Kate Winslet: “Women know what women want”

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  • She plays palaeontologist Mary Anning in the film everyone's talking about - here, Kate Winslet fills us in on the making of Ammonite (and yes, that sex scene...)

    It’s the film – and sex scene – dominating headlines right now, and for good reason. Based on the pioneering palaeontologist Mary Anning’s life, Ammonite explores Anning’s contribution to palaeontology – and the lack of acknowledgement she received for her work – alongside her life and romantic relationships. Directed by Francis Lee, Kate Winslet plays Anning opposite Saoirse Ronan (cast as Charlotte Murchison) lending us a peek into the imagined world of ‘the greatest fossilist the world never knew’.

    What a journey Ammonite was, it was incredible.

    Ah, thank you very much. It was a journey yes, it definitely was.

    It was a tough watch during lockdown because it made me desperate to get to the great outdoors and be by the sea. How was it filming in Lyme Regis?

    I look back on Ammonite, which was a hard shoot, but of course I remember it now as being this luxury. We were just outside the whole time and we could hold hands with people and get fish and chips, and stand in line at the fish and chip shop. It was wonderful filming in Lyme Regis and actually it’s one of the only places during this lockdown that I really find myself yearning for. I was wondering, is it too far to drive there? And I was like, yes, 1000% way too far away. But those beaches and the atmosphere of the town and the people…we were helped so much by the Lyme Regis museum and local palaeontologists and we were really connected to the community when we were making the film. It was just such a fantastic experience.

    Throughout the film we see your character’s work being constantly attributed to men and ending up in museums and private collections without due credit ever being given to her. How important was it for you to give recognition to women like Mary in the work they did?

    It was incredibly important, incredibly, for all the reasons you just said. Because for rich, powerful men who were frankly maybe not quite as clever as she was, to have taken her finds, purchased them and reappropriated them as their own discovery, it’s just outrageous. I mean it’s just unbelievable. I think it’s right that the world knows that that kind of thing was happening and not just in the field of palaeontology. Mary’s impact on the world of geology has been second to none, and men would dispute her finds all the time – she was questioned and labelled as a ‘freak’.

    What did you think of her?

    I admired her enormously because she was a self-taught, working-class hero who lived a very harsh life which was filled with struggle. She was taught by her father who was an amateur fossil hunter, he died when she was only 11 years old. She was raised by her mother who was in a permanent state of grief – she’d lost eight children while Mary was alive and two before Mary was born. So you can imagine what it must have been like for Mary to live in this quite isolated world where she wasn’t getting much love. So to know how to love and be loved and just communicate on a very basic level with people socially was something that I believe didn’t come easy to her.

    How did you learn about her?

    She didn’t keep diaries but she had these books that she would call her ‘day book’ or her ‘workbooks’ or something, that she would write a lot of prayers and poetry in. Some were copied, but every now and then she would write little personal anecdotes. And there were tantalisingly few for me to access because they just don’t exist. But in one of them she talks about being dealt such an ill hand by the world. ‘The world has treated me so abominably ill’ she says. So in spite of that, she still carried on. You know, she wasn’t resentful, she wasn’t bitter. She was tired, yes absolutely, but somehow she still did her work and loved her work. I love that in Ammonite you see these two women come together through the work, through the physical labour. And to me that that’s very, very powerful.

    It also struck me watching it how rare it is to see women in that time period who aren’t prioritising being ‘likeable’ or liked. In Mary’s case it was the work that was important and I think the first time we see your character even smile is on the beach. What was that like for you, is that something that struck you as feeling different?

    Well, it was very empowering to play someone who wasn’t defined by men, who wouldn’t allow herself to be defined by men. Because she was dealt such a rough hand by a patriarchal world and I found that really it was sort of an exceptional experience in a way, to just indulge in standing in standing in truth like that. You know Mary had that ability and pairing her with a woman on an intimate level felt right, it felt worthy of her in many ways. And it also meant that we were allowed to access the more feminine side of her that was kept away from her work that she almost didn’t – I think – dare herself to explore or experience, because that just wasn’t how she was emotionally facing the world.

    So to see her softer side through the connection with Charlotte and the joy that that brought to her was really very special. And I think you do feel it all the more because, as you say, she very rarely smiles. She very rarely allows herself to just acknowledge that Charlotte did just put her hand on her shoulder and she did just leave it there for a couple of extra seconds, you know? Those moments are really powerfully felt in the film because they are used as language and there are so few of them. And the space for longing as well – good old fashioned longing and desire – we really have that in our story and we were really allowed to sort of sit in that. And that was quite unusual too, we didn’t have to keep filling it with words or actions.

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a realistic portrayal of lesbian sex on screen that wasn’t played out to be purposefully titillating or designed for the male gaze. I read that you spoke to gay friends about their experiences. What did you learn to bring to it?

    Well that would be sharing private stories [laughs] but there’s a lot that was shared in rehearsal privately between Francis [Lee, director] and Saoirse [Ronan] and myself that definitely helped to create a really trusting place for us to work in, the three of us together. But the one thing that I discovered truly for myself, as well as [through] the support that I was shown by my gay friends, was just that there’s no sort of power play. There’s no gender power play in a same sex love intimate moment. And so when you remove those stereotypes, the space for equality just completely opens up.

    What I also realised is that women know what women want, and that helped enormously. It meant that Saoirse and I could really just share together and absolutely discuss those things on quite a visceral level. Plus we knew we didn’t want to shy away from the power of that intimacy between the two of them just because there are corsets in the way, you know? And often I think with period love stories, things can be quite tentative or delicate or sensitive or more romantic. And we wanted this to absolutely feel completely rooted in the deep, visceral love and power that these women felt when they were together. So that meant that we we gave ourselves quite a lot of freedom in an intimate way just by keeping that in our minds and knowing how important it was to us.

    Ammonite is out now.

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