New York — THE little children in "Little Children" are the adults, starting with Kate Winslet's Sarah, an overeducated suburban mom deadened by marriage to a slug who wears women's underwear on his head. Among the film's first words of dialogue are "Bad mommy! Bad mommy!," an invective from her daughter in the playground where Sarah eyes an equally un-adult househusband dubbed the "Prom King" by neighborhood women.
The "bad mommy" descriptor bears no resemblance to real life, of course, for Winslet prides herself on being, above all else, a good mom. But she was a bad girl -- Bad Girl! -- when she violated the dictate of the director, Todd Field, that the actors not read the novel on which the film was based. She even called him, excitedly, to say her character had to have that blue toenail polish when she began breaking her emotional chains in pursuit of the Prom King.
"He said, 'Oh no, you read the book,' " Winslet recalls.
"I'm sorry. It's just so much fun, the homework."
There was another detail about Sarah, in the book, that piqued her interest: a "slightly bisexual past."
"Which I begged Todd to put in," costar Patrick Wilson joked, lapsing into the frat-boy persona of his Prom King character.
But you win some, lose some. Director Field said: blue nail polish, OK; lesbian scene, no.
WINSLET'S first film audition, as a teenager, was for "Heavenly Creatures," by an unknown writer-director from New Zealand, Peter Jackson, "little Pete with his rotund little belly and his funny little glasses."
Then she got cast in "Sense and Sensibility," and felt unworthy. "Anxieties about, 'Am I any good or not?'... 'I'm just gonna get fired.' ... 'Oh, actually, we read the wrong name off the list. It wasn't really you.' "
Never mind the Oscar nomination that followed, or playing Rose in "Titanic" soon after. "It's never really gone away," she says, and she figures the anxiety is a good thing. It helps keep her scribbling notes on the flip-side pages of her script, in a film like "Little Children," to figure out why Sarah would have ever moved in that big house with her panty-sniffing spouse.
When Winslet had her "penny dropped moment" on that issue, she rushed to tell her director, "She had no choice! ... She'd gotten herself pregnant!" But others were shooting a scene "so I just waited outside the set ... panting ... nervous ... and I ran in, 'Todd, I have this idea....' And he said, 'Oh, yeah,' and the next thing I know" -- for a flashback -- "I'm in a pregnancy pad."
Ages after, she's still excited that he went for that, or let her ramble on and improvise in the scene where she spots a red bathing suit in a catalog and picks up the phone to order, not sure of her size, "um, the 8, 10, 8, maybe," for in Winslet's mind this was a leap for that uncertain woman, getting the swimsuit she'd wear to the pool to lure the buff househusband.
"All those little things say so much about her: the toenail polish, the ordering of the bathing suit ... having her pregnant when she moved.... Maybe I'm just claiming this character just way too much," she says. "It just made a big difference to me."
Of course, these kinds of insecurities about getting it right to the last detail pop up in all professions. A common job-stress dream, for instance, is the one in which you show up for a test, long after your school days are past, totally unprepared. She's not had that particular dream, she says, but did have another, just the night before, that woke her up in shock, and "It's probably very symbolic...."
KATE WINSLET'S dream had her in a theater, but not on stage, in the audience, and "I wasn't wearing my own clothes ... I had borrowed them from a friend. And I wasn't happy with ... what I was wearing
She recalls thinking in the dream, " 'Phew, quiet, no one else can get in here.' And I sat down and on the table in front of me was an enormous bag with different types of cakes ... somehow I got it in my head that I needed to taste each cake. And then every now and then I'd peek out ... to see what was going on in the theater and think, 'Well, no, I'd rather stay in here with my cakes....' I don't know what in earth that means."
Who can say for sure -- but perhaps it has to do with being on the sidelines at the moment, taking a year off from making movies, with her daughter entering kindergarten and her son preschool, so she indeed can be a good mommy. She agrees "it had a theater in it, which is connected to my profession," but the time off, she insists, is "amazing and fabulous."
She's been off since May and does not plan to begin her next project, as yet unchosen, until next May. She will have to start her "homework," though -- the thinking about her character -- eight-to-10 weeks before, meaning soon after Oscar night, when she may for the fifth time feel anxiety that's not in a dream.