Kate Winslet likes her wrinkles
Kate Winslet doesn't mind that she looks older these days.
"Look here," says the 35-year-old actress, pointing to her forehead. Her damp hair is slicked back into a ponytail and when she moves her eyebrows upward, her skin crinkles up.
"Hello!" she says, laughing. "I have a few more wrinkles than I used to."
Sitting in a French café in Manhattan, Winslet says she was proud to see new creases on her face during a recent screening of Mildred Pierce, a five-part miniseries that finds the actress in the title role, as an upwardly mobile housewife in the 1930s.
"I watched myself on screen and you could really see my crow's feet," she admits, a bit gleefully. "I was like, ‘My forehead moves! Good girl!'"
Being a normal thirty-something actress with fully functioning human parts is a big part of Winslet's appeal and a major reason why so many women feel they can relate to her.
She has long dismissed Botox.
And even before Mildred Pierce, she had brought an inner fire to supposedly ordinary housewives, such as the ones in 2006's Little Children and 2008's Revolutionary Road.
Winslet may love the lines on her forehead but she has earned them over a rough couple of years. First, there were those rumours of on-set tension between her and her husband, Sam Mendes, who directed her in Revolutionary Road.
Then there was the demanding Academy Awards race that found her advocating for two films at once — Revolutionary Road and The Reader — and winning a lead actress statue for the one her husband didn't direct.
In a teary acceptance speech, she thanked Mendes, insisting that she loved working with him, but by 2010, their seven-year marriage had ended "by mutual agreement".
Mildred Pierce is her first project since that break-up — and certain scenes eerily mirror their split.
Based on James M. Cain's 1941 novel of the same name, the miniseries follows a Glendale, California, matriarch struggling to maintain her family's social class during the Depression, working to create a better life for her self-absorbed daughter Veda (Evan Rachel Wood).
The story begins when Mildred decides to leave her husband, Bert, and care for their two daughters by herself at a time when women didn't get divorces, much less jobs. Winslet, who has two children of her own, grew to dread the scenes where Bert and Mildred fought about their separation.
The subject still felt too raw and the ambitious 17-week shoot in New York, which required her to appear in every scene, was gruelling.
"It was tough," she says. "There were days when I'd be in the car on the way to work and I'd almost feel comatose. I'd actually say out loud, ‘I can't. I can't. I can't.'"
At times, the coincidences seemed almost cruel. On the same day that Winslet filmed an emotional scene where Mildred and Bert finally agree to get a divorce, her own divorce papers came through.
"It was one of those moments where I wasn't even aware that I was using those things from my real life in my performance," she says, staring down into her mug of coffee.
Winslet found herself leaning on director Todd Haynes, who she says was a source of strength. Like Winslet's films, Haynes's projects tend to focus on women who are trapped in suffocating domestic situations, whether in self-help-obsessed Southern California (Safe) or the 1950s' suburbs (Far From Heaven).
In Mildred Pierce, he often makes those trappings literal by framing Winslet through a kitchen window or a half-closed door, as if challenging her to break out of her house.
Though the Berkshire, England-born Winslet might not seem the ideal choice for such an American role, Haynes saw parallels between the actress and Mildred early on.
"Mildred was an attractive dirty-blond young mother of two girls and they made a real point of the fact that she was 17 when she had Veda," Haynes says. (Winslet had her daughter, Mia, with first husband Jim Threapleton at 25.) "I couldn't shake Kate from my mind."
But it was Winslet's naturalistic acting style that cemented her as Mildred.
One of the miniseries' major themes is a classic one for melodrama: Happy endings are not always happy and no one can ever really have it all.
For Haynes, the 1930s were defined by the middle-class aspirations set into motion after that decade of great American prosperity, the 1920s. Maternal desire started to get tangled up in dreams of moving up the ladder.
In the miniseries, Mildred starts her own restaurant in the hopes of helping her daughter live a more upscale life but watching Veda buy fur coats and whiz around in society boys' Cadillacs just creates a vicious rivalry between them.
"Mildred began living out her dreams through her daughter and she made the grave mistake of thinking that they were happening to her as well," Winslet says. "She just got to the point where she just couldn't exist without [that fantasy]."
Winslet points to a scene where Mildred throws Veda out of the house. "It's devastating," she says.
"Mildred's not just saying goodbye to her, she's saying goodbye to every version of herself that she ever tried to be. She's crumbled and broken and she has to go back and start over. And to do that, for a woman in her thirties, after everything she's gone through, is the most unbelievable act of courage I've come across in any character I've played."
In some ways, Winslet, too, is starting over now.
Looking back at Mildred Pierce now, she sees the experience as somewhat therapeutic. "You end up revealing things in your acting that you might not choose to reveal to anybody at all off-screen," she says. "I remember thinking, ‘This could not be worse timing.' But then, maybe it was actually the best possible timing. If something hurts, it [really] hurts. You can't pretend that you're acting."