Kate Winslet reveals the biggest challenge she faced making Avatar: The Way of Water – and it wasn't holding her breath

Kate Winslet at the Avatar: The Way of Water premiere
(Image credit: Getty Images)

After over a decade away, we're finally heading back to Pandora. Avatar: The Way of Water transports us back to the magical world of the Na'vi, and while director James Cameron has lined up an incredible ensemble of returning actors – Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldaña, Stephen Lang – there are some equally exciting additions to the cast.

Arguably the most anticipated newcomer is Kate Winslet, who is re-teaming with Cameron over 25 years after working with the filmmaker on Titanic. While Winslet has enjoyed a hugely varied career in that time, winning an Oscar for her role in Stephen Daldry's The Reader and picking up nominations for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Iris, and Steve Jobs, Cameron has only had one major directorial release since Titanic: 2009's Avatar.

It's perhaps unsurprising, then, that Winslet jumped at the chance to work with the rarified director. "It was just so flattering that Jim asked me because Jim does not suffer fools," she says. And indeed, she went all-out preparing for the role: as has been widely publicized, Winslet set a new record for a person holding their breath for a film, managing an astonishing seven minutes and 15 seconds underwater and beating previous record holder Tom Cruise. 

"I have the video of me surfacing saying, 'Am I dead, have I died?' And then going, 'What was [my time]?'" she says. "Straight away I wanted to know my time. And I couldn’t believe it... The next thing I say is, 'We need to radio set. I wanted Jim to know right away."

"She's not competitive at all," Cameron later says of his actor.

Total Film spoke further with Winslet about the biggest challenges of joining the Avatar franchise, what surprised her about her character Ronal, one of the seafaring Na'vi, and what it was like re-teaming with Cameron after all these years. Here's the Q&A, edited for length and clarity.

Avatar: The Way of Water

Kate Winslet as Ronal in Avatar: The Way of Water (Image credit: Disney/20th Century Studios)

Total Film: One of the major talking points about this movie has been that you had to hold your breath for over seven minutes.

Winslet: Well, I didn't have to hold my breath for over seven minutes. It's just that the opportunity to set a record presented itself. I wanted to break my own record, which was already six minutes and 14 seconds. And I was like, "Come on!" So I smashed my own record by a minute.

You went for the challenge! But this shoot must have been a challenge in general – you're working with all this CGI and on multiple sequels at the same time. What proved the biggest hurdle to jump? 

Winslet: The biggest challenge was something people really wouldn't imagine  – it was fitting into this world and yet appearing to have always been there. That was the hardest part. Because these actors, they created these characters in this universe 13 years ago. Zoe was a huge part of the creation of the voices of the Na'vi people. She really did decide the body movements and how they live and how they think. And so learning that quickly from her, and from the movement coaches who were also part of the film, that was the hardest part, because there's nothing worse than a new actor coming in and you're bumped by it because what they're doing is big or too much or trying to fit. I just wanted to make all of it disappear and just make it feel as though Ronal had always been in the Metkayina clan, just we hadn't met them yet. But it was amazing. I mean, I just loved all of it. It was a fantastic experience.

With Ronal being a member of the Na'vi, was there anything about her final look that surprised you? 

Winslet: She probably looked more feminine than I had imagined she would look. I don't know why in my mind, she felt like she would be more severe and less warm. But actually, even though she's powerful, you do feel this loving authority from her. That's what any mother should feel like – that basic level of authority that feels both nurturing and protective. There was a balance to her as a leader and a mother that I really appreciated. Jim [Cameron] is so remarkable at creating roles for women that are both powerful and measured and physically capable, and I really admire that. It's something that, of course, we need more of and we've been talking about that stuff for years. But the point is, Jim has been doing it for years, he's been creating great roles for women for years. There are more central leading female roles in his films than there are men and that's really, really important, and really inspiring. And so it was a very, very unique and special experience in many different ways.

And what's the biggest difference you've seen since working with James Cameron, from the first time on Titanic to this? Was there something that he was doing differently, that he brought differently?

Winslet: He's just a really different person. Hopefully, we both are. A huge chunk of time has gone by – over half my lifetime. You know, people say it was 25 years since Titanic. It's not! It's 27 years for us, you know, I turned 21 on that film, I'm 47. It's a long time ago. I've become a parent three times over since then, Jim has had more children since then, he's even more embedded in fatherhood and the commitment of that, and that shapes a person more than you can ever know before having children. I think we were both able to bring different creative things into this experience. And it was really lovely working with him again. He just cares so much about actors and this was a real opportunity for me to experience that and also bring hopefully some things that I've learned as an actor along the way into the experience. And Jim really encouraged me to share those things with some of the younger performers, like Bailey [Bass, who plays Ronal's daughter] and Jack [Champion, a human character], who were absolutely brilliant. 

I've been a young actor too. I remember how terrifying that was. I also remember thinking that if I had an idea, I was too scared to share it because, "What if everyone thought that it was stupid?" And being nervous of making mistakes. Putting young actors at their ease and making them feel included is something that I care about a lot. So it was very special for Jim to kind of put me in that role. And I loved it. I loved working with those young actors and I could see how much it gave to them and how excited they were to be part of everything. It was really lovely.

Avatar: The Way of Water is in cinemas from Friday, December 16. For more, check out our guide to the most exciting upcoming movies heading your way soon.

Jack Shepherd
Freelance Journalist

Jack Shepherd is the former Senior Entertainment Editor of GamesRadar. Jack used to work at The Independent as a general culture writer before specializing in TV and film for the likes of GR+, Total Film, SFX, and others. You can now find Jack working as a freelance journalist and editor.