Back From the Abyss

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David Gritten, based in England, is a frequent contributor to Calendar

For English actress Kate Winslet, playing the female lead in writer-director James Cameron’s monumental movie “Titanic” could have been worse.

After all, she could have been one of the passengers on the original 1912 maiden voyage of the luxury liner, which hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank, causing the deaths of some 1,500 people.

News reports have suggested that the “Titanic” shoot, during six long months in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, was strenuous for everyone involved. Winslet, 21, puts it more succinctly. “An ordeal,” she says.


And though actors are known to exaggerate the hardships of their working conditions, it appears she has a point. As she tells it, during the course of production she nearly drowned, contracted influenza and suffered extreme chill from being immersed in cold water.

“I chipped a small bone in my elbow,” Winslet says, “and at one point I had deep bruises all over my arms. I looked like a battered wife.” She lifts her long black skirt to reveal an ugly gash on her right knee, only now starting to heal. “I just slipped on the deck,” she says with a shrug.

Winslet relates all this one afternoon in her private club, a dark three-story building with a bohemian feel, in the heart of London’s Soho district. She is sprawled on a piece of furniture resembling an open sofa bed covered in floor carpet, with cushions scattered around her. She often lays her head back and seems on the verge of dozing off; two weeks after “Titanic” wrapped, she still feels deeply exhausted.

“The first day started at 5 a.m. and went on to 1 a.m.” she says. “Nothing could have prepared me for it. There were quite a few 20-hour days. And two-thirds of it was night shooting--because the ‘Titanic’ sunk at night. It was every man for himself on the set--you had to ensure that you snatched some sleep during the day, with a black eye mask on. Sometimes you’d find yourself having lunch at 2 a.m. or breakfast at 4 p.m. It was very disorienting.”

Then there was the famously driven James Cameron, about whom Winslet can talk endlessly. “He’s a nice guy, but the problem was that his vision for the film was as clear as it was,” she says. “He has a temper like you wouldn’t believe.. . . As it was, the actors got off lightly. I think Jim knew he couldn’t shout at us the way he did to his crew because our performances would be no good.”

Winslet characterized Cameron as “a really tough nut to crack--there were times I was genuinely frightened of him.” Yet, oddly, she also felt both sympathy and admiration for the writer-director: “I did like him, and I did come to understand him,” she stresses. “There were times he was very understanding. A couple of times I felt he was someone I could take a country walk with, and enjoy it.


“And logistically it was a very tough film for him as much as anyone. By the end I was existing on about four hours’ sleep a day, but Jim was existing on three.”

Cameron understands Winslet’s feeling drained. As he explains: “She’s not a knee-jerk actor. Whatever she does on Take 1, we’ll talk about, we’ll add to it, and it constantly gets better and better. It’s seductive to a director because you want to keep going. There was always something new.”

The near-drowning incident? Winslet and her co-star, Leonardo DiCaprio, were dashing along the deck of the ship, pursued by a giant rushing wave, only to find themselves trapped by a closed gate. They opened it, but a long, heavy coat she was wearing snagged on the gate, and she was submerged beneath the rising waters.

“I had to sort of shimmy out of the coat to get free,” she recalls. “I had no breath left. I thought I’d burst. And Jim just said, ‘OK, let’s go again.’ That was his attitude. I didn’t want to be a wimp so I didn’t complain.”

Cameron agrees that Winslet didn’t complain.

“At the point we did that scene,” he says, “I knew Kate was pretty stoic--she never expressed to me that she didn’t want to continue. It didn’t come to me until about 10 minutes later that she was actually really shaken. It would not be unusual for Kate, after a really big emotional scene, to go and cry for an hour, just as part of the process. [In this scene] she was never in physical danger, but she perceived that she was.

“If you have a spill on a horse, you just get right back on the horse; this was [a close-up shot and] not a situation where she could be doubled. If I had it to do over again, I would probably do the same thing.”


The very last day of the shoot called for a scene in which Winslet and DiCaprio were flailing in the Atlantic waters--actually in a giant tank built for the purpose.

“For my close-up shots, I was actually weighted down 12 feet under water, so I’d stay in a fixed position,” she says. “Looking back, I can’t believe I allowed that to be done to me.” She had a problem using an air regulator to inhale air and swallowed mouthfuls of water while unable to kick her way to the surface. “After three takes, I simply said I couldn’t do any more,” Winslet says.

She said she found it odd that no one asked her before embarking on shooting “Titanic” if she could even swim: “As it happens, I’m a strong swimmer. I swim a mile a day. But not to be asked. . . .” Cameron replies: “I think the opposite is true. It would be odd for someone who couldn’t swim to go into this shoot of six months in the water. In fact, she has to do very little swimming in the film. And the fact is that she is a strong swimmer. I have to let actors who are adults take a certain responsibility for their preparation.”

Despite all her problems on the set, Winslet will be able to dine out for a long time on her “Titanic” experiences:

“It really was a remarkable set,” she says enthusiastically. “There was a replica of the Titanic built which was 700 feet long, as opposed to the 882 feet of the real ship. And you could see it driving along the main road at Rosarito. It looked as if it was really sitting on the sea--but it was actually built within a giant tank, which could be filled with millions of gallons of water. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

Scenes with passengers floundering in the icy waves were filmed in this tank, with water pumped in directly from the ocean off the coast at Rosarito.


“The water was filthy, dirt blew into it, and actors splashing around in it got kidney infections,” Winslet says. “But at least it was heated to 72 degrees. It still felt cold. I only got to wear a wetsuit for a wide shot in the big tank, where the water was about 60 degrees. And that felt absolutely freezing.”

In “Titanic” she plays Rose, an upper-class girl from Philadelphia, traveling on the doomed liner with her fiance (Billy Zane), an older man. Feeling suffocated in the polite, formal world in which she lives, Rose contemplates suicide. She is saved by a young passenger named Jack (DiCaprio), with whom she strikes up a romance.

After the ship hits the iceberg and starts sinking, Rose secures a place in a lifeboat.

“But she steps off it and back onto the ship to be with Jack,” Winslet says. “It’s terribly moving. I was in floods of tears even when I read the treatment and accepted the role there and then.”

It’s a role Cameron says she was born to play:

“I worked with her face, her image, her voice, 17 hours a day,” he says, “and I don’t want to diminish her potential by calling it a performance of a lifetime, but it’s one of the most amazing performances I’ve ever been a party to.”

Winslet herself so far has seen little of the film--only the trailer shown at ShoWest, the Las Vegas convention of theater exhibitors.

“I have to say it looked remarkable, beyond what I could ever have expected,” Winslet says. “Even though it’s the longest shoot Jim’s ever done, and even though it’s probably the most expensive film ever made.


“I normally don’t even think about things like budgets, but everyone on set was talking about it. I believe in the end it was in excess of $160 million. It makes you think, doesn’t it? How many houses could you build for that money? How many people could you feed?”

“Titanic” is a film with a knack for surrounding itself with controversy--though Winslet is happy to distance herself from two rumors.

“There was no romance with Leo,” she says firmly, referring to co-star DiCaprio. “I’ve seen myself described as his girlfriend, and yes, he’s gorgeous. But nothing happened. We did become great mates, though.”

Nor was Winslet within 3,000 miles when, at a pre-shoot wrap party in Nova Scotia, Canada, for a brief contemporary section of the film, the cast and crew (Cameron included) consumed lobster chowder that had been spiked with PCP. “Not me,” she says. “I was at home in London at the time.”

Given all this, Winslet has a swift answer when asked how long it will be before she makes another movie in which water plays a major part. “Never,” she says firmly.

In fact, after the marathon “Titanic” shoot, she is determined to take some time off. Unsurprisingly, she has no desire to start work until early fall; “Titanic” was the culmination of two hectic years for the young actress. After first emerging in the 1995 film “Heavenly Creatures,” Winslet worked constantly--as the younger, naive sister in “Sense and Sensibility,” then as the female lead in “Jude,” and lastly as Ophelia in Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet.”


“Since finishing ‘Titanic,’ I’ve turned down seven offers,” she says. “I don’t want to work at the moment, which is a new feeling and a nice feeling. I want to travel. I bought a flat in London, which I’ve hardly lived in, so I want to spend time there. I want to buy some wheels, visit the dentist, do some ordinary stuff.”

That “ordinary stuff” included spending a week in Scotland with her family immediately after the film wrapped.

“One evening I fell asleep and stayed asleep for 13 solid hours,” she recalls. “I’d have slept longer if someone hadn’t awakened me.”

Still, her presence in “Titanic” should do Winslet’s career no harm. She will not turn 22 until October but already has an Oscar nomination (for “Sense and Sensibility”) and has now starred in a major studio movie.

But given what she knows of “Titanic,” would she still have done it? She flashes a sharp sideways glance, then relapses into silence.

“Kate’s pensive,” she says finally. “I’m glad I did it, but I’d never do a shoot for that length of time again. It’s hard to hang on to your integrity, your train of thought, what you feel about your character. And for the first time in my life on a film set I was thinking, ‘I wish I wasn’t here.’ Some days I’d wake up and think, ‘Please, God, let me die.’ ”