Kate Winslet finds her strength for ‘Wonder Wheel’

Kate Winslet plays Ginny, who “has huge regrets and she’s trying to escape all the time, wanting to move on, just being breathless. So as a consequence, I truly felt physically breathless for the whole of the shoot,” the actress says of her film “Wonder Wheel.”
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

It’s the day of the New York Film Festival premiere of “Wonder Wheel,” and, as she slides into a booth at a midtown restaurant, Kate Winslet has shifted her focus to another opening — her 17-year-old daughter’s school play.

Winslet finishes texting her daughter, Mia, for an update and we debate whether it’s more challenging to raise an adolescent girl or boy. (Winslet also has a 13-year-old son, Joe, as well as a 3-year-old boy, Bear.) Basically, we decide it’s a draw.

Winslet’s powerful, confident turn in “Wonder Wheel” drew strong reviews at the New York festival. In the Woody Allen film, she plays Ginny, a postwar Coney Island waitress harboring deep regrets about her past and holding onto a desperate hope that she might escape her life’s misery and at last find happiness.


During the interview, Winslet, 42, shared her thoughts about disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein and how she pointedly refused to thank him at the Oscars. (The Times published a story last month on that subject.)

“I won’t be pushed around or bullied by anyone,” Winslet said. “I was bullied as a child. Never again. Certainly not by Harvey Weinstein.”

That’s a good place to pick up the conversation.

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You mentioned you were bullied as a child. What happened?

I was very chubby, so I was teased for that when I was 7 or 8. Really horribly teased. Locked in a cupboard, stuff like that. And then when I was a teenager, I was bullied again for similar reasons.


Is that a reason you’ve been outspoken on body image over the years?

We have to somehow instill this idea in young women that their body is their strength, that their body is something to be proud of and can carry them, as opposed to being something they just don’t like and continue to criticize and comment upon. So we have to try to help young women reach that place of acceptance at a younger age.

Actress Kate Winslet.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times )

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How do you do that with your daughter?

Positive reinforcement, all the time. I tell her, “God, you look amazing! Do you feel good? How do you feel?” Just making sure that she feels strong and confident. But more importantly — because you don’t want to over-compliment as then it becomes meaningless — I tell her how proud I am of myself. So she isn’t exposed to me saying negative comments about myself in front of her because she’s going to learn from that and copy it.

You just did that crazy mountain survival movie [“The Mountain Between Us”]. Do you feel stronger now than at any point in your life?

I do. It’s an absolutely amazing feeling because I feel like my physical strength is improving with age as opposed to dwindling.

What was harder: “The Mountain Between Us” or “Titanic”?

“Wonder Wheel.” [Laughs] A lot harder than both of them, believe you me.


Because of the size of the role, because of the size of the emotions of my character and my absolute determination to make her my own character and not a cliched version of the woman who’s neurotic or drinks too much. She’s much more tragic than that because she has real dreams. She truly believes that the life she’s living is not hers, and, of course, it absolutely is.

She has huge regrets and she’s trying to escape all the time, wanting to move on, just being breathless. So as a consequence, I truly felt physically breathless for the whole of the shoot.

Like actually out of breath?

Oh my God, yes! I was in this permanent state of flight or fight. Literally. I felt I was going to take off, like a proper adrenaline fuel, which is not like me. Usually, I’m quite good at being calm and contained — not methodical, but I know how to cope. I know how to pace myself. I’ve got good stamina. This … this maxed me out in ways I can’t even describe. I was in a permanent state of fluttering panic, always trying to think ahead. And that never went away, not for one second, over those seven weeks and 132 pages.

Did you anticipate having these kinds of feelings when you started filming?

When I first read the script, I just … I’m not making this up. I sat there and said, “Well, this is a real shame because this is such an incredible part and I just can’t play her because I don’t know how. And I just really, truly can’t put myself through this.”

Obviously, you changed your mind. What happened?

[Laughs] What happened is that my husband and kids were like, “Mum. Get a grip. Obviously, you’re doing it. Just shut up.” Or: “Mum, it’s Woody Allen. You’ve got to do it. Come on. Do it.”

Now that my kids are older, they really are involved in all of it. If mum’s doing a job, we all sit down and talk about it. It becomes a family experience. Everyone, apart from the 3-year-old, tested me on my lines for this.

You mentioned your initial doubts about doing this movie. Did the sexual abuse allegations in Allen’s past give you any pause?

At the end of the day, you look at the facts. He’s an 81-year-old man who went through a two-year court case. As far as I know, he wasn’t convicted of anything. I’m an actor; he’s a director. I don’t know his family. I’ve heard and read exactly what you’ve heard and read. I know as much as you do. That’s all I can say.

When we were talking about you not thanking Weinstein at the Oscars, I remembered that great shot of your parents in the audience …

And my dad whistling, right? That’s my dad’s whistle. And the hat? He wears that hat all the time.

He wore it to the Oscars!

He wore it to the Oscars. The first time we ever went to the Oscars, when I was 19, my God, none of us could believe it. What were we even doing there? It still feels extraordinary that these things happened in my life and within my family. I’m really one of the most unlikely people that any of this would have happened to. [Laughs]

Unlikely in what sense?

I didn’t come from privilege or money. When I say that, nobody ever quite believes me because I speak quite well and I’m English, so therefore surely I’ve had some training. Surely I’ve grown up having people bring me tea in china cups.

I remember my parents cutting the coupon out of the back of the magazine to send off to get two free coffee mugs. Our house was full of things from coupons out of the paper, reduced-priced yogurts bought on their sell-by date. I came from a lovely, grounded family of people. We never had anything but each other. That gave me a foundation of strength.

Both your parents were stage actors, right?

No, my mum was never an actress. It is a misconception. She was in hospital the last two weeks of her life — she passed away in May — and she said, “Oh, darling, please make sure they know I would have hated being an actress. I was truly so shy and, I don’t know, I always felt like it was a bit like showing off.” So that was one of my mum’s dying wishes.

And she was so sad to not see “Wonder Wheel.” [Pause.] I’m trying really hard not to cry. She was so sad not to see it. And I sent an email to Woody’s assistant and I said, “Listen, my mum is dying, and she is devastated that she is not going to see the film.” She was more excited about me working with Woody than anyone I’ve ever worked with.

So I wondered if he could just send a little clip to her to see. And he did. Woody sent a couple of scenes for her to watch and recorded a little video, which was amazing. He said, “I had the pleasure of working with your daughter,” and oh my God, it meant the world to her. She showed all her friends in hospital when they came to visit. That was really something. I’ll never forget it.