In a pivotal scene in Francis Lee’s audacious new film Ammonite, a rather stoic and headstrong paleontologist, Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), finds herself in a position where she may act outside of her comfort zone and consider compromising for her young lover (Saoirse Ronan). I am deliberately being vague as I do not want to ruin the scene for anyone who has yet to see this remarkable new film. Suffice to say, the ambiguity shown on Winslet’s face is everything—pulsating with possibilities yet exquisitely hard to gauge with any total certainty.
With Mary Anning, Winslet adds to her truly remarkable body of work – one that pulses with brilliant performances beginning with her first big splash in Peter Jackson’s LGBTQ-themed, Heavenly Creatures in 1994.
Ammonite takes place in 19th century England and centers on real-life paleontologist Anning, who made famous fossil discoveries along the coast of Lyme Regis but never received proper credit for her work. In the film, she embarks on a relationship with a young woman recuperating from a personal tragedy. It becomes a love story with no known basis in fact but one that is “an imagined, respectful snapshot of someone’s life,” as Lee puts it. The dialogue is deliberately sparse, the landscape is perilous, and the budding relationship is sexually-charged.
Embodying Anning (and Winslet does so fully) required the actor to be more restrained than ever before when her natural personality is admittedly gregarious. One thing Winslet seemingly does have in common with Anning is that she’s her own person who doesn’t necessarily follow the dictates of others. This was obvious as far back as 1997 when, after the blockbuster success of Titanic, she resisted accepting typical Hollywood film roles, instead opting to star in small indie features like Hideous Kinky, Holy Smoke!, Quills, Iris, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Little Children—films with rich, rewarding characters and complex, often controversial, subject matter.
In 2008, she delivered two of the best performances of the year in both Revolutionary Road and The Reader. Those interested, should research the insanity involved in why both films were released almost simultaneously. At awards time, studios promoted Winslet for both Lead and Supporting Oscar nominations, respectively, for both films, but the Academy’s odd desire to combat category fraud (when it so often ignores it) and its antiquated rule that one actor cannot be nominated in the same category for two separate performances meant that The Reader somehow garnered her a Lead nomination and Winslet finally won an Oscar (after 6 noms). She was again tapped for her terrific supporting turn in Steve Jobs in 2015 but lost to Alicia Vikander who, arguably, was a lead in The Danish Girl.
Winslet continues to select roles that challenge her, and Mary Anning in Ammonite certainly fits that description. Hers is a mesmerizing performance that is justly receiving Oscar buzz.
Awards Daily had the pleasure of speaking with Winslet via phone. Her candor was most refreshing as was her sense of humor.
Awards Daily: Mary Anning is on a long list of women whose accomplishments were written out of history. Did that factor into your wanting to do the film?
Kate Winslet: Yes…We’ve repeatedly seen the successes of many great women, so often, taken away from them or covered over or just not celebrated or even properly documented. And, so, to have an opportunity to really indulge in telling part of Mary’s story was incredibly important to me… I mean this woman, she had all of her finds that were, scientifically, incredibly significant. They were all taken away from her by rich, powerful men who weren’t as clever as she was. [At this point, Winslet’s six-year-old son interrupts, and she very sweetly coaxes him back to ‘Daddy.’]
So, Mary has her finds and her significant scientific work taken from her by rich, powerful men…and, also, who didn’t have the fucking energy to do the job she did! This was a woman who trolled and combed the beaches and climbed cliffs and did dangerous work in order to uncover these finds. And so, yeah, it was very important to me to play a part in telling her story and supporting her legacy. In making sure that I’m able to contribute in some way to hopefully inspiring other women and a younger generation of women to really appreciate the historical significance in these female achievements, but also in celebrating their own achievements. And the achievements of their friends and their colleagues. And honoring success as it happens, regardless of gender. So, for me, that was a big part of it.
AD: Kate, the performance is so minimal. It’s like watching a silent film. Was that a challenge for you?
KW: Yes. [Laughter] Just, like, yes. Francis would just say to me [Deepening her voice]:
‘Stop moving. Don’t touch your face. No, you can’t smile.’
‘But she’s happy.’
‘So? You’re not allowed to show it. We have to earn every shred of emotion that crosses her face.’
I’m a really busy person, physically. I move myself all the time. I’m very expressive with my face. I’m very expressive with my physical body. And to really have to remove that from myself, it was hard. It really was. But I had several months to prepare…And every single week was used in some form for Mary. So, I had to learn how to sketch like a proper sketch artist because Mary had to draw all of her finds in order to document them, significantly. And it was important to me that I didn’t have a hand double or anything like that. I did all of that sketching. Also, she wrote all the time about her finds and…she wrote letters and kept a journal.
So, I spent weeks and weeks and weeks working with –it wasn’t actually a quill but it was a very old metal tipped ink pen…I spent a really long time really copying her hand…It wasn’t just me wanting to have the same exact handwriting as Mary. It was me wanting to adopt the same posture that was required when she held the pen and the way that she held it. And the rhythm that moved in her body as she’s writing or as she was drawing. And her posture in general. How she would hold herself when she was either digging or writing or drawing or excavating something. All of those things became a part of who she was. And it was hard. It took a lot.
AD: You isolated yourself…
KW: I lived as alone as I could. From Monday to Friday, I lived alone in a small house, a tiny cottage—that was exposed on two sides to the elements. It sat right on a beach, right on a little harbor, keyside. And when the weather was really rough, the waves would hit the front of the house and the wind would howl and my bedroom would rattle and shake, and it really helped me. It’s hard to do that. It’s not easy to live separate from ones family–my family is absolutely used to having me around all the time. It was six weeks we worked specifically in Lyme Regis, and we had two more weeks elsewhere where we had it a little easier. I really had to look at every aspect of how I was going to construct this character and just say to myself, ‘Okay what can I do? How can I live that is going to help me?’
So, I didn’t have a television. I just listened to the radio. I just sat, and I worked, and I wrote, and I drew, and I just did everything I could that was in keeping with the rhythm of how Mary might have lived. And allowing the elements to play a part in that as well. I was in Lyme Regis. I was right there where she had lived. And that was a huge blessing. That doesn’t happen. Actually, that’s never happened to me before where I’d really lived in the place that the character actually lived. So that played a huge part. I’ll probably never get that again. I’m very grateful for that. It really helped me a lot.
AD: Did you learn anything about yourself during that period of self-isolation?
KW: Well, I don’t like very, very strong wind when it’s only me that’s alone in the bedroom. And there was some pretty aggressive bold weather–big weather down on the Jurassic coast. I did find that quite scary. I had to do a lot of mind over matter. The other thing that was quite funny was I became completely aware of all of the food in the house…Because I didn’t want to go to shop…I didn’t want to go and be in society too much—in normal contemporary society so I would shop on a Sunday and I would make that food last the whole week. I would take my own food to work so I didn’t have to go to catering. I would just try and limit interaction. Not to the point that I didn’t talk to Saoirse or hair and makeup. I would absolutely communicate with those people who were immediately around me.
But actually, it was unnatural for me to have to limit my interactions with the wider crew. Normally, I’m, very much, the person shaking everyone’s hand and saying hello and trying to help set the energetic tone for the day and to actively stop myself from being that person was really hard for me. So, I would do my grocery shopping on a Sunday and then I would have to utilize all of that food to get me to Friday and sometimes I’d get to Friday and go, ‘Fuck, I’ve only got an egg left! Now what am I gonna do?’ [Laughs] It was fun, though, I have to say…I just had to do whatever I could, you know? She was such an odd person and so different from me. And so extraordinary. I just had to pull of whatever resource I could to put myself in her world. It was amazing.
AD: Starting with your very first film Heavenly Creatures, you’ve never shied away from queer material. Do you think films like Ammonite will help reduce the industry’s reticence of same sex stories?
KW: Oh my God, I hope so, don’t you?
AD: I do, yes.
KW: I really do. It’s really funny because earlier in this 2-hour window that I’ve been talking to a few film writers, one of the journalists actually said a similar thing to what you said, which is that I’ve never shied away from LGBTQ characters. It’s extraordinary to hear that being said to me because it almost makes me acknowledge that that really is the case–in a way that I have almost been unaware of it—not completely unaware of it, of course—I know the role I played in Heavenly Creatures. I know the scenes I took part in in Holy Smoke! and even Iris–and of course, Ammonite. But, luckily, I was raised by extremely open, liberal, accepting, loving parents who never judged or discriminated against anyone based on gender, race, or sexual orientation. Ever.
So, in a way, to not judge or be fearful of playing a character who is capable of loving someone of the same sex has just never been something that’s occurred to me as even being a thing? It’s just very natural for me to take part in that conversation. Because those conversations were a part of how I was raised. And I’ve never really found myself talking about that publicly. Not that it’s a big deal but just because it’s never really been called for before. It’s never really come up. It makes me realize how profoundly grateful I am for the parenting that I had shown to me and that I’m automatically passing along to my children.
I have a six-year-old who has started doing swim lessons at school. And has already come home to me and said, ‘Mummy, there’s one problem.’
‘What’s that, dear?’
‘There’s one problem with the changing rooms in the swimming pool.’
‘And what’s that, darling?’
‘Well, there’s a changing room for the girls and then there’s a changing room for the boys. But there’s no changing room for the people who haven’t made up their minds yet.’
So, I put my hand on my heart and I get down on my knees, and I look at my little boy in the eye and I say, ‘Well, we’re going to have to do something about that, aren’t we?’ And he says, ‘Yes! Let’s write a letter!’ [Laughs]
So, I’m able to pass on, in a completely normal way, the dialogue that has been a part of my life since I was born and raised in the ‘70s and into the ‘80s. And, so, to be able to step into these roles like Mary Anning or Juliet in Heavenly Creatures—it’s just so important that we’re able to keep the dialogue evolving, to keep telling stories in this way, so that LGBTQ people and their relationships experience the world of storytelling and the reflection on their relationship in a way that is normal and that is expressing same sex love without hesitation. And without fear. Without fear! Because we live in such a fearful world. I don’t think anybody should fear what another person thinks about who they choose to love. No one should fear that. That’s just wrong to me. That is just wrong.
AD: I have to tell you I think Revolutionary Road is one of the most underrated films of the last 20 years.
KW: Oh, wow!
AD: What are your feelings about that film, looking back, and do you have a particular film of yours that you feel was underrated or should be re-evaluated?
KW: I look back on Revolutionary Road and, my God, it was a part of a very difficult time 18 months for me—Revolutionary Road and The Reader. Those films were filmed back to back. They were released almost simultaneously. It’s no secret that about a year beyond The Reader, my own marriage [to Sam Mendes] broke down, and I was filming Mildred Pierce soon after that. So, I look back and it was a particularly condensed, emotionally fractured time in my life, and I just feel very grateful that it was me and Leo, playing those two parts because he’s my friend. We were really able to lean on one another, and he had a lot going on as well, at the time, so we looked after one another a lot on that film.
I love the film, too. I actually, personally, think it’s up there amongst Leo’s greatest performances, along with Gilbert Grape and, probably, Django. I thought he was fucking extraordinary in Django. So, I’m thrilled to hear you say that. I also love how accurate it was as a literal adaptation of a novel. I thought it was really remarkably written by Justin Haythe, and I’m so proud of that. In terms of underestimated films — well done slipping in two questions there — the funny thing is I probably would have said Contagion about seven months ago. But I wouldn’t say that now. [Laughs] Every single person I know has seen it! And that certainly can’t be said of any of the other films I’ve done. Everyone I know has seen Contagion. I don’t know why, it’s one of the most terrifying films ever made—alarmingly accurate.
AD: Personally, I think you should have won the Oscar for Revolutionary Road, and I have a feeling Ammonite may bring you your 8th nomination.
KW: Aw, well, that would be wonderful, wouldn’t it? It would be absolutely wonderful. My children would be so excited if that happened. We’ll see.
Ammonite opens in theaters on November 13th and on December 4 on Premium on Demand.