Kate Winslet's latest role may have been her most challenging, both on and off the screen.
Woody Allen's umpteenth film opened quietly last weekend, having had a discreet press junket leading up to its release. In the midst of Weinsteingate, the film's distributors have been careful about publicity, and Allen himself has stayed almost completely out of the spotlight. Kate Winslet however, spoke at length about her experience in the starring role during an exclusive fundraising event for New York Film Festival.
Winslet plays Ginny, a frenetic and dissatisfied housewife for whom nothing has ever gone right. The setting is 1950s Coney Island, which is familiar territory for the film's director. But nothing about the character was familiar for Winslet. In fact, Ginny was so foreign to her, that Winslet initially resisted the part. Eventually, however, she came around, and the result was one of the most challenging cinematic experiences of her career.
At the fest, the prolific star spoke about battling her own insecurities, fighting her character every step of the way, and the enormous relief she felt at the end of it all.
"'I can't, I won't', I just kept repeating. I really thought I just didn't know how to play this part."
Kate and Woody's first phone call was a battle of anxiety
"Last summer, my agent phoned and said, 'Woody Allen wants to talk to you. He's going to send you a script, and he wants you for the lead, but he wants to talk to you first.'" Winslet recounted. "So I immediately went into this state of panic, but also incredible excitement, and fear, and trepidation, and anticipation and all of those things that you would feel if someone told you that Woody Allen was about to phone you up." She launched into a hilarious retelling of their phone conversation, including a spot-on imitation of Allen's famous nervous affectations. Winslet described feeling like she was giving a bad phone audition, but mercifully, Allen was kind.
"He said these extraordinary things. He said, 'well I have a script that I wrote, and I very much thought of you, and you know, you're probably gonna hate it and if you don't want to do it, you can just go on and have a more fulfilling life. But really I think it could be a tour-de-force for you, and you know, I think you should have a read, and you're probably gonna hate it,' he said it again and it went on like this." She was thrilled to discover that she was laughing. "He went on like this, 'you'll read it, and we can change everything.' And I'm thinking that's definitely made up, that's definitely the bit I don't believe." Shortly after they hung up, "a proper carrier pigeon person" arrived at Winslet's door with the script, and waited dutifully while she read it.
As she was reading, Winslet felt a strong resistance to the role. "'I can't, I won't', I just kept repeating. I really thought I just didn't know how to play this part."
Ginny was too out of reach for her
"Ginny is nothing like me, but that's not really the thing, because of course when a character isn't anything like you, that's the exact reason why you should go for the role because that's what acting is." But, Winslet said, Ginny felt so far out of her grasp that Winslet didn't even know where to begin. "She's living a life that's so full of, not shattered dreams, but proper mistakes, that really made a difference to the course of her life. One day she had choices, and now she doesn't."
That point was especially tragic to Winslet. "And to play this character who throws it all away at the possible chance of a hope of something new somewhere else, but it's an impossible, unreachable fantasy; to play a woman like that who also drinks and shouts and has a son who lights fires, and has a different accent than me... I was just completely overwhelmed."
But she's the indomitable Kate Winslet. So she did what she does. "I looked at myself in the mirror and said, 'Well for fuck's sake Kate, get yourself together. Just shut up, of course you've got to do it.' And so I did."
"There's this thing that is apparently known about Woody Allen which is that he doesn't rehearse, and that he really doesn't talk to the actors much."
All of Wonder Wheel's a stage, and Ginny, merely a player
The majority of the film takes place in Ginny's small apartment, so cinematically tucked next to Coney Island's Wonder Wheel. And with the location as confined as it is, the film begins to feel very much like a play, and intentionally so. "Every single step she took, every breath she took, every moment of her life, she just kept thinking 'this isn't really me,' and yet the tragic thing, of course, is that it is her, and it's what she's made her life, and that's it." Ginny is, in Winslet's view, a tragic player in her own life.
"That set, their apartment set, it was like being on a stage. I remember Jim [Belushi] and I, when we first walked in, we thought, 'Oh no. There's too many things in the way.' We even tried to get the set director to chop off a bit of the kitchen counter." Winslet remembered being worried for a moment that Woody wouldn't want them touching the set, but Belushi convinced her otherwise. They started rearranging. But of course, to absolutely no one's surprise, Allen is more exacting than that. "We came in the next day and found out Woody deliberately wanted there to be all these obstructions. There was so much walking around of that counter. It added to the chaos and mess of life and her desperately trying to get out of it. It was a great set."
Allen never saw Kate out of costume
"So there's this thing that is apparently known about Woody Allen which is that he doesn't rehearse, and that he really doesn't talk to the actors much. Both of those things are not true. He absolutely rehearses." In fact, he rehearses the living daylights out of scenes, according to Winslet. "We would go in in the morning and we would get hair and makeup, camera ready, all of us. All the cast. And then Woody would arrive. He never saw me, and I'm sure probably everyone else as well, but he never saw me without my full costume and wig on. Never not once on the whole shoot."
There are several long scenes in the film shot entirely in one take, so choreography was necessary for everyone involved, even with veteran filmmakers on all sides. During rehearsal, Allen would rewrite if he wasn't happy. "There would be problem areas and suddenly he might cut a piece of dialogue, and we would all go away while he thought about that, and there were other days where he would slash an entire scene in half."
Winslet recalled a particular rehearsal between herself and Justin Timberlake's character. They were in the middle of a scene and Woody suddenly began "shuffling off." When asked where he was going, Allen apparently said, "Oh you're still talking? You are not still talking. Isn't it done?" The actors were stunned. "We were like, 'no Woody, there's another whole three and a half pages of your scene that you wrote.'" His response? '"Oh no, this is too long. I gotta fix this. You're still talking? Oh no, we gotta go to lunch, I gotta fix this.'" And then, said Winslet, "he slashed the scene in half which gave me a full-on heart attack. Justin Timberlake? No heart attack at all because he has this memory for dialogue that is infuriating."
"I haven't done many films that have been quite as immersive."
She barely slept for the whole run of show
Whether it was adrenaline or tension, Winslet couldn't catch a wink during Wonder Wheel. She described rehearsing so diligently with the other actors on their rides home at night, that they would be grateful for traffic. "I haven't done many films that have been quite as immersive," she said.
"Maybe The Reader and Little Children were about like that, but nothing was quite so completely round the clock." She continued, "and I would sleep in these hour-long bursts. I would wake up and go "Is it now? is it now? No, it's not now." Partly excitement about going to work and shooting these great scenes and partly also just terror that I'd missed the alarm."
She also described a painful hand cramp that lasted the duration of the shoot. "I realized I was sleeping with these clenched fists. It was very weird. I don't do it now, but I did do it then."
Allen would act out Kate's scenes for her
The list of actors that have worked with Woody Allen is long, and they all have their own stories to tell of the experience. For Winslet's part, she says he's definitely awkward, and that it's fortunate for her that she doesn't get offended too easily anymore. In the middle of one scene, Winslet said, he stopped her to say "it's just too actress-y." When she asked, "Woody, is that a piece of direction?" His response was, "Well, no. Would you like me to show you how I would do it?" This is where the sense of humor is necessary. "At this point, I said, 'Yes, definitely.' And I would say yes, just so I could watch him do it. And then I would de-Woody-ize it and make it my own, but I would get a hell of a kick out of that. And it happened quite a lot."
But she added, "when prodded, he really comes through for you."
She felt like she was free falling the whole time
Sometimes you know when you're nailing it, and it's an amazing feeling. Wonder Wheel was not like that for Winslet. In fact, it was the exact opposite. "Honestly," she said, "I would have days when I would turn to my dialect coach, and I would say, 'Just tell me the truth, am I giving a performance that is something like a bad school production? Because I just don't know what i'm doing." Truly, every day on this, I felt like was free falling. It came from a place of just desperately wanting to get it right and the terrible fear that I might not."
And when it was all over, she needed to just let it go. "Normally I like to sort of indulge in the character after shooting is done, but with Ginny, I wanted to kill her." On her final day of shooting, when the AD called a wrap on Winslet, she recalls a moment with the scripty who had so intimately shared the experience with her. "She threw her clipboard to one side and she grabbed me and went 'Let her go, for god sake, just let her go.' And I burst into tears which was a complete surprise. She had occupied this space in me which was just yuck."
Vittorio Starraro said Belushi was "just like Marlon"
In Winslet's view, one of the most remarkable aspects of her experience on Wonder Wheel, was working with legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. She told a story of one day on set, when Jim Belushi had asked for a frame line.
"It was always very difficult to know what the framing was because most of our scenes were done all in one continuous take, and sometimes they would come in a little bit closer or you'd have to get out of the way of the camera so the next actor could literally step into the frame. But so Jim said to Vittorio, 'Where are you framing this?' And Vittorio said, 'It's just from the waist up,' and then he turned around and said, 'You are just like Marlon, you only want to act with the part of the body that the camera can see.' And I immediately felt very defensive," she said. "But then I sat back and thought, 'Oh my god who are we working with?' Every day, I would look at him and think, wow you really are Vittorio Storaro. How are we all here?"