The Unsinkable Kate Winslet

The English rose of 'Titanic' spills all about her battles making the most expensive movie ever, her sex talks with Leonardo DiCaprio and the man she loved and lost

(L-R) Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in James Cameron's 'Titanic' in 1997. Credit: Getty

Kate Winslet sits alone at a busy Starbucks in midtown Manhattan: leather jacket, cafe latte, gently unraveling auburn hair. Across the city, her film Titanic is drawing record-breaking crowds. Winslet plays Rose DeWitt Bukater, a Philadelphia society-matron-in-training who dumps her wealthy fiance for Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), the struggling artist who has the mixed fortune of finding true love on a sinking ship. Las Vegas odds make Winslet's performance, already nominated for a Golden Globe award, a good bet for the Best Actress slot in the more prestigious Academy Awards race. Nationwide, high-school girls are hanging her picture on bedroom walls and asking themselves whether looking like the 22-year-old British actress would allow them their shot at DiCaprio. I've just stepped away from the counter to this odd sight. Winslet is often frenetic — or expressive, in the way of actors who don't necessarily communicate feelings better than normal people but communicate them more. Now she is sitting placidly. As I watch from a distance, she lifts a hand and taps the plate-glass window with the back of a knuckle. In a few weeks, a few days, none of this will be possible for her: to sit, quietly and lumpishly, in public, beside fellow quiet lumps. For better or worse, it is a magic moment, and I return to the table very slowly. 

Winslet was famously unhappy on the set of Titanic, directed by the furiously demanding James Cameron. After the film wrapped last April, she gave an interview to the Los Angeles Times that was widely reprinted, that she now says was misinterpreted and that I (maybe because Winslet is so likable and so persuasive, which means she's a good actress) now also believe was misinterpreted. She said, "I would only work for Jim Cameron again for a lot of money." She related harrowing near-drownings, and lots and lots of yelling. Cameron — speaking in the generous, immensely relaxed voice of a man who has just learned his film might break a record $400 million at the U.S. box office — holds no grudge, explaining that Winslet was "just letting off steam" after the pressure of shouldering a $200 million production. "Kate would look out and see this small city, with these thousands of people and all this stuff happening," says Cameron, "and she'd know that what it all boiled down to was what was going on in her eyes." Winslet's eyes are excited and blue; they've already carried their movie; they don't have the cramped look of someone expecting to be recognized; they're off-duty eyes. 

Five years ago, after shooting her first film, Winslet went to work slicing ham in a London delicatessen. She is as proud of what she accomplished there — with apron, cutting board and cash register — as she is of any of her film work. "When you're carving ham off the bone, you need a proper carving fork and knife," she explains. "I got very good with cheeses as well." That film was the New Zealand thriller Heavenly Creatures. Onscreen, Winslet combined the strict, stylized features of a queen on a playing card — arched brows, full mouth, flat cheeks — with a startling energy; she would do anything. Since then, Winslet has been on a roll. She co-starred with Emma Thompson in Sense and Sensibility, a 1995 Jane Austen adaptation, and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She starred in Jude, a 1996 Thomas Hardy adaptation, which was epically depressing about weighty themes. Then she played Ophelia in Kenneth Branagh's four-hour Hamlet. Winslet has had the career that less-serious actors claim they want when they say they want to become serious actors. (She paused to make a Disney film called A Kid in King Arthur's Court, your basic comedy of anachronism featuring such jokes as: "Now let me see if I have this right — if something is cool, it's hot, and if something is good, it's bad?") 

Winslet is a woman of passions. Here is how she got the lead in Titanic: "I closed the script, wept floods of tears and said, 'Right, I've absolutely got to be a part of this. No two ways about it.'" She phoned her agent, and the agent made a couple of calls. Winslet said, "Look, just get me Jim Cameron's phone number." She dialed the director's car phone. "He was on the freeway, and he said, 'I'm going somewhere.' And I think he pulled over, and I said, 'I just have to do this, and you are really mad if you don't cast me.'" When DiCaprio waffled about signing to play Jack, and both actors were at the Cannes Film Festival, Winslet discovered where DiCaprio was staying, slipped out of a press junket and collared him in his hotel room. "I was thinking, 'I'm going to persuade him to do this, because I'm not doing it without him, and that's all there is to it,'" she says. "'I will have him.' Because he is fucking brilliant. He's a fucking genius, and that was absolutely why." 

The world probably isn't big enough for Kate Winslet. Everything she says has special effects in it: Those effects are the words brilliant, absolutely and gorgeous, and because of them, what she says really does seem brilliant, gorgeous and absolute, a slightly better world than the one you live in. She gets impatient with people who can't keep up with her. "I had a conversation with my little sister, and she went, 'I've got wrinkles 'round my eyes, I'm so depressed.' And I said, 'You stupid cow, that's an exciting thing!'" Winslet is excited by weather ("stunning") and by messy city road kill: "Oh, hello! Dead squirrel! Splat! How vile!" She makes you feel guilty for not being in a better mood. You get the impression that if you lowered your head to her chest, you'd find her heart racing 120 beats per minute, like a tree shrew's. 

Titanic was filmed on a strip of industrial peninsula just south of the California-Mexico border. The chowder at an early cast party was spiked with PCP, a kind of acid-frat revenge gesture against Cameron. An entire studio was constructed on Rosarito Beach, with the ship built ninety percent to scale. By the midway point, when cast and crew lived on four hours of sleep, Cameron took bets on who would collapse first. For the last three months of night shooting, Winslet would finish work at seven in the morning and climb into bed hearing the lobster boats leaving their docks to fish. On set, she trained herself to focus on the water, "because if you looked in the other direction, you had the disgusting Rosarito Road and trucks going by and a nasty, barren hill." 

What carried Winslet through the filming was DiCaprio. "Did Kate mention that they were really there for each other?" Cameron asks me. "On a long shoot, especially as you get into, like, month five, you're just in a siege." They spent hours with one another, keeping their energy up. As Winslet describes Rosarito, it has the sound of a seven-month-long family dinner, with DiCaprio and Winslet trying to scare up fun in the basement. "We were kind of the two goofy kids on the set," she explains. "Y'know, working with Leonardo DiCaprio — he’s a bit gorgeous, and I was worried that I was going to be bowled over by him, or that he was going to find me all stuffy and Shakespearean and English. But the second we met, we just completely clicked." They hit it off the way freshmen at college have hit it off for decades. "We'd do the most ridiculous things to each other," she recalls. "He'd be tickling me, groping me, winding me up. And I'd be doing the same thing back, sort of grabbing his bum." DiCaprio, 22, seems surprised that Winslet has told me this; his voice turns official. "She was my best friend for seven months," he says slowly. "We'd unload the stresses of the shoot to each other, vent to each other, watch out for each other. Kate was just the perfect person to work with because she was very much one of the guys, and it would have been much harder without her. We were partners." 

"Grossing Kate out was purely Leo's job," says Billy Zane, who plays her rich, unappealing fiance in Titanic. "He got really good at it. If he wasn't rolling back his eyelids, he was making objets d'art out of bodily fluids." Cameron recalls that DiCaprio had to wear a long coat for much of the shoot. "He would, like, fart in it," says Cameron, "and then sweep the coat over her face. I mean, if anybody else in the world did that, they'd get slapped, and the other person would walk away and not talk to them for a week. With Leo, Kate would just crack up." When tabloids tried to do the matchmaking work of turning the friendship into something sexier, Winslet says she and DiCaprio would read the gossip items and laugh. "Just the notion of that was insane it would have been absolutely like incest. I have the relationship with Leo that all the women in the world would envy," says Winslet, misapprehending just what kind of relationship the world's women would want to have with the angelic-featured star of Romeo and Juliet. Winslet says that DiCaprio would ask her whether she thought he was handsome: "He would say, 'So, um, do you really think that?' I'd say to him, 'You are absolutely stunning, you complete bastard. How do you do it when you've only had two hours sleep?’"

Between shots, Winslet says, she and DiCaprio would snuggle under a blanket in his trailer and talk about sex. "You know, some very, very personal things, asking each other for advice," she says. "Not necessarily comparing notes but sort of, 'No, don't do it like that, do it like this.' He's very good at that. I have to say, a lot of those sexual tips he's given me have worked. And I know it's vice versa." 

When I tell Winslet the tips might also be useful to our readers, she smiles and shakes her head. "No, it's too despicable," she says. "In fact, it can get really graphic. It's going to turn into a porn piece." 

Winslet has only one sweet regret about her relationship with DiCaprio. It was during the scene in which Rose and Jack make love in a Renault touring car in the hold of the ship: steamed windows, trembling actors. "Doing that scene," she says, "it so wasn't us. And yet we were so locked into what all that had to be about. The Rose in me was really sort of loving the Jack in him, actually. And even though I didn't feel that way about Leo, it was quite nice to sort of feel that way in the scene. It was quite lovely. And then, y'know, the camera stopped rolling, and he gets up and walks off, and the scene's done. And I remember lying there thinking, 'What a shame that's over.' Because it was quite nice. It was." 

Winslet recalls that she and DiCaprio would sometimes lie on the set smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and staring up at the stars. Other times, she would watch him play Tomb Raider on Nintendo or they would sing to each other the Bette Midler hit "Wind Beneath My Wings," an indirect, on-site spoof of the Titanic scene in which Jack leads Rose to the prow of the ship and tells her to close her eyes and spread out her arms. When Winslet had an attack of vertigo on the back of the upended poop deck — spending a week in harnesses suspended 100 feet in the air — DiCaprio calmed her down. "I just told her we were safe," he says. "She believed me." One night, very late, Winslet and DiCaprio were lying on the deck during a break. An assistant approached for food orders. "Leo was so tired," Winslet recalls; he had his head on Winslet's stomach and asked for a sandwich. "The assistant asked, 'What do you want on it?' and Leo said, 'Oh, Kate will tell you.' And Leo just kind of fell asleep. And I did know exactly what he wanted this kind of cheese and no tomato and no pickle. I absolutely knew. And I thought, 'God, that's really weird that I know this person so well.' It was brilliant." 

Winslet has always acted, and in person she is welcoming and harried, perpetually backstage. "I'm smoking like a fucking chimney," she says a few days later as she opens her hotel-room door, "so you certainly can." Then she wraps up a phone call — “Keep your pecker up! Bye-bye” — and apologizes for what she is wearing: "press clothes," a heavy black turtleneck and black slacks, "which is sort of annoying." She insists on walking me to the closet and showing me her beat-up Harley-Davidson biker boots. "Now this is me," she says. "This is really, really me." Winslet crosses the living room of her suite and curls into her sofa. The balcony door is open, since Winslet is a woman who enjoys breezes, and the railing overlooks a misty Central Park, like the deck of an ocean liner that has unaccountably docked in midtown Manhattan. Winslet glances mistrustfully at the furniture, which appears expensive and invisible in the manner of well-born children. Winslet doesn't like hotels. "We never as a family went to an exotic place and stayed in a hotel," she says. When the Winslets vacationed, it was on budget tickets, pitching tents in a field "or going to stay with some friends. That's why hotels sometimes seem quite sort of lonely to me." 

Winslet's life has been shaped by acting. Like families in which each successive generation goes into plumbing or police work, the Winslets have memorized lines and shown up for auditions. "It wasn't necessarily that I knew acting was what I wanted to do," says Winslet. "It's just that I knew it's what I would end up doing." Winslet's grandparents managed a 60-seat theater in their back yard in Reading, England, where they presented musicals and plays. Sally, Winslet's mother, trained as a nanny; Winslet's father, Roger, is an actor. "He's always had a bit of a tough time of it," Winslet carefully explains. Kate is the second of four children. Anna, 25, acts; Beth, 20, just performed in her first BBC production; Joss, 17, is thinking about acting. 

Winslet auditioned at the age of eleven for an acting school named Redroofs, which was located in Maidenhead, England, the town where the Spice Girls got their start. Her grandmother put up the first two years' tuition. Winslet ended up unconvinced by acting schools. "Bladdy-bladdy bullshit," she says. 

The school did help with what actors need: connections. The school knew people. It had its foot in the door. At twelve, Winslet made her debut in a cereal commercial, as a frenetic Sugar Puffs eater. At fifteen, she was cast in a science-fiction series, and she hooked up with her first boyfriend — Stephen Tredre, an actor who was twelve years her senior. "I told my mum and I thought, 'Oh, no, she's going to hit the roof.' And she said, 'So what's he like, then? Are you going to bring him home?'" 

At sixteen, Winslet had a turning point, on the set of a TV drama called Anglo-Saxon Attitudes. Winslet, at five feet six inches, weighed 185 pounds. She had a small part, as the daughter of a very heavyset woman. One afternoon, the director strolled past the two actors, sized them up and observed, "God, the likeness is extraordinary." The comment shocked Winslet. "I looked at this woman, who weighed nearly 300 pounds, and I just thought, 'Shit, shit, this has got to change. This has got to go.'" A year later, a trim Winslet had her part in Heavenly Creatures. To be a veteran actress at twenty-two is also to be a veteran interview subject, and Winslet has mastered the trick by which even life's painful moments become riffs. Winslet explains her old nickname, which was Blubber, and one later (from Cameron): Kate Weighs-a-Lot. "I was chubby as a child," she says. "When I was sixteen, I was fat. It was a family thing. We're all big eaters. My uncle is a chef. My mother is a fantastic cook. Kind of unavoidable. I sensibly lost the weight doing Weight Watchers. End of story." 

Some stories refuse to end quite so neatly. In 1996 a reporter for England's Daily Mail tracked down the agent of Winslet's older sister, Anna, and cajoled the agent into saying unpleasant things about the intra-family jealousy that Kate's success had been causing. Anna was considering changing her stage name ceasing to be a professional Winslet. Winslet's mother was equally blunt: "We are all utterly sick of all the attention that Kate's career has brought. It's not as if she's the only one in the trade. Kate's success makes life very difficult for all of us." 

Winslet admits that it is difficult to be the first member of her family to make good. When she looks up and sees the Titanic billboards with her name and likeness, it's a kind of revenge on the world for the entire Winslet family. At the same time, the sight makes her guilty, because she is the only Winslet on the billboard. "Anna was going to be the actress, you see," says Winslet. "And suddenly little sister comes running along and speeding ahead. It does make me feel bad. I think, 'Christ, what can I do about this?' As offers come in, I still go, 'Can't I just share some of these with everybody?'" She arranged a role for her father in Sense and Sensibility, in a scene that was eventually cut from the film. She spoke with Jim Cameron about a part for her father in Titanic, "but there was never anything that was actually right for Dad to do." Winslet sighs. "I hope this year to be able to buy them a house. Y'know, I'm all right now. I've got a car, I've got a flat, and that's fantastic. And once I can buy my mum and dad a house, see them set up properly, that's it — I'll be happy then. I'll feel I've really done it." 

It is unseasonably warm for a New York winter — residents keep glancing at the sky as if they're waiting for the weather to sucker-punch them and Winslet decides she could do with a walk. "I bet you," she says in the elevator, "we'll go around and I still won't get recognized at all. I do get away with blue murder." In fact, it would take a dedicated and imaginative fan to identify Winslet. Her face looks slightly wider than it does on film. "I accept the fact that I have a round face," says Winslet. "Sometimes I look in the mirror and go, 'Oh, why don't I just have a little bit more sucking in going on?' But if my cheekbones don't become more prominent with age, they don't. Hey ho! There's more to life than cheekbones." Since Winslet's films have tended to take place in other centuries, it is strange to see her in regular clothes. It is also strange to see her dodging buses in traffic or crossing the park's thawing softball diamonds — environments one doesn't associate with her. It's a little like walking into a video arcade with Abe Lincoln. 

I ask Winslet about her preparations for Titanic. What I expect to hear is that it was more or less boot camp. But no. The hardest thing for Winslet was mastering the American accent. A dialect coach — a kind of personal trainer for the mouth — put her on the weights, flattening, stretching and toning her tongue with heavy-lifting sentences such as, "Rude Ruth's two rooms are near the school's pool." Winslet pored over volumes on Edwardian history, women's social conditions, ocean liners. I notice that Winslet's eyes are startlingly blue outdoors. When she starts describing the emotional journey she hoped to make in the film, I stop listening completely, the way I would if a doctor were discussing the intricacies of removing a gallstone. Which is probably why actors hang around together; they love this kind of talk, and who else could bear earnest discussions of rawness, sincerity, instinct and vulnerability? Winslet says, "I got to a point where I thought, 'Sod this, I'm not going to do this anymore, because actually I don't need to know all that stuff.'" 

That's a cue to move to the more provocative Titanic issues, such as the talk that director Cameron browbeat her to tears during filming. Winslet is thoughtful and cagey, as though cooperating with a Senate panel. "No, that's not true," she says. "I mean, Jim would yell sometimes, absolutely. He was the producer, screen-writer and director in this thing, with studio executives breathing down his neck all of the time. And I could understand him getting frustrated if something went wrong because some stunt guy didn't jump at the right point and the shot's taken nine hours to set up. But he was never mean to me. 

"There were moments of despair when I thought, 'God, this is so tough, and I'm so tired.' And, yes, the water was cold. But, y'know, I have to say, at the end of the day I wouldn't have had that water heated. I said to Jim, 'Please don't make that tank hot, because then we can't really know what it would have felt like.' I'm a bit of a masochist. I never believe I've done my job properly unless I go home feeling that I've suffered." 

Regarding the bathroom logistics of filming in a water tank, Winslet speaks only for herself. "Yes, I admit to sometimes peeing in that water," she says. "Because you wanted to get it right. You didn't want to have to get out and go to the bathroom, which would take half an hour with corsets and dresses and all that sort of thing. So, yeah, I peed. I mean, it's the same with a swimming pool — do you really think about what's in it?" 

Winslet lights us cigarettes and settles in on distracting me with more messy details. "There were some instances where we were literally swimming through corridors," she allows. "And I didn't like that stuff because my feet would get tangled in the chiffon dress that I sink in. But at one point Jim said, 'Fuck it, I'm not gonna have my actress drown. Scissors!' And my dress was cut this short, almost like a T-shirt. You could see my bloomers underneath it. We called it the Bo Peep dress. 

"I'm not saying it was all happy-clappy," she insists. "There were days when you'd just think, 'Oh, my God, I've got my period and I can't get in that freezing-cold water today.'" Think of it — seven months, seven periods. "I remember standing up and saying to everyone, 'Listen, if it suddenly looks like Jaws, the movie, it's my fault." Winslet pulled a corresponding male gag a few weeks later. "There's the flooded-corridor scene," she explains, "when I go into the water, an ax in my hand. Well, the water was so cold that my reaction was completely genuine. And I was the only woman down there. Here I was, surrounded by all these men on the crew, in all this freezing-cold water. What did that mean for their genitals? So I turned around and said, ‘So — little dicks, then?'" 

Titanic wrapped in early April, and within a week Rosarito was a ghost town. "I was packing my stuff to go back to England, and there was a part of me that couldn't believe it was all over all of a sudden," says Winslet. "And I thought, 'I'm not going to be speaking Rose's words anymore.' I had that moment of, 'Oh, she's gone now. I've lost her.'" 

Three years ago, Winslet bought a flat in London. She's kept it filled with the young people you meet on sets assistant directors, makeup artists sharing food and swapping clothes. "I don't particularly like being on my own," Winslet says. "I like people around, just talking and having a laugh." On a normal day, Winslet goes for a swim, reads scripts, "might see a film in the evening. Pick my feet. Brush my teeth — I floss very rarely." It's been a long time since Winslet had that kind of day. "For six months after Titanic, I never quite unpacked my suitcases," Winslet says. "I don't want that to happen again." During the summer, she made several trips to Los Angeles to record Titanic dialogue. With her mix of masochism and perfectionism, she revoiced the DiCaprio death scene lying on a flat board in the sound studio. In the fall she flew to Marrakech, Morocco, to begin shooting the drama Hideous Kinky.

In a sense, the knowledge of a friend's illness sharpened Winslet's performance more than bobbing in cold-water tanks or using a board on a recording stage. Winslet has had other boyfriends — she dated Rufus Sewell (or as Winslet puts it in her press voice, "actor Rufus Sewell") for three months, "a fling until we both decided, 'This is just a friendship, really, isn't it?'" But her closest connection has been to Stephen Tredre. "He was the person most important to me in my life, next to my family," Winslet says. "We were together for four and a half years. I spoke to him every day." A few years ago, Tredre was diagnosed with bone cancer. "Her sorrow was her light," Billy Zane tells me. "She gives you a peek into her pain. It's a generous gesture." 

Winslet and I are discussing Tredre at Starbucks when her throat seizes, and her eyes shimmer and go wet. "He lost his battle against cancer," she says. "He died on the eighth of December. So, y'know, I've got a lump in my throat now." Winslet lifts a recycled-paper napkin and dabs at her eyes. "Sorry. God, I'm really sorry — that’s such a surprise. Don't worry about it. Don't feel bad for asking or anything. Stephen was such an extraordinary person." 

Winslet flew from Marrakech to sing at Tredre's memorial, a song whose title she won't reveal: "Um, do you mind if I don't tell you that? It was a song that he always loved me singing. I felt like Elton John must have felt singing at Di's funeral. It was so hard. I knew that if I said a few words beforehand, I would start crying and I wouldn't be able to sing. So I sang, and the second I stopped I started to choke." 

You know what I was saying to you the other day about not being recognizable?" Kate Winslet asks four days later. "Changed, Changed. It's all changed." A weekend has passed, Winslet has done another TV appearance, Titanic has grossed another $30 million, so sitting down with the actress is like spending time with an ascendant stock. We've picked a small Italian cafe in New York's Greenwich Village primarily because the owners have let us smoke. (When I suggested we could do without in other restaurants we passed, Winslet laughed: "No, we bloody well can't do without smoking, what are you talking about?") "It's all changed," Winslet repeats. "There were heaps of autograph people outside the hotel, and photographers. It's incredibly flattering." 

Winslet saw Titanic on Friday night, buying a ticket and sitting in the last row, behind a real audience for the first time. "I wept flood buckets," she says. "Absolute buckets. It made it seem completely worth it." She understands the scale of it now. "It's fantastic thinking that I've been such a big part of it, and it's probably going to go down in history." She lights another cigarette. "If anything, it almost frightens me.”

There's a casual sexuality about Winslet today. It's in the way she crosses her legs and tugs at the hem of her miniskirt, or the sight of her white brassiere strap each time she reaches inside her sweater to scratch a shoulder. She keeps interrupting herself — making a kind of irritated tsnt! when her brain doesn't deliver the script to her mouth fast enough. 

Winslet says she feels a little like she's flying. Cameron calls her "the world's darling right now." It isn't the success of Titanic, she insists — it has more to do with Tredre's death and her having played an adult and the sense that she's grown up. "I still want to cry in the middle of the night every now and then, y'know," she says. "And I won't stop doing that just because things are going swimmingly. I'm no different than anybody else." 

We get up to leave. A table of high-school girls has been eavesdropping on Winslet. As they hear Titanic and Leonardo mentioned, they grow more and more quiet. 

One of the girls — braces, zip-up sweat-shirt — stands. "Excuse me," she says. 

"Yes," says Winslet. 

"Were you in Titanic?" 

"Yes." 

With mounting excitement: "Are you Kate Winslet?" 

"Yeah." 

The girl takes a deep breath and smiles. "You were great." "Oh, thank you very much." 

The girl laughs. "Oh, my God, you look so different in person.”

"Um, yeah," says Winslet. "I know." 

Profiles end with the celebrity being reintroduced to her element, like slipping a fish back into the water. Winslet is meeting a car a few blocks away. She has a slight smoker's breathlessness. It's touching. She's looking around the street in a different way, a way I recognize from other celebrities. Winslet is learning to catch and modulate what she says. She's losing herself. You get the sense of a private life going away; it's almost like watching a personality dissolve. Winslet is converting herself to unreality, developing a star's skills of self-protection and hardness. But she's still one foot in, one foot out. It occurs to me this may be the last non-star interview she gives, her final message before getting sucked down with that big, watery, glowing ship. 

I ask whether she still keeps a diary. "I do," she says as she approaches the hired car, a black Continental limousine with a vanity plate: Diva II. "Things have been sort of mad, with all the press we've done, but there was a moment when the phones stopped ringing. I was just sitting in the hotel on my own. And I realized where I was and how exciting it was to be sitting in the hotel room, on my own, with five minutes to myself. And I wanted to write that down. But I didn't have time." 

Bye-bye.