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In 'Ammonite,' Kate Winslet Portrays A Same-Sex Love Story 'Without Secrecy Or Fear'

Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan star as Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison in <em>Ammonite.</em>
Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan star as Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison in Ammonite.

For Kate Winslet, one of the best things about being an actor is taking on roles that scare her — and that's exactly what happened in her latest film, Ammonite.

Ammoniteis a love story that centers on a real-life historical figure: Mary Anning was a self-taught paleontologist who lived on England's southern coast in the 19th century. She discovered fossils that were important contributions to the understanding of evolution — but she received little credit because she was a poor woman without connections.

Winslet says capturing Anning's stoic temperament was her biggest challenge of the role.

"Playing this part, I was scared every day," Winslet says. "The emotional details of playing Mary, are so subtle and so sparse. There were two emotions that I wasn't allowed to show very often in playing Mary Anning: almost no happiness and sadness, no real tears."

The movie imagines an intense romantic relationship between Anning and a visiting gentleman's young wife, played by Saoirse Ronan. Winslet says reading letters between close women friends from that time helped shape her portrayal of the relationship.

"A part of our story is not to portray these two characters as though they're in some way having a secret or forbidden love affair," she says. "It's storytelling that normalizes and expresses same-sex love without hesitation, without secrecy or fear."

Interview Highlights

On Mary Anning's contributions to paleontology

Mary Anning was completely self-taught. She was an uneducated child. She learned how to find fossils, how to be a paleontologist. She learned it from her father, who very sadly died when Mary was only 11 years old. And Mary was very close to her father. She had a really warm, significant, wonderful, strong relationship, [a] strong bond with him. And because of him, she was eternally fascinated by fossils, by knowing how to identify what fossils were, not only to find ammonites, but to find dinosaur bones.

She discovered the first ichthyosaur when she was 11 years old with her brother, Joseph, the two of them. It took them over a year to dig it out. But she was a child when she found that. She discovered what a coprolite was — that's fossilized feces. And so because of Mary, we were able to learn and know what dinosaurs ate. So her role in that particular scientific field was really, really significant. And, of course, what happened to Mary was that her finds were bought from her by rich, more powerful men who claimed them for their own and therefore took credit. She never took credit for anything. They actually put their name on her finds.

On how her role in the 2011 filmContagion, about a pandemic, helped prepare her for COVID-19

I [did] play an epidemiologist ... and the character was called Dr. Erin Mears and we worked very closely with the CDC in putting together that story, and I worked alongside epidemiologists in order to be able to play that part. And it was utterly fascinating. A lot of it, I have to be honest, the science just went over my head. I left school at 16, and I didn't do much in the way of sciences and biology at school. ...

But when COVID hit, because of my experience doing Contagion, I was one of the first ones walking down the street [recently on location] in Philadelphia wearing a mask with people looking at me like I was absolutely crazy. And, of course, within weeks, a lot more people were wearing masks and gloves and walking around with hand sanitizer and wipes and spray and so on. But because I had that experience and learned how quickly a disease can spread, I was very afraid very early on. And that feeling of wanting to get out of a big city, get away from people, protect your own family — I absolutely had that feeling quite quickly, because I'd been in Contagion.

On being bullied for her weight as a kid and criticized for her weight in the tabloids as an adult

I think there is huge pressure on women in the public eye, and the film industry is no exception to that. And I just want to live my life with complete integrity and sincerity and to always be myself and to always be able to look another young actor in the eye and just say, "Look, people told me I was not going to have a career because I was the wrong shape. I was too fat. I had to lose weight. And look, I did it." I will be saying that to my grave. ...

I was called "blubber." I had kids lock me in a cupboard and say, "Blubber's blubbing in the cupboard." I was very badly bullied and teased at school. But somehow I had this inner determination. It was hard. It was horrible. I would go home, I would cry. I wouldn't want to go back to school the next day. But I knew that I wanted to be an actress one day, and I just had to push it to one side. I had to push those horrible bullies and those awful feelings to one side and just hang on to my dream. I was even told by an agent when I was much younger that I was only ever going to get the "fat girl" parts. ...

I was subjected to such really, truly unkind, painful public ridiculing for how I looked. So definitely the question of what is beautiful had to come into play for me.

[Later on] I genuinely did suffer. ... I suffered a huge deal at the hands of actually the British press in terms of how I looked. And just recently ... I had to go through some old newspaper articles from years ago, from 1998 till 2007, 2008. And I was so distressed to read how unbelievably brutal and cruel the press were. They would even talk about [estimating] what I weighed, "Looking a weighty 140 pounds." ... But reading the things that they said, I was so staggered ... I was subjected to such really, truly unkind, painful public ridiculing for how I looked. So definitely the question of what is beautiful had to come into play for me, because I had to work hard to ignore this proper cruelty that I was subjected to.

On men behaving inappropriately in the film industry

Things have changed, need to change more, but are, I think, continuing to at least go in the right direction to the point that I don't think we'll ever go back to the way that it was. Without going into specifics of stories ... I would go into an audition room as a young person and would just learn to accept that if the male director felt like reading in the lines of the male actor role in that particular scene and would get a little bit too close for comfort — well, you just knew that that was just the way that it was. But it's not that way now. It is not that way now at all. And I certainly do feel much safer, and I feel much more looked out for now because there are specific ways in which people are just not allowed to behave anymore.

On howTitanicchanged her life

Titanic was a seven-month shoot. I learned so much about acting about the process of filmmaking. There's so much to learn and that takes a long time and I hadn't been taught it in a school. So I was learning on the fly, really on the fly. That experience of making that film was rich with wonderful things that I learned. But it changed my life because it gave me freedom of choice, and that was incredible at the age of 21, 22. But I will be completely honest, I wasn't ready for that level of choice. I wasn't ready for this big, fat career. And so actually what I did was I shied away from playing big roles in big studio films that had huge budgets because it didn't feel right to me. And people would say to me, "You're mad! This is a moment in time. It might never come around again!" ...

Somehow I knew that I didn't know enough. I actually didn't feel that I knew enough as an actor to really be able to step into the shoes of "film star." Those are two words that I felt deeply uncomfortable with — even today. I wanted to be an actress, and I had a lot to learn, and somehow I knew that I had a lot to learn. I didn't want to fake it, and I didn't want to feel under pressure — and also I didn't want to fail. I wanted to be in a position where I could always say, "I'm an actress." To be 45 years old, as I am today, and to still be able to say, "I'm an actress," and not to have fizzled out, not to have experienced burnout and not to have given bad performances because I simply didn't know how to do it enough in those days when I was that young. And so I was able to choose smaller things that made me feel a little bit more protected and a little bit more connected to smaller crews of people who I felt safe with and who I could learn from.

Lauren Krenzel and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Petra Mayer adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.