Wall Street Journal
September 16, 2015
In “The Dressmaker,” Kate Winslet plays Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage, a mysterious, fashionable femme fatale whose signature move is lighting a cigarette.
But the archetypes end there. Tilly has a complicated backstory. A dressmaker in Europe, she returns home to a remote Australian town called Dungatar to solve the great mystery of her past. As a young girl, Tilly was accused of killing a fellow classmate and abruptly sent away from her mother, Molly, by the townspeople. She finds herself now back in her childhood home with a bitter, ailing mother who struggles to even recognize Tilly.
The film, based on the novel written by Rosalie Ham, was adapted and directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse. Judy Davis, who plays Molly, and Hugo Weaving, who plays a dress-loving sergeant, co-star. Tilly’s new love interest, Teddy, is played by Liam Hemsworth. “We almost felt as though for Liam, this was like a breath of fresh air — he has come hot off the heels of a big ‘Hunger Games’ press tour and he was at home,” Winslet said in an interview. “He spent several weeks with us running around the Outback chasing emus and having the time of his life.”
“The Dressmaker” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, where Winslet talked with Speakeasy about the film. Winslet also stars in the new film, “Steve Jobs,” opening Oct. 9, as Joanna Hoffman, one of the original members of the Macintosh development team. Below, an edited transcript.
When Tilly returns to Dungatar, revenge is in her heart, but it’s also tender when she and her mother Molly begin finding their way toward each other again. Can you describe the balancing act of Tilly’s capacity to get revenge as well as to love?
It was quite a tricky balance to strike because for me, the story isn’t just revenge, of course. It is, as you have fantastically picked up and pointed out, very much a story about a mother and a daughter finding one another again and I think those scenes are really quite touching and moving as a result of that. So I had to remember that in playing this part and creating a person who is returning to somewhere that she hasn’t been for over 20 years — it can’t just be to seek revenge. In the book, there’s a lot of backstory about what has happened to Tilly in the time that she has been away. She herself loses a child [to death] and she also had a husband who couldn’t cope with that, and so her whole world really falls apart. To me, I was playing someone who’s actually coming home, or trying to come to what she wants and hopes is going to be home. But also, a lot has come up for her in this particular period in time and she is piecing together the puzzle of what did happen. I think the events have become distorted in her own mind over the years. I think she does believe she’s cursed. I think she does perhaps believe that she really did do this terrible deed — maybe she did kill that young boy, and she’s come home yes, for the answers, but possibly to set the record straight and subsequently, revenge.
The scenes between Tilly and her mother, Molly, are tinged with bitterness, love and regret. How did you and Judy Davis build that dynamic?
The relationship between Tilly and Molly was just so wonderfully constructed by Jocelyn, and Judy and I really discovered things in rehearsal that further tenderized that relationship. Molly has got some of those wonderful, crushing one-liners that bring you to the ground because they’re so funny, but the relationship couldn’t just be that. It couldn’t be about one quick back-and-forth and Molly ragging Tilly and giving her a hard time. At a certain point, the relationship does move into other territory as Molly’s memory does start to come back.
How did you tap into Tilly’s poise and elegance? Did you have specific images of her in mind?
In piecing her together, I really looked at what had happened in her life, and how she had led her life beyond being ostracized from that town and that she had been in Europe. I just had to make her different to the townfolk and the costumes played a key part in the playing of her because of course that’s who she is, that’s her being — creating clothes and outfits, even on herself. It was a real thrill working alongside Margot Wilson [the costume designer], who was brought on just to create Tilly’s outfits. I was very included — Margot would show me designs and ideas that she had for a particular look and we would really discuss it and work on it together. It was quite a unique experience, and very, very rare. Actually, that in and of itself really helped me in playing the role, because that is what Tilly did and would have done — spend that level of time creating clothes.
Tilly uses her creations to collect information about her past. In Hollywood, can couture gowns and dresses be used as currency too – for information, for access, for coveted roles?
Not to my knowledge [laughs]. But I do also think, as Tilly says, “watch and learn, Gert” and a gown can change everything. Look at Elizabeth Hurley — I mean literally none of us knew who Elizabeth Hurley was until she wore that Versace dress with the safety pins all up the sides. I mean look at honestly what happened. But I can only think of a handful of moments like that one where a dress has been so impactful that it’s actually altered someone’s career path.