Kate Winslet talks new challenges and portraying a fragile character in Jason Reitman's 'Labor Day'

Posted by · 8:25 am · December 12th, 2013

It was clear this morning that there was an opportunity in the Golden Globes category of Best Actress in a Drama for some lucky actress to step up to the plate. With the usual suspects in the lead actress field being split off and Meryl Streep finding herself in the comedy/musical field, who was going to land the recognition? Would it be critical darling Adèle Exarchopoulos? Indie hopeful Brie Larson? Or someone else entirely?

In the end, it was Kate Winslet who showed up, receiving her first awards recognition of the season for her performance in Jason Reitman’s “Labor Day.” In the process, the Oscar-winning actress picked up her tenth Globe nomination to date and finds herself in the thick of a talented group of women. Some time ago I talked with Winslet about tackling the role of the fragile, emotionally cut-off Adele in the love story, which was adapted from Joyce Maynard’s novel. Read through our back and forth below.


HitFix: You’ve done so much at this point in your career, I’m curious what kind of opportunity “Labor Day” represented for you that was new or exciting.

Kate Winslet: Well, that’s such an interesting thing to say and an interesting question because I always feel like I haven’t done that much. (Laughs.) I always feel like but I’ve got so much to do! So for me it didn’t sort of strike me as hard. The script came my way and was just, I thought, so different to everything I’ve done before. And I’m an enormous admirer of Jason’s work. And the same with Josh, who was already attached by the time the script came to me. And it just represented an opportunity to play an incredibly interesting character with two very, very interesting men whom I have so much respect for. I just felt very lucky. You know, it’s always such a blessing. It doesn’t matter how long I’ve been doing this, and it’s 20 years now, but it’s always just such a blessing and such a thrill when a really great piece of writing comes along and represents a new opportunity to try something else and try and play a different character. I mean, that’s what acting is. It’s about playing, playing a role, playing a part. And to me Adele was very much a woman whose skin I really hadn’t been in before, and I knew that would bring up some stuff for me that would be challenging. And I also knew that there would be sides of it that I would find uncomfortable as well. And so yeah, I guess it was a combination of all of the above really.

There’s such a specificity to the role, too, due to the character’s sort of shut-in neurosis. Is that specificity, for lack of a better word, “fun” to you as an actor?

Well, it was. Yes, it absolutely was because I’m used to playing characters who are more obviously one thing or another. And certainly I’m used to playing characters who are always quite passionate and quite full-blooded. And to me I felt as though Adele was the opposite of that. I felt that she was very, very thinly veined. You know, she almost reminded me of an empty vein, you know, when you press the vein of somebody who’s really pumping, that beautiful purple vein just sort of pops right back up and I sort of felt that Adele’s veins were all just sad and tired and a bit empty. And so yes, for me, it really was a challenge to play somebody who on the one hand is very obviously fragmented and emotionally fractured, you know? But at the same time, she did have a passionate side to herself. She did have a big heart and was capable of great active love I think. And there were many sides of her that she had simply let go and forgotten about in her past with all her sadness. She had left behind the glorious sides of who she once was. And I really appreciated the journey that she does go on in the sense that when you meet her at the beginning of the story, and certainly this is the case in the novel, you know, I wanted for her to feel uncomfortable to be around because of how nervy and uneasy she is with herself and with the world. And as a story goes on, of course, and as this love develops between herself and Frank, I really loved the fact that you do actually see her literally come to life again and shift and change. I thought it was quite special how Joyce managed to write that into her book and make that happen in the space of a few days and actually make it believable. I really always believed the love story very much. It was interesting. Someone actually said to me not so long ago, “Do you think this really could have happened?” Well, the answer is I don’t know. But I was absolutely taken by the story. And I think is an actor, you absolutely have to believe in what’s happening to your character and the characters themselves to be able to put your full self behind it. And that was never a challenge for me. I really do believe that you can actually meet somebody and really fall in love with them very quickly. I do believe that. And I also think that because the ending of the film is such, we really do know that this was true love. This wasn’t some random crazy, you know, sweaty four days. It really was very, very real for both of them.

It’s interesting because I hear that opinion sometimes, that this love story is rather far-fetched, but to me it’s rather obvious that this is a woman starved of affection. Her poor son is in this strange psychological role of serving that purpose in some ways and it’s not too much of a leap to understand that someone shows her a kindness and she would fall for him.

I would agree. And also, you know, something happens to women when they are alone and when they aren’t touched and loved and there’s no shred of affection being shown to them. Something actually happens inside. And so yeah, I do believe that this man could walk into her world and do this to her heart. I do, and that they would do that for each other. You know, let’s not also forget that yes, he’s escaped, he’s a convict and he’s on the run and he’s all those big frightening things. Aside from that, he is a wonderful man. And she does see that in him and believes in that side of him. So there is an extraordinary trust that is forged between the two of them because it has to be. But then that’s spills into something that they naturally both feel quite quickly. It’s what Joyce wrote.

Did you do any kind of research like looking into things such as agoraphobia, or did you just play it as it lay on the page?

I did a bit. Jason is not a fan of separation and rehearsal, and I found that, for myself, I found that quite challenging. I have to be ready. I have to sort of go off and just do my own little bits of homework in my own quite way. But not rehearsing I didn’t mind at all. And actually, it’s an interesting question. People are saying, ‘Do you like to rehearse or do not like to rehearse?” And it seems like such a fucking British thing to say, “Oh, I need rehearsal.” I don’t know, do we need rehearsal? Do we ever need rehearsal? Is it a good thing? is it a bad thing? I’ve always been very on the fence about it to be honest. And I’ve always enjoyed going with whatever a director feels they need because at the end of the day that who we’re there for. And so I really did feel that Jason’s choice to stay away from rehearsal lent itself particularly to a film like “Labor Day” because it meant that we really didn’t know what was going to happen next. We really didn’t.

And that was absolutely crucial that it felt very, very fibrous and real in terms of the atmosphere of the story. Particularly for young Gattlin, you know. He was so nervous of the whole experience and every fiber of his being was so alive with the age that he is and just endless questions about life and the world and himself. And it’s that glorious, questioning, confusing age and I think that always being left feeling slightly unaware of what was around every corner for Gattlin meant that I felt that same way as well. And that was how we were supposed to feel as characters. And that, of course, is what you’re supposed to feel when you watch the film itself, it you just do not know what’s gonna happen next. In terms of my own preparation, yes, I did talk to some people, actually, who had suffered from agoraphobia and forms of depression. It’s not much fun doing that type of prep, I have to say. And it’s not much fun, you know, talking to friends of people who have experienced miscarriages or any of those awful, horrific things. So it wasn’t that much fun doing this prep. It wasn’t. But then the sort of more spirited side of Adele’s past, you know, the fact that she was this passionate woman who loved to dance and loved life and loved to love, you know, that was great fun thinking about that, of course, because that’s kind of me in a way. You know, love to love and love life and, you know, so that side of it was a little gentler.

It’s a unique setting for a film. It takes place in New Hampshire and you filmed outside of Boston, so there’s this New England atmosphere. How did that atmosphere and setting shape what you were doing as an actress? Or did it?

It absolutely did. I mean walking into that house was like walking into another world. It was like really walking into a time warp. And we were stuck in it. I mean it was very, very claustrophobic, very claustrophobic. And I would have to say as well that something that Jason pulled off brilliantly was not having a very big crew, very small crew of people. And so we really did feel there were times when we really did feel as though it was just us in the house. And you’d almost go, “Shit, where’s the camera? Oh, there it is.” You’d turn and it would be just outside of the window and hidden behind the curtain. That would happen a lot. And they were very good at keeping monitors and things and anyone else who needs to be around they would always be upstairs. It was actually a three-story house and the top floor itself was kind of air-conditioned and everyone would kind of disappear up there, and the rest of the house was Adele and Henry’s world. It was quite bizarre, actually, because of course it was a fairly modern house I think initially, but was transformed.

The set decoration really sets a time and place. You feel like you’re absorbed into a time and period.

Well, that’s right. And also you very much feel as though this is a woman who has not updated her kitchen utensils for literally in 15 years. And that was very much what it was. I mean, you know, you had it set in the ’80s, but there was a lot of that house that felt distinctively ’60s to me. You know, late ’60s, early ’70s. And that was very much the idea. It had to feel as though once you ventured into the outside world she really was stepping into another world. And the point is her isolated world was so similar to Frank’s in many respects, you know. And they had both experienced having to muddle through their own pasts day after day after day, and hence the bond between them.

This was a very different film for Jason, obviously, and such a departure. Was that apparent to you from the outset, and how did he strike you as a director on the set?

Well, yes, it struck me is being different yes, but then all of Jason’s films are different from each other. You know, there is no real sort of common thread I don’t think, other than he’s clearly fascinating in the human condition, as am I, and people fascinate him, clearly. So it actually didn’t really feel like a departure at all. It just felt like here was Jason Reitman making a movie that he really wanted to make and it was different from the others that he has made. I mean it was nothing more complicated than that. And I don’t think, if you asked him that question, that he would say it was conscious choice to do something that felt like a departure. I just think he just, you know, it was just what his instinct was saying to him I suppose. And then look at Soderbergh. You know, I mean look at Soderbergh. His career choices are absolutely fantastic because they’re so flamboyantly different. Every single movie is different to the one he did before. And that’s great for the world, isn’t it? I mean it’s fantastic.

As a director, I felt with Jason – you know, if there was one sort of phrase I could use to sum him up, he’s incredibly specific. He had made the film in his head before we got there. He knew exactly the story he wanted to tell. He knew absolutely how he wanted everything to look. Brilliantly he knew how he wanted to shoot everything. And on the one hand that was tremendously reassuring to be in such safe hands, but then on the other, that was quite new for me. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with somebody who was so incredibly precise about what he wanted. So the freedom that I think we found as actors had to come very much after the framing was set. That was all Jason. I mean that was definitely different for me. And it wasn’t something that I either liked or didn’t like. It was just different. Yeah, but he’s a very, very talented guy. I mean it’s really exciting, I think, that we’ve got someone like Jason who is always so prepared to essentially take risks because no one will ever know, I think, what he’s going to do next. And I love that. And I would hope that people never know what I’m going to do next, or at least they would be surprised by it, you know?

I think a large audience for this film is women, and we kind of touched on this a moment ago, but as a woman, when you read the script, how did the material strike you? Did it feel true? Did empathy take hold?

I don’t know if it necessarily struck me in any ways that are specifically to do with being a woman. I would certainly say that because Adele’s journey is so much centered around longing for family and longing for her place in the world and that sense of the longing that comes with being a parent, I would certainly say that I absolutely connected with that, of course, because that’s my own situation being a very fortunate mommy myself. And also her ability to somehow raise this little boy in spite of everything that she lacked. She was somehow still able to do that. He was an okay kid; he was a decent child. And she wasn’t dragging him up. She wasn’t, you know, she wasn’t drinking herself into, you know, sort of a stupor by 3:00 in the afternoon, and neither was she on any kind of medication. She somehow was able to pull it together to do what she knew she had to do, which was to love and raise her child. And I admired that in her, I really did admire that in her, because, Christ knows, we hear horror stories about the consequences of negligence on the part of a mother who’s suffered some terrible emotional distress and what can happen to children as a result. So I think as a woman I probably connected, really, with that maternal side of her and her desire to expand her family and have that sense of purpose in life.

“Labor Day” is set for limited release on Dec. 27.

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