Kate Winslet interview: On raising hell with ‘The Regime’ and more

The Oscar-winning actor talks to us about her upcoming mini-series in which she plays a paranoid populist leader and on comparisons with real-life politicians

Updated - March 02, 2024 12:12 pm IST

Published - March 02, 2024 10:19 am IST

Kate Winslet arrives for the premiere of HBO’s ‘The Regime’ in New York City

Kate Winslet arrives for the premiere of HBO’s ‘The Regime’ in New York City | Photo Credit: CHARLY TRIBALLEAU

Kate Winslet is noticeably concerned (even more than I am) that my Internet connection during our Zoom call is all over the place. I succeed finally at keeping it stable, all the while apologising profusely. I need not have fretted; Kate — looking incredibly regal — is quick to assures us that she is not inconvenienced at all. 

The Oscar-winning English actor is talking to us from London, where she’s doing press for her latest project, HBO’s six-part limited series The Regime.

In a riveting career that has spanned 30 years (her feature debut was with Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures in 1994), the British actor has sunk her teeth into several flawed female characters who have disturbed and enthralled in equal measure; from a Nazi concentration camp guard in The Reader to a troubled housewife in Revolutionary Road. There, of course, have been other acclaimed performances in blockbuster titles such as Titanic,Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Holiday.

But could her latest role be the most fascinating one of them all? The upcoming dark satire stars Kate as Chancellor Elena Vernham, an authoritarian leader of a fictional country, whose grip on the regime (and her mind) turns unstable after she falls for a volatile soldier, Herbert Zubak. Increasingly paranoid by the minute as Zubak’s influence over her continues to grow, Elena’s desperate and eccentric attempts to retain her power result in complete chaos all around her... and her people.

Kate Winslet in a still from ‘The Regime’

Kate Winslet in a still from ‘The Regime’

After having won Emmys for the period drama Mildred Pierce and detective thriller Mare of Easttown, much is expected from the 48-year-old’s most recent television turn. “It’s a twisted love story about two people who should never have fallen in love,” laughs the actor.

Created and co-written by showrunner Will Tracy, The Regime is directed by double Oscar nominee Stephen Frears (The Queen) and Emmy-winning director Jessica Hobbs (The Crown). The international ensemble cast also includes Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone) as the troubled Herbert Zubak, Guillaume Gallienne (Me, Myself and Mum) as Elena’s husband, Andrea Riseborough (To Leslie) as Agnes who runs the household staff, as well as Hugh Grant as Elena’s defeated political rival Edward Keplinger in a delightfully-wicked cameo.

Excerpts from a conversation:

It looks like you contributed largely to developing your character in ‘The Regime’; how much freedom did you have towards shaping her personality, especially the eccentricity? 

It was a team effort; the large group of writers who had written all of these six episodes had done so much research and preparation in terms of creating this imagined country, somewhere in middle Europe. 

This gave us enormous freedom as actors to go far down the road in the direction of the absurd to play with the comedy as much as we really wanted to, and see how far we could push that at times. In the later episodes, it becomes more interesting, as things begin to fall apart, and the love story becomes more intense and kind of twisted. 

But my job as the person playing this female dictator was to try and create a real person behind the mask. I felt it was important that she should look almost too perfect, so that it felt uncomfortable; as though this is someone that you can’t trust.

This image released by HBO shows Kate Winslet, center, and Matthias Schoenaerts, left, in a scene from ‘The Regime’

This image released by HBO shows Kate Winslet, center, and Matthias Schoenaerts, left, in a scene from ‘The Regime’

It was also important to keep giving myself opportunities to unravel who she was. We had those really interesting scenes in the mausoleum when she’s talking to her dead father’s corpse (!); that gave me so much insight into her childhood and how much trauma she carried. That then impacted on how I wanted to let that trauma live in her body, how she moves, how she talks and how she is with people. There are some things that she copes with and some things that she just can’t cope with at all; she had to feel extremely vulnerable and fragile, but fearless and abrasive as well. So I just had to be brave enough to try everything, quite honestly. 

The directors of the show — Stephen Frears and Jessica Hobbs — remarked that when they first heard you speaking in Elena’s distinctive voice, it made complete sense and you reminded them of what an ‘old-fashioned movie star’ is. What is your definition of the term in this time and age when the idea of what stardom means keep changing?

My definition of an old-fashioned movie star… is definitely not me! It’s very kind that Stephen and Jessica said that; they probably only said it because they just couldn’t find other words. They probably would have been better off using words like deeply insecure, troubled, experimental. That’s how we all felt around that table readthrough. 

This image released by HBO shows Kate Winslet, left, and Guillaume Gallienne in a scene from ‘The Regime’

This image released by HBO shows Kate Winslet, left, and Guillaume Gallienne in a scene from ‘The Regime’

So, what is my definition of a movie star now? To me, quite honestly, the term ‘movie star’ is almost an invention in many ways. It is the way that we describe people who have achieved certain successes, doing the job that they do. For me, I just try to do my job well. Try and stay humble. Try to be kind, and try to be grateful for everything that I have. And most importantly, to remember that when you’re a woman and when you’re getting older… it’s a good thing, not a bad thing. Those are qualities that I think help anyone really in a high profile position in this industry.

“I just try to do my job well. Try and stay humble. Try to be kind, and try to be grateful for everything that I have. And most importantly, to remember that when you’re a woman and when you’re getting older… it’s a good thing, not a bad thing.”Kate Winslet

There are a lot of political references and subtext in the narrative that could be relevant to the goings-on in the world today. What does the series tell us about the current crazy world we live in? 

I always appreciated that the script is completely agnostic in terms of any real life depictions. It is an imagined universe; a fictional country in middle Europe which is not a part of history. It isn’t a documentary, and absolutely not a real telling of real life events. It is a geopolitical satire, and understandably, people will take from it what they want.

What I loved was that it’s a female dictator, playing a woman leading this small country and doing what she can, but I wanted to dig into who the person is behind the mask, because everything about Elena Vernham really does feel like a front. 

Kate Winslet as Elena Vernham in ‘The Regime’

Kate Winslet as Elena Vernham in ‘The Regime’

As a creative team, we really lent on the delusional side to her; the dark humour and the fact that you feel very uncertain about what she’s going to do next all the time. We all contributed to how she looks, the clothes that she wore, how she moved physically, and so on.

She clearly has hidden trauma from her childhood having been raised by something of a tyrannical father who clearly terrified her. But for whatever reason, she still seeks approval from his corpse of all things! I mean, it is so insane. You almost feel like well, how could someone write that? But someone did write that and I tried to play that part to the best of my ability and hopefully make it interesting. And more than anything, make it funny.

Your accent on the show is really hard to place... 

We deliberately didn’t want accents for any of these characters, so that you couldn’t identify exactly where they’re from. It was fun actually allowing all of the actors to just have their own accents, so that it feels like a very eclectic group of individuals within the walls of the fictional palace. That was a choice made by the directors. 

From whatever you’ve told us, Elena seems to live in a bubble of sorts, where she’s the center of the universe, and no one wants to say no to her. Did you relate to any part of the character at all?

No, not at all! I’m very fortunate that I had a very loving family growing up; I have three siblings and very kind, good parents. I’ve always been extremely rooted in the real world and in reality, and becoming a successful actress has been a huge surprise to me. I never imagined that for myself or the opportunities that have come my way. I am grateful for every day of my life. But I’m just one person on that huge film set, and my job is no more important than the person behind the camera, or the person who’s bringing the actors coffee. We all have a place and we all have to look out for each other and work as a team. 

Kate Winslet arrives for the premiere of HBO’s ‘The Regime’ at The Museum of Natural History on February 26, 2024, in New York City

Kate Winslet arrives for the premiere of HBO’s ‘The Regime’ at The Museum of Natural History on February 26, 2024, in New York City | Photo Credit: CHARLY TRIBALLEAU

“I’ve always been extremely rooted in the real world and in reality, and becoming a successful actress has been a huge surprise to me.”Kate Winslet

As an actor, how did you find that perfect balance between a humorous and serious approach? You can’t cross an invisible line, lest it becomes farcical…

Yes, I agree... you just can’t play the humour card all the time. With a character like Elena, it can become a little exhausting, and I was very aware of that. I would say this to myself, ‘I mustn’t be like John Cleese in Fawlty Towers’. Because even though he is so brilliant, it’s almost overwhelming to watch because you feel like he’s gonna hurt himself all the time. You feel that something is gonna go wrong, and it becomes really kind of frightening to watch. 

I knew that I had to get the audience to that place with Elena. But I can’t take them there in episode one, I have to kind of let it spread out over the six episodes so that by the time that we get to six, hopefully you have been completely reeled in by her story and who she is, her vulnerability, charm, charisma and her confusion with the world. 

Did it ever cross your mind that depicting a female leader in a negative light could come off the wrong way or cause backlash of some kind?

You just can’t think like that when you’re an actor asked to play the role of an invented female dictator who is completely delusional, living in an isolated world in complete paranoia. My job was simply to try and lift off what was on the page and bring it to life. 

This image released by HBO shows Kate Winslet, left, and Matthias Schoenaerts in a scene from ‘The Regime’

This image released by HBO shows Kate Winslet, left, and Matthias Schoenaerts in a scene from ‘The Regime’

We all just felt lucky as actors that the group of writers who had put the script together had completed the story before we all even read it. So the whole thing was complete. We could just jump in and really explore these characters. The satirical darkness hopefully is going to amuse people and entertain them.

The Regime is set to premiere on JioCinema on March 4

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