The Guardian-Ryan Gilbey
‘Mare is how most of us felt through lockdown’ … Kate Winslet. Photograph: Jason Bell/Camera Press
The star of one of 2021’s biggest TV hits, Mare of Easttown, talks about weepy reunions with Leonardo DiCaprio, binging Ted Lasso and middle-aged women taking over our screens
Kate Winslet will be ready in a sec. “I’m just going to put some more eyedrops on my stye,” she says. Blame her intense crime drama Mare of Easttown, one of the TV hits of the pandemic. “It was quite a stressful job, and about nine weeks in I got three styes in my left eye, the third of which turned into a solid little marble and had to be cut out. But I pushed on. On with the show!” In it, she plays DS Mare Sheehan, who is raising her grandson, coping with her son’s suicide, and trying to solve the murder of a young mother in a working-class Philadelphia suburb. All without makeup: Mare is more likely to reach for a Cheeto topped with a squirt of spray cheese than anything in the Max Factor range.
“The discussion about how Mare looked blew my mind,” says Winslet. The 46-year-old actor is speaking by phone from the West Sussex home she shares with her husband, Ned Abel Smith, and their seven-year-old son Bear, as well as her two children from previous marriages: 21-year-old Mia by her first husband, Jim Threapleton, and 17-year-old Joe by her second, the director Sam Mendes. “People were asking, ‘Did she gain weight? Didn’t she look frumpy? Wasn’t that brave of her?’ But why should that be brave? I suppose because it’s not how leading actresses are represented. Maybe Mare will be the tipping point, and we’re going to stop scrutinising women on screen quite so much.”
Realism extended to every corner of the show. “We were always saying on set: ‘That’s too TV. Keep it real.’ I’d constantly be rubbing Marmite into the knees of my jeans, or scuffing up my sneakers with a Brillo pad. You can’t just make one thing feel real: it has to be everything.” Take Mare’s car. “She would have been driving her grandson to and from kindergarten, feeding him breakfast on the fly. I know what the floor in the back of my own car looks like – there’s crushed cereal, with bowls and spoons clinking around, because we’ve had breakfast on the school run. You’re sitting on crumbs which are so embedded in the seat it would take a fucking blowtorch to get them out!”
This is Winslet’s shtick: she may be a seven-time Oscar nominee (she won in 2008 for the Holocaust drama The Reader) and a double Emmy-winner (for two HBO shows, Mildred Pierce and now Mare of Easttown) but she remains the star who’s a slob like us. It’s a persona that chimes perfectly with Mare – Winslet intervened to ensure that publicity pictures weren’t airbrushed to make her look more presentable – as well as with our times. “Mare is how most of us felt through lockdown,” she says. “She validated the permanent pyjama look.”
Inadvertently or otherwise, Winslet became almost the face of the pandemic. As reports of coronavirus spread at the start of last year, her 2011 disaster movie Contagion, in which she plays an epidemiologist, shot to the top of the streaming charts. Three months later, she and several Contagion co-stars, including Matt Damon and Marion Cotillard, presented public information videos. Winslet became a kind of Covid Vera Lynn, jollying people along by teaching us how to wash our hands, cough into the crooks of our arms, and deploy the word “fomite” correctly.
That brooding stillness is hard for me because I’m a joyful, busy, active, huggy person
During the interminable third lockdown, she gave two outstanding performances: first as the 19th-century palaeontologist Mary Anning in Ammonite, and then in Mare of Easttown. Both characters force Winslet to play against her natural warmth: it’s more than an hour into Ammonite before Mary smiles, while Mare doesn’t laugh until episode five. “I took some of what I learned on Ammonite into Mare,” she says. “That brooding stillness. It’s hard for me because I’m a joyful, busy, active, huggy person. That’s who I am.”
The scripts for Mare of Easttown arrived one by one while she and Saoirse Ronan were shooting Ammonite on the Dorset coast. “I’d say: ‘Oh my God, episode five just came in’, then Saoirse would go” – and here Winslet slips into her co-star’s breathless Irish lilt – “‘Jesus fooking Christ, this is so exciting, you’ve gotta tell me what happens!’” Audiences turned out to be every bit as enthusiastic. “It came along just as people badly needed something to discuss other than who they knew who had died from Covid. It put families on couches, and there was a nostalgic quality to the one-episode-a-week format. It gets conversation going while you’re waiting for the next one.”
Winslet’s own fondest TV memories from growing up in Reading, Berkshire, revolve around exactly those kinds of cliffhangers. “You’d desperately want to know what would happen to Zammo next on Grange Hill, or to the Fowlers in EastEnders.” Is she a binger now? “Covid has taught me how to binge. In more ways than one. But yes, Ned and I watched Ted Lasso pretty much back-to-back. Covid made you not feel so bad about hanging out on the couch.”
It would be wrong to suggest that Mare of Easttown has catered simply to a nostalgia for delayed gratification when there is so much else to praise it for, not least its female characters. “Middle-aged women have long been underestimated, disrespected and disregarded in the film and television community, and now that’s changing,” she says. “Look at the actresses who won at the Emmys. None of us were in our 20s by any means, and that’s cool! I feel way cooler as a fortysomething actress than I ever imagined I would.”
She also felt a deeper connection between herself and the character than she has done on previous jobs. “I knew Mare and this world vividly. I grew up in a tiny terraced house in a working-class, small-town community where your life overlaps with your neighbours’ lives just because the walls are so thin. If Lorraine down the road had her varicose veins done, the entire world knew. And if, for the first time ever, the couple two streets across voted Conservative instead of Labour then – bloody hell! – all shit went off in our house, and my parents would be debating whether they ought to talk to those people about their choices. This wasn’t a teeny-tiny cul-de-sac. It was the Oxford Road. If I was standing in my parents’ bedroom, I could be eye-to-eye with the people on the top deck of the No 17 bus.”
Winslet is proud of Mare of Easttown’s focus on community; the whodunnit element may be the motor, but it’s the milieu that makes the show feel so salty and rich. There is also far less emphasis on damaged female bodies than audiences have come to expect from crime drama. “You’re right, we did show less,” she says. “In the morgue scene, we had a dummy that was an exact replica of the actress’s body and we were even respectful of that. Between takes we would cover the dummy with a sheet.”
For all the show’s sensitivity, its vision of the police as uniformly caring, conscientious and true feels antiquated in light of the murders of George Floyd and Sarah Everard, to choose only the most shocking recent examples of police criminality. Shouldn’t television reflect the fact that the police badge is not necessarily a reassuring or honourable symbol?
“I don’t know if I’m going to be playing Mare again,” Winslet says. “But if we were to do a second season, then for sure these atrocities which have existed in the police force here and in America will find their way into the stories we tell. One hundred per cent. You can’t pretend these things haven’t happened.” She sighs. “It’s horrible, isn’t it? This moment in time. It’s horrific. You can hear me, I can’t quite find the words because we all feel so betrayed and powerless. We have to turn this moment into something meaningful. We have to use our voices on behalf of people who don’t have one. That matters to me now in ways that hadn’t even crossed my mind in my 20s.”
Possibly, she had other things to think about. Her 20s began, after all, with Titanic. “Do you know Leo just turned 47?” she asks, suddenly shocked. Then her voice grows wistful as she thinks back to herself and DiCaprio as pups. “I turned 21 on that shoot, and Leo turned 22,” she says. I tell her that when I met DiCaprio back then, he complained to me about Titanic’s arduous production and how miserable he felt. She lets out a raucous laugh. “I remember! I remember that he was! It wasn’t pleasant for any of us, but we were all in it together. Though he had way more days off than I ever bloody did. I guess I was raised to be grateful and just get on with it. I didn’t feel it was my right to be miserable, and if I was miserable I certainly would not have let a journalist know.” She is laughing again. “There is no way I would have let that slip!”
She and DiCaprio later played a troubled married couple in Revolutionary Road and met again in Los Angeles recently for the first time in three years. “I couldn’t stop crying,” says Winslet. “I’ve known him for half my life! It’s not as if I’ve found myself in New York or he’s been in London and there’s been a chance to have dinner or grab a coffee and a catchup. We haven’t been able to leave our countries. Like so many friendships globally, we’ve missed each other because of Covid. He’s my friend, my really close friend. We’re bonded for life.”
Were she sitting in front of me now, I get the impression she might appear to have something in her eye. Or perhaps it would just be the drops.