‘Divergent’: Kate Winslet shakes things up with a villainous turn

March 24, 2014 | 6:00 a.m.
Kate Winslet says she relished the challenge of her calculating character in 'Divergent,' one of the few blockbuster films she's starred in. (Alex J. Berliner / ABImages)

Kate Winslet says she relished the challenge of her calculating character in ‘Divergent,’ one of the few blockbuster films she’s starred in. (Alex J. Berliner / ABImages)

It’s been a year of change for Kate Winslet.

The newly married English actress welcomed her third child, received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and is playing her first genuine baddie on the big screen in this past weekend’s blockbuster action film “Divergent.”

“I wanted to be in a film that was just completely different to everything that I’ve done,” she said last week between sips of cranberry soda at the L’Ermitage hotel in Beverly Hills.

“Divergent,” directed by Neil Burger, is the first in a trilogy based on Veronica Roth’s bestselling young adult book series about a future where people are strictly sorted into factions based on their personality: The brave go to Dauntless, the honest to Candor, the kind to Amity, the selfless to Abnegation and the intelligent to Erudite. Shailene Woodley plays a heroine with aptitude for multiple factions — a dangerous trait known as divergence.

Winslet portrays the calculating villain Jeanine Matthews, an icy Erudite leader who seeks to stage a coup, hunting down divergents along the way.

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Ben Lloyd Hughes, Zoe Kravitz and Shailene Woodley in "Divergent." (Summit Entertainment)

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Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Ben Lamb, Zoe Kravitz and Jai Courtney in "Divergent." (Summit Entertainment)

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Shailene Woodley, Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn and Ansel Elgort in "Divergent." (Jaap Buitendijk / Summit Entertainment)

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Theo James, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller and Ben Lloyd Hughes in "Divergent." (Summit Entertainment)

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Shailene Woodley, author Veronica Roth and director Neil Burger on the set of "Divergent." (Summit Entertainment)

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Theo James, left, and Shailene Woodley in "Divergent." (Jaap Buitendijk / Summit Entertainment)

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Shailene Woodley, left, and Theo James in "Divergent." (Jaap Buitendijk / Summit Entertainment)

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Director Neil Burger, left, Jai Courtney and Theo James on the set of "Divergent." (Summit Entertainment)

“She has this sort of intelligent, scientific, brilliant brain and a desire to purify her nation, essentially,” Winslet said. “Wanting to be the governing faction and overthrow Abnegation — all of these things, they really made for a very rich character. There was a lot for me to do in a short space of screen time, and I liked that challenge.”

The film is certainly a change for Winslet, 38, an Academy Award winner as lead actress in the “The Reader” (2008) and six-time nominee for films such as “Sense and Sensibility” (1996), “Iris,” (2002), “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004) and “Little Children” (2006).

Since her 1994 big-screen debut in “Heavenly Creatures,” Winslet has acted in dozens of dramas, period pieces and biopics. She recently completed the Alan Rickman-directed “A Little Chaos,” about landscape gardeners in Louis XIV-era France, and will soon film “The Dressmaker,” a dark comedy based on the book by Rosalie Ham, and “Triple Nine,” a crime drama directed by John Hillcoat.

With the exception of her Oscar-nominated performance in James Cameron’s “Titanic,” Winslet’s résumé is largely devoid of a big-budget popcorn flick like “Divergent,” which grossed $56 million in its opening weekend.

“I’m always making films about real things that happened to real people,” said Winslet, who won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for playing the title role in “Mildred Pierce.” “I’m interested in the human condition, and that’s why I’m often so drawn to those types of pieces.”

Although “Divergent” is a departure, Winslet said the film expressed “some really big themes.”

“It’s about wanting to belong and knowing yourself and being true to yourself,” she said. “It’s very difficult to just choose, to just be who you want to be. It takes a long time for people to figure that stuff out. I didn’t feel I was making a teenybopper film at all. I felt that I was in something very sophisticated.”

Winslet also expressed admiration for costar Woodley and confessed that she sees a bit of herself in the 22-year-old actress.

“I think she has one up on me in many ways because she’s been working in this industry for longer than I had done at the point that I went through what she’s going through right now,” Winslet said. “She knows what to expect of this business. I still was protected in a way by pink, fluffy, English clouds. You come into the Hollywood machine the way that I was thrown into it with ‘Titanic,’ and nothing can prepare you.”

MORE: What Shailene Woodley’s costars had to say about her

Winslet said the recent proliferation of films centered on empowered young heroines is an exciting sign of the times. She remembers arriving to readings early in her career, armed with freshly sharpened pencils, sticky notes and highlighters to be “the good student.”

“I’d sit terrified around the table, trying to look professional,” she recalled with a laugh.

It’s a sharp contrast to her arrival on the set of “Divergent,” where the movie’s young cast was already a few months into filming.

“I walked on the set, and I did feel very experienced,” she said. “They were shy and nervous at first, which was quite funny. I let them be shy and nervous for a couple of days. That was fun. It worked for the character.”

Filming “Divergent” was not without its challenges. Among them: being five months pregnant with her third child, Bear Blaze Winslet — a condition that filmmakers carefully hid with costumes, props (“I’m holding an iPad and a file an awful lot”) and clever framing of shots.

Kate Winslet in "Divergent." (Jaap Buitendijk / Summit Entertainment)

Kate Winslet in “Divergent.” (Jaap Buitendijk / Summit Entertainment)

Winslet said she felt somewhat limited in one action sequence in which her character gets thrown to the ground.

“I would still fall on a crash pad, but it just didn’t feel as kind of punchy,” she said. “I had to protect my little Bear under my coat.”

She was “thrilled” to redo the scene when she returned to the set six weeks ago for reshoots.

“Hoofing that sort of soft, post-pregnancy body back into those costumes, I felt like I was squeezing a sausage into a thimble,” she said. “But the feeling of playing the character not pregnant was so much nicer. I just felt like my brain was that little bit sharper.”

The next film in the series, “Insurgent,” begins filming this year. In the meantime, Winslet is enjoying the opportunities that come from her 20-year career, including receiving her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame last week.

“I mean this in the best way, but it’s a little bit like a gravestone,” she said. “It’s something that you go and visit, so in years to come, when I’m a grandma, I can take my grandchildren and say, ‘Oh, look, this is where Grandma got her star,’ and show them to the picture of the day when I was given it. It was really, really lovely.”

– Noelene Clark | @NoeleneClark | Google+

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