Interview: Kate Winslet on Mildred Pierce

The Oscar-winning actress talks childhood crushes and chopping chickens for her new TV role

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An accomplished star among the movie set, it may seem out of the ordinary for Kate Winslet to be appearing on the small screen – but there is nothing small about Mildred Pierce.

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The five-part HBO mini-series, which begins on Saturday (25 June) on Sky Atlantic, is as intricate as it is drawn out (five and a half hours in total, covering a whole decade in time), with Winslet’s character having appeared on every one of the script’s 280 pages.

Mildred is a typical Californian housewife, who separates from her husband, Bert (played by Brian F O’Byrne), at the height of the 1930s Great Depression. She soon shifts her attention to her ever-demanding daughter, Veda (Evan Rachel Wood), and such interest begins to teeter on the obsessive. Their relationship becomes further strained as Mildred embarks on an affair with wealthy playboy Monty (Guy Pearce, above).

Shifting from film to TV

In her own words, Winslet, now 35, “just wanted to get [her] teeth into something that was bigger” and has “always been a little bit of a risk taker” – but she admits she wasn’t prepared for the pressure and commitment that came with TV. “I’m serious about this. Film schmilm – film is almost like a holiday in comparison to television,” she says, blaming the reduced budgets and stricter time constraints.

The original Mildred Pierce

The script was derived from James M Cain’s 1941 novel, and Winslet claims she was insistent about replicating the original Mildred as much as possible. “I found it incredibly powerful, upsetting and disturbing,” she admits, “and a little bit like Revolutionary Road [the 2008 film in which she starred alongside Leonardo DiCaprio], I couldn’t go anywhere with the script and not the book. I think you can never find enough little snippets about the gestures and movements about a character.”

Mildred Pierce was also famously adapted in the much-loved 1945 film starring Joan Crawford – the actress won an Oscar for her portrayal. “I deliberately didn’t see the film because I felt I might feel under terrible pressure,” Winslet says. “I mean, who wouldn’t, for God’s sake? Joan Crawford won an Academy Award in that role and I just didn’t want to scare myself. Acting is scary enough as it is.”

Playing opposite her childhood crush

But it wasn’t just living up to a great actor’s performance that Winslet had concerns about – it was playing opposite one of her favourite stars. “When I was a teenager I had two heart-throbs, only two, in my whole teenage years; one was Patrick Swayze and the other was Guy Pearce,” she says. “I was so in love with Mike from Neighbours [a character Pearce played from 1986 to 1989] that I would actually fake illness so that I could stay off school and watch the 1:25pm edition and then the repeat at 5:30pm.”

Winslet laughs as she continues. “So when I finally met Guy in the rehearsal room, I said, ‘OK, I’m just going to get this out of the way now, and you’re just going to have to bear with me. I was so in love with you as a teenager and I was completely convinced that Mike was actually going to come and take me away on a white horse’ and of course he was laughing his head off.”

“Throughout Mildred Pierce,” she adds, “whenever we had a kissing scene or an intimate scene, before they said ‘Cut!’, I’d turn to the camera and go, [singing] ‘Neighbours, everybody needs good neighbours…’ I’d break into the theme tune and, bless Guy, he was very good about it and he just sort of giggled, but I was pathetic, unashamedly pathetic about the whole thing.”

The importance of period detail

As well as praising her co-stars for the success of the piece, and director Todd Hayes (who, Winslet says, she was “flattered” to be asked to work with), the actress is also thankful to the production crew: “I felt that all the period detail was crucial. Every cupboard I’d open was completely stocked full of ingredients, flour, everything – so the set really did feel like home.”

The mini-series opens with Winslet kneading and rolling out pastry to make a pie and later sees her chopping whole chickens, as Mildred dreams of having her own restaurant. “Those were all my hands making those pies, and all my hands chopping those chickens,” she says.

“I was taught how to chop them and I practised for months. I would chop five chickens a day and the freezer was filled with all these pieces – the children got so fed up with eating chicken,” she laughs. (Winslet has two children – Mia, ten, whose father is director Jim Threapleton, and Joe, seven, son of Sam Mendes, from whom Winslet split in March last year).

The actress also praises costume designer extraordinaire Ann Roth for helping her to execute the role so precisely. “I’ve known her since working on The Reader (Winslet’s 2008 film, for which she won an Oscar for best actress),” she explains. “I’d walk into fittings and she’d say [mimicking a droll American accent], ‘Now put that on, and go and spy on your daughter’ and she was right. She had completely conceptualised what Mildred would wear in a totally silent scene when spying on Veda. She would say, ‘How often does she wash her hair, do we think? How often does she take a bath?’ That’s the actor’s job but Ann thinks about those things, too, because of course it does make a difference.”

Watching herself on screen

So is Winslet as pleased as the critics with the outcome of Mildred Pierce? “The interesting thing is, I’ve never sat down on my own in a room and watched myself in anything I’ve ever done until episodes one and two of Mildred aired in America,” she says. “Suddenly it was nine o’clock in the evening, I put the kids in bed and I thought, you know what, as sort of an exercise I should maybe put myself through this.”

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“It’s still profoundly weird for me to watch myself on screen, I can’t sit there and figure out whether I was any good or not. But I have to say, I did watch the whole thing and I had a pillow clutched quite close to my eyes.”