No Mountain too high for Kate Winslet

Kate Winslet.
Kate Winslet.

NEW YORK • Kate Winslet is the type to take her work home with her. The actress has two films coming this year and making them has haunted her nights.

After filming The Mountain Between Us (due in Singapore on Nov 2), in which she and Idris Elba play strangers stranded on an icy, desolate mountain range when their plane crashes, "I would have panic dreams about my children being trapped under ice", she said, nightmares that are only now subsiding.

And for different reasons, she also lost sleep shooting Woody Allen's Wonder Wheel, set in 1950s Coney Island, in which she is caught in an unfulfilling marriage and a dead-end job as a waitress in a clown house. Enter mobsters and Justin Timberlake as a charismatic lifeguard. "It's a character who really, truly, not just unravels, but becomes so utterly undone by what happens to her during the course of the story," Winslet said.

From Wonder Wheel (due in the United States on Dec 1), she went right into The Mountain Between Us, directed by Hany Abu-Assad and shot in the mountains of Western Canada.

"We would fly up in helicopters to work every day," she said. "We were very high up" - about 3,000m - "and very cold" - minus 2 deg C.

To Winslet, that was the appeal. "There's a sense of satisfaction after having had three children and being 41 years old and feeling fitter and stronger than ever," she said. "It was like, 'I can put some of that physical strength to good use.'"

From her home on the south coast of England, she spoke by telephone about the terror and inspiration of working with Allen and the "acting pills" she and Elba took.

Why pick an endurance test like The Mountain Between Us?

I'm much more taken by an extreme set of circumstances than an easy, comfortable route.

I like a challenge and it's been a long time since I've done a film that required such a level of physical exertion, stamina and commitment - and also overcoming a certain degree of fear every single day.

What was scary about this?

We would go into work and there would be six scenarios, based on whether the helicopters could fly that day, based on the weather - howling gale, a blizzard.

It was bitterly cold. It would take me 45 minutes to dress in the morning, clever layers under those costumes, so we didn't look like Michelin men. And then, I would have heat packs stuck to me - three on my arms, a couple across my chest.

They give out fast when you're at altitude. A couple of moments, we would lose the feeling in our toes and have to stop for half an hour and someone would put their gloves on our feet. We were in full survival mode.

I bet a lot of people would be thrilled to be stranded on a mountain with Idris Elba.

I could think of worse people to be trapped with. I haven't worked with him before. I was grabbed by the huge challenge of putting two actors on screen for the entire length of a movie.

I remember thinking: "We have to keep this interesting, otherwise we're doomed." I think it was good we didn't know each other - we discovered a lot about the other person. We got quite good at reading what the other person was thinking and needing - hot packs and hidden candy supplies. We would eat Maynards wine gums (a British gumdrop-like candy). We called them our acting pills.

Do you prefer playing strong people facing a vulnerable moment or vulnerable people finding strength?

I like characters who are unafraid of showing their flaws. I think people often associate me with strong characters who are daring and reckless.

But it's interesting to play a character who is vulnerable. I'm an open book. I don't believe in hiding emotion. The character in The Reader (the 2008 film for which Winslet won an Oscar) is closed off and that was hard for me, largely because it was opposite of who I am. There's nothing more exciting than reading a script and going: "How am I supposed to play this part?"

When I read the Woody Allen script, I thought: "I can't do this."

I read it sitting on the staircase in my house and didn't move until I finished reading. I just sat on the staircase for an hour, in complete shock and panic. But that's the best feeling because sheer terror sometimes is the greatest challenge of all.

What was the catalyst to get you from sheer terror to playing the part?

I probably wasn't going to get another go-round with Woody, so it's now or never. And it was an extraordinary part, that I could not believe he was asking me to play, so just the flattery of being offered the role was enough.

The only reason I wouldn't have done it would have been fear and that is no way to live a life. Plus, I knew my parents would be proud of me working with Woody.

My mother died in May. Every day, I would call her on the way home from the set and she wanted to know everything about the day. It was a big part of the last few months of her life. I feel grateful I did it.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 11, 2017, with the headline 'No Mountain too high for Kate Winslet'. Subscribe