The Envelope: Oscars 2016: How a wig helped Kate Winslet snag her nominated ‘Steve Jobs’ role

Kate Winslet talked extensively with Joanna Hoffman, the woman she plays in "Steve Jobs," to master her accent.

Kate Winslet talked extensively with Joanna Hoffman, the woman she plays in “Steve Jobs,” to master her accent.

(Christina House / For The Times)

There are a few key things to know about Kate Winslet. She holds eye contact when she shakes your hand. She makes a strong cup of tea. She strives to be “rock steady for everybody.” And though she was once dubbed “Corset Kate” for her affinity for period dramas, this English rose gamely drops the F-bomb when nothing else will do.

So it’s no surprise that Winslet chose her words carefully as she recounted the rigors of Aaron Sorkin’s 187-page “Steve Jobs” script, which the actor rapidly mastered in a Polish-Armenian-Russian accent.

“It’s … daunting, I’ve got to tell you,” she said over tea recently during a quick visit to Los Angeles from her home in London. “You definitely have to get the brain into marathon running shape for sure.”

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With an Oscar and six nominations before her recent 40th birthday — and her seventh nomination arriving late last week — it’s hard to imagine Winslet in anything but. She’s fast becoming her generation’s answer to Meryl Streep. And yet her Oscar-nominated and Golden Globe-winning supporting role as Joanna Hoffman, Jobs’ longtime confidant and marketing chief, was one she lobbied hard to get.


Winslet was still filming “The Dressmaker” in the Australian outback in December 2014 when she heard director Danny Boyle was about to start “Steve Jobs” rehearsals. Winslet didn’t waste any time.

“I knew they hadn’t offered [the Hoffman role] to anybody,” Winslet said. “I just went for it. I thought, ‘Let’s see how much fun I can have with this.’ I got my husband to go to a wig shop and buy a few wig options. We put a short, dark-haired wig on my head. I found a few pictures of Joanna online and tried to make myself look as similar as I could.”

Winslet whipped out her phone to show off the photos that she sent to producer Scott Rudin. This was not the face of Lancôme. It was a no-nonsense gal with unflattering frames and a mousy brown bob. By comparison, the “Joanna Hoffman” on screen is red-carpet-ready.

“Pretty good, right?” she said. “We cut that wig ourselves.”

Winslet’s photos prompted Boyle to fly to Australia to meet her and then send her a link to Sorkin’s script. When she opened it on her iPad, she said, “My heart just stopped.”

“I don’t particularly like blowing too much smoke up his … because he knows how good he is,” said Winslet of Sorkin, chuckling. “But I have to hand it to him. [As] Jeff Daniels said, Aaron writes the way people think. For an actor, that is really a dream.”

Still, so much of what Winslet brings to her “Steve Jobs” performance wasn’t in Sorkin’s script. The screenwriter deliberately keeps stage direction to a minimum, which gave Winslet room to cultivate a natural demeanor with Michael Fassbender, who received a lead actor nomination last week. Boyle’s unconventional filming schedule helped too. Each of the three acts was shot chronologically with breaks for rehearsals before each act.

“There’s one scene where [Jobs] lined up his speech on the floor and Danny said —" here Winslet breaks into an Irish brogue — “‘Would you just, for one take, get down on your knees and pick up the bits of paper?’ And I said, ‘Oh, Danny! I’m just a bit worried it might make her look like she’s the subservient assistant. And he said, ‘But she was that sometimes.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah. Actually she was.’”

As Joanna, Winslet is a proxy for the audience, the character who asks us to believe in Jobs’ humanity, despite all the evidence to the contrary. A trained archaeologist, Hoffman was Armenian-born, raised in Poland, spoke Russian at home and moved to the U.S. as a teenager. Though she had virtually no marketing experience, Jobs handpicked her and they remained close the rest of his life.

“She’s a really wonderful, warm, friendly, loyal person and she was quite different in temperament than a lot of other people around Steve,” said Winslet. “She actually said that a lot of her family members were like Steve.”

Winslet spent hours recording her long talks with Hoffman to master her accent. She said Hoffman described Jobs as a generous, loving person. A hugger, even.

“ ‘Steve was adorable!’” Winslet recalls Hoffman telling her. “ ‘Lots of hugs! Lots of closeness. Sometimes I would want to put a knife through his chest, because he would make me crazy, but …'"

Winslet added, “She always got to see the backstage version of Steve. And in order to access that, there had to be the warmth and softness around the edges of their friendship.”