I exited Kate Winslet and Liam Hemsworth's new movie, The Dressmaker, feeling simultaneously traumatized and charmed. Directed and adapted by Jocelyn Moorhouse from Rosalie Ham's best-selling novel of the same name, it's Australian cinema at its strangest, most surprising, and, occasionally, most depressing. The film defies traditional (read: safe) cinematic tropes, and thus, categorization: Variety deemed it a “quirky comedy-thriller-mystery-horror-revenge saga”; Moorhouse called it “Unforgiven with a sewing machine”; if pressed, I'd have to go with “tragicamp revenge dramedy.”
The Dressmaker's basic plot is deceptively simple: Winslet plays Tilly Dunnage, a glam 1950s couturier who heads back to her dingy Australian hometown to solve a dark mystery from her childhood that resulted in her banishment. But Tilly's also looking to reconnect with her wild-eyed mom, known to the people of Dungatar as Mad Molly (the inimitable Judy Davis), who purposefully forgot about her daughter after she was sent away because the pain was too sharp. In the midst of all of this, Tilly finds the time to design dramatic gowns for her desert-dwelling peers while exacting slow but sweet revenge on them (here's where the whole thing starts to get vaguely, but delightfully, deranged). Oh, and she also carves out a few days to fall madly in love with Teddy (Liam Hemsworth), a sweet and unspeakably toned townie.
To reveal any more would constitute spoilers, but suffice it to say that when I caught up with Winslet and Hemsworth at the Crosby Street Hotel after watching the film, I felt the need to immediately unload my roiling emotions onto them. Both in punch-drunk spirits despite (or perhaps because of) a deluge of press, they proceeded to comfort me, then spend at least half of our interview swearing and laughing as they gleefully argued with one another.
I have to tell you guys how depressed I was by this movie.
Kate Winslet: [Laughs loudly.] That's not good.
It's just that for what was ostensibly a dark comedy, I had no idea it would have such genuinely sad moments. Nobody warned me!
Liam Hemsworth: Yeah, it's a heartbreaker.
Winslet: That's good that nobody warned you! It's supposed to be surprising.
Were you both surprised by the turn the script took?
Winslet: I was, actually. I remember thinking, Oh, fuck. [Moorhouse] is gonna keep that bit in? Oh my god. How is the audience gonna be able to handle this much pain?
Hemsworth: I was kind of glad, in a way. Toward the end, I was like, “How do you wrap this up with [Tilly and Teddy's] relationship? They just say ‘I love you’ and go off and everything's happy?” That'd be the obvious, boring way to do it.
Winslet: You know what? It would. It would be the obvious, boring way to do it.
I thought the movie was going to end a solid half-hour before it did. I couldn't believe the actual end. It was Titanic-esque in its tragedy.
Winslet: [Laughs.] I know! You really are like, “No, no, they have not just done this to us.”
Hemsworth: Is it weird to almost cry when you watch yourself? [laughs] I was watching it, like, “Ugh, he's such a good guy, though.”
Have your own performances ever brought you to tears, watching them back?
Hemsworth: No, but I've been close.
Winslet: No, not really. I'm often moved by the circumstances around some of my characters, but I don't think I've actually cried watching myself.
Hemsworth: I more felt bad about the scene with Teddy's mother. I'd think about my own mom in that situation.
Winslet: That was a really hard scene to shoot, I'd say. Genevieve Lemon, who plays Teddy's mom, is such a brilliant actress. She has really very few scenes in the film, but in every single one, she's so poignant and present. We were extremely lucky with this film to have actors like that — very accomplished actors prepared to come in and play relatively small roles and be amazing. And that's what I think made the experience so special, to be surrounded by such brilliant actors with heaps of experience, and all to be part of the same team. It's lovely when that happens.
I want to hear about the first time you met. What were your first impressions of each other?
Winslet: We met in that hotel, didn't we? That strange hotel. Do you remember that? You'd really just arrived after doing your press [for another film], and we met before we shot that first scene. Do you remember?
Hemsworth: I thought I met you on set.
Winslet: No, we met the night before.
Winslet: Yeah. Remember, we had that strange sitting-around-the-table thing with Jocelyn? That weird room?
Hemsworth: Oh, like, out in ...?
Winslet: Yeah, out in the middle of nowhere.
Hemsworth: That was a couple weeks in, wasn't it? It was! Because the first day was before we went out to that place.
Winslet: No, it wasn't.
Hemsworth: It was!
Winslet: No, it wasn't.
Hemsworth: It 100 percent was.
Winslet: It fucking wasn't!
Hemsworth: It fucking was.
Winslet: No! Because ... no.
Hemsworth: Yes. I remember coming in, and you were shooting the scene where you're yelling at the teacher, right before I pin you up against the wall. I remember watching it on the monitors. And somebody was like, “Come and meet Kate.” And I came around the side, and I was like, “Kate, hi, nice to meet you.”
Winslet: Are you sure?
Hemsworth: 100 percent.
Winslet: We met the night before.
It seems you may never know.
Winslet: We'll ask Jocelyn.
Hemsworth: Ask Jocelyn. Because that place we went to was a couple weeks into shooting. Where we went and stayed out in ... wherever that was.
Winslet: No! That was different. You're thinking of when we did the rugby scenes.
Hemsworth: No, no, no. Not Horsham. Horsham was the very last week we shot together. In the middle we shot out near ... what's it called? God, I can't remember. That big, weird, creepy hotel.
Winslet: We didn't start in the studio, though. No. We started —
Hemsworth: No! We started in that other little weird town [laughs]. There's three or four weird towns that we shot in ... just outside of Melbourne, just over the bridge. I can't remember any of these places’ names.
Winslet: I can't either.
Hemsworth: But that was the first day. I hadn't met you. We'd only spoken on the phone. And then —
Winslet: Where Dungatar was, where we shot that first horrible scene, that was an hour from Melbourne. I know it was because I was in the car for an hour every morning. I had stayed out there, because I had three straight days [of filming], I remember. And I stayed out there, in the funny hotel, where I met you the night before we shot that scene [laughs]. I'm sure of it. Anyway. Moving on!
Honestly, I could watch this for 15 minutes.
Winslet: [Laughs.] Shit! We're gonna have to ask Jocelyn.
Hemsworth: Yeah, do you reckon?
Each scene you have together is pretty intimate. How did you get past that initial awkwardness — when and how did you bond?
Winslet: Straight away we were all right, weren't we?
Hemsworth: Yeah, instantly.
Winslet: There's something quite different about an actor coming in the middle of the shoot. We had Liam for three weeks. I was in every scene, so I was there for the whole shoot, and Liam was doing press stuff right before coming. Everyone was just so excited that we were gonna be doing the Teddy scenes, and that Liam was coming. It was very much, “Ah, brilliant! New energy, new chapter in the story.” We were all so happy to have him, to tell that bit of the tale.
Hemsworth: You're right. I think we're both sort of easy people to be around. And she was very welcoming and made me feel a lot more at ease. I was a little nervous coming in, because we'd only spoken on the phone ... or maybe possibly met the night before at the hotel [laughs].
Winslet: But also, it's difficult — I've been the actor who's just come in for three weeks, and you're like, “Oh, shit, everyone knows each other.” So I knew it was part of my job to make sure he didn't feel like that. It could take ages to get over that feeling alone: “Oh, fuck, everyone's looking at me.” So I didn't want Liam to feel like that, because it's a waste of time, really.
Kate, you described this movie as “risky” in another interview. Why?
Winslet: Because it does things that you don't expect it to do. You know? For some audiences, that might not be necessarily what you want to go and see in a film. For me, that's what I love in a film. And the majority of people I know actually love something that will punch them in the gut and surprise them. When you're telling a story, I think you should tell it to its fullest, with reckless abandon, and absolutely let it be what it is. That's the book. That's what happens in the book. Jocelyn was right to keep it that way, even though, as we were saying before, quite a few of us were like, “Wow, she's really gonna keep that in?” But I admire her for doing that. That's real filmmaking; that's real storytelling.
I love that this film upsets two gender-based Hollywood tropes at once: Kate, you're older than your love interest, and he's the one who's sort of sexualized, not you. Was that aspect of the story important to you?
Winslet: It's so funny, because all I could think to myself was, “Lucky Liam!”
That's how I felt! And Liam, it's a rare film that objectifies a dude, and you're walking around shirtless more than once here.
Hemsworth: I am, yeah.
Winslet: You know what's the other thing, too? This has come up a lot, and I'm like, “For fuck's sake, what's the fucking big deal?” It didn't even occur to me. Quite honestly, I really mean this, I actually don't even know how old you are, Liam. Because I didn't even think about it. Because the characters are supposed to be close in age. So to me it was just, “OK, we're playing close in age.” Honestly. I genuinely don't know how old he is. How old are you?
Hemsworth: 26 ... and a half.
Winslet: Are you really? When are you 27?
Winslet: Excellent! I'm 41 in October.
Hemsworth: Perfect. We're perfect ages for each other [laughs].
There's one very memorable scene where Tilly is measuring a half-naked Teddy for a suit while Judy Davis stands by issuing these hilarious barbs —
Winslet: We spent most of shooting that scene talking about the questions the press would ask us when we came to do the press for the film. And actually impersonating every journalist asking exactly that question [adopts an American accent]: “So, tell me about that scene ...”
Shit, so I'm being predictable.
Winslet: You are, I'm afraid [laughs].
Hemsworth: You know, it was awkward for me. Because I'm in my underwear, but, uh —
Winslet: You didn't have to get your willy out! It's not a big deal.
Hemsworth: I didn't have to get my willy out, no. You've been fully naked in films.
Winslet: Fuck, yeah! Half-dressed is nothing. Sometimes I almost think it's worse to just wear, like, a little bit of clothes. It's better to just take the whole flipping load off.
Hemsworth: “Here it is, here it is. Now you've seen it.” It was fun. Judy and Kate were having a great time.
Winslet: It's a funny scene. It's meant to be funny.
Hemsworth: It was, it was.
Winslet: And we did find it funny. On the day [of shooting], Judy and I came up with this moment where the two women are arguing across the table, and in the background, of course unbeknownst to us — which is how we ended up playing it — Liam is taking all his clothes off. So that moment when he goes, “OK,” and then we both turn and look at him, and then look back at each other — Judy and I came up with that idea. I was like, “Oh, we'll look at him, and look back!” And as we discovered that it was funny [starts to yell], WE FOUND IT REALLY FUNNY, which meant that we couldn't stop laughing every time we did it!
Hemsworth: Yeah, I'd just stand there and smirk until they finished laughing and we could go on with the scene [laughs].
Winslet: In a way, maybe that was even helpful. These two giggling old hags in the corner of the room. I mean, it's really unprofessional. And the other thing that Judy had to do as well, she had to have a limp playing Molly, and Molly limping to me was quite funny. Molly limping fast is about the funniest thing I've ever seen in my life. So she had to limp out of that shot where the two of us are staring at Liam, and I'd start laughing all over again. Right at the end of that take, you can see me. I'm on the edge. I am on the fucking edge. Terrible behavior.