Kate Winslet has been making a name for herself in movies in which the directors have been spreading their visionary wings.
First came last year's "Heavenly Creatures," the astonishing true story about two young, outcast women in New Zealand whose bond became so ferociously impermeable that they were willing to resort to murder to keep it intact. That film was by Peter Jackson, who previously had created hilarious splatterfests such "Dead Alive" and "Meet the Feebles."
Now Ms. Winslet is causing an even larger stir in "Sense and Sensibility," for which the film's star, Emma Thompson, wrote the adaptation of the Jane Austen novel, and in which Taiwanese director Ang Lee ("Eat Drink Man Woman," "The Wedding Banquet") tackles his first all-English-language project. The film has scored top prizes for Ms. Thompson and Mr. Lee in the critics' year-end polls and even garnered Ms. Winslet, at age 20, her first Golden Globe nomination, for her supporting role as Marianne Dashwood, the hopeless romantic in love with the idea being in love.
"Everything's a challenge," Ms. Winslet says dispassionately during a conversation in an empty courtyard on the Sony Pictures lot. Los Angeles for Ms. Winslet right now is no more than a day's layover -- she just came from snowbound London, where she has been shooting "Jude," based on the Thomas Hardy novel "Jude the Obscure," and she is flying on to summery New Zealand in the evening to finish the production. "I admire those directors so much for wanting to branch out.
"There's an element of, 'God, can I really do this?' in these parts," she continues. The grave injustice that prodded her character in "Heavenly Creatures" to kill, as well as the further injustice that rent the character's life asunder after the crime, got under her skin.
"I physically and mentally suffered from working on that film. It was traumatic. Feeling those emotions, and wanting to kill someone, and having to feel that. Feeling them without even trying to at the end of the day, because I knew so much about [my character]. It was overwhelming."
Ms. Winslet had no murderous inclinations whatsoever while making "Sense and Sensibility." "Far from it! In fact, I wanted to kiss everybody all day!" she exults.
"Sense and Sensibility" stars Ms. Thompson as Elinor Dashwood, the eldest daughter of a family that has lost its social standing and must eke out a more humble existence. While Ms. Thompson's Elinor pines away for Edward (Hugh Grant), a charming but less-than-assertive suitor, Marianne makes grand
drama of her every infatuation. Yet what makes the film more enchanting than, say, a Merchant-Ivory period piece is the clever and quirky interplay between Elinor and Marianne. Ms. Thompson and Ms. Winslet seem genuinely connected as sisters and not like cliched characters playing their peccadilloes off one another for sport.
"Elinor is the 'sense' one and Marianne the 'sensibility' one, but they both have equal amounts of those two emotions," Ms. Winslet says. "The reason we're so intrigued by Elinor is [because] there is that sensibility she just can't release, because she does have so much respect for her family and the society in which she is living. But it's her nature to keep a lid on things. Marianne does have sense, she realizes she has to become a young woman. That's why they're so connected, and why you feel the relationship works."
Ms. Winslet credits Ms. Thompson with giving her a saner perspective on acting. "One thing I've learned, from Emma particularly, was not to take everything too seriously," Ms. Winslet says. "I don't mean she swans in, says her lines and doesn't think about it, because of course she does. But you can be too intense -- you can want to kill someone. It's important to sit back and say, 'Time for a glass of wine, time for a big meal,' and to see people and not become too nunlike while working on a movie. Emma taught me a lot about having fun and enjoying it -- that's crucial. Keep it airy, keep it light."
That advice came in handy while shooting "Jude," which presents Ms. Winslet another extreme character to portray -- Sue Bridehead, Jude's tormented cousin who tries to destroy their romance. Ms. Winslet just finished shooting a scene where her character gives birth. "I had this prosthetic thing with a head coming out and everything strapped to me," she reports. "It's all a bit graphic, pretty foul. They didn't have the breathing technique then, so it was just agony, so I had to just show this agony, this wailing thing going on for hours and hours of shooting."
After "Jude," Ms. Winslet begins work on "Hamlet," directed by ++ and starring Kenneth Branagh. (Ms. Thompson and Mr. Branagh announced their separation after a six-year marriage last fall.) It's another agonizing role -- Ophelia. "Often, Ophelia is seen as tragic from the word go, as this floaty, flighty thing who goes mad. But Ken and I want to make her a strong person, very rooted -- there has to be an absolute reason behind everything she says and does."
And, of course, there's the potential distraction of the coming awards season. "There's all this talk about Golden Globes and Oscar nominations and all that, but to be honest, I can't think about it," she says. "I would love it if that happened, but at the end of the day, I'm not here to win awards, and it's important for me to remember what I am here for, and hang on to reality because it is so easy to get carried away.
Ms. Winslet is definitely not concerned about the possibility of the Helena Bonham Carter Syndrome -- appearing in so many period pictures that no one buys you in a contemporary film -- infesting her career. "Yes, all my films have been period pictures, but so what? There's so many contemporary emotions within all those characters that just because they lived 200 years ago doesn't mean they didn't go to the toilet and pick their nose and feel what we feel.
"I honestly believe emotions have not changed. They're not aliens just because they're wearing corsets."