hanna Schmitz is of understanding what’s happening to her. And the vulnerability that is then displayed as a result of her inability to articulate how she is feeling – and even the series of events and what happened. She didn’t know how to play a courtroom, so when she looks at the judge and says: “So, what would you have done?” For me, she’s asking that question of herself for the first time ever, literally. And that was a big turning point for me.

The analogy that Stephen Daldry would use – and it’s not necessarily a tasteful one – but I’ll share it with you anyway, is this: “Someone is turning round to Hanna and saying, ‘so why did you kill the babies?’ ‘Because the babies had to be washed!’ ‘But why did you put them in the washing machine?’ ‘But the babies had to be washed.’ ‘But didn’t you know that the babies would die if you put them in the washing machine?’ ‘But the babies had to be washed’!” When you put it in simple, horrific terms like that, I understood it on a really, really uncomfortable level, but it did make a lot more sense to me. Of course, one struggles with that debate of whether you’re supposed to feel sympathy for this woman. And in order to get to any place of sympathy I had to allow myself to feel that for one split second, because I just really had to understand what the hell was going on in her mind that she just thought she was doing her job. And that’s not easy. It’s wildly uncomfortable to play those types of things.

Q. How difficult is it to switch off then?
Kate Winslet: Very, very difficult. With The Reader, I’d just be shattered at the end of every day really. I wouldn’t really want to talk. We kept saying, because we were in Berlin: “If we get back at a decent hour, let’s go and have a glass of wine.” We’d always think it would be a great idea, but then get to the end of the day and then go [acts drowsy and blabs]. It was very difficult for everybody.

Read our review of The Reader