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Winslet Sets a New Course

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The last time audiences saw Kate Winslet onscreen, she was huddled on the deck of “the Carpathia,” in 1912, hiding from the anxious gaze of her fiance and a life of upper-class smugness and boredom. The film was--need we even say?--"Titanic.”

Now Winslet returns as a young mother on the loose in ‘70s Morocco with her two children in “Hideous Kinky,” a small independent film that opened in Los Angeles and New York on Friday. If “Titanic” was a luxury liner, “Kinky” is a broken-down bus. And Winslet is enjoying the ride.

A lot has changed for Winslet between these two movies. She’s become an international star. She lost a close friend to cancer. She’s gotten married and says her marriage, to Jim Threapleton, has helped her deal with what’s happened to her in the last year and a half.

“I think if anything I’ve kind of chilled out a hell of a lot more because of my wonderful husband,” she says, rolling a cigarette in a suite high above midtown Manhattan. Her blond hair, cut short, is in fashionable disarray. She’s wearing gray pedal-pushers and a black blouse. “There’s always that worry: ‘Oh, God, I walk out the door, make sure I’ve got a full face of makeup on in case there’s a photographer there.’ I’m me, and that’s it. He loves me for me. It’s just brilliant.”

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In “Titanic,” Winslet wore ornate gowns and dazzling jewels. In “Hideous Kinky,” Winslet looks as if she just got out of bed. She wears peasant skirts and, for the first time in years, sports a suntan. That’s about as far as the film goes in the direction of special effects. This might seem an unlikely follow-up to “Titanic,” but according to the film’s grateful director, Gillies MacKinnon, that was the point.

“She made ‘Hideous Kinky’ so that she wouldn’t exclusively be drawn into doing big-budget Hollywood movies,” he says. “She’s very clear about this. I think she must have known what was going to happen with ‘Titanic,’ but this is something that she wanted. She wanted this other side of herself as a British actress who chooses what she wants to do and not what her agent wants her to do and all the rest of it.”

Until “Titanic,” Winslet had generally made small, arty fare: “Heavenly Creatures,” “Sense and Sensibility” (for which she received a best supporting actress Oscar nomination), “Jude” and “Hamlet.” With “Hideous Kinky,” she seems to be returning to her indie roots.

The film, which is based on a semiautobiographical novel by Esther Freud (who went to Morocco in the early ‘70s with her sister, Bella, and her mother, Bernadine), is the anecdotal odyssey of Julia and her two young daughters in Marrakech and points beyond. Julia has brought them here because she wants to give them a life more vibrant than the one they’d led in dreary old London.

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They subsist on the infrequent checks the girls’ estranged father sends while Julia, who is also in search of Sufi wisdom, has an affair with a charming Moroccan hustler. Such a synopsis might lead one to think that she is a horrible mother. MacKinnon doesn’t see her that way.

“There was a naivete or an openness at that period, a sense that the world was an adventure,” MacKinnon says. “And the children didn’t suffer for this. They’re both incredibly strong-minded young women now, very successful also. Bella Freud is a big fashion designer in Europe, and Esther is a novelist.

“Nowadays what would happen would be we would drive our kids from one house to another so they could look at videos. She (the mother) wanted them to see the world, and she wanted to see it herself. I knew there might be a puritanical backlash about motherhood, but we just had to be honest about it. That was the period, and we weren’t trying to make somebody sympathetic but to show somebody who really had a hunger to live not only for herself but for her children.” The Loss of a Friend

Winslet, who is now 23, was given a copy of the book when she was 17. The person who gave it to her, actor-writer Stephen Tredre, was her boyfriend at the time, and he encouraged her to make the movie when she was being offered much more high-profile projects in the wake of “Titanic.”

Tragically, in the middle of the “Hideous Kinky” shoot, Tredre died of cancer (he was 33). Winslet flew from Morocco to his funeral in London on the same day that “Titanic” premiered in Los Angeles.

“He was a great source of strength to me while we were together,” she says, staring out the window. “He was 12 years older than me. I was 15, and we split up when I was about 19. He was someone who really made me stick to my guns and believe in myself and taught me how to understand who I was. So that was why getting to the end of this film was very hard, but it was made easier by the fact that I tried to see it as though that was the thing I was doing for Stephen. And I’d met Jim by that point as well and he was being great about the whole thing.”

In yet another twist, Winslet had met Threapleton on the set of “Hideous Kinky.” He was a last-minute addition to the crew, a third assistant director. They were relatively discreet about their relationship. Even MacKinnon didn’t know about it.

“I had no idea what was going on,” MacKinnon says. “Nobody said anything to me. I was so busy making the film I hadn’t even noticed until three or four weeks later somebody said, ‘Have you not noticed anything about Kate and Jim?’ The penny dropped, you know?

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“It was a strange time for Kate when she was in Morocco, what with this chap dying and all the pressure of ‘Titanic,’ ” he continues. “She went to London to do publicity for ‘Titanic,’ and she came down with some kind of bug that she got in Morocco and ended up in hospital. It was really an amazing time. And then she met Jim. Good God, it was like the whole world was spinning around then.”

It kept on spinning. Winslet went to L.A. for the Oscars--she was nominated for best actress--then to India to research a role for Jane Campion’s “Holy Smoke” (her next film, in which she plays an Australian girl in thrall to a cult), then back to Morocco for a movie Threapleton was shooting, then to Australia and India again for four months to film “Holy Smoke.”

Now they’re back in London (they were married in November) trying to establish some sort of domesticity and dealing with Winslet’s higher profile.

The downside to the “Titanic” phenomenon is everywhere apparent. Winslet was mobbed--frighteningly so--in Morocco and India. She is also subject to the usual spurious rumors: that, for example, she had pursued the role in “Elizabeth” that went to Cate Blanchett (she says she read the script five years ago and passed on it); that she was going to make a film with Arnold Schwarzenegger, contingent on her losing weight (never happened, she says).

Winslet brings up the issue of weight herself, probably because it’s been brought up by others so often. It seems to be the only aspect of her existence that’s less than brilliant, and it elicits from her the kind of defiance that all her characters have exhibited.

“I am who I am,” she says. “I’m healthy. I swim a mile every day. I’ll never be a stick insect, and I wouldn’t want to be either because it seems to me that a lot of people who are very thin are just really unhappy.

“I had a time in my life when I was about 19 and I was very thin and I wasn’t eating. I was anorexic for about six months. And I was so unhappy. And someone said to me one day, ‘Don’t you realize how much of your day you are spending thinking about your physicality?’ And it was so true. I realized I’d wake up in the morning, the first thing I do I would look in the mirror: ‘Oh, my bum looks big. Oh, my face is fat.’ And I just felt, ‘What am I doing to my life? I can’t even think about others.’

“I feel for those people (anorexics) because they’re being screwed up by what is said to be beautiful and successful these days, thin and pretty, and it’s just bollocks.”

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Winslet’s insistence on doing things her own way characterizes her career and her life.

“Because of the person I am I won’t be knocked down--ever. They can do what they like,” she says. “They can say I’m fat, I’m thin, I’m whatever, and I’ll never stop. I just won’t. I’ve got too much to do. I’ve too much to be happy about.”


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