[Only IN Hollywood] She sings, loves paintings of herself, and flees a palace – sound familiar?

Ruben V. Nepales

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[Only IN Hollywood] She sings, loves paintings of herself, and flees a palace – sound familiar?

ELENA. Kate Winslet as Elena in 'The Regime.'


In HBO's 'The Regime,' Kate Winslet's Elena, a la Imelda, loves to sing, especially to charm visiting dignitaries

LOS ANGELES, USA – Kate Winslet’s scenes in her limited series, The Regime, reminded me of former First Lady Imelda Marcos visiting the refrigerated crypt of her husband, ex-Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos, where his corpse lay in a glass coffin.

Like Imelda, Kate’s chancellor character, Elena Vernham, had her father’s body kept in a glass casket. Since the corpse is that of Elena’s father, she does not purse her lips and plant a kiss on the crystal coffin as Imelda did. Instead, the autocrat of this fictitious nation talks to her embalmed father.

Adult, Female, Person
HERE LIES LOVE. This glass coffin scene feels very Imeldific. HBO

In the HBO miniseries directed by Stephen Frears and Jessica Hobbs, Elena, a la Imelda, loves to sing, especially to charm visiting dignitaries. And in the palace from where she rules, Kate’s version of the Iron or Steel Butterfly has portrait paintings of herself.

Those are the Imeldific aspects of The Regime, which tells, in six episodes, the story of a contemporary authoritarian regime led by Elena, isolated in the palace and surrounded by yes men, who has grown paranoid and delusional.

Things drastically change when a volatile soldier, Herbert Zubak (Matthias Schoenaerts) arrives, or shall I say, is forced to arrive at the palace.

The handsome corporal and the glamorous despot form a surprising alliance. With the rugged Zubak by her side, further pushing her husband Nicholas or Nicky (Guillaume Gallienne) to the sidelines, Elena becomes greedier for more power, fracturing her cabinet and the citizens.

Applause, Person, Adult
ON THE ROCKS. Kate Winslet and Guillaume Gallienne in ‘The Regime.’ HBO

Toward the end, as the people revolt and enter her palace, with scenes that evoke déjà vu, Elena and Zubak flee.

The fine cast includes Andrea Riseborough, Martha Plimpton, Hugh Grant, and Danny Webb.

But Kate and Andrea, as Agnes, the palace manager who works more like a servant to Elena and whose son Oscar is being “co-parented” by Elena, shine in this satire of modern autocracies.

“God, it’s amazing there’s such a combination of actual and virtual. A whole new thing,” Kate enthused at the start of our press conference, since it was hybrid in-person (for reporters present at the Hudson Yards in New York) and virtual (for the rest – including yours truly, who attended via Zoom from LA – from other parts of the world).

The Mare of Easttown and Titanic star was joined by Andrea, Guillaume, writer Will Tracy, and directors Stephen and Jessica. Mara Webster, cofounder and head of programming of In Creative Company, moderated.

“I knew for the penny to drop quickly I had to come up with something else,” Kate began when asked how her scenes talking to her dead father were probably her clues on how to play Elena.

“And you’re right, I leaned right into the scenes with her father because for a person to have kept the corpse of their deceased parent and go and have chats with them downstairs, I knew that was not a safe emotional place in which that person existed.”

That then gave me the space to explore her back story, and then with Will, Stephen, and Jess, we talked a lot about what if I did something that was the manifestation of her emotional self.”

“That was when we worked with the idea of her physically being certain ways with other people, dressing in occasionally quite grotesque, overtly sexual ways, and speaking differently.”

And of course, there are these much bigger themes and there is our geopolitical backdrop and people will take from that whatever they do.”

“But also, the love story. This unexpected, twisted, extraordinarily, weirdly beautiful love story between these two social misfits (Elena and Zubak) who come crashing together and become obsessed with one another.”

“There’s something phenomenally touching about Elena and Zubak together – Matthias and me. And it is a huge sadness that he is not here because he’s just life and soul and so brilliant.”

Adult, Female, Person
POWER COUPLE. Kate Winslet and Matthias Schoenaerts in ‘The Regime.’ HBO

“But the two of us together with Jess and Stephen, we really had to make sure that we were finding a rhythm and an energy for them that was both intriguing as well as bizarre.”

And that was quite the balance because you have to have the audience stay with them to the last and not quite know what’s going to happen. And in order to do that, you’ve just got to keep them held.”

“So, we all worked on that. Like, that was just a constant source of, okay, hang on a second.”

“And there were times when I would say, I remember saying to Jess at one point, can’t I just do something funny? She’d go, oh, go on, go on then. So, we’d always have it up our sleeve.”

The cast and crew could not help giggling and chuckling on set several times, according to Kate. The Oscar and Golden Globe winner shared, “We did have a couple of moments when things would happen that were so funny that people had to be sent out.”

“When we were shooting episode five, Elena and Zubak were having sex and she’s screaming at him, ‘No biting, no biting!’ two people had to be sent out for laughing. One of them was Alwin Küchler, our cinematographer.”

Jessica added, “He’s a repeat offender. He was often sent out.”

Kate revealed, “And one of the hair and makeup people, which was actually kind of a problem because Matthias had all these tattoos. He was getting sweatier and sweatier and they just kept sort of rubbing off on parts of my body.”

“I was like, this is really like I’ve got the newspaper printed on me. Yeah, but they had to be sent out. That happened a lot.”

The dictatorship dramedy makes a delightful pivot when Elena serenades guests at a state dinner with her version of Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now.” Yes, Kate as Elena, trying to charm dignitaries, sings that 1976 pop classic.

Adult, Female, Person
TONE DEAF. Kate Winslet’s Elena singing Chicago’s ‘If You Leave Me Now’ – but not very well. HBO

Stephen, noted for The QueenMy Beautiful Laundrette, and Dangerous Liaisons, explained the inspiration for Elena’s musical performance.

He said, “If you look on YouTube under (Vladimir) Putin, there’s a moment when he sings ‘Blueberry Hill,’ and various Hollywood actors applaud him. Gerard Depardieu is there. I mean it’s just breathtaking. He doesn’t sing it as well as Fats Domino. Easy.”

Kate, who is a talented singer and has a good voice, has sung in the films, Sense and SensibilityHeavenly Creatures, and Holy Smoke.

But Kate recounted a twist in how she sang in The Regime, starting with recording “If You Leave Me Now” at no less than the venerable studio where the Beatles recorded: “We turned up at Abbey Road and can I just say it’s a really difficult song to sing? It’s just so tricky.”

“But I had practiced and the kids were getting sick of me practicing. I sort of thought, okay, I can sing it fairly well and with a certain degree of confidence. I’ll just give it a go.”

“So, I sang it. I see Stephen standing there and I finish and he just goes [shakes head], and I was like, okay, and I’m going like this, what? What? What?”

“Then he walks to the door and there are some quite dramatic steps that come down. He comes halfway down the steps and he says, I just don’t understand. It doesn’t make any sense. Why is she singing it well?”

“I said, um, I don’t know. Because it’s in the script. And he said, do it badly. And I thought, oh my God, that is brilliant.”

“Because then of course, in that moment, as an audience, you know you are allowed to laugh and it sets the tone for the entire show. And thank God, it was very funny to do.”

“I have to say Guillaume and I were absolutely wetting ourselves. Oh my God, wetting ourselves.”

Will added, “I think she’s quite good in the first bit before the bridge. I think it was great. Once it gets to the bridge, it goes off the rails, but before that, I think it’s good.”

Andrea quipped, “Just please God let there be an album.”

Kate laughed and said, “Jess kept saying we need to do Elena’s Greatest Hits.”

On Elena getting a rousing ovation instead of polite applause for her performance in which Kate hilariously and intentionally goes off-key, complete with pitchy blending with backup vocalists, Will explained, “Probably in reality in some of these regimes, there is a bit of a cognitive dissonance in those rooms where people, maybe I’m guilty of this, too, because a lot of the song is quite good.”

“And so maybe a lot of people in that room really think, oh, this is great. And if you look at Zubak’s face when we hang on him, it’s actually during the period where she’s singing the worst, he’s quite entranced by it.”

“I don’t think he hears a bum note in there. He thinks she’s an angel.”

Kate’s Elena “enthralls” with more “bum notes” when she sings again in other scenes, “Happy Birthday,” and as her nation falls into chaos and her people become more disgruntled at Christmas, “Santa Baby.”

While The Regime is a dramedy, the project’s genesis was sparked by Will reading a serious book.

Will recalled, “It began with one of the many comfort reads that I read about oppressive regimes, a book called The Emperor by (Ryszard) Kapuscinski, which is about the last days of Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia.”

“The germ of the idea wasn’t about Selassie but the book is told in this sort of oral history way through servants and functionaries who work in his palace. And you’re just kind of brought through his day.”

“When he would wake up, what he’d eat for breakfast, how he would dress, who would dress him. It just seemed to me a good premise for a show I hadn’t seen before.”

“Almost like an Upstairs Downstairs or a Downton Abbey but instead of an English manor house, it’s an autocrat’s palace.”

“And that was just it, really. I had an idea for a setting and then more research followed from that. Then more thinking about where this country would be, where it would be located.”

Adult, Male, Man
WORKERS. Andrea Riseborough and Matthias Schoenaerts in ‘The Regime.’ HBO

“Also, where it would be fixed geopolitically, kind of between east and west, where they look behind them and they can see China and Russia, and they look ahead and they can see NATO and the western powers. And they feel somehow between the two.”

“And like they’re not really at the big kids’ table of hegemonic superpower politics. And that seemed like an interesting place to begin.” The story is set in a fictitious Eastern Europe nation, with location filming done in several majestic palaces of Vienna and studio sets built in the UK.

On deciding the level of intelligence and mental state of Elena, who has a medical degree and license, Will said, “She has quite a bit of self-knowledge in a way. She is afraid of showing it or afraid of dropping that mask, as Kate said.”

“But we get those moments, especially those few moments with Zubak, and especially down in the mausoleum where the mask drops and she kind of gets to tell herself, via the remains of her father, what she really thinks about herself or suspects about herself.”

“And I see her as being quite intelligent but placed in a situation that has become so isolated that it’s hard for her to be told anything but yes. And I think that leads you to become not always have the best judgment in the moment.”

Kate agreed: “I think that’s absolutely right. I always felt extremely grateful that there was an element to her back story that was based on education, training, and skill.”

“Because to give her something, a qualification, meant that I was always prevented from going really too far down the road of the absurd. There were these really terrific anchor points along the way for everything that she is.”

“So yes, she’s intelligent, she’s a trained doctor and etcetera, etcetera but when the chips are down, she can just lean right into that sort of slightly unsavory, almost sexual side of herself.”

“Even how she dresses in this kind of slightly tacky, gaudy way just to achieve her goal or just to overthrow or overpower, or even sometimes overcome her own shit.”

Will chimed in, “Just to add, that kind of craven intelligence that a lot of very powerful people have where she knows what people want. And oftentimes what she suspects people want is not particularly noble.”

“But she knows, you’re after this, aren’t you? And I think she knows how to give people what she wants in a way.”

As the miniseries progresses, Elena, influenced by Zubak, goes off the rails, subscribing to his “potato steam” cure-all, resulting in containers of heating heaps of spuds sprouting all over the palace, eating worm dirt tea, and recklessly banning Oscar’s epilepsy pills because they are now into “holistic medicine.”

Elena, growing increasingly paranoid, suffers from a mysterious illness – real or imagined. She worries that there’s toxic mold in the palace walls.

Kate pointed out, “It just goes to show how staggeringly desperate she is in terms of her own well-being in illness, health, mental stability, and fragility, that she can just immediately believe in the power of the potato. It’s like, did she learn nothing?”

Will commented, “She knows deep down that something’s wrong. And she’s right that something’s wrong.”

“It might not be something that’s literally in the walls but there’s something in that place that is off and she knows it.”

Kate shared that Elena got so used to being surrounded by sycophants that she even dismissed her husband Nicky from her inner circle. “Nicky’s ability to call her out on all of her shit is so palpable to her that she even has to remove him. So that he doesn’t call her out, so that she can just go and have her fun.”

“It’s a phenomenal act of love as well on the part of Nicky that he relents and he doesn’t insist on staying. He lets her send him away.”

It’s completely heartbreaking and she misses him desperately. Hopefully, you feel that, too.”

“You feel that sense of her saying to herself all the time, okay, maybe I shouldn’t have done that. I do miss him really and if only he were here.”

Adult, Male, Man
DAPPER. Matthias Schoenaerts is strangely charming in ‘The Regime.’ HBO

Guillaume cited that his character was no match to Matthias’ virile Zubak: “And of course, the other one is so sexual. I can’t compete. I mean, look at the guy.”

“And so, it was very funny and very touching to do, really. And it’s true, we worked very closely together. That was fantastic, all of us. And we could understand each other with practically nothing.”

On the attraction between Elena and Zubak and their eventual relationship, Will remarked, “They make each other feel stronger. They find the little kind of deficiencies and aching little chasms in there that they are insecure about and they fill those chasms for each other.”

“But they’re both kind of broken in very different ways. And also, he’s kind of a product of the state that she created.”

Will added about the Elena-Zubak partnership, “The story really transformed when I hit upon this idea that what if the man who’s been standing against the wall all episodes, listening and not saying a whole lot, what if someone at the end of the episode asks him, what do you think?”

“What do you think should happen? And then we kind of hear everything. We kind of learn that this man had something very powerful to say and what he has to say makes Elena feel very, very strong.”

“Then I just committed to this idea that if you plot it kind of through the episodes, it does have the structure of, I don’t want to say romantic comedy.”

“But it’s sort of a love story structure where you meet somebody, and at first it’s very powerful and they really convince themselves, yeah, we’re kind of different people now.”

We’re both really into this, everything is going to be different now, everything is perfect, everything is powerful, and everything is great.”

“And then their own insecurities or their own damage starts to creep out a little bit. They start to get a little testier with each other. Their little behaviors start to annoy each other, things you didn’t notice before.”

“And also, this strange toxic relationship between Elena and these large outside forces of foreign powers. That was the idea at least.”

Summing up, Kate elaborated on how she struck the right balance of normalcy and lunacy in Elena: “I just knew I had to make her multidimensional. And I’ll be honest, it was an extraordinarily complicated process for me putting her together.”

“I was very, very scared I was going to fuck it up. It was terrifying.”

“We had to make some punchy choices. I lived in my own head with her for quite a while before even opening my mouth in front of anyone.”

“And so, the anxiety around the choices I was hoping to be able to make and whether or not people would agree, was huge, really.”

“Actors on the whole do tend to be quite scared. And you just have to kind of overcome that.

“You don’t really talk about it. You don’t really say, oh God, I’m scared.”

“Those are not things that you really say apart from quietly in corners to each other. And lots of whispering and fuck.”

“So, I definitely had moments of thinking to myself, shit, okay, I’m just going to have to really believe that this is okay. But giving her as many anchor points as I could, things that felt to me intrinsically feminine, intrinsically vulnerable.”

“I just had to be brave about making those choices and shoving them in. Honestly, it was a case of kind of white-knuckling it for a bit.”

Kate need not have worried. Always the consummate actress, she is luminous in The Regime. –

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Ruben V. Nepales

Based in Los Angeles, Ruben V. Nepales is an award-winning journalist whose honors include prizes from the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, a US-wide competition, and the Southern California Journalism Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Press Club.