Best Actress: Kate Winslet's Moment

Intense, ambitious and only slightly panicked, Kate Winslet is the finest actress of her generation.

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Mario Anzuoni / Reuters / Corbis

Kate Winslet

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At 33, Winslet has become not only the finest actress of her generation but in many ways also the perfect actress for this moment. She's intense without being humorless. She's international in outlook (though raised in Reading, England, in a middle-class family of working actors, she now lives in New York City and won those Oscar nominations for playing three Americans, two Brits and a German). She's ambitious but cheerfully self-deflating, capable of glamour but also expressive of a kind of jolting common sense. She has a strong professional ethic, which she somehow balances with her domestic life (she and Mendes have a son, Joe, 5, and Winslet has a daughter, Mia, 8, from her first marriage--she takes both kids to school most days). And, cementing her status as an icon of the Era of New Seriousness, she really likes hard work. Assuming she's paid her taxes, are there still any openings in the Cabinet?

"I come from a long line of real cart horses," says Winslet the day after the lunch. "Very stoic, insides-made-of-iron people. So I can take any s___ you can fling at me. I can cope with any workload. I can deal with lack of sleep. I can multitask like you've no idea. But two weeks ago, I actually had a panic attack." She leans forward on a sofa in Mendes' production office in Manhattan's shabby-glam Meatpacking District and smiles. "My first one. I didn't know what it was! It was a little like when your water [breaks], and you think, Did I just pee a bit, or is this it? I called my sister and said, 'I can't breathe, and I feel like I've got a brick on my chest and I'm seeing funny, and it sounds like everyone's talking to me in Hebrew.' She said, 'Yeah, that's a panic attack.'"

That seems a reasonable reaction for someone who has spent the decade since the historic success of Titanic making sure she's an actress first and a celebrity only when useful; the YouTube universe, in which every utterance is rewound, scrutinized and parsed, is new to her. When she succumbed to some teary emotionalism at the Globes, the Times of London called her acceptance speech a "disaster" and warned direly that her exuberance was insensitive to the "darker, crueller" mood of an America in economic collapse. Try processing critiques like that while smiling warmly on camera as Oprah Winfrey tells you how much she approves of your implant-free breasts. You'd hyperventilate too--especially if, for the first time in memory, you don't have a job lined up. After a couple of years of high-pressure work, Winslet hasn't chosen her next role and says she's looking forward to spending some time at home in a steady routine. But, she adds, "I know how long it's going to be before I feel, O.K., I really have to know what I'm doing next, or I'll freak out! I know myself, and it's only a matter of time."

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