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New York Times - November 19, 2000

Riding Her Own Wave

After the success of 'Titanic,' Kate Winslet has charted an idiosyncratic course.


When Kate Winslet told her agents that she wanted to follow her Oscar-nominated role in "Titanic," the most successful movie of all time, with a role in "Hideous Kinky," a small movie set in Morocco, they were not happy. "My agents were miserable," says Winslet, laughing at the memory. " 'O.K.,' they said, 'you're going to ride this enormous wave by making a tiny film in the desert. That's a real good idea.' But they know me. They know I make my own decisions, and I didn't want to get lost or confused by the hugeness of 'Titanic.' I deliberately did not do the whole Hollywood thing. I wanted to go to work every day and know everyone's name on the set. It sounds a little mystical, but I had to look after my soul."

Winslet, who is only 25 and has been acting professionally since she was a teenager, is none of the things you are supposed to be if you are an A-list actress. She is beautiful, but she is not twig-thin; she lives outside London rather than in Los Angeles; and most of all, she has turned down big-budget superstar roles in favor of idiosyncratic movies like "Holy Smoke," in which she played a woman under the sway of an Indian guru, or "Quills," her latest film, which opens on Nov. 22 and which chronicles the last days of the Marquis de Sade. "'Quills' was originally a play," Winslet says from London, while her 3-week-old baby, Mia Honey, sleeps in her lap. "The script was wild. It was genuinely shocking, and by that I mean it was everything vile and everything extreme and it was wonderful. I thought, It is incredibly brave for Fox Searchlight, a Hollywood studio, to make this movie. I thought, Bloody hell, they must believe in it. And I signed on."

As the first star to commit to "Quills," Winslet, because of her clout from "Titanic," was able to get the film going. "She was my first choice," says Philip Kaufman, who directed "Quills" and is best known for directing "The Right Stuff" and "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." "Kate has the proper hierarchy of values. She has none of that movie-star stuff at all, which shouldn't be unusual, but it is. Everyone else is busy being piggies, but Kate rejects all that. She is unafraid. She looks soft, but she's not fragile. At all. And Kate has that face -- that face is better than the ship that sunk."

"Quills" is set in an insane asylum where the Marquis de Sade has been imprisoned. Punished in 1801 for publishing pornographic novels and plays, the Marquis (played by Geoffrey Rush) lives out his days in isolated splendor, his writings smuggled out by Madeleine (Winslet), a laundress with romantic dreams. Scandalized by "Justine," Sade's latest work, France's emperor, Napoleon, sends Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to discipline the marquis. His presence incites the entire asylum, including a priest, Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix, in a breakthrough performance), who is in love with Madeleine.

" 'Quills' was risky," explains Winslet, whose father and two sisters are also actors. "In general, I don't think about consequences, my marketability, my overseas potential and all that. I'm looking to have some fun -- an adventure -- and this character had integrity. But there were moments. . . . " Winslet laughs again. What she is referring to is a long, very affecting passage in "Quills" that involves necrophilia. "And, well," Winslet continues, "that's a hard type of scene to do. I mean, sex with a corpse -- that's a bit much. And then you add in that it's a priest having sex with a corpse, in church. You couldn't get more controversial if you tried."

Although she is the naked corpse, the imminent protests seem to delight Winslet. "Lying on a slab with no clothes on was hard," she says, "but the scene was not gratuitous. Everyone always asks me about nudity because I guess I've taken my clothes off in almost every movie I've done. But, in each case, the nudity has been there for a reason. Frankly, I hate every second. But I can't stand seeing a film and thinking: Why is that woman having sex in all her clothes? She should be naked."

Winslet's voluptuousness is a throwback to less aerobicized times, which may be why she is so perfect in period films like "Quills" or "Sense and Sensibility," for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. During "Titanic," Leonardo DiCaprio predicted that Winslet's weight would become a topic of discussion. Winslet recalls: "I'd complain to him: 'My bum is fat. I'm naked in this movie, and my bum is fat.' And he'd say, 'You'll be hailed for having a great shape.' He'd tell me: 'You're gorgeous. Stop worrying.' And he's a sensible boy."

He wasn't quite right, Winslet admits. "After 'Titanic,' the press wrote endlessly about my weight. So, for a while, I thought I had to conform, and I dieted and I got really thin and then I realized, I don't have to starve. I thought, Hell, 'Titanic' is a huge hit, I've been nominated for two Academy Awards, and my message to young women out there is, You don't have to be skinny skinny skinny to be successful." She pauses. "I'm so bored of myself saying this."

The baby starts to cry, and Winslet picks her up. "You know, I don't really have enormous confidence," she says, comforting Mia. "It's all a front, believe me. I have my moments when I cower in a corner and wish the world would swallow me up." The baby is starting to howl, and Winslet's husband, the director Jim Threapleton, takes her into another room. "But I am determined to be honest. I don't want to be distracted by success. I'd rather listen to my baby scream.

Thanks to Ann !