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Holy's Smokin' Star
Kate Winslet

Kate Winslet as Ruth Barron in Holy Smoke

Mention Kate Winslet's name to your average moviegoer, and the image he or she is likely to think of is her grand entrance in James Cameron's Titanic, emerging from a car dressed to the nines and--most memorably of all--wearing a really big hat. The sight of the real-life Winslet is just about the opposite of that seemingly inaccessible vision of cool elegance; she bounds into the conference room at the Four Seasons Hotel, an affable bundle of energy casually bedecked in a simple shirt and pants, lit cigarette in her right hand. However, there's one key similarity between Winslet and Rose Dewitt Bukater: both are impossibly gorgeous, and as such the first question to come from the press roundtable concerns her beauty secrets.

"You know what? I don't have any," Winslet replies with a laugh. "I'm afraid I'm not a really good example because I smoke; I half the time fall asleep with my makeup on because I can't bother to take it off. I don't use a whole heap of products. One thing I don't believe in is all these bloody products. I'm just a believer in simple, simple everything. I take some herbal stuff--a herbal hormone balancer called Mexican Wild Yam. That's it; I don't do anything else."

Titanic was many viewers' first glimpse of Winslet and her hormonally-balanced complexion, and for just as many, it was their only glimpse. Following her turn in that record-shattering blockbuster (for which she earned her second Academy Award nomination), the 24-year-old Winslet returned to the far-from-mainstream career path that initially earned her favor among critics and arthouse audiences. Her taste for unconventional roles undoubtedly accounts in part for her fairly infrequent screen appearances, but most of it is simply due to a conscious choice to not work. "I really don't work all the time because I don't believe in it. I think if did work all the time, I wouldn't love my job anymore, and I'd get really sick of it. I don't want to ever feel like that, 'cause as soon as I feel like that, I stop."

Playing Ruth Barron, a reckless young woman who falls into an obsessive affair with a much older cult deprogrammer (Harvey Keitel) in her latest film, Jane Campion's curious but fascinating erotic comedy-drama Holy Smoke, certainly did not dampen her love for her job. "When I read the script, I just totally loved it. I just thought it was absolutely brilliant and so daring and shocking and profound and moving. And the fact that Jane Campion wanted me to do it was so incredible to me. And Harvey Keitel--I grew up on his stuff and always had been a huge admirer of his work. It was wonderful; it was a real team, the three of us absolutely holding hands going through the whole thing together. It was really amazing, and I really learned at lot; I learned more, I think, on that job about myself as an actress than I have on any other."

As with any learning experience, Winslet's lessons on Holy Smoke came while being pushed beyond her personal limits. "I have never been so open as an actress as I was on Holy Smoke. There's always a part of yourself that you like to keep back; you sort of layer the character on top of your own character. But with Holy Smoke it was like, 'I've got to really become this girl,' because there's nothing about her that is anything like me at all. I had to be that open to be Ruth because she's so fearless and she's so driven and so honest, and I just couldn't be afraid of anything as an actress; I had to just give everything I had, and that's why it drained me so much. It was so exhausting; it was the ultimate challenge."

Much of the challenge--and resulting exhaustion--came from an intense rehearsal period between Winslet, Keitel, and Campion. "The rehearsal period. Fuck. Me. We had two weeks of rehearsal that were extraordinary. And at the end of this two weeks, I remember going home thinking, 'Please, God, don't let the shoot be as hard as that rehearsal period was 'cause I just won't survive.' We would just rehearse flat-out, flat-out, flat-out the whole entire day; sometimes we would not even leave the room until about 8 o'clock at night. It was just me, Jane, and Harvey--that's three people with totally different ideas, totally different characters, playing totally different roles. It was just really difficult, but it was brilliant because we have this foundation of where we stood, who these characters were, and what they were all about."

Yet not even the strongest foundation, literal or figurative, could fully prepare Winslet for watching her much-remarked-about scene of full nudity. "It's like watching a horror film! You know that everyone is watching it too, and you think, 'This is really embarrassing!' It's like me saying to you, 'Get naked and stand on the table in front of all these people.' It's horrible!" Even so, she sees the embarrassment as a small and necessary tradeoff for its effect in the film. "Those things are there for a reason. When I read that scene, I thought it was everything--it was moving; it was sort of scary; it was weird; and it was mad. [The nudity is] incidental to the scene; she's more naked emotionally. I think that's why Jane wanted it to be naked because she is stripped of everything."

Winslet, on the other hand, doesn't look to lose anything anytime soon. Later this year she will be seen in Quills, Philip Kaufman's film about the Marquis de Sade starring Geoffrey Rush; and following that is a project close to her heart, an adaptation of Emile Zola's novel Thérèse Raquin. Not only will the project mark the directorial debut of stage director David Leveaux, it will be Winslet's first effort as an executive producer. "I've resisted it for a long time," she says of taking a behind-the-scenes involvement. "When you do something like Titanic, on one hand you can go, 'Wow, I've got all this power,' and you could to whatever you wanted to do. But I really didn't want to abuse that. And I actually didn't really feel the need to do anything more than what I believed in and what I loved to do. But the reason why I'm executive producing [Thérèse] is precisely because I just love this story and I want to see it done properly."

Despite her desire to take on a power position in that project, Winslet has no intention of leaving the job for which she is in such demand. "I do get sent a lot of scripts; a huge variety. I do get sent blockbuster type things, and I do get sent tiny, tiny little independents; and I get sent things that haven't got any funding--just a massive variety: period stuff, modern stuff, horror films; all kinds of things. I love that; I love reading scripts. I just always think it's incredible that I have this ability to choose now what I can do."

She may not be much of an example for beauty care (yeah, right), but Winslet is certainly a good example for those looking to carve out a successful and varied acting career, and if she practices what she preaches, aspiring actors should heed her advice. "My advice [to up-and-coming actors] would be never give up and just stay passionate because you will get there in the end. You really will get there in the end--if you believe you'll get there."

(written February 11, 2000)


Holy's Smokin' Star: Kate Winslet/© Michael Dequina

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