Mildred Pierce - Kate Winslet and Guy Pearce
Mildred Pierce (Kate Winslet) and Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce) © 2011 HBO

Six-time Academy Award nominee and 2009 Oscar winner for her starring role in The Reader, Kate Winslet now ventures into the world of television for her new miniseries Mildred Pierce, based on James M Cain’s classic 1941 novel.

The five-part drama spotlights a very independent woman who finds herself newly divorced during the Depression era, as she struggles to carve out a new life for herself and her family, including her unreasonable devotion to her insatiable daughter, Veda (Evan Rachel Wood)

Kate Winslet spoke with the members of the TV Critics Association via satellite from Paris about her first TV miniseries.

Did you watch the original version of Mildred Pierce with Joan Crawford?

Mildred Pierce - Kate Winslet
Mildred Pierce (Kate Winslet) © 2011 HBO

(she shakes her head) Todd said to me, ‘How do you feel? Do you want to see it?’ I hadn’t seen it, and I really wasn’t sure. I didn’t know what to do. When you’re playing Mildred Pierce and you know that someone who is utterly extraordinary has played the role before, it’s a really fine line. But Todd said to me, ‘If you want to see it, that’s completely your choice, and you should know that the film is very different to the novel, and it’s very different to what we’re going to do.’

So I saw the first five minutes of the movie, and then I thought, ‘You know what? I actually shouldn’t watch this, because I [won’t be] able to unsee it.’ I knew that I had to honor the book. I had to be very true to the Mildred Pierce that is in that brilliant novel, she meant something different to me within the context of the way that Todd had scripted this.

I could feel almost immediately watching Joan Crawford’s brilliant performance that what I was working towards with Todd was just something different. Not cleverer, not better, just different. It was simply a different character and I knew I had to hang on to my instincts about who she meant to us.

When we see movies about this era, we somehow expect a bigger, almost operatic style of acting. Is any of that reflected here? Are the emotions larger than usual?

I think it was never a conscious choice to not make any of the emotions bigger essentially. We didn’t all sit around a table and have a conversation about making it contemporary and modern. I think that for us, certainly the actors, the priority was really just to capture the horrible honesty that does appear at certain moments in this story.

They’re very real people experiencing very real emotions. And the most important thing for us, in terms of the ones who were conveying this story, was to simply be as pure and as honest as possible and as true to the book as possible as well, because it is such a spectacular piece of writing.

In the book, Mildred is so in love with her daughter and is so desperate for her approval. What was it like playing that desperation?

I think one of the things that really fascinated me the most when I read the script was this unbelievably intense relationship between Mildred and Veda, which is based on just pure love and adoration for this child. But it does teeter on the brink of obsession without question.

Every mother-daughter relationship is complex and complicated for its own different set of reasons, but this one, it was just something else because Mildred was in a position constantly where she didn’t know whether to love [Veda] or kill her, and it was almost as though the amount that she did love her was suffocating her all the more.

I think Mildred’s need for approval is something that every mother does feel from their child, whether it’s a daughter or a son. And with Veda being this determined, defiant creature that was so out of Mildred’s grasp, and the admiration that Mildred has for her and also the desire that Mildred could maybe have been that person.

In what way?

Mildred Pierce - Kate Winslet
Mildred Pierce (Kate Winslet) © 2011 HBO

I think that in Veda, Mildred saw her own disappointments. Like little pieces of Mildred kept dying every time she saw how brilliant, wonderful and rich Veda was, and how much more extraordinary her life could become. And all she could do was love it, encourage it, support it, and want to be a part of it so desperately. It’s just crushing.

But on many levels, they’re extremely normal, maternal responses to any child, but they do get very twisted and disturbing as the story goes along, and it was utterly compelling to me because I can see how that can happen to any parent.

You don’t normally do television, were you worried about working in TV?

Beyond the moment of actually receiving the five scripts [of the miniseries], it just didn’t occur to me, ‘Wow, this is television; therefore, it’s going to be different somehow.’ There was nothing ‘mini’ about it. This was so much harder, I think, than every film project I’ve done since Titanic.

It was like doing two and a half films in 16 weeks. It was very challenging, but collaborative and rewarding at the same time, thanks to a remarkable cast and a wonderful, highly skilled crew.

We did have to work in a different way. We had more to shoot, and we had to work a lot faster, but the determination and the level of focus that we all had to have, because we were limited, was so much more intense than certainly any film I’ve been a part of. Television is so much harder than film!

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.