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Now Kate’s a titanic tyrant

Kate Winslet reveals how she had the crew in stitches as a deranged European despot in dark comedy The Regime

- Vicki Power

Kate Winslet has been winning awards for decades for the intensity she brings to dramatic leading roles. But rarely do we see her playing it for laughs, which is what makes Sky Atlantic’s The Regime such an appealing prospect – it’s a pitchblack comedy with a central performanc­e from Kate as a deranged autocrat that will have you cringing and laughing in equal measure.

Created by Will Tracy, a writer and producer on Succession, it stars Kate as Elena Vernham, the Chancellor of a fictional central European nation, who has cracked down on citizens’ freedoms and her political opponents. ‘I’d never read a script like it,’ says Oscar-winner Kate, 48. ‘I’d never come across a character quite like Elena, and I knew that I’d never played anyone like her before. I wanted to do comedy and I loved the fact that, yes, it’s about a dictator, but she’s a female dictator… I knew I could explore the nuances and the feminine fragility behind that mask.’

Elena Vernham is a hypochondr­iac who’s allergic to mould and so fearful of being poisoned by it that she has staff carry her around her plush palace in a sealed bubble. ‘She hasn’t been out of her home for two years and is kind of a crumbling mess,’ says Kate. ‘As she crumbles the entire nation starts to crumble around her.’

As the series progresses, Elena lurches from crisis to crisis. She has cabinet members arrested for conspiracy, falls out with the US, aligns herself with China and, with shades of Putin, decides to annex land belonging to a neighbouri­ng country. Alongside all this, she enlists Herbert Zubak (Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaert­s), a lowly soldier with rage issues, to be her confidant. As she

falls for him and his populist ideas, her grip on the nation – and reality – grows ever more tenuous.

‘It’s a twisted love story about two people who should never have fallen in love,’ says Kate. ‘But it’s also a geopolitic­al satire where, at times, nothing makes sense and things that happen are so absurd all you can do is laugh your head off.’

The funnier scenes see Chancellor Vernham entertaini­ng world leaders at state dinners by serenading them with pop songs – not something you could imagine Angela Merkel ever having done. Worse still, Elena can’t sing a note, but because she’s surrounded by clapping yes men, she has no idea.

Kate recalls recording one of these songs, Chicago’s 1976 hit If You Leave Me Now, at Abbey Road Studios with director Stephen Frears and composer Alexandre Desplat. She’d rehearsed the tune properly for the scene, but it wasn’t working as a straight song. ‘So I started singing off-key,’ she explains. ‘I looked up at the sound booth and as I started to sing Stephen, Alexandre and all the sound technician­s just disappeare­d below the window because they were laughing so much. And I thought,

“OK, that’s the way to do it,” because, of course, it feeds right into how deluded Elena is.’

Will Tracy’s idea for the series was sparked by his favourite pastime – reading books about autocracie­s and authoritar­ian leaders. ‘I’m fascinated by those people who are insulated or isolated, and within that bubble they can do anything they want,’ he says. ‘They can create any version of reality or truth they want and there’s no one there who is going to tell them that two plus two doesn’t equal elephant.’

The wider cast includes a roster of big names. Alice & Jack star and Oscar nominee Andrea Riseboroug­h plays Elena’s housekeepe­r Agnes, who understand­s the Chancellor better than anyone. The Good Wife’s Martha Plimpton plays a US senator eager to secure a trade deal with the country, and a seriously dressed down Hugh Grant plays the now-inconvenie­nt former Chancellor Edward Keplinger, Elena’s predecesso­r who she has had imprisoned.

‘We had Hugh with us for about a week,’ says producer Frank Rich, who also worked on Succession. ‘He already had a strong creative bond with Stephen [they worked together on the 2016 film Florence Foster Jenkins] and to watch him with Kate and Matthias was thrilling. Before Hugh came on board there wasn’t a scene between Keplinger and Elena. But once we knew he was joining us, Will wrote a brilliant scene for Kate and Hugh. I think the viewers will love it.’

The pair worked together on Sense And Sensibilit­y in 1995, and sharing a scene with her former co-star after so many years was a treat for Kate. ‘It was honestly amazing because I haven’t really seen him since then,’ she says. ‘So I just was excited to get in a room and play with him in this more grown-up version of myself, hopefully a bit more evolved, hopefully with a bit more to bring to the table. It was just terrific, really.’

To create an authentic look for Elena’s palatial residence, The Regime was filmed partly in the magnificen­t Baroque palace of Schönbrunn in Vienna, the stately home of Austria’s Habsburg rulers, with CGI experts adding towers and extra floors digitally. ‘Schönbrunn is a tourist attraction but fortunatel­y it’s very big, so when we were filming they would divert the public to other parts of the palace,’ says production designer Kave Quinn.

The Viennese palaces of Palais Pallavicin­i, Palais Liechtenst­ein and The Hofburg were also used for exteriors, while interiors were shot mostly at Surrey’s Shepperton Studios and London’s Titan Studios.

Ultimately, the success of the show will rely heavily on Kate Winslet’s turn as the damaged, deluded and dangerous Elena Vernham, a woman who exudes power in a series of eye-catching outfits but also speaks with a childlike lisp that adds to her vulnerabil­ity. Quite simply, she’s a car crash you can’t tear your eyes away from.

And after Kate’s Emmy-winning turn as a hard-bitten cop in the crime drama Mare Of Easttown, The Regime gives us a chance to see her in a new light.

‘Normally I don’t play comedic roles,’ she says. ‘So to have this opportunit­y, which I was hoping would come along one day but I hadn’t imagined it, come along with such phenomenal and juicy bits to act out, my goodness, it was just such a delicious part to play.’

The Regime, Monday, 9pm, Sky Atlantic. All episodes available on Sky/now from Monday.

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 ?? ?? Kate as Elena (left) and Hugh Grant as Edward Keplinger (below)
Kate as Elena (left) and Hugh Grant as Edward Keplinger (below)

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