The 33-year-old actress has gone down with the Titanic for James Cameron, lost her memory in Michel Gondry's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," endured an unhappy marriage and a lingering pedophile in Todd Field's "Little Children," played the Alzheimer's-doomed poet Iris Murdoch in Richard Eyre's "Iris," and courted heartache as Marianne Dashwood in Ang Lee's "Sense and Sensibility." These pedigreed performances have earned Winslet five Oscar nominations and five Golden Globe nods, but the awards themselves eluded her.
This year, Winslet has upped the ante by becoming suicidal. First, there was her performance in husband Sam Mendes' adaptation of Richard Yates' novel "Revolutionary Road," playing April Wheeler, a wife unmoored by life in 1950s suburbia; then, a turn as an illiterate former SS guard in Stephen Daldry's " The Reader," based on the novel by Bernhard Schlink. Both scored her an extraordinary two-time visit to the Golden Globe dais, but it's her nuanced and Oscar-nominated role in "The Reader" -- also up for best picture -- that has made her the odds-on favorite at the Academy Awards.
"You don't win two, you don't win . . . two!" crows Winslet about the Globes, leaning back in her chair as she rolls a cigarette. She's returned home to New York after the ceremony but before the Oscar nominations announcement and is clearly enjoying her victory lap. "Losing in those situations has been such a natural place for me, so to now have both of them? To say I'm shocked is the understatement of my life."
Winslet, who was raised in Reading, England -- among an acting clan that she is quick to say "are not the Redgraves" -- is known for keeping her head when all about her are losing theirs. She arrives for a photo shoot near the home she shares with Mendes and their children, Mia, 8, and Joe, 5, in jeans, a baggy sweater and camera-ready makeup she's done herself; her two outfit changes were snatched from her closet and donned without the help of a stylist or assistant.
"The daily, typical things are very important to me, and I won't have them taken away from me no matter what," she says.
"It can be quite challenging," she says of the growing paparazzi attention. "Going grocery shopping is very important to me, but being photographed getting bags into the back of a cab is slightly bizarre. But at the end of the day," she says firmly, "the grocery bags are in the back of the cab."
Adds Daldry, "Kate is in the real world and engages in the real activities of a working mom, and what that does is make her an extraordinarily open and kind leading lady."
That isn't to suggest that Winslet is naïve about her growing power in Hollywood or shy about using it. It was she who nudged "Revolutionary Road" through five years of development, enticing her "Titanic" costar and close friend Leonardo DiCaprio into playing her husband, and approaching Mendes to direct.
Though being directed by her husband was at times "terrifying, because he knows what's going on in my eyeballs, so the feeling of being exposed was enormous," it did make him available to talk about the project at all hours as she submerged herself in the character, a habit she admits leaves her feeling adrift for a couple of months. Playing April, the cost was dearer than usual. "At the end of the film," says Winslet, "Leo and I were both really sort of broken."
Seven months after wrapping "Revolutionary Road," Winslet found herself in Berlin on the set of "The Reader" playing Hanna Schmitz, whose former teenage lover later discovers that she had been an S.S. guard. Winslet had read the script six years earlier but says she wasn't capable of playing a character with whom she found it so difficult to sympathize. "Could I have done it then? No way. But since then, I have learned so much working with Ang Lee, Michael Winterbottom, Michel Gondry, Todd Field, Jim Cameron. . . . I have more muscles now. Not to flex, but to use." Also swaying her toward the part, she says, was "understanding it's OK and sometimes more interesting to play someone entirely dislikable."
"She had little to pull on in terms of her own experience so we had a steep curve of exploration," says Daldry, who circled back to the actress, his original choice, after a pregnant Nicole Kidman bowed out. "She had an incredible mountain to climb, but Kate is the best actress of her generation."
She has yet to decide on her next project. For the moment, her focus is firmly on her children and being able to pick them up from school and tuck them into bed. "The most important thing to me is that my children can have a normal life and be normal kids," she says. "If they don't experience that, how are they are going to be normal people?" As for the importance of a certain gold statue, Winslet smiles. "My dad has always said to me, 'Baby, you can only do your best, and your best is always good enough.' "