It's 3 a.m. on a crowd-clogged New York City street and Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet have spent the past few hours trying to fall in love. So far, they've come up just short of true romance. The point of diminishing returns is drawing dangerously close on the set of Revolutionary Road, where the Titanic stars are struggling with an important party scene in which they must meet, connect, and set themselves up for a life of misery together.
In an effort to stoke passions, director Sam Mendes (Jarhead), Winslet's real-life husband, has been cranking up the volume on a Dean Martin ballad each time they launch into the scene. After 13 takes, with patience running on fumes, someone cues up the music again only this time a practical joker has replaced Dino with Celine Dion's ''My Heart Will Go On,'' the syrupy but strangely stirring anthem from Titanic. Suddenly, it's as if someone pressed the pause button. Everyone freezes for a good five seconds. And then, without saying a word, DiCaprio wraps Winslet in his arms, she spreads hers, and they re-create the iconic hood-ornament image that was wallpapered all over the planet 11 years ago. The 300 or so extras and onlookers explode into applause, juicing the stars enough to nail the scene on the next take.
Titanic fans will have to take their kicks where they can get them. Because anyone looking for a happily-ever-after reunion won't exactly find it in Revolutionary Road. This romantic moment is a rare pit stop in the dark journey the actors take as Frank and April Wheeler, two former free spirits who marry, have kids, move to the burbs, and find themselves fighting, bed-hopping, and living on autopilot until they embark on a misbegotten plan to cure their malaise by moving to Paris. The cautionary tale, based on Richard Yates' celebrated 1961 novel, is full of big ideas that question the viability of the American dream. It's also a tough commercial sell that's going to require a mighty blast of Oscar heat to succeed, especially at a time when audiences are increasingly looking to escape their troubles at the multiplex, not be thrust into someone else's. ''This is a much more detailed, sophisticated love story than Titanic,'' says Mendes. ''It's about two people who land in their 30s and think, 'This isn't what I wanted at all. How did I get here?'''
Winslet, 32, had been hungry to explore different sides of her relationship with DiCaprio, with whom she has remained phone-call-in-the-middle-of-the-night close since Titanic. ''We knew that if we were going to do something again, it had to be something big and emotional,'' says the actress, who fell in love with Yates' book years ago and became the project's driving force. ''Revolutionary Road is so painful and beautiful to read, simply because of the brutality of the honesty that Frank and April end up experiencing together.'' For all the couple endures epic Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?-like brawls, bad parenting, DIY abortion Revolutionary Road is now regarded as an unsung classic of domestic anomie in the tradition of John Updike and Raymond Carver. Since it first appeared, the novel has had many Hollywood suitors, from director John Frankenheimer (who decided to make The Manchurian Candidate instead) to producer Albert S. Ruddy (The Godfather) to actor Patrick O'Neal (Under Siege) each of whom tried and failed to come up with a viable screenplay that was true to the book but wouldn't leave moviegoers reaching for the cyanide as they left the theater.
What the project needed was a force-of-nature advocate like Winslet. Even so, it took the actress more than two years to coax Mendes and DiCaprio to come aboard. ''When I heard about it, I thought, 'Well, I've done a movie about American suburbia,''' recalls Mendes, who made his directing debut with 1999's Oscar-sweeping American Beauty. He worried he'd be repeating himself until he started working with screenwriter Justin Haythe (The Clearing) to capture the story's tender and toxic central relationship. To nab DiCaprio, Winslet resorted to subterfuge. In March 2007, while they were both in L.A. to attend the Oscars, she arranged to have a drink with DiCaprio, who had finally plowed through the script Winslet had been badgering him to read. But instead of showing up herself, she sent Mendes alone to discuss his vision for the film...and seal the deal. ''Leo and I have such a history together and I couldn't imagine not being able to apply that to this story and these characters,'' says Winslet. ''So I played this very clever cat-and-mouse game to get my husband and then my best friend involved.''
DiCaprio was interested in venturing into uncharted terrain: playing a husband and a father. But mostly he saw this as a chance to reconnect with an old pal. ''I looked at it almost like doing a play,'' says the actor, 33. ''It was one of those situations where it just focused on these two characters, the degradation of their marriage, and who they think they are. I just thought, Wouldn't it be a wonderful experience to do it with Kate?''
As it turned out, the answer was, Not exactly. Portraying a marriage under siege was an emotional meat grinder that left everybody feeling a little bruised. ''I think Leo was surprised by the intensity of it,'' says Mendes, referring to the character's increasingly remote and disloyal ways. ''But he totally got it and ultimately embraced the part's a--hole qualities quite readily.'' The shoot proved exhausting for both stars. ''By the end Leo had lost 10 pounds and was completely spent,'' Winslet says. ''And I felt completely bled dry.''
But if anyone can turn adversity into ardor, it's these two survivors of Titanic's notoriously grueling nine-month shoot. ''I hadn't realized how much my chemistry with him since Titanic would still stick,'' says Winslet. ''It's great to discover we can just slip right into it, like muscle memory.'' Still, the comfort evaporated for the actress when it came to filming passionate love scenes as her husband watched from behind the camera. ''I just kept saying, 'This is too f---ing weird,''' recalls Winslet. ''And Leo was like, 'Oh, get over it.' And I'm going, 'Yeah, a little reminder: You're my best friend. He's my husband. This is a bit weird.''' But Mendes was surprisingly Zen about the experience. ''I will admit it was quite bizarre to direct my wife in how to make love,'' recalls the director. ''But it's difficult whether you're married to a person or not.''
In fact, Winslet is still reeling from the experience of paving Revolutionary Road with her most intimate relationships, both on camera and off. ''It was almost as though we just had a car crash and our car had rolled five times down a hill,'' she says in one breathless burst, ''and then we walked out completely unscathed going, 'Wow, f--- me, we're alive!'''
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