Of all the characters Kate Winslet has played, Mare of Easttown – a troubled, traumatised, touchy detective in a grimy small town outside Philadelphia – has been the hardest to let go. Even now, with the seven-part television series ready to roll, she can hardly bear to speak of the fictional Mare Sheahan’s grief for her dead son; during the shoot, which lasted on and off for 15 months thanks to COVID-19, this complicated, stony-faced heroine became her full-time alter ego.
“I’ve given up trying to keep life and work separate because they always merge; they just do,” she says. “Everything crashed into everything else. For Mare, it was better, but there were days when it would just feel messy and terrible to be her.” Winslet’s husband, Edward Abel Smith, would venture to suggest a family brunch on her day off. “And I’d be like ‘Are you high? On Monday I’ve got this seven-page thing with the therapist and you have to test me on the lines! I can’t just go out and have a happy brunch!’ I was honestly awful. My husband is a saint.”
Kate Winslet in Mare of Easttown.Credit:HBO
Winslet says she knew she wanted to play the lead in Mare of Easttown as soon as she read Brad Ingelsby’s script. “She’s a life force, but she’s also quietly dying inside. I’d never come across that juxtaposition of things before, and she just seemed so real.” She also took up the reins as executive producer, which meant she was involved in re-writes and casting; she was thus able to ask her old sparring partner Guy Pearce to play the man who comes closest to cracking Mare’s tough shell.
In the 2011 adaptation of the melodrama Mildred Pierce, he played the louche rake who ignites Mildred’s dormant passions. He said at the time that he and his then-wife had a running joke that he was off to work to have more sex with Kate Winslet. In the new series he is courting Winslet once again, this time as a visiting creative writing teacher at the college at the leafy end of the town where Mare turns up corpses. “Richard Ryan comes into this woman’s life to offer her a slightly different perspective,” says Pearce. “She gets a sense that nobody else respects her the way he does, nobody else sees that she is worthy of love the way he does.”
They’re mates in real life, he says. They have to be: they share a birthday. “That connects you with someone on a level you can’t get away from. And she was a fan of Neighbours when she was 11, so there’s that connection as well.”
Pearce was only 18; lonely Mike Young was his first role. “She likes to sing the Neighbours theme to me quite regularly. That does get old but you think, ‘Well, if anyone is going to sing that at me, it’s fine that it’s you!’ We have a great rapport, and we all know what kind of outstanding actor she is, so any opportunity to work with her, I’m going to put my hand up.”
Winslet, left, and Guy Pearce go way back.Credit:HBO
Although there is a sense Ryan is always hovering in the background, Pearce says he was only on set for a week. Somehow, he seems to have missed Winslet’s emotional travails with Mare, possibly because they spent most of their time cooking – Winslet in charge, Pearce as the galley slave with a self-declared talent for kitchen organisation – when they weren’t talking about parenting young children.
“She’s all about family. You never have a conversation with Kate about the film industry. I have a little boy now [Monte, with girlfriend Carice van Houten], who is four and a half. Last time we worked, I didn’t have kids, so she was really excited to kind of get in my ear just about the intricacies of parenting. So that was wonderful, really, really wonderful.”
That concern with family also meshed with the story. Mare is caring for her grandchild. Her own mother has moved in to help, while also clearly irritating Mare past endurance. Her former husband and his fiancee have bought the house right behind hers, their togetherness a perpetual mockery of her own life. The intervening generation between Mare and her little grandson is conspicuous by its absence.
Kate Winslet says she was very affected by her character, Mare, over the course of filming the series.Credit:HBO
The series director Craig Zobel says that he liked the fact that the story looked like a murder mystery but was really about the way different people carried trauma. Winslet developed and worked the character in ways that changed the way he saw even the basic story. “Kate saw her as a person who couldn’t be bothered, really. And she had such a specific take on that culture and that region.”
‘She’s a life force, but she’s also quietly dying inside. I’d never come across that juxtaposition of things before, and she just seemed so real.’
The region is crucial: much of the series was shot on location. Ingelsby grew up in Chester, Pennsylvania; his wife comes from a town 15 kilometres away called Aston, which together became the template for Easttown. These are not the kinds of places you normally see on television. Small towns, neither suburban nor rural but something in between; places that used to have manufacturing industries; places where Trump voters live. Pennsylvania was one of the last states to ratify the vote in the presidential election, Zobel points out. “We were constantly wondering what characters voted what way, but I was very adamant that this was not the story we were telling.”
That’s right, says Ingelsby; it’s simple but wrong to wipe these people off as white trash.
“They are intelligent, they care about each other, they care about the community,” he says. “There is this thing: these are the crazy Trump supporters, which when I go home is actually not the case at all. My wife’s dad worked on the railroads, he’s a union guy, he voted for Biden. There’s a lack of awareness about these communities, what’s going on and what these people are really like.” For him, their lives are heroic. “I think there is a heroism in getting up every day, a sense of duty, going to work and doing a job maybe you don’t love, but you do it.”
As she gets older, says Winslet, she is increasingly determined to show people as they are, as opposed to the contrived perfection of women’s lives and facial contours on social media. “I’m much more focused on playing characters that honour real levels of truth. Not just emotions, but how they look. We could have done the TV version of this character, we could have made her hair barrel-girl perfect every day. But I didn’t believe for one second she would have the time or care about looking in the mirror. I don’t look in the mirror very often in my own life, believe me. I have other things to do.”
Mare of Easttown premieres on Binge on Monday, April 19.
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