KI ate Winslet and she’ll be ready in seconds. “I’m going to put more eye drops on my chin,” she says. Blame the intense crime drama Mary of Easttown, one of the TV shows for the pandemic. “It was very stressful work, and about nine weeks ago I had three surgeries on my left eye, the third of which turned into a hard little marble and had to be cut. But I squeezed. With the show!” In it, she plays DS Mary Sheehan, who is raising her grandson, coping with her son’s suicide, and trying to solve the murder of a young mother in a working-class suburb of Philadelphia. All without makeup: Marie is more likely to reach for a cheesy spray-covered cheesy spray than anything else in the Max Factor collection.
“I was blown away by the discussion about what Mary looked like,” Winslet says. The 46-year-old actress talks on the phone from the West Sussex home she shares with her husband, Ned Abel Smith, their seven-year-old son Bear, as well as her two children from previous marriages: 21-year-old Mia by her first husband, Jim Threpleton. , and 17-year-old Joe by her second husband, director Sam Mendes. People were asking, did she gain weight? Doesn’t it look trite? Wasn’t that brave of her? But why should it be so brave? I suppose because it’s not the way the leading actresses are represented. Maybe Marie will be the turning point, and we’ll stop checking women on screen so much.”
The realism extended to every corner of the show. “We always said on set, ‘This is TV, too. Make it real. I would constantly rub Marmite on the knees of my jeans, or scratch my sneakers with a Brillo pad. You can’t make one thing feel real: it has to be everything.” Take Mary’s car. “She would drive her grandson to and from kindergarten, feed him breakfast on the fly. I know what the floor in the back of my car looks like–there’s ground cereal, with bowls and spoons rising, because we had breakfast at school. You’re sitting on little crumbs built into the seat, and it would take a silly stove to get them out! “
This is Winslet’s style: she may be a seven-time Academy Award nominee (she won in 2008 for the Holocaust drama The Reader) and a two-time Emmy winner (on two HBO shows, Mildred Pierce and now Mary of East Town) but she’s still the star who’s a slob like the rest of us. She’s a character who’s in perfect harmony with Marie – Winslet steps in to make sure the teasers aren’t airbrushed to make her look sexier – and so is our time. “Mary is how most of us feel through closure,” she says. “I checked the look of the permanent pajamas.”
Inadvertently or otherwise, Winslet almost became the face of the pandemic. As reports of the coronavirus swirled early last year, her 2011 movie Contagion, in which she plays an epidemiologist, debuted at the top of the streaming charts. Three months later, she and several of Contagion’s co-stars, including Matt Damon and Marion Cotillard, submitted public information videos. Winslet has become a kind of Covid Vera Lynn, fooling people by teaching us how to wash our hands, cough into our hands, and properly spread the word “fomite.”
During the third infinity closure, she gave two remarkable performances: first as nineteenth-century paleontologist Mary Anning in Ammonites, and then at Mary in East Town. Both characters force Winslet to play against her natural warmth: it’s over an hour on Ammonites before Mary smiles, while Mary doesn’t laugh until episode five. “I took some of what I learned about Ammonites to Mari,” she says. “This heavy stillness. It’s hard for me because I’m a cheerful, busy, energetic, cuddly person. That’s who I am.”
Mare of Easttown scripts arrived one by one while she and Sãirse Ronan were shooting Ammonite on the Dorset Coast. “I would say, ‘Oh my God, Episode Five just came in,’ and then Severus will go” — and here she slips and slips into the stinging voice of her fellow Irishman — “Jesus is looking after Christ, that’s so exciting, you’ve got to tell me what’s going on!” “It came just as people desperately needed something to discuss other than who knew who had died from Covid. It put families on couches, and there was kind of nostalgia for the one-episode format. He starts the conversation while waiting for the next one.”
Winslet’s fondest TV memories of growing up in Reading, Berkshire, revolve around those exact kinds of cliffs. “You desperately wanted to know what would happen to Zamo next on Grange Hill, or to the Fowlers at the EastEnders.” Is it a passion now? “Covid taught me how to overeat. More of his way. But yeah, Ned and Ted Lasso pretty much watched back-to-back. Covid made you not feel bad about lounging on the couch.”
It would be wrong to suggest that Mary of Easttown simply served the nostalgia for delayed gratification when there is so much praise for it, not least the female characters. “Middle-aged women have always been underestimated, disrespected and ignored in the film and television community, and now that is changing,” she says. “Look at the actresses who have won Emmys. Neither of us have ever been in our twenties, which is cool! I feel cooler as an actress in our forties than I ever imagined.”
I also felt a deeper connection between her and the character than I had in previous posts. “I knew Mary and this world clearly. I grew up in a small listed house in a working-class community, a small town where your life interferes with the lives of your neighbors just because the walls are so thin. If Lauren down the road had varicose veins, the whole world knows it.” And if, for the first time ever, the couple in the streets voted for the Conservative Party rather than Labour, then – bloody hell! – all the shit in our house exploded, and my parents were debating whether to talk to these people about their options. Too small. It was Oxford Road. If I were standing in my parents’ bedroom, I could come face to face with the people on the upper deck of Bus 17″.
Winslet is proud of Mare of Easttown’s focus on community; The Whodunnit element may be the driver, but it’s the environment that makes the show feel so salty and rich. There is also much less focus on women’s damaged bodies than audiences have come to expect from crime dramas. “You’re right, we showed a little bit,” she says. “In the morgue scene, we had a doll that was a replica of the actress’s body and we respected that. In between each time we would cover the doll with a sheet.”
Despite the delicacy of the show, his view of the police as caring uniformly, conscientiously, and genuinely seems outdated in light of the murders of George Floyd and Sarah Everard, to select only the most shocking examples of police criminality. Shouldn’t television reflect the fact that the police badge is not necessarily a reassuring or honorable symbol?
“I don’t know if I’ll ever play Mary again,” Winslet says. “But if we’re going to do a second season, surely these atrocities that were in the police force here and in America will find their way into the stories we tell. One hundred percent. You can’t pretend these things didn’t happen.” She sighs. It’s awful, isn’t it? This moment in time. It’s awful. You can hear me, I can’t quite find the words because we all feel betrayed and weak. We have to turn this moment into something meaningful. We have to use our voices on behalf of people who don’t have Voice. This concerns me now in ways I didn’t even think of in my twenties.”
Maybe she had other things to think about. She started her twenties, after all, with the Titanic. “Do you know that Liu just turned around 47? She asks, suddenly shocked. Then her voice grows sad as she thinks of herself and DiCaprio as a puppy. “I turned 21 in that shot, and Leo turned 22.” He tells her that when I met DiCaprio at the time, he complained to me about Titanic’s hard production And how miserable he feels. She laughs out loud. “I remember! I remember it was! It wasn’t fun for either of us, but we were all in it together. Although he had more days off than I ever did. I think I grew up to be grateful and move on. I didn’t feel it was my right to be miserable, and if I am I was Miserable for sure I wouldn’t tell any journalist.” She laughs again. “No road I was going to let that get away! “
She and DiCaprio later played a troubled couple on Revolutionary Road and met again in Los Angeles recently for the first time in three years. “I couldn’t stop crying,” Winslet says. “I’ve known him for half my life! It’s not like I found myself in New York or he was in London and there was a chance to have dinner or have coffee and have fun. We couldn’t leave our country. Like so many friendships globally, we’ve lost each other to Covid.” He’s my friend, my really close friend. We’re connected for life.”
If she were to sit in front of me now, I get the impression that she might look like she has something in her eyes. Or it could just be drops.