How Kate Winslet Won a Role in Steve Jobs and Managed All That Sorkin Dialogue

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Michael Stuhbarg, Michael Fassbender, and Kate Winslet in Steve Jobs Photo: Francois Duhamel/© Universal Pictures

Steve Jobs, Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle’s selective biopic, ran a painfully public gauntlet to production, riddled with false starts, jettisoned stars, and even a supporting role in the Sony-hack saga. Among its most interesting and salutary turns was Kate Winslet’s 11th-hour casting as Joanna Hoffman, the brunette Eastern European–born marketing guru who speaks truth to Jobs’s charismatic power. After lobbying producer Scott Rudin with an emailed photo of herself in a wig, Winslet disappeared into Hoffman, opposite Michael Fassbender’s Jobs, over the course of a whirlwind series of long, intricate scenes. She regaled us with the backstory and more during preparations for another chaotic production, a dinner party at home in England.

Ned Rocknroll, Winslet’s husband: Hello. Who am I talking to?

New York Magazine.
Ned: She’s just pouring herself a glass of wine. (To Winslet) Am I not allowed to tell the gentleman that you’ve had a glass of wine? You’re going to share her with a glass of wine. All right, enjoy.

Winslet: Hi. Actually, hold on. I have a little bit of an issue with the wine. (Long pause.) It tastes like cider, that’s the bad news. I don’t know why, it’s a nice enough bottle of rosé. I’ll just open another one and try again. I promise I don’t start all my interviews like this. I’ve got to get the 11-year-old babysitter now to take care of a 1-and-a-half-year-old. I’ve fed the baby and I’m about to feed the 11-year-old, and we have people coming over for supper, so I’ve checked on the chicken. I’ve taken the bread out of the oven that I was baking, and it’s all systems go, just another day at the office. I am cooking everything, which is not remotely unusual. Now I’m going upstairs by myself with the phone to conduct the best interview of my entire life, I swear it.

So, then, you’ll be in Steve Jobs. How did you get the part?
Let me enlighten you if I may, because I’m very aware that this film has been so talked about for such a long time, with it having been David Fincher and then it was Leo and then it was Christian Bale and then it moved on to Danny with Michael, and all the Sony hacks, et cetera. This film came to me through incredibly unconventional channels. I was filming The Dressmaker in Australia in the middle of absolutely nowhere. And the hair-and-makeup artist was someone who I’d known for a while. And we were chatting one day in the trailer about what we were doing next.

I was coming up on a break, which I was actually quite looking forward to. And this lovely woman, she said to me, “It’s quite exciting actually, because I’ve had a phone call through Scott Rudin and Danny Boyle that they’d quite like me to go and work on this movie about Steve Jobs. They’re just trying to firm up their dates and they’ve got to really pull it together fast” — because there was a specific window in which Michael was available, which began in January and ended in April, and we are at this moment in the first week in December. She said it was written by Aaron Sorkin, so I’m, like, all ears, and she said it’s just brilliant, the script. It’s written in three acts, and each act focuses on the launch of a different product. And finally, I say, “So, what’s the girl part?” And she says, “Oh, my God, she’s brilliant, it’s this fantastic woman, this feisty Polish-Armenian immigrant.” And I’m going, “Holy shit, who’s playing that part?” And we both kind of looked at each other, and she went, “Oh, my God!” We set off on this very strange mission to get me this job. I connected with my agent. She said it’s been offered elsewhere, but rumor has it that person isn’t going to be available. Lo and behold, that person was unavailable. I could feel that the powers that be weren’t overly intrigued by the idea of me playing this role, maybe because physically, facially, I didn’t look like a Polish-Armenian immigrant. But sometimes you have to convince people, so my wonderful husband, Ned, I said to him, “Okay, honey, please, while I’m at work, would you mind awfully going to a wig shop and, please, get for me three dark-haired wigs, one short, one shoulder-length, and one long — and we will Google what this woman looks like.” There are very few actual images of her online, and I said, “Of course, I look absolutely nothing like her, perfect.” So I put a wig on my head and scrubbed my face of all makeup. I took one photograph of myself, and, lucky me, I have an email address of one Mr. Scott Rudin, and I just sent him the photo with no subject. Soon there’s this call saying, okay, okay, can Danny come and meet with Kate in Australia? And I’m like, “Holy fuck, what have I started?” They sent me the script, and immediately I thought, This is amazing, I really want to play this part. I had the meeting with Danny, and I just said, “This is how I would play this part, this is who I believe that she is,” and he said, “I want you to play this part.” So then cut to three and a half weeks later, I’m in a rehearsal room in San Francisco. We rehearsed each act like a play and then filmed it in order from start to finish. Michael and I were able to develop as literally co-workers. I do believe it was very similar to the relationship that Steve and Joanna had. She was like his work wife. She was head of marketing for the Macintosh, and then she stayed with him for his working life. She was an extraordinary, feisty Eastern European person who was pretty much the only person who could actually knock sense into Steve, and she was also kind of an emotional compass.

Joanna Hoffman is still around. Did you contact her to prepare?
I spent a great deal of time with Joanna, and she herself has a softness to her. She came to America as a young woman and achieved a great deal. One thing that was unique about her as a figure in Steve’s life was that she didn’t need anything from him. She just needed for him to be the best version of himself. And that’s what really set their relationship apart from any relationship with all his other colleagues. 

Did you base your performance on meeting her?
I just wanted to please her as much as I could. How she sounds, and her accent, is fairly complicated. She grew up largely in Armenia, spent some time in Poland, and has Russians in her family, so she has all three accents, but she’s been in America since she was a teenager, so she had American rhythms. You know, she really has this accent that goes way up and down. It’s almost impossible to copy because of just how singsongy it becomes. So I had to put it into my own register. But we were all doing accents. I mean, Michael’s Irish, and he’s playing Steve Jobs, for God’s sake.

Fassbender is known to be quite Method. Was he always in character on set?
No, not in character. But he’s on every single page of over 182 pages of dialogue. When you’re playing a character who’s talking and talking, pages and pages of dialogue without stopping, you have to be very respectful of how the other person works. If we had a very difficult scene to do, we would often find ourselves gravitating toward quiet corners of the set, and I would almost be the hovering henchman, making sure that we had as much space as we needed.

The movie has some long tracking shots, which means the chosen take has to be perfect. Were you constantly worried about being the one to— 
Fuck it up, yeah. You sure as hell don’t want to. But I can still remember all of it, everything. If we have to go and perform it tomorrow onstage, I’ll bet you anything we could still remember our lines. With Sorkin dialogue, by the way, if you drop a word, the whole thing unravels and just turns to dog shit.

What did you learn about Apple and Jobs before and during the shoot?
Sorkin makes it almost not about Steve Jobs at all. It’s about how that man has 100 percent dictated how we all live our lives today and how we function as people. The film is about all of us, and all of us today, not in ’84 or ’88 or ’98. I mean, look at us all — how we function. You look at a lot of toddlers today, they’ll pick up any screen of any kind, and they don’t push a button, they swipe. It’s horrifying but kind of extraordinary, and that is Steve Jobs. As a parent of a small child, it’s alarming. I remember the days of rotary phones. I’m 39 years old, so it wasn’t that long ago. 

Are you looking forward to 40?
To be honest, being in Steve Jobs is a big part of the closing chapter of my 30s. Holy Christ, what a way to end my 30s! I really do feel that way because of that film. The last two years for me have been incredibly busy, because I want to go rocketing to 40. I want to get to that day and feel just so excited about the next chapter. It’s been a pretty punchy decade for me in many ways. A lot has happened in my 30s, in great ways, and I genuinely, as a woman, really do feel excited. It’s fun watching your face change, especially for an actor. All my lines, they’re hard-won, I’m proud of them. When I was 21, shooting Titanic, I would think about being 40 and think, Oh, my God, old people. But I can probably say I feel younger than I did in my 20s, and I know myself now in an utterly unquestionable way that I think in your 20s you sort of think you do, but you haven’t got a fucking clue. 

It occurs to me that all you need for the EGOT is a Tony. Yet, surprisingly, you’ve never tried Broadway.
Wouldn’t that be something? People often say to me, “What’s your dream, what’s your goal?” Maybe that’s one. I’ve never really had a goal or a specific ambition. Maybe I should have that for my 40s. I’ve got to do a play first, hell.

What about Shakespeare? You did Ophelia in a movie Hamlet.
Not Shakespeare. Do I have to? You’re saying that because I’m British and you think it would be second nature. Come on, admit it. But I don’t go to bed reading Shakespeare sonnets, I swear to God. I fall asleep reading cookbooks. Actually, on that subject, I have to go, because I have to go check on the chicken. I’m not kidding, I really do.

*This article appears in the August 24, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.