The Regime: Kate Winslet explains why she pushes herself further than ever in new series

Actress discusses the 'disgusting, wild, tyrannical, vulnerable, interesting, multi-textured, complicated' character she takes on in satirical HBO series

Kate Winslet as Elena Vernham in The Regime. HBO via AP
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Kate Winslet, seven-time Oscar nominee, is not used to doing anything badly. But early on during the filming of the first episode of The Regime, her latest HBO series, that was exactly the note that director Stephen Frears had for his lead actress: "Sorry, no, you’re doing this too well. You need to do worse."

In the show, Winslet, 48, plays Elena Vernham, a despot in a fictional central European country. In the premiere’s best scene, she gets on stage in front of a huge audience and sings a powerful ballad with all possible gusto.

The audience of dolled-up dignitaries smile and clap throughout. That’s the way it was written – Winslet was supposed to sing it well, and everyone was supposed to be happy. They shot it that way in the first take and she was perfect, but Frears was displeased. It fell flat.

“I came off the stage, and he was standing there with his arms crossed. I’m like, ‘No, don’t shake your head. Why are you shaking your head?’ He said, ‘Because I don’t understand it. Why is she singing so well? It doesn’t make any sense!’,” Winslet tells The National.

“’Well, what do you want to do?’ I asked. He said, ‘Do it badly.’ And it was in that moment that I understood what we were doing here. I understood the brilliance. Because you immediately give the audience permission to lean into just how delusional this woman is. Because even though she’s singing badly, we know she thinks she’s singing well. She thinks everyone loves her. And everyone is lying to her.

“No wonder she doesn’t trust anyone!’ Winslet says. Bad is difficult to pull off, of course. But bad is true. In fact, Frears got the idea from another real-life leader.

“There's a famous clip of Putin singing Blueberry Hill, and he sings it appallingly,” Frears tells us. “Or at least, not as well as Fats Domino, in my opinion.”

It’s difficult to pull off this kind of painful truth – to lean into the over-the-top comedic absurdity with which reality often flirts, yet still make something feel grounded, human and relatable. But that’s exactly why Winslet was the only person to play Vernham; she’s someone who can take a caricature and carve out three dimensions as neatly as she’s always done.

At this stage of her career, a level few reach, Winslet needs a challenge. After all, she has just been nominated for seven Academy Awards (and won one for Best Actress) and she has won a staggering 109 major awards in total. Titanic may have sent her into the cultural stratosphere, but her sustained excellence has kept her there.

Yet, somehow, no one ever asks her to do comedy. “I haven’t played a single comedic role since an episode of Extras 20 years ago,” she says in disbelief.

But as long as she is still acting, she is going to challenge herself. Take the 2022 movie Avatar: The Way of Water, for example. For her role as Ronal, she trained to hold her breath underwater for a staggering seven minutes and 15 seconds, far longer than any of her co-stars.

I couldn’t compare her to me, my family, friends, anyone I know, anyone I’ve met. I had to completely invent this person
Kate Winslet

Here, the challenge was finding a way into a character that was so separated from herself – farther than any character she has previously played.

“There could not have been less of me in Elena Vernham,” she says. “And that was terrifying. I couldn’t compare her to me, my family, friends, anyone I know, anyone I’ve met. I had to completely invent this person.

“I had to somehow transform myself and become this disgusting, wild, tyrannical, vulnerable, interesting, multi-textured, complicated woman, unlike anyone I’d come across before. That was my job, and I dug into it.”

If she just played a shouting, shrill dictator, it would have been boring and exhausting, she knew, for her and the audience. So she went into the imaginary childhood of this woman and tried to find the roots from which each trait she had could grow – imagining the emotional scars that would ultimately manifest as her tics and quirks.

“I wanted to create somebody who had a history, from her own life, her own childhood," Winslet says. “She had to have things that stayed with her, that had affected her, and really traumatised her and let that play out in her physical self and her emotional self – how she speaks and moves and interacts with other people.

“And I couldn’t overplay or underplay – I had to play it straight, rather than for laughs. There would be no comedy if I didn’t take her seriously.”

Everything about her had to reflect that understanding of the character, from her facial expressions to her costuming.

“One thing about her is she wants to be able to trust people," Winslet says. “But I have never seen someone so untrustworthy in my life, down to everything – her hair, her clothes, even her nails.

“When I sat in the chair on the first day, I turned to the make-up artist, and I asked, ‘Do you trust this woman?’ And she said, ‘Not really, no’. And I was like, ‘Right, let's go then!’"

But making someone human and relatable does not mean making them likeable – it’s a fine line. And in this case, this could not be a person you like. Winslet certainly doesn't – as much as she immersed herself in the role.

“I had to give her a heart and a soul without also trying to make the audience love her. That would not have been right. I had to kind of walk the line between the comedy and tragedy of Elena Vernham.”

The Regime premieres Monday, only on OSN+ in the Middle East

Updated: March 01, 2024, 6:02 PM