In Kate Winslet’s new film, she stars as the mother of a teenage girl – played by her own daughter Mia Threapleton – who is struggling with issues related to what seems to be an addiction to her mobile phone.
I Am Ruth is part of Channel 4‘s I Am series – a female-led drama anthology of standalone programmes, developed and written by director Dominic Savage in collaboration with the leading actress in each film.
The subject matter of Winslet‘s is particularly prescient right now, with the controversial Online Safety Bill making headlines as it goes through parliament. It is aimed at protecting youngsters in the wake of the deaths of teenagers including Molly Russell, who died after viewing suicide and self-harm content in 2017.
Like all parents, the Oscar-winning star worries about her own children’s relationship with technology.
“We all do – my youngest is about to turn nine and I do worry,” she told Sky News. “But it’s very, very hard, isn’t it, as a parent? Saying ‘No, you can’t have that, hey, stop looking at that, don’t look at it’ – because we’re doing it.
“Social media has always worried me – I think that there are extraordinary benefits to it for some people, but you have to be quite robust, I think, to know how to use it wisely and carefully.”
Winslet believes the pandemic exacerbated issues that already existed for children.
“Young people, I think especially because of COVID, it just got really out of control – loneliness and insecurity and just building a basic level of self-esteem for so many of these children. During COVID that self-esteem they were sort of searching for almost online in some way, and that’s desperately sad.
“And I think that everyone in some way can resonate with that story, and that idea resonates with most parents today who have teenagers – it’s incredibly hard.”
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I Am Ruth sees Winslet’s character, Ruth, clearly unprepared for how to deal with her daughter as she withdraws, refusing to speak to her mother or arguing with her on the rare occasions she does leave her bedroom.
The actress hopes viewers might recognise aspects of the characters or what they’re going through. “It’s important to me to create space for people to talk about things that are really uncomfortable,” she said.
“Sometimes I am aware that being a little bit in the public eye and being someone who does have a little bit of a history with hopefully inspiring women and making women feel celebrated and seen and part of a wider conversation, I was aware that in doing something like this, we had to really get it right because hopefully people will watch and will listen and will feel that they can start to open up and have those conversations.
“So I definitely felt the responsibility. It was never a burden, but I just felt that we’ve really got to get this right. Like how the character looks, for example, we could not dress her up at all, we had to go very much the opposite.
“And also setting this in a middle-class world was really important to me – I said to Dominic [Savage], we can only do this if we don’t set it in a lower socioeconomic environment because I feel that often when stories like that are told on television or on film, that typically they are set in a more lower-class environment and I don’t think that’s right, and I don’t think that’s accurate in terms of now.
“I think it is the middle classes who are struggling and coming across these issues and I think it’s taking their breath away and none of us as parents have a manual. Sometimes we do look our children in the eye and just think, ‘oh, my God, I don’t know what to do’.”
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‘We know how to push each other’s buttons’
The film was built around improvisation; the actors discussed scenes before filming but there was no exacting script. With Winslet and her daughter acting together, she says there were times when the fictional story tipped over into reality.
“There was always going to be an inevitable area of crossover just because we’ve all gone through something with our children. And obviously, when you put Mia and I together, we know how to push each other’s buttons and are not afraid to raise our voice to one another, even though it’s a really uncomfortable thing to do.”
The lines between reality and drama were also blurred in other parts of the production, giving the film a unique authenticity.
“There’s a scene in I Am Ruth when we sit down with a doctor who was actually a real doctor, who was really called Doctor Susie, and that was really her surgery. And the first time Mia and I met her was when the cameras were rolling and we walked into that room, so it was a really real visceral experience for both of us.
“But when she says, I’m going to get a referral to CAMHS [children and adolescent mental health services], my character says ‘I don’t know what that is’ – because some people don’t know.
“I think giving that little bit of education, throwing things into the conversation and hopefully making people feel as though they aren’t alone – this is a story that resonates, [parents] are sick of their children being obsessed and addicted to their phones, and at the same time, not knowing how to handle it.”
In developing this story and producing her hit drama Mare of Easttown, Winslet seems to be prioritising her career away from the camera as much as her acting.
“As a woman in her 40s, often women think this is the time when we kind of start to fade and decline a little bit – NO, you become more woman, more powerful, more important, your voice is stronger – get out there and use it…
“It’s a completely different ballgame because you’re constantly juggling everything, being aware of what’s going on, on set all the time and making sure everyone’s happy, as well as playing the character and raising the financing – it’s a lot, but the sense of achievement is enormous and always wanting to tell stories with a degree of integrity and certainly truth to me is absolutely paramount.”
I Am Ruth airs on Channel 4 later and will be available on catch up service All4