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Why Kate Winslet Keeps Returning to TV, This Time as a Narcissistic Dictator

The Oscar winner talks to The Hollywood Reporter about playing the leader of a fictional country in HBO's six-part limited series, and gives an update on 'Mare of Easttown' season two.

Kate Winslet is back on TV and this time, she’s playing a character she’s truly never played before.

The opening scene of HBO’s The Regime sets the scene. The geopolitical satire opens somewhere in middle Europe. The music is ominous, then quirky, when a soldier (played by Matthias Schoenaerts) is brought to the grand palace of the populist ruler of a fictional country, where he is told they are renovating to contain and rid the air of toxins. “Never breathe in her direction. Stay calm. Don’t vomit,” he’s instructed before meeting Chancellor Elena Vernham. In this first meeting, Winslet as Elena is poised and direct.

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Given where the rest of the episode — and the season — goes, it’s safe to say that this first impression is not an accurate one. Elena commands attention when she is seen in state-controlled media and performing on stage for her people (despite concerning global accusations being made against her regime). But privately, within the palace walls, she’s growing increasingly paranoid and unstable, convinced that the mold in the air is poisoning her while pretending to be mother to the son of one of her staffers (Andrea Riseborough). Those who work for her tip toe around her unpredictability and play off her selfish agenda.

But its Herbert Zubak (Schoenaerts) who makes her feel safe after a security breach. He exposes the ulterior motives of those around her, effectively becoming her most unlikely, closest confidante. The first episode ends with his brutal honesty elevating him to true right-hand man status, as he pulls her out from her most vulnerable moment and inspires her to launch a new geopolitical missive. And viewers might rightly be wondering, what happens next?

“For the past year, these individuals [on my staff] have weakened our economy, our government, and even my immune system, aided by meddling foreign regimes. Which is why today I am issuing an executive order to repay our debts, turn away American investors and rid this country of its sick dependence on NATO’s teet,” Elena says in the premiere’s closing televised address. “It is time to show America and the world precisely what we are worth.”

Matthias Schoenaerts and Kate Winslet in The Regime. Miya Mizuno/HBO

When speaking to Winslet shortly ahead of the series’ launch, the Oscar-winning actress said it was easy to revert back to Elena’s cadence and distinctive way of speaking; she most notably droops her lip when vulnerable. “I can turn it on quite quick,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter. And she has even brought Elena home with her. “I quite like doing it actually, and sometimes my son is like, ‘Oh, mom. Please, not Elena. Ugh!’ Although interestingly, we just started a series of books at bedtime and the other day he did actually ask me to do one of the characters as Elena: a slightly scary schoolteacher.”

Winslet says that when she first read the script from creator Will Tracy (Succession, The Menu), she had never come across anything like it. She says the research — which was born out of Tracy’s personal interest in devouring books about autocracies, authoritarian leaders and totalitarian states — that he and the writers had done to make the series sharp, funny, quick and clever was all on the page.

“I’d never come across a character so unique, so unusual, so sort of unimaginable and dislikable,” she says. “And I just knew, I had to make this something else. This has got to be something I’ve never done before; I’ve got to really scare myself. I have to really challenge myself.”

She adds, “There was a lot of anxiety around how we were going to play this role.”

Winslet knew Elena couldn’t be a “shrill, shouty person,” she says, “that’s not interesting to me. It needed to feel that there is a veneer or exterior to her that should make you feel really uneasy, and shaky.”

She needed to break the character down and understand her backstory, one that was hinted at in the mausoleum conversation that Elena has with her deceased father in the first episode.

“When you look at her emotional and mental state, and how fragile she is and how much of a state of decline she’s in — she’s in this acute, heightened state of anxiety all of the time — that can’t be something that’s just happened to her. That clearly is something that she’s lived with for a long time, and probably tried to hide in varying degrees from her public, from her adoring followers: my people,” she says, slipping back into Elena for effect.

She continues, “She’s tried to keep it reigned in and hidden. But the sadness to me about Elena began probably as a child. She was raised by this obviously tyrannical, not very nice father; she had an absent mother. It’s all very cleverly built into those mausoleum scenes, where you really get the sense that this is a person, who had a pretty screwed up childhood, was exposed to trauma that has stayed with her.”

Once Winslet realized that key part of the character, she knew she had to develop a new voice for Elena. “There was no way she could sound measured. My own voice and resonance sounds evolved as a person, and grounded. I do know that about my own voice, it’s healthy,” she says. “She needed to sound very unhealthy and shaky. And that had to come from an emotional place. It couldn’t be something that was funny or being used for effect. It had to be grounded in reality.”

Winslet as Chancellor Elena. Miya Mizuno/HBO

What lies ahead is a six-episode story with a beginning, middle and end; the sort of arc that can be expected from a six-episode limited series starring someone of Winslet’s caliber — even if the ending prompts questions about if there could be more of The Regime.

When asked if she views the series as a finite one, she compares the question to one she still gets asked about regarding another HBO limited series, Mare of Easttown. (She also starred in the 2011 HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, which also nabbed her an Emmy.)

“This is one of those questions people always used to ask all the time with Mare, and there would be a million offshoot articles with what I had said,” she says of the 2021 limited series that won her a best actress Emmy. “All that I can say is I absolutely loved playing Elena. I absolutely loved it. I love doing television, I love working with HBO.”

She continues, “The great joy of television for an actor is that it’s a real indulgence, because you get so much more script. You get more story, you get more to play with. When you hold a film script, it’s maybe 100-125 pages thick — unless it’s written by Aaron Sorkin, in which it’s usually about 250 pages (laughs). But one episode of The Regime or Mare was 60 pages long. So, it’s 360 pages of just pure delight.”

Winslet says her TV work ends up being an immersive experience, which is what she was seeking coming out of the isolation of the pandemic. “You have these long shooting experiences where you all have to really get along,” she says of the cast and crew. “You have to find the right rhythm and work together, and properly listen to one another in order to include everyone’s voices. And, you can’t judge. You have to kind of roll with whatever people are bringing into the room each day, and I love that experience. I love sharing a space with actors, and with lots of them. And this really offered that. Coming back from COVID, that meant a lot to me. I missed it. I needed it. I craved that connection.”

For now, Winslet can offer a tangible update on the lingering status of a Mare season two, something that has been speculated about ever since it ended.

“At the moment, hand on heart, I have not had an active conversation with anyone at HBO about a possible season two for quite a while,” she says. THR confirmed there are not currently any plans for a second season, per a source. But, still, never say never?

“That doesn’t necessarily mean anything,” Winslet acknowledges. “But it does definitely mean I’m not lying. Like, it hasn’t come up.”

For now, Winslet will be wearing the mask of Elena, as The Regime continues to tell its story over the coming weeks. And she, unlike Winslet, is someone who cannot be taken at her word.

“You have to feel that you just don’t know what he’s going to do next,” she teases.

The Regime releases new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.