Kate Winslet begins with an advisory warning.
"I need to tell you right now," she says, "that I've only just finished playing this character and when I talk about her, there's a little bit of me that falls apart."
The character is Mare Sheehan of HBO's Mare of Easttown , a seven-episode limited series about a troubled small-town detective who's searching for two missing girls in Pennsylvania. The casting might seem like a stretch for Winslet. After all, she's a British star who lives in a farmhouse on the Sussex coast with a husband, three children and, when we speak, a dog at her feet.
"Mare is a totally different character for me," Winslet says, "different from anything I've ever done. She swears, she vapes, she eats absolute junk. She doesn't drink water once in the entire show."
Yet Winslet has been hugely affected by Mare, because Mare is also a mother. We proceed with caution, but it doesn't help: eight minutes into our conversation — once we start talking about Mare's troubled son, Kevin (Cody Kostro) — Winslet falters. Her face folds, and she looks away in tears. A little bit of her falls apart, as promised.
"When I think about kids today — luckily, I don't have this with my children — but the number of kids who are self-harming, who have mental health issues... it's very present in our world, no matter where we live, where we come from or how privileged we might be perceived to be. So, this feels like a zeitgeist moment of a story in terms of what's happening to our teenagers and how hard it is to track what's happening to young people these days."
She breaks off again.
"I had to invent more trauma for myself to play this part than any character I've ever played," she says. "I mean, look at me. It's utterly, utterly stupid."
That's typical English embarrassment right there, not stupidity. Her reaction reflects her deep-seated empathy, which is one of the reasons Winslet has won an Emmy (for HBO's Mildred Pierce in 2011) and an Oscar (for The Reader in 2009), among many nominations. She doesn't put on characters like they're costumes; she inhabits them entirely.
So Brad Ingelsby — writer, creator, showrunner and an executive producer of Mare of Easttown — couldn't have been more pleased when she jumped to the project.
"When we were looking to cast Mare, obviously we thought of Kate," he says, "and I had given the first two scripts to her agent. Usually, it takes weeks and weeks to get an actress of Kate's standing to look at material. She read it overnight. We had the chat, and she was like, 'Great, I'm in.' We couldn't believe it. But I think she really was passionate about doing something different."
"Initially I was flattered," Winslet says. "I knew how lucky I was to be asked to read something that could have been offered to an American actress, for example. The writing was utterly real and wonderful, and I could feel myself saying those words — that's always a real indicator for me.
"I always read bits out loud when I'm reading a script and play around. Or I'll say to my son or daughter, 'Just quickly read the scene with me,' and then I'll get that feeling of, 'Ooh, this could be good.' I had that feeling right away."
Nonetheless, Winslet knew that Mare of Easttown would pose a stern test. It's set in Delaware County, just outside Philadelphia. She'd never been there, and there's a very specific dialect that people have from Delco, as it's called — and a set of beliefs and values that underpin the script. So, when Ingelsby says Winslet nailed it, that's high praise.
"As soon as you see her on the screen," he says, "you totally believe that she's a small-town detective in Pennsylvania. The conviction she has is amazing."
As a high-school basketball star, Mare Sheehan took the shot that won the national championship, a feat that, more than 20 years later, remains Easttown's crowning glory. While Winslet didn't have to shoot hoops, she did need to be in shape.
"I had to stay very fit. Not because we necessarily have to see a fit body, but because I do have to do a lot of running. I had to physically do a lot of tackling and fighting and arresting people, you know, taking huge grown men down to the ground.
"It's nice to sense that Mare was once strong in her youth, but I didn't want to make her an impossible, superhuman 40-something-year-old. Mostly women aren't like that. We do what we can in the midst of the juggle of everything else."
Winslet and Ingelsby were both insistent that Mare be unpolished, fallible and real.
"What I wanted to depict," Ingelsby explains, "though I didn't want to condescend in any way, is that there's a heroism in getting up every morning and going to a job you don't necessarily love — you're doing it out of a sense of duty and commitment to your family. I really admire that. I wanted to depict these people with a real compassion, and I wanted to get that sense of heroism across."
He calls it the heroism of the mundane, and Mare Sheehan embodies it.
She needed to be both quietly heroic and decidedly normal.
"I mean, HBO, I think they were quite like, 'Wow. Okay. So, she's going to look like that , huh? No makeup?'" Winslet relates. "We were like, 'Yep. It's just going to look like that .' I think everyone had to have a moment of adjusting to the fact that I wasn't going to be the television-show version of that character. I was going to be the character."
Winslet spent a lot of time around the real Easttown and nearby Marple, where the show was shot. She consulted with police detectives and officers in both townships.
"One in particular," she says, "was a woman named Christine Bleiler, who's this pocket-rocket, pint-sized, extraordinary, fierce female sergeant detective who's had a life not exactly like Mare's, but similar. She had had a child very young and didn't have great prospects, and she needed to do something to give herself some degree of self-worth and purpose in life."
At 22, as Winslet tells it, Bleiler was pushing her kid in a stroller in a shopping mall when she bumped into a friend. That friend had just graduated from the police academy. Bleiler thought she might do the same.
"So she did, and she was one of two women who graduated out of her class of 55. She's been a sergeant detective to this day, and she's almost the same age as me. She was just incredible — very, very supportive."
Bleiler wasn't just a character inspiration; she worked as a consultant, which included helping Winslet with the basics. "Whenever we had scenes that required proper, detailed detective work, or if I was using a gun or something, she would always be there. And when we got it right, she would say, 'That's it. It's real. That's how it is.'" ...
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This article originally appeared in its entirety in emmy magazine, Issue No, 3, 2021