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There's a way that attractive women enter men's magazine articles. They glide in on a cloud of gossamer silks, ambrosial perfume and peachy loveliness, causing waiters to drop their drinks trays, old ladies to lower their sunglasses and birds to fall out of their trees. Their beauty is so staggering that the writer fumbles to find the "record" button on his – and let's face it, it's a his – Dictaphone, while the female in question gives a delighted laugh like the peal of celestial church bells. Kate Winslet doesn't do that. Kate Winslet turns up at a café near her home on the English south coast with her husband and two of her three children, one of whom is strapped to her back. She's wearing jeans, a fleece, walking boots, and is chatting to the owner of the café, who really wants her to come and have a look at the refurb job he's just done in the toilets.

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"Ooh, lovely," says Winslet, once she's been in to inspect them. Her son Joe, 11, slumps on the sofa, while her husband Ned Rocknroll – whose surname you can find an explanation for elsewhere – buys coffee before briefing her on the latest potty-based activities of 18-month-old Bear. The reports of the latter elicit significantly more convincing enthusiasm in his wife than the new floor in the bogs. Because Kate Winslet, even though she's one of our greatest international exports, and has been working as much, if not more, than ever in an acting career that began over two decades ago, has a real life too.

This month, Winslet turns 40. In some ways it's a surprise that she's not older. Not because she looks it. She looks like what she is: a healthy, happy, 39-year-old woman with cupidinous lips, a Baroque beauty spot on her right cheek, expressive brows and soulful eyes with just the hint of crow's feet. A woman who's had three children and three husbands: director Jim Threapleton, with whom she had 14-year-old Mia; Sam Mendes, father of Joe, who directed her in Revolutionary Road and with whom she lived in New York for nine years; and Ned, Bear's dad, a former marketing executive at his uncle Richard Branson's company Virgin Galactic, whom she married in 2012 and to whom she remains happily so. A woman, in short, who is comfortable in her politely sun-weathered skin. It's a surprise she's not older because she's had such a long, distinguished career, and has been such a constant presence; a beacon of British quality in a sea of silicon Hollywood silliness. Really, it's a wonder she's not turning 60.

Winslet's real life began on 5 October, 1975, in Reading, the second of four children born to actors who worked other jobs to make ends meet. But her public life started, as far as most us are concerned, when she was 17 and cast in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures (1994) as a giddy, Sapphic murderess, a performance that earned critical oohs and sighs and forced the wider world to take note. Since then, her career has taken in, among many, many other projects: Kenneth Branagh's film adaptation of Hamlet (1996), in which she took the role of the hapless Ophelia; Michel Gondry's eccentric comedy Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), where she surprised everyone as Jim Carrey's blue-haired ex-love; Stephen Daldry's moving drama The Reader (2008), in which she played a former Nazi camp guard, who starts a relationship with a 15-year-old boy and for which she won an Oscar, her sole win despite receiving a record five nominations by the time she was 31; and Mildred Pierce, the sumptuous 2011 HBO TV series, in which she played the titular beleaguered divorcée and for which she won an Emmy. Oh, and she also starred with Leonardo DiCaprio in what was, for over a decade, the most globally successful film ever made.

After Ned has taken the children home, and Winslet has jumped gamely into the passenger seat of my wheezing Vauxhall Corsa (before I have time to check my insurance covers me for "conveyance of A-list actors"), we drive to a nearby stretch of sand to borrow a beach hut owned by a family friend. She unbolts the doors and bangs around in the cupboard for something to eat, unearthing some hot chocolate granules in a tin. "Maybe they've gone off," she says, only after having necked a large handful. Then, stretching out on the porch of the beach hut, looking out at the sea, she explains where she's at.

You can expect to see a lot of Winslet in the next few months. There's The Dressmaker out in November, a blackly comic drama, in which she plays a young Australian woman who returns to the tiny town – and mother – who made her childhood a misery. There's Steve Jobs, out the same month, directed by Danny Boyle from a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin. She plays Joanna Hoffman, the Polish-Armenian former head of marketing at Macintosh and one of the few women who had the ear of the founder, played by Michael Fassbender, with a supporting cast that includes Seth Rogen and Jeff Daniels. And then there's director John Hillcoat's Triple Nine, due next spring, in which she takes the role of, as she describes it, "a really demonic Russian-Israeli mafia moll". For someone who has a reputation as a quintessential English rose, Winslet has an impressive track record of playing anything but.

And it turns out that during her more than two decades in the film industry, and her four decades on the planet, Winslet has had some thoughts. About acting, about family, about money, about fame, about love, about fun and about the ice-breaking effect of a well-timed rollie. Below, she shares a few things – 40 in fact – that she's learned in her 40 years, which she imparted over the course of a couple of sunny hours, before jumping back into my rickety car for a lift up the road to the grand-but-not-too-grand house she now calls home. After all, it was time for Bear's lunch. Because Kate Winslet leaves a men's magazine article as unfussily as she enters one, even if the Vauxhall Corsa is still a little breathless.
 

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ALSO IN THIS ISSUE:

The First Cut: Kill Your Friends author John Niven takes on Hollywood
Knit Your Own Lifestyle: Richard Benson on the craft cult
Plus 50 things no man should be without this autumn
***
 

I love my hands. They're getting on a bit, my hands, and I like the veins and the way the skin on the top looks a bit thinner. I know these hands have loved and lost, these hands have worked, they've touched a million people and places and they've gone through everything with me. I can see my life more on my hands than I can on my face.

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I was going to say my bum, because I think it's important to say my bum. Because really, I'm Kate Winslet, and I should be saying my bum.

I have no idea what Winslet means, but I have a huge attachment to my name. I feel like I come from a long line of survivors and carthorses. I love being a Winslet, I really do.

I'm very aware of wanting to feel physically strong and well, and that's probably a part of me going, "OK, you're 40, don't let it all go completely to shit, Kate." But when you've had three children, you have to work that little bit harder to keep it all together. I've never been one of those people who can just get away with murder.

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I didn't really enjoy school. I was out in the world, and then suddenly I'd finish an acting job and go, "Oh God, I've got to go back to school?" In my head and heart, I was really gone by the age of 15. It wasn't normal, and I was aware that it wasn't normal.

I was head girl two years running. I wasn't a goody two-shoes, but I wasn't scatty or floaty or all over the place. I was with it.

I skipped the teenage thing of being a bit outrageous and naughty, getting drunk and falling asleep in the middle of the road. I was working. I didn't sneakily sniff glue or take drugs. I wasn't found shagging behind the bike sheds.

I don't want to have to say Titanic was the film that had the biggest impact on the direction of my career, but I suppose I do. What it really afforded me was career choice.

The story about me sending a single rose to James Cameron is not entirely true. I did send him a bunch of flowers saying, "Amazing to meet you, thanks for the opportunity", or something like that. But I don't think I said, "'I am your Rose.'" I wouldn't have been quite so disgusting.

People think that I got financially successful just on the back of Titanic. That's a huge misconception. I was 19. No one knew who the fuck I was.

Leo is my closest actor friend. We don't necessarily talk all the time or anything, but really, he is.

Having a teenage daughter reminds me of those years in my own life, and how long those years go on for. Just that feeling of being misunderstood, knowing that you're a decent person, and having someone suggest you might not be. I remember my early days of tabloid stuff and thinking, "Hang on, are these people suggesting that I've done something wrong?" God, I would not go back.

The only thing I'm on time for is work. When I'm late, I'm horrifically late. Ned is the absolute opposite. He's always bang on time. He's just had to learn how to deal with my lateness.

I'm not remotely against people going into space, but I don't want to go there. Nope. I'm quite happy down here. Being in an aeroplane is challenging enough.

When I did Eternal Sunshine, lots of people said to me, "Oh, it must be so nice to get out of the corset." I didn't really feel like I was stuck in one. I've always felt very happy and fulfilled.

That film threw me into a completely different marketplace. It was such an outrageous role to play, working with such an incredibly unique director as Michel Gondry, written by Charlie Kaufman, who was right at the height of Being John Malkovich and was absolutely the screenwriter of that particular time. It was also the film that took me to the States and left me there.

I love being at home. There's nothing like England in the summer. Everybody goes gallivanting off to Tuscany and the South of France, but we like being here.

My family is a little nomadic tribe. You twist yourself into a pretzel to make things work and make it OK for everybody, but as long as you stick together as much as possible, it's all great.

There are things we miss about New York. Mia and Joe, they'll catch the smell of muffins or coffee and go, "Ah, I miss New York." Every now and then. Smell and memory are so connected, especially for children.

I hate talking about money. It has been a really great thing for every member of my family that this has happened to me, so in that regard it has been important, but I'm not a materialistic person. If I didn't have it, I'd absolutely know how to live, because that's how I learned.

As kids we knew how to have fun with nothing. And with that, hand in hand, came an absolute love of the outdoors. You can go for a walk for free. You can go and throw yourself in a river for free. If you're lucky you might get a packet of crisps at the pub on the way home.

I like being high up. I like climbing mountains. I recently did a Bear Grylls thing in Snowdonia. I don't know if he was necessarily impressed, but I think he was probably surprised at how comfortable I was with everything he threw at me.

On Steve Jobs, we worked some ridiculous hours. We filmed in the opera house in the centre of San Francisco, which is a functioning opera house, so we'd start at midnight and film until midday. That's pretty gross. I remember saying out loud, "God, I'm so knackered." And the props woman, who I knew from a couple of other jobs, said, "Honey, we're here for a lot longer than you are. Shut the fuck up." And I went, "Oh my God, you're so right."

You get yourself so good at losing. I really hoped that I might win the Oscar that year [2009, for The Reader], and I bloody did. I remember absolutely all of it. I should, of course, say the birth of my children, so let's just say that I've said that, but it was the most glorious, fist-pumping, high-five, triumphant, all-consuming moment of my entire life. It was fucking amazing. It's the biggest prize going, I won it, and it felt incredible. I'm not going to down-
play it one bit.

I don't smoke any more. That was my "cool" thing that stopped people from thinking I was a stiff-upper-lipped Brit. I was the bad girl who busted out the rollies, you know? It was great in a read-through: you'd start day one of rehearsals, a room full of terrified actors, and I'd pull out the rollies and everybody would visibly sink in their seats and go, "Oh, thank God she's normal."

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People are still surprised when I'm foul-mouthed and very much not the polite English rosey type that they really do believe I am. Which is so strange.

Life's too short to have a fucking ego. With Steve Jobs, I went after that role. I googled Joanna [Hoffman] and took one look at her and thought, "Of course they're not thinking of me; I looking fucking nothing like her." She's five foot nothing, she's got short, scruffy hair. I turned to Ned and I said, "Those fuckers, they just aren't being very imaginative." I took all the make-up off my face, plonked on a wig and a pair of glasses, took one photo, and sent it to [producer] Scott Rudin, who I know from The Reader and Revolutionary Road, with no message. I had nothing to lose. What were they going to do? Say, "Thanks very much Kate, really sweet of you, but actually, no"? Doesn't matter. Life's for living.

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People often see me as the voluptuous blonde, and it's easy; a year or two can go by and I've played one too many blonde roles and they forget that I can play a scrappy Polish-Armenian.

Seth Rogen almost has comedy Tourette's, because he doesn't realise how funny he is. He can turn a very simple story about walking down the street and getting a piece of rubbish stuck to his shoe into a half-hour gigglefest. There's nothing like the company of great actors; there really, really isn't.

Flapping, flustering, assistants running around: I don't like that stuff. I really admire other actors when I see that they go solo, because it isn't necessary to have all that malarkey.

There were 182 pages of dialogue in Steve Jobs, and Michael [Fassbender] was on every single page. I'd say to him, "Do you want to meet up and run scenes after rehearsal?" and he'd say, "It's OK, I've got my thing going." I'd worry about him rattling around in a flat on his own, thrashing about with those 182 pages, but he was happiest that way, and it made me realise that actually, so am I. It's a funny old thing, acting: you can't really share it.

I've noticed the roles that are coming my way are markedly different to the roles that were coming my way 20 years ago, but that's only because I'm older. I wouldn't have been offered Joanna Hoffman 20 years ago; I wouldn't have been offered Clementine Kruczynski [in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind] now. When I'm asked about the shortage of roles for women, I almost can't bring myself to answer it because I'm so flipping lucky. The truth is, things are still coming my way.

Audiences don't always have to like you. I felt as though Irene in Triple Nine was my first true baddie. When you're standing over the boot of a car, and inside are two people whose fingertips have just been cut off and all their teeth have been pulled out because you said someone should do that, that's something new for me.

The wisest person I know is a good friend of mine who happens to be a magician. Her name is Belinda Sinclair. She said to me, "Make it easy." Not take it easy. Make it easy. That's pretty wise. And she can pull a flipping tulip out of an ace of hearts and then set it on fire.

One still goes to Waitrose. Friends of mine are like, "Kate, why would you ever do that? Ocado!" I need to see everything. I can't be ordering it online.

Everything was burned in the fire. [Winslet and her family were caught in a devastating fire while staying on Richard Branson's Necker Island in 2011.] Everything that we happened to have on holiday. Mia was upset about her favourite flip-flops, and Joe was upset about a baseball cap, but for other people who were there, who live there, everything was really truly burned. When you go through something like that, it's a short sharp injection of: it doesn't matter, it's just stuff.

I have a recurring dream about pulling my bottom teeth back with my top teeth to the point that I nearly pull them all out. Apparently, teeth dreams are something to do with sexual frustration, but I can't honestly tell you that I think it has anything to do with that.

I wish this wasn't the answer, because I feel it's a bit of a cliché, but really, truly I think I'm at my happiest now. Though I'm sure if you trawl through interviews in my twenties, when I didn't have a clue who I was, I probably said exactly the same thing.

It's all about staying in the game. Not playing the game, because to me it isn't about playing the game, it's about staying in it. Staying in it, and earning the right to be there. I've been doing this for 23 years. My career has been pretty bloody consistent, and I'm very aware of how unusual that is.

"You know, you'll probably get cast as the fat big sister." I daren't say who said it, but it was when I was younger, and it was no one of note. I remember thinking, "Oh really? We'll see about that." 

The Dressmaker is out on 20 November; Steve Jobs is the closing night gala of the London Film Festival, on 18 October, and on full release 13 November; Triple Nine is out next year.

Also in this issue:

  • The First Cut: Kill Your Friends author John Niven takes on Hollywood
  • Knit Your Own Lifestyle: Richard Benson on the craft cult
  • Plus 50 things no man should be without this autumn

Out in newsagents now, or subscribe to Esquire online.

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