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Back From the Abyss

Making 'Titanic,' actress Kate Winslet was a world away from the drawing rooms of Jane Austen. One woman's education in the James Cameron school of filmmaking.

May 11, 1997|David Gritten | David Gritten, based in England, is a frequent contributor to Calendar

LONDON — For English actress Kate Winslet, playing the female lead in writer-director James Cameron's monumental movie "Titanic" could have been worse.

After all, she could have been one of the passengers on the original 1912 maiden voyage of the luxury liner, which hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank, causing the deaths of some 1,500 people.

News reports have suggested that the "Titanic" shoot, during six long months in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, was strenuous for everyone involved. Winslet, 21, puts it more succinctly. "An ordeal," she says.

And though actors are known to exaggerate the hardships of their working conditions, it appears she has a point. As she tells it, during the course of production she nearly drowned, contracted influenza and suffered extreme chill from being immersed in cold water.

"I chipped a small bone in my elbow," Winslet says, "and at one point I had deep bruises all over my arms. I looked like a battered wife." She lifts her long black skirt to reveal an ugly gash on her right knee, only now starting to heal. "I just slipped on the deck," she says with a shrug.

Winslet relates all this one afternoon in her private club, a dark three-story building with a bohemian feel, in the heart of London's Soho district. She is sprawled on a piece of furniture resembling an open sofa bed covered in floor carpet, with cushions scattered around her. She often lays her head back and seems on the verge of dozing off; two weeks after "Titanic" wrapped, she still feels deeply exhausted.

"The first day started at 5 a.m. and went on to 1 a.m." she says. "Nothing could have prepared me for it. There were quite a few 20-hour days. And two-thirds of it was night shooting--because the 'Titanic' sunk at night. It was every man for himself on the set--you had to ensure that you snatched some sleep during the day, with a black eye mask on. Sometimes you'd find yourself having lunch at 2 a.m. or breakfast at 4 p.m. It was very disorienting."

Then there was the famously driven James Cameron, about whom Winslet can talk endlessly. "He's a nice guy, but the problem was that his vision for the film was as clear as it was," she says. "He has a temper like you wouldn't believe.. . . As it was, the actors got off lightly. I think Jim knew he couldn't shout at us the way he did to his crew because our performances would be no good."

Winslet characterized Cameron as "a really tough nut to crack--there were times I was genuinely frightened of him." Yet, oddly, she also felt both sympathy and admiration for the writer-director: "I did like him, and I did come to understand him," she stresses. "There were times he was very understanding. A couple of times I felt he was someone I could take a country walk with, and enjoy it.

"And logistically it was a very tough film for him as much as anyone. By the end I was existing on about four hours' sleep a day, but Jim was existing on three."

Cameron understands Winslet's feeling drained. As he explains: "She's not a knee-jerk actor. Whatever she does on Take 1, we'll talk about, we'll add to it, and it constantly gets better and better. It's seductive to a director because you want to keep going. There was always something new."

The near-drowning incident? Winslet and her co-star, Leonardo DiCaprio, were dashing along the deck of the ship, pursued by a giant rushing wave, only to find themselves trapped by a closed gate. They opened it, but a long, heavy coat she was wearing snagged on the gate, and she was submerged beneath the rising waters.

"I had to sort of shimmy out of the coat to get free," she recalls. "I had no breath left. I thought I'd burst. And Jim just said, 'OK, let's go again.' That was his attitude. I didn't want to be a wimp so I didn't complain."

Cameron agrees that Winslet didn't complain.

"At the point we did that scene," he says, "I knew Kate was pretty stoic--she never expressed to me that she didn't want to continue. It didn't come to me until about 10 minutes later that she was actually really shaken. It would not be unusual for Kate, after a really big emotional scene, to go and cry for an hour, just as part of the process. [In this scene] she was never in physical danger, but she perceived that she was.

"If you have a spill on a horse, you just get right back on the horse; this was [a close-up shot and] not a situation where she could be doubled. If I had it to do over again, I would probably do the same thing."

The very last day of the shoot called for a scene in which Winslet and DiCaprio were flailing in the Atlantic waters--actually in a giant tank built for the purpose.

"For my close-up shots, I was actually weighted down 12 feet under water, so I'd stay in a fixed position," she says. "Looking back, I can't believe I allowed that to be done to me." She had a problem using an air regulator to inhale air and swallowed mouthfuls of water while unable to kick her way to the surface. "After three takes, I simply said I couldn't do any more," Winslet says.

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