Director’s Darling: Kate Winslet Stars in the Highly-Anticipated Film, ‘Steve Jobs’
The tenacious Oscar, Emmy and Grammy-award winner deftly balances family life with a stellar career
WINNING A CLOSETFUL of trophies—including an Oscar, three Golden Globes, an Emmy and a Grammy—would be enough, one might assume, to ensure an actress like Kate Winslet her pick of plum roles. But not always. Take her latest project, this month’sSteve Jobs, Aaron Sorkin’s examination of the Apple co-founder. “It didn’t come to me; I went to it,” Winslet says of her part as Jobs’s confidante, friend and marketing chief, Joanna Hoffman. When she first heard the film was in the works, with Danny Boyle directing andMichael Fassbender in the title role, she said to herself, “I’ve got to get in on this gig.” She arches an eyebrow before recalling her next thought: “Well, f—ing great. How the hell am I supposed to make that happen?”
As it turns out, Winslet’s account of how she landed the part is worthy of a classic Kate Hepburn caper, only with bluer language. Last fall, while the actress was running around Australian bush country in period costume for The Dressmaker, a ’50s feminist romp that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, she was also playing gumshoe behind the scenes. After losing Winslet’s Titanic co-star Leonardo DiCaprio, then Christian Bale, for the role of Jobs, producers had turned to Fassbender. When Winslet learned that the film would start shooting in a mere five weeks, she thought, “Strike while the iron’s hot. Get in there, remind them I’m around.”
After some quick research on Hoffman, she discovered that the former executive was an apple-cheeked Eastern European brunette with a volumetric ’80s bob. “I bet you they just don’t picture someone like me doing this,” thought Winslet, a tall British blonde with patrician cheekbones who first won hearts playing a rebellious English beauty in films such as Sense and Sensibility (1995) andTitanic (1997). So she enlisted her husband, Ned RocknRoll, dispatching him to a wig shop. “I threw on this short, dark-haired wig, took all the makeup off my face, took a photograph and sent it—with no subject, nothing.”
“I didn’t know who it was,” Boyle says of the picture he received from producer Scott Rudin, with whom Winslet has worked regularly since 2001’s Iris. Rudin revealed it was her, telling Boyle, “Believe me, you won’t want to work with anyone else.” Boyle flew to Melbourne and found himself discussing the part with Winslet early one morning before she headed off for another day of filming. “She had a bee in her bonnet,” says Boyle. “And when [actors like that] have a bee in their bonnets, they are just perfect to work with.”
Sorkin was flabbergasted that Winslet was willing to play a supporting role. “When she said she wanted to play Hoffman, my first thought was, ‘Why is Kate Winslet playing a really mean joke on me?’ ”
Nevertheless, “I felt f—ing triumphant,” Winslet says about landing the part, pumping her fist from a couch in New York’s Crosby Street Hotel, where she is enjoying a brief, rare sojourn without her children: 14-year-old Mia, her daughter with her first husband, indie filmmaker Jim Threapleton; 11-year-old Joe, with her second, director Sam Mendes; and Bear (who turns 2 in December), her son with RocknRoll, whom she married in 2012. “It’s only the second time I’ve ever left the baby,” says Winslet, who typically travels en famille and plans her films around school schedules. “People assume that [actors] go off for months on end. A lot of journalists say to me, ‘So, I bet you’re looking forward to having some time with your kids,’ and I think, ‘I’m with them all the f—ing time.’ I don’t leave anyone behind; that’s just not the way it goes.”
Tousled blond hair frames her face, and she’s dressed in snug black jeans and a sheer black top. Her blue, eagle-like eyes narrow as she shares another affront: “Just a couple of hours ago, my publicist sent an email saying that some journalist from the Daily Mail has a picture of me from an event last night and is saying that I appear to have lost all the baby weight and how did I do that? And do I want to comment on the fact that experts are saying that I’ve had Botox? I just get irritated by that s—. First of all, the latter is 100 percent not true, and secondly, it’s f—ing 18 months later. Of course I’m going to get back at some point.”
As soon as she got over her happiness at landing the part in Jobs, she reverted to the sensation every role gives her. “The first thing I do is panic,” she says. The anxiety hasn’t lessened, even though she’s been acting since she was a 14-year-old dubbing voice-overs in a basement recording studio on London’s South Audley Street. It’s the kind of panic that drives her to prepare incessantly.
An initial stumbling block was Hoffman’s unusual accent (she had arrived in America by way of Armenia and Poland). “This was the hardest one I have ever done,” says Winslet, who won an Oscar for her authentic portrayal of a German in 2008’s The Reader. “With foreign accents, particularly the Eastern European ones, you’re only one step away from a Saturday Night Live skit. So you’ve got to be f—ing careful.” To adopt Hoffman’s voice, she met with her several times before filming began and worked intensely with a dialect coach. “We rallied like mad.”
The ’80s look also required a deft touch, with Winslet donning a brunette wig with ensembles that included an angular power suit and a matching skirt-blouse-scarf set. “You don’t want this to be a big hair-and-makeup show,” says Ivana Primorac, the stylist whose work with Winslet has included aging her over several decades forThe Reader. “Kate’s got absolutely no vanity. It’s all about the character,” says Primorac, who first tipped off Winslet about this role. “For Jobs, we thought, ‘We’ll take all the makeup off and make her really plain.’ No mascara, and then those glasses—undo the glamour.” It worked. After an early screening, a member of the New York Film Festival’s selection committee asked who the “sensational” actress playing Hoffman was.
It was important to Winslet to do justice to Hoffman, who in 1980 was the fifth person hired to the Macintosh team, a band of renegades operating under a pirate flag that was later hoisted above their building on the Apple campus. At the time, she constituted the entire marketing department and helped position the Mac in a PC market then dominated by IBM and Commodore. She also influenced Jobs’s lifestyle and dress, often admonishing him to be a more attentive father to his young daughter, Lisa, and introducing him to high-fashion designers. “She’s our guide to understanding this extraordinary man,” Boyle says. Hoffman was also one of the few members of Jobs’s inner circle with the backbone to stand up to him, twice winning an unofficial internal award for doing so. And yet she was deeply loyal, following him to his educational computer company NeXT when he left Apple the year after the Mac launch, before she eventually departed for General Magic and then retired in 1995, at age 40. (After Jobs married Laurene Powell in 1991, the newlyweds moved into a house close to Hoffman’s in Palo Alto, California, where Jobs lived until his death in 2011.)
“I loved the way that [Joanna] didn’t suffer fools, in particular Steve,” says Winslet. “Anytime a woman can keep a hotheaded male with a reputation for being a bit of a loose cannon in check, that’s an amazing quality. She tells this one story,” says Winslet, effortlessly shifting accents as she mimics Hoffman: “ ‘Oh my God, I worked so hard on these [marketing] projections, and then my assistant came to me and said, “Steve’s changed the projections.” I remember running up the stairs, thinking, I swear I’m going to put a knife in his chest.’ ” Satisfied cackle from Winslet.
“Joanna very much saw herself as his equal, as a colleague. She wasn’t afraid of him, ever,” she adds. “They really admired and respected each other.”
Winslet and her co-star, Fassbender, seem equally well matched. “It was crucial that this character be able to stand toe-to-toe with Jobs, that she not be pushed off the screen,” says Sorkin. “And since you couldn’t push Kate Winslet off the screen with a bulldozer, it was a real sight to see.” Off-screen, she and Fassbender got on well, perhaps because they are both “one-man shows,” as Winslet puts it. “No other people faffing around him. That’s how I’ve always done it. Then you’ve got no one else to blame if you f— up.”
Jobs is structured in three acts—often shot in long takes with few interruptions—featuring nine principal characters, depicting three key scenes from Jobs’s life spanning 1984 to 1998. In an unusual move, the sections were rehearsed and shot in sequence, as though Boyle were filming a play. “Even when Sorkin breaks up a word, he’ll write down how it’s broken up,” says Winslet, who enlisted all the help she could get (including running lines with her 11-year-old son) to memorize the rhythmic, dialogue-heavy 182-page screenplay in just a few weeks.
It was such an exhausting effort that she was relieved not to be playing the protagonist. “Sometimes it’s blissful to be in a position where you can support your fellow actors,” says Winslet, whose maternal skills came into play on set as she made Fassbender cups of tea and kept snacks handy. “I think it’s helpful to a leading actor to have people around you who aren’t being excitable or talking about what they’re going to do on the weekend,” she says. “It’s like, ‘F— me, I’ve got a whole bloody half-an-act to shoot. Don’t ask me what I’m doing on Saturday night.’ ”
In fact, she planned Fassbender’s weekends for him, so he wouldn’t have to think about it. “She was always doing things like booking hotels for me to get away and restaurants and trying to make sure that I was looking after myself,” Fassbender says. “She’s a tremendous asset to have on set—she brought her vast experience in all areas. It’s things that go beyond acting; she’s very good at seeing the whole canvas.”
Boyle agrees. “She should be a director and a producer, too,” he says. “She’s a brilliant partner for a filmmaker—we’d be shooting a scene and something would go wrong and we’d need to reshoot. I’d look up and she’d be resetting the background, because she’d memorized where it all went.” He adds, “She’s the most organized person I’ve ever met, while giving the impression that she’s unorganized. When she was booking flights and taxicabs for Michael, it wasn’t some poor assistant. She was doing it all herself.”
MAKING IT ON HER OWN has been Winslet’s way since growing up in Berkshire, England, with her parents, two sisters and one brother. She’s said she felt bullied in school and early on decided that she would pursue acting professionally. “I never searched for anything else. I remember being in the playground as an 8-year-old and my friends saying, ‘I’m going to be an air hostess when I grow up,’ ‘I’m going to be a hairdresser,’ and I would just think, You’re going to be what?” After studying theater at school, she began taking small jobs and, by age 15, landed a role on the BBC teen drama series Dark Season. “In my head, I was already out of school, because I was experiencing life,” says Winslet. Two years later, she was cast in her first movie, Peter Jackson’s edgy indie drama Heavenly Creatures,which garnered critical raves for its depiction of an obsessive friendship turned murderous. “When I was 17, I was absolutely out there—working hard and seeing the world as a consequence of that,” she says.
Nevertheless, nothing could prepare her for the juggernaut of 1997’sTitanic, in which she co-starred with Leonardo DiCaprio, who remains a close friend. The film grossed over $600 million in the U.S., but Winslet resisted being typecast as the new “it” girl ingénue, turning down the lead role in Shakespeare in Love to appear in the offbeat indie film Hideous Kinky, on which she met her first husband, Threapleton. By 23 she was married, by 25 she was a mother to Mia and by 26 she was divorced. “No one teaches you, and also no one particularly helps you,” she says of the tabloid attention she attracted. “It’s a very specific thing to ask people to understand. ‘So-and-so was mean about me in the newspaper.’ ‘Oh, just ignore it.’ But you can’t, because it’s not true.”
She soon met director Sam Mendes and moved to New York City to live with him; they got married in Anguilla in 2003. The couple had a son, Joe, born that same year, and for the next seven years shared a vibrant creative partnership, with Mendes directing her in 2008’sRevolutionary Road, which co-starred DiCaprio and was, portentously, about a failing marriage. The couple split in 2010. “I know lots of people who are not in the public eye who have gone through several marriages, I really do, and it’s just those are the cards that life dealt me. I didn’t plan on its being that way,” Winslet says. “And f— me, it hasn’t been easy, you know.” Noting that the tabloids tried and failed to detail how and why her earlier marriages unraveled, she adds, “No one really knows what has happened in my life. No one really knows why my first marriage didn’t last; no one knows why my second didn’t. And I’m proud of those silences.”
As for her new husband, RocknRoll, born Edward Abel Smith (he legally changed his name in 2008), she says, “Thank God for Ned—really. He’s just so incredibly supportive, and he’s so much fun. He’s absolutely everything to me. And to all of us.” The two met by chance while both were on vacation on Necker Island, a private resort owned by RocknRoll’s uncle, Richard Branson. They married in 2012 and have settled in the country outside London. At home, on most days, she is up at 6 a.m., cooking breakfast and getting the kids ready for school—not the stereotypical image of a movie star. “Do you have to use that word?” she asks, wincing. “I’ve always been so uncomfortable with that. I just don’t feel like one, and I don’t live like one either—not the way I imagine a proper movie star living.” A recent splurge was a 1955 Morris Minor Traveller, a classic English wood-paneled station wagon, which she spotted with a For Sale sign while driving. “To me, that was a big thing,” she says.
As for her kids, the older ones have seen both of Winslet’s recent blockbuster franchise films, Divergent and Insurgent, while Mia has become “obsessed” with 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directed by French auteur Michel Gondry. “She plays the soundtrack all the time. Suddenly there will be some song coming from her iPhone and I’m like, ‘Hang on, what’s that song?’ She goes, ‘Oh, Mom, it’s from Eternal Sunshine, duh,’ ” she says, laughing. “Oh yeah, I remember.”
Winslet herself can stand to see her films only once after each is finished. That said, she is “super proud” of her best actress Oscar forThe Reader, which she keeps in her bathroom. “The whole point is for everybody to pick it up and go, ‘I’d like to thank my son and my dad’—and you can always tell when someone has, because they’re in there a little bit longer after they flushed. They’ll come out looking slightly pink-cheeked. It’s hysterical.”
While Winslet tries to keep her private life private, she is uninhibited in front of the camera. “Sometimes, there are sides to the character that I don’t even like, or something that character has experienced that I might not like to have to feel. Like Sabine in A Little Chaos (2014)—she’s experienced the loss of a child. It was f—ing horrible,” says Winslet, who was pregnant with Bear during filming. “You go home, shake it off and have a cup of tea, but in the moment, it’s pretty yuck.”
She’s also been unafraid to literally bare it all on-screen, stripping naked in 12 films, though after three children, “I don’t think I can get away with it now,” she says. “I’ve never had a body double—that would feel like lying. So I am probably done.” (“I get really big when I am pregnant,” she adds. “There are things that will never go back, but in terms of physically feeling back and healthy, I do.”) She admits to a lot of self-criticism when she was younger, but “thank God all that s—’s evaporated,” she says. “We all focus on our bodies in our late teens and our early 20s, in a way that is just not cool or healthy. In your 30s, you become aware of staying fit. Now I view my physical self as an instrument that I have to keep going because I’m a mother, and I have to be as healthy as I can for those three people who need me—more than I need for myself to be in a f—ing nude scene.”
Recently, Winslet has found herself in a new phase of her career. “When you get older, you’ve got to become more interesting. That’s why you have to choose the right parts,” says Primorac, mentioning the resolution of today’s digital cameras, which magnify every physical flaw. “I’ve done lots of films where Kate is the amazingly sexy leading lady, but now she’s more interested in the parts where she can frown and she can have wrinkles in her forehead. Instead of worrying, ‘Am I going to look good next to Liam Hemsworth?’—which she still does, by the way—she’s more interested in a great role.”
“There aren’t that many roles that are really rewarding for women, and it’s a problem for Kate,” Boyle says. “She’s fighting a battle, as great actors do: She is no longer the blond ingénue—she’s particularly conscious of that since she played the biggest part in the world in that category—and she wants to reposition directors’ and producers’ perspective on her, that she is growing and changing as an actor.”
It seems that Winslet will relish the challenge. “I want to read a script and go, ‘Holy s—, how the hell would I ever play that role?’ And then find myself somehow playing it,” she says, laughing. “I want to always be doing this. I want to grow and I want to change and I want to freak myself out.” Part of that process will be turning 40 this month, a birthday Winslet is sanguine about. “I have not wasted a second,” she says with a smile. “Good God, have I made the most of those 40 years.”