The last time Vulture talked with Kate Winslet, about her role in the upcoming Steve Jobs biopic, she was drinking rosé while cooking a chicken. We caught up with the actress again last week at the Toronto Film Festival to discuss The Dressmaker, a manic, absurdist Australian comedy-drama from director Jocelyn Moorhouse (Proof, A Thousand Acres) based on the novel by Rosalie Ham. The book and film are about a Paris-trained seamstress who returns to her minuscule hometown in desolate southeast Australia, from which she was exiled as a child for allegedly killing a boy — and winds up outfitting the entire female population in couture.
The tone is more menacing than it sounds — Moorhouse has called it “Unforgiven with a sewing machine” — and the juxtaposition of all that 1950s glamour against those gnarled bushes and tumbleweeds is striking. Plus, it involves Winslet spending some quality time with Liam Hemsworth’s abs. The film has received standing ovations at each of its public screenings, although critics have been mixed. But, hey, when was the last time you saw a Western centered on a woman who uses fashion as her weapon? We plied Winslet for life lessons on romancing the youngest Hemsworth, acting with emus, and, of course, all those fabulous clothes.
These were her most spectacular costumes since Titanic.
“It’s much more comfortable than Titanic!” said Winslet. “I mean, each period is different. The Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, and if you think of 1912 to 1952, so much changed in terms of fashion — even more than has changed from the ’50s until now. In fact, now we would still wear a great ’50s cut of jacket, because it was really the period in fashion when so much was cemented in how women actually want to look and feel and what they really want to wear. It was just gorgeous being able to play a character who looked that — not just pulled-together, but really, truly, cleverly stylish. And the things that she had learned [working as a dressmaker for the greatest haute-couture designers in France] emerged, I felt, in every single outfit that she wore.”
Titanic wasn’t her trickiest movie, costume-wise.
“I actually had more costume fittings for The Holiday than I did for Titanic,” said Winslet. She’s referring to the 2006 Nancy Meyers movie in which she plays a London society columnist who does a Christmas house-swap with Cameron Diaz’s Los Angeles movie exec when they both find out their respective significant others are cads. And which I’m totally going to rewatch as soon as I finish writing this post.
She helped design her own costumes.
Winslet learned to sew for her part, and says it’s the first time in her long career she’s participated in the creative process — in this case, with costume designer Margot Wilson, who was brought on just to create the Tilly costumes. “She would sketch things, and then we would sit and talk about it,” said Winslet. “She’d say, ‘Okay, what do you think? Is that line good? Do you think the hem is too long? Okay, we’ll try that. Yeah, maybe you’re right, that does look a little bit long. And I’m thinking about a small sleeve, but I’m not sure.’ She would just include me in everything. I’m not Method, but as almost a Method-y character thing, it was damn useful to have that level of inclusion, and I was very grateful for it.”
On playing a character so voluptuous and sexy, her mere presence at a soccer match turns all the male players into stumbling idiots:
“Tilly knows how a dress can turn heads and really be a very powerful statement, and of course she uses it in that soccer match deliberately, willfully, and brilliantly,” said Winslet. “I loved playing a character who just looked so different to everybody else and didn’t care. She relished it. So much of what she wears is completely inappropriate and impractical for the climate and where she is, but she wasn’t going to suddenly put on something different just because of that. I really admire that. I wish I could be like that. As I think a lot of moms who are home a lot do, I spend most of my life pretty much in workout gear, because you get up and you throw on something to do the school run and you kind of find yourself at 3 o’clock in the afternoon still wearing the relatively ugly sweatpants and whatever top was clean.”
Here’s how to get a noisy roomful of people to quiet down while you’re doing an interview:
1. Be Kate Winslet.
2. Say “Shush!” loudly and clearly.
3. Flash a very lovely Kate Winslet grin.
4. Tell them “Thanks!” in your melodious Kate Winslet voice.
How to use post-baby curves to your advantage in a movie:
Winslet gave birth to her third child, Bear, shortly before shooting began on The Dressmaker. (She also is mother to daughter Mia, almost 15, and son Alfie, 11.) “I don’t know how to word this without it becoming a thing — but at the time we started shooting, I was still kind of a bit post-baby. I was still in that had-only-finished-breast-feeding type of thing,” said Winslet. “It wasn’t just post-baby, but baby No. 3, nearly 40. It kind of takes a little longer to put it all back together, so I definitely was softer than I am now, and actually it was just great because it lends itself, that shape, so well to that particular period. I loved it. It accentuated absolutely everything, so that proper, sort of really soft, feminine shape was really gorgeous for the period. And it also gave Tilly a really sassy, European edge, which was right for the role.”
The movie reflects her red-carpet philosophy.
The key to Tilly’s dressmaking magic is to tailor each dress to enhance the unique specifications of individual women’s bodies, which Winslet said was a hard-won lesson for her over many years of walking red carpets. “Often wonderful designer things might be presented to me, and just because they’re wonderful gowns doesn’t always necessarily mean that they’ll look good or make you feel as though it’s you,” she said. “If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s just to feel the most like yourself as possible, because otherwise it shows in how you wear that dress. I do think that’s always true.”
Teaching her daughter to have a positive body image is backfiring.
Winslet has long been an advocate of women loving themselves just the way the are, but my favorite quote of hers is from her recent trek into the wild with Bear Grylls: “I stand in front of the mirror and say to Mia, ‘We are so lucky we have shape. We’re so lucky we’re curvy. We’re so lucky we’ve got good bums,’” said Winslet on the show, in which she also reprised her famous Titanic pose while rappelling down a cliff. All that love-your-body talk, though, she said, has been getting out of hand: “Now I can’t stop her in restaurants from going, ‘Look at my bum! I love my bum!’”
Couture costumes aren’t ideal when you’re shooting in the Australian desert with wild animals.
Winslet’s role is fairly physical, involving a lot of running up and down a hill between her town and the home of her amnesiac mother, Mad Molly, played by a wonderful Judy Davis. At times, she had to carry Davis through the desert while wearing formfitting La Dolce Vita ensembles. The vintage fabric often ripped, and the local emu population was out of control. “Oh my God! Emus would just wander through the back of a shot,” said Winslet. “We would have possums as well. There was one night when the possum had snuggled up to the boom. They’d hidden the boom in the eaves of the house, and we were going to move the boom and go on to another setup, but we couldn’t actually move the boom because the possum had wrapped itself around the boom. There was lots of wildlife everywhere all of the time, but it was great fun.”
On the scene when she first gets to touch Liam Hemsworth’s chest:
What was it like to put her hands on the bare abs and pecs of Liam Hemsworth, which she does as Tilly, when measuring him for a suit after his character, Teddy, has made it very clear he wants to marry her and flee the town?
“Hahahahaha. As long as it’s not the only thing you write about,” Winslet said. “He was very professional, and I felt very sorry for him because the scene itself and the way that it’s written is actually quite funny. So Judy and I, at the beginning of that scene, we have a lot of dialogue between the two characters that kept really making us laugh. So poor Liam is standing there in his underpants, and Judy and I are just cracking up laughing and being really unprofessional. He was being much more professional than we were being in that moment right there, and it was awful. We just couldn’t get it together, so we kept giggling with our own dialogue.”
When a reporter really pushes her to help the world out with some additional details about that moment:
“How was it shooting that scene?” Winslet went on. “Liam, he was just a mensch about it. He just got on with it, really. And it is funny, the scene is, so our biggest issue, honestly, was trying not to laugh.”
The role was the first time that I, as a viewer, saw Hemsworth as a leading man. He brings a natural sexiness to the part that seems to be related to his being back in Australia and using his native accent. Winslet agreed with the sexiness part, but went on again to praise his acting. Blah, blah, blah, Kate!
“He gives a performance that is absolutely bang-on,” she said. “He measured it really right. He didn’t play that character as sort of a bumbling thug who lives down the tip, whose parents have got no money, and there’s 1,000 children and pigs and dogs. He didn’t play in an obvious way. He played it in a very genuine, very tender way, which of course makes him even more lovable. And he is a very lovable person. He’s a really great guy, and he was sort of endearingly honest about how grateful he was to have the experience of working on the film, just because he really got a lot out of working with Judy and Hugo [Weaving] and myself, and was very sincere about what he was learning as he was going along, which — it’s really nice to hear that.”
Their significant age difference was insigificant.
Winslet, 39, and Hemsworth, 25, have great chemistry, but the movie never really explains how they happened to know each other from growing up when Winslet’s character was sent away so young and they’re so clearly not the same age. Winslet said it wasn’t an issue for her, and she never even noticed it. “It’s really funny, because I don’t know how old Liam is. I mean, I know he’s in his 20s, but I only know that because someone told me that earlier on today. And I know he’s got several brothers, so therefore he must be younger than I am. But I didn’t really pay that much attention to that. I don’t really feel that much older than him, I have to say, and it’s really funny, it just didn’t occur to me particularly, so I didn’t feel like the older woman kissing this younger man.”
Surely, though, she must have women coming up to her telling her that all that naked Hemsworth proximity makes her a lucky bitch
“No. Only my daughter and her friends do that, which is really embarrassing.”