Thursday, November 4, 2010

Holding Out for a Hero: My Night with Kate Winslet

“Don’t be freaked out that I roll my own cigarettes,” Kate Winslet tells me as we huddle under a small awning to avoid the Manhattan raindrops. “I know, it’s very European of me,” she continues as she reaches out her hand and offers me one. She then pulls out a box of matches from her sleek and elegant black trench coat, sticks her cigarette in her mouth, and brings the flame to her face, putting a momentary spotlight on her signature beauty mark above the right corner of her lip.

I’m not one to be starstruck. Living in New York and working various jobs around Manhattan has made seeing celebrities nothing less than ordinary. At Estee Lauder, I sold make up to Christina Aguilera. At Starbucks, I made cappucinos for Marc Jacobs, Anna Wintour, and Jodie Foster all in the same day. Having an entertainment blog has made me fortunate enough to interview and even befriend some of my favorite musicians. The closest I’ve ever been to being intimidated by a celebrity’s presence was two summers ago when I interviewed Anne Hathaway at the Shakespeare in the Park opening night gala. It was two a.m. and we had both taken a little too much advantage of the open bar. The impromptu questions I was asking were a bit slurred and I had a momentary panic attack that I would make an ass out of myself. But in the end, her not so sober state balanced mine out and the interview ended up as a success.

When I was nine-years-old, I was living in Germany. My father used to be an international correspondent for Newsweek so my childhood was spent moving from one European country to the other. The year was 1997 and a little movie called Titanic had just been released. My girlfriend’s mother (my first in-law, if you will) was a huge fan of director James Cameron due to the sequels he had made to Alien and Terminator. She decided, therefore, to take Nathalie and me to the theater to see his newest film endeavor.

The only problem was the movie was in German. I was taking the basic level of German at my American school, but my knowledge was certainly not extensive enough to understand a three-hour period film. Regardless, I sat in the movie theater with my bucket of popcorn and watched what would ultimately become the world’s most epic cinematic love story unfold before my eyes.

The language barrier soon became a non-issue, as I immediately fell in love with everyone that graced the screen. I didn’t need to understand what Jack and Rose were saying to know that they were from two different worlds and shared a Romeo and Juliet-esque forbidden love. It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand the iceberg warnings because I was familiar with the history of the ship and knew what was coming. It didn’t even matter that I didn’t understand what Jack was saying to Rose right before he froze to death because I knew what it was. A few years later, I made my Polish grandma watch the VHS tape with me, and even though she didn’t understand the language either, she still cried through half of it and said it was the best motion picture she’d ever seen. How many movies can honestly make such claims?

Titanic changed the way I viewed movies. It was the first blockbuster film I saw and today remains on my short list of all-time favorite films. The memories I have associated with it are endless, making it a true time portal to my childhood.

What I loved most about the movie, though, was Rose. Kate Winslet, only twenty-years-old at the time of filming, had me completely enamored from that first iconic moment when she steps out of the town car and swoops her massive ascot hat to the side to reveal her fiery red hair and blasé attitude toward “the ship of dreams.”

When the English movie theater in Berlin started playing the movie, I made everyone I know come see it with me. My parents, my brother, my piano teacher, my friends. I became obsessed, with my walls covered floor to ceiling in magazine cut-outs and posters of Ms. Winslet.

From there on out, I always went to see every movie Kate was in. No matter where I was in the world, I was always at the movie theater on the opening day when she had a new film. Whether it was a serious sociopolitical drama like The Life of David Gale and Little Children or a period piece like Finding Neverland or a romantic comedy like The Holiday, I have contributed at least one ticket to the opening weekend box office revenue of every film on Kate’s extensive resume.

In 2001, Kate lent her voice to an animated adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol. The film was released solely in the United Kingdom, and stayed that way for a few years (I recommend you check it out now as the holiday season comes up, as it is currently streaming on Instant Netflix). In this film, Kate tried out something new and sang the theme song: a gorgeous ballad entitled “What If”. Imagine then my disappointment when I would request the song on American top 40 radio, only to have DJs laugh at me and say “you mean the actress?” before they hung up. To compensate, I (living in New York already at this point) used my allowance to have a copy of the soundtrack specially shipped to me from a record store in London so that I could hear Kate sing.

I’ve always wondered what it would be like to meet her. What would I say? Would she be a total bitch and shatter my adolescent vision? To be honest, I was scared. I’d always seen interviews with her where she seemed completely down to earth, but what if that was just an act? What if I met her and she was cold and rude and stuck up and mean? Would I be obliged to cross my name off the list of her top fans?

Fast forward to tonight. Thursday, November 4, 2010. I’m standing outside of a restaurant in the East Village, talking on the phone. I look to my right and strolling down the block is none other than Kate Winslet. I immediately hang up and shove my cell phone in my pocket, as I look to see if this really is who I think it is coming in my direction. She’s walking by herself, an umbrella in one hand and texting on her Blackberry with the other.

“Excuse me, Ms. Winslet,” I say as I awkwardly approach her. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to disturb you, but I saw Titanic when I was nine-years-old and ever since then, whenever somebody has asked me if I could have dinner with anyone in the world, you’ve always been my answer ... so I couldn’t just let you walk by without saying hello.”

“You’re too sweet!” she responds with her fabulous British accent. “My friends aren’t here yet and I was just about to smoke a cigarette. Would you like to join me?” She ushers me over to a little alcove on the side of the street near the restaurant. She sparks the flame of her match and my childhood fantasy.

We begin to small-talk and she starts asking me about my life. What I do for a living, am I dating anyone, what did I study in college, what do I want to do in life, etc. I answer all of her questions as she smiles and listens, making little jokes here and there and rubbing my arm to comfort me when I tell her my boyfriend works on a cruise ship and I don’t get to see him very often anymore. “That must be hard for you, you must miss him very much,” she says.

The conversation then turns to her. “I read you’re doing a film adaptation of God of Carnage, is that true?” I ask. “You must be a real devoted fan if you know that already,” she replies with a chuckle. She goes on to tell me about the film, but mentions that she is shooting another movie first: Contagion. She tells me that she’s flying to Chicago on Monday for a couple of weeks to film, but that she can’t give me too many details about the movie because it’s “a very rare circumstance where I’m sworn to complete secrecy about the project.” She does mention that it is an ensemble piece and that she’s thrilled to be working with director Steven Soderbergh (upon research later, I learned that the film is an action thriller about the outbreak of a deadly virus that threatens to wipe out earth’s human population. Winslet plays a doctor contracted to help find a cure). “So many times you see movies and you wonder why the people making it made certain, well frankly, shitty choices. I’ve never had that experience watching Steven’s work and it is just such an honor to be working with him.” Winslet’s genuine excitement for the film makes her sound like an actress who has just landed her first big role.

“So you saw Titanic when you were nine? How old are you now?” Winslet asks me. “I’m twenty-two,” I respond. “Fuck, that makes me feel old” she says through her smile.

When I ask her what her favorite role she’s ever played is, she doesn’t hesitate to say Hanna Schmitz in The Reader “because it was by far the most challenging part I’ve ever had to play.” (Sidenote: Winslet won her first best actress Academy Award for this film ten minutes prior to my 21st birthday. Needless to say, I had a monumental celebration). “Have you seen that film?” she asks me. Have I seen it? Honey, I own the DVD of every movie you’ve ever made. “Yes, I have,” I respond.

I chime in my two cents and tell her my most loved character of hers is Clementine from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, my all-time favorite movie. She responds by telling me that Clementine was “the most fun” she’s ever had playing a character. She then goes on to tell me that she never watches her own movies (“except at premieres because then I kind of have to”), but that a friend recently asked to watch Eternal Sunshine with her. “I agreed because I hadn’t watched it in ages, and my god, was that an experience! It was such a terrific film and so fun to make,” she divulges.

Fifteen minutes have gone by and Winslet gets a text from her friends that they’ll be there in any second. “I’m throwing a surprise shindig for my friend’s 42nd birthday,” she tells me. “She’s going to kill me because I promised I wouldn’t make a big deal out of her birthday ... but it’s her birthday! What kind of friend would I be not to make a big deal out of it?” I laugh and she begins to talk to me about her children. It is clear that, despite the countless jewels and designer dresses for red carpet affairs she has received and multi-million dollar contracts she has signed, Kate Winslet is just like anyone else.

“Well, I should go inside and make sure we have a table,” she says as she smothers the lit remains of her cigarette with the toe of her chic, tall leather boots. She gives me a hug and kisses both my cheeks (like a true European). “It was so lovely to meet you,” she says. I ask her if I can take a photo with her. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m just terrified of Facebook and the Internet and all that shit,” she replies. “Would you mind if we just kept this our little memory?” She stretches out her hand to shake mine once more before she leaves, smile still intact. She gets to the door and turns around and waves to me. My childhood dream had just come true.

There’s that old expression that people say: never meet your heroes because chances are you’ll just be disappointed. Well, I’ve never been able to confirm or refute that statement because I had never met mine. Tonight, I can safely say that I don’t find any personal truth in it. Kate Winslet was everything I had hoped she would be. She was warm, funny, beautiful, charming, and just … normal.

Near the end of Titanic, Old Rose (played by the marvelous and recently deceased Gloria Stuart) reminisces about Jack: “I don’t even have a picture of him. He exists now only in my memory.” I may not have a picture to document my twenty minutes with Kate Winslet, but tonight will forever stay ingrained in my mind.