Sitting on the stool of a Manhattan diner during the lunch rush, swinging her legs, her upper body collapsing into a heap on the counter when she has a laugh at herself, Kate Winslet fits right in with the regulars. She is, of course, a great beauty, but almost more so because she isn't a moving statue of poreless, curveless perfection. Her hair is falling haphazardly out of its ponytail and she's in Birkenstock sandals and a shapeless knee-length gypsy skirt ''that, frankly, my mother would have worn,'' she says with good-humored disinterest. And yet everyone in the restaurant, the hipsters and the suits, the cops and the construction workers, looks positively besotted.
In 1997, Winslet navigated the sudden onslaught of fame after Titanic with a grace and coolness sorely lacking in today's young Hollywood. As the now-31-year-old beaming mother of two children (Mia, 5, and Joe, 2) and wife of American Beauty director Sam Mendes, she never wasted any time fighting over B actors or dodging drug or dehydration or anorexia rumors in the tabloids. Winslet credits a large part of her professional composure to her close friend Emma Thompson, whom she met during 1995's Sense and Sensibility. ''She set an incredible example for me when I was very young,'' says Winslet. Thompson imparted two crucial notes of caution. '''As much as you might be tempted, you need to remember that it's very important not to work sometimes,''' remembers Winslet. ''And she also told me, 'If you ever lose weight, I will never f---ing talk to you again.'''
But perhaps what's most endearing about Kate Winslet is not her earthy looks or her easy laugh. It's simply, refreshingly, her talent. She's already racked up a staggering four Academy Award nominations (for Sense and Sensibility, Titanic, Iris, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). And yet if you exclude Titanic's record-breaking receipts, she has never starred in a major box office hit. Unlike the many stars who rely on their smile or their body or their winning effervescence, she's built a steady career of nuanced performances in small gems of movies. In the coming months, her impressive range, and Hollywood's inability to typecast her, is on full display as she floats from a supporting role in Steven Zaillian's political drama All the King's Men to the lead in Todd Field's intimate study of suburban angst Little Children and then to what will be, remarkably, her first romantic comedy ever, Nancy Meyers' December film The Holiday.
''People do love her,'' says Meyers, whose last movie was the rousing hit Something's Gotta Give. ''The only other person I've ever seen love acting that much is Jack Nicholson.''
Winslet was just 21 years old when Titanic's $1.8 billion global take transformed her into a superstar. ''I remember having this overwhelming feeling of, Oh, my God, if I'm ever going to have to hang on to the seat of my pants, it's now,'' she says. ''Not in terms of losing my mind, but sticking to my guns and hanging on to what was most important to me in terms of work, regardless of the size of budgets and regardless of what a role could do for me in the long run.'' So she turned down high-profile parts in Shakespeare in Love (for which Gwyneth Paltrow won an Oscar) and Anna and the King (for which Jodie Foster did not), and instead went off to Morocco to play a hippie mother of two small kids in the tiny road picture Hideous Kinky. ''I knew doing that film was going to save my soul for that period of time,'' she says. ''And it came and went and that was just fine.''
''So I love to sit back and see young actresses work their way up the ladder,'' she continues, ''and not only give great performances but also hang on to themselves.'' She's giddy about the talents of Michelle Williams (''I could watch her until the cows come home!''), Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Maria Full of Grace's Catalina Sandino Moreno. At the 2005 Oscars, both Winslet and newcomer Moreno were nominated for Best Actress. ''I could have just wept for joy for her,'' she says. ''I didn't know her, but she and I were on the red carpet and she would lean over and say, 'Do I look okay?' And I'd say, 'You look ab-so-lute-ly fantastic!' To be suddenly so on show like that is a really strange thing.''