Kate Winslet is both delightfully profane and extremely polite. For example: The 39-year-old Oscar winner was not familiar with the recent buzz caused by Maggie Gyllenhaal’s claim that she lost out on a role because she was considered too old to play the love interest for a 55-year-old man. “Oh, for f–k’s sake, that is f–king hilarious,” Winslet says, while preparing some tea for herself and a guest. “That’s so ridiculous. Well, I’m sure I’ve been considered too old for a lot of things, but who gives a sh-t… Would you like Earl Grey or English Breakfast?”
Winslet, who stars as a strong and independent 17th-century French landscape artist in A Little Chaos, has this unusual but refreshing habit: If you ask her a question, she pauses a moment to think and then answers it directly. “I don’t really like convention, and I definitely like saying things when I know I probably shouldn’t really be saying them,” she says.
Chaos reunites her with Alan Rickman, who played her devoted admirer in Sense and Sensibility, the film that won Winslet her first Oscar nomination 20 years ago. (Since then, she’s been nominated five more times, winning the statue for The Reader in 2009.) Rickman directed the new film and stars as Louis XIV, the all-powerful Sun King who transports his conniving Court to Versailles where he commands André Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts), the royal landscape architect, to build him a heavenly palace garden. Le Notre believes in strict artistic order, the submission of nature to man’s eye. But he sees something unique in Winslet’s Sabine De Barra, a grieving widow whose garden proposals are more organic, more in sync with nature. Together, they combine their principles—and their passions—to build something historic even as clouds of scandal and intrigue threaten their partnership.
Rickman had been awed by the 19-year-old Winslet when they worked together on Ang Lee’s Jane Austen adaptation. “Whatever she did, I believed it,” he says simply. They remained close, and when he was developing A Little Chaos, he immediately thought of her for the role of Sabine. “Kate is the person who can put on a period costume and not be thwarted by it,” he says. “She doesn’t mind getting dirty and wet, and is completely unselfconscious about her own beauty. And so, in a way, she becomes even more beautiful.”
Sabine is also a woman after Winslet’s heart—a feminist who speaks her mind in a way that was uncommon for the time. (Le Notre and Louis XIV were real historical figures, but Sabine, alas, is from the imagination of co-writer Alison Deegan.) “That word, it’s such a label,” says Rickman. “I always think feminist just means common sense. You have a film where one of its last lines is, ‘What about us?’ ‘We will shape each other.’ You think, ‘Well, that sounds like a good idea.’ Is that feminism? I guess. And do I live in a world and certainly in a business that is incredible unfair to women—yes, I do.”
In the exclusive scene above, Sabine dares answer the King’s observation that “some of the roses seem faded and overblown,” a swipe at the women of his royal harem who, as Rickman says, “are seen as decorate objects panicking about the next crack in their facade.” It’s 1682, but it’s easy to make the connection to the movie business that Maggie Gyllenhaal described. “I don’t think Alison intended for that dialogue to resonate in any way to make a statement about Hollywood’s treatment of women, but of course, it’s exactly what that scene’s supposed to be about,” says Winslet.
Winslet is philosophical about the ebb and flow of Hollywood careers, and the only strategy she knows is full-speed ahead. “You know, that’s one thing I have learned about this business over the years: you cannot have an ego,” she says. “It’s about rolling up your sleeves and just getting the f–k on with it. I’ve always been that way. Really lucky me, I’m still doing it. I’m still loving it. And still being giving opportunities to play really extraordinary parts, that have been quite diverse in the last few years in particular.”
Those projects include the Divergent franchise, Jason Reitman’s Labor Day, Roman Polanski’s Carnage, and HBO’s Mildred Pierce miniseries, which won her an Emmy. But she hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar since The Reader, hardly a drought for any human except perhaps the woman who became the youngest actress to be nominated six times. She’s excited about Chaos, as well as Steve Jobs, the Danny Boyle movie she recently completed with Michael Fassbender. She lobbied for the role of Macintosh exec Joanne Hoffman at the last minute with typical Winslet gumption. “I heard about it through a crew member who I happened to be working with [in Australia on the upcoming The Dressmaker],” says Winslet, who signed on without seeing the script. “I didn’t even care what role it was. I just wanted to be in it. Found out the nature of the role. Googled [Hoffman]. Found one picture of her. Got my husband to go to a wig shop. Buy a short-haired dark wig. Stuck it on my head. Sent a photograph of myself to [producer] Scott Rudin. Danny Boyle came to Melbourne and we had a meeting and he gave me the part. That’s how it goes sometimes.”
Hollywood might still be chauvinistic—constantly fawning over the freshest flower—but Winslet seems destined to be one of those rare perennials, like Helen Mirren and Judi Dench, who will attract interesting roles, remain fascinating and relevant, and serve as a mentor in the same way that her Sense & Sensibility costar Emma Thompson is for her. Ask Winslet what she’d whisper to her 19-year-old self, wisdom that she’d wish she’d learned sooner, and you hope every young actress is listening. “Don’t worry about how you look,” says Winslet, who once wished she was thinner. “Because when you’re 19 and nervous, you are self-conscious and that does effect how you perceive yourself when you look in the mirror. It evaporates the older that you get, but all that sh-t when you’re in your light teens and early 20s—it’s such a waste of time.”
A Little Chaos opens in theaters June 26.