Kate Winslet Has Fun With the Dark Humor of 'The Weirdies'

The award-winning actress is in her element voicing the story of eccentric siblings searching for where they belong.

Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.  Abby West: Hi, I'm your Audible editor, Abby West. And I'm here today with actress Kate Winslet, who performs the Audible Original The Weirdies, written by Michael Buckley, who is also the author of The Sisters Grimm series. Welcome, Kate.

Kate Winslet: Thank you very much for having me.

AW: Thank you for being here, particularly thank you for such a delightful performance, and I can't wait for everyone else to hear you perform The Weirdies. I would love you to tell us a little bit about the story behind The Weirdies and why you were drawn to it.

KW: So the story behind The Weirdies, it's essentially they're triplets: Barnacle, Melancholy, and Garlic, who are eccentric to the core and privileged to a fault, raised by quite absent parents who have essentially a love-hate relationship with their children, living in a very large, quite ominous mansion with over 200 staff and friends of their parents, essentially living around these children all of the time. But also these children are not particularly regular kids. There are some things about them that are slightly reptilian, slightly moldy, slightly misshapen and not necessarily human, but they exist in a human world.

...Any story that can be told to a broader demographic that highlights celebrating differences, embracing and loving people for exactly who they are, regardless of what they look like, regardless of where they come from, regardless of those immediate differences in comparison to yourself, to one's self, I think those stories are very, very important.

And at the beginning of the story, they wake up to discover the mansion is empty and everyone, and all of their belongings and the people around them, including their parents, have completely disappeared. And it's essentially a story of how they come to terms with what's happening to them, how they are taken in by a lovely care worker, who wants to raise them as their own, and the children in turn discover feelings of affection for this care worker. And they know what it feels to be truly loved, and it so overwhelms them and surprises them, and I think confuses them because these are not warm emotions that they're used to feeling and experiencing.

AW: I love that you end up feeling this sense of learning what family means. That family can mean so many different things and how people can form families. That was a big takeaway.

KW: That for me was also a really big pull because of course we live in a very unconventional world now. And I think unconventional families are so much more becoming. I don't even want to use the word normal, but more mainstream, and everyone has differences. And I think any story that can be told to a broader demographic that highlights celebrating differences, embracing and loving people for exactly who they are, regardless of what they look like, regardless of where they come from, regardless of those immediate differences in comparison to yourself, to one's self, I think those stories are very, very important.

AW: So at Audible, when we started telling people that you were going to be narrating this work, overwhelmingly people would say, "Oh my God! My family loves her rendition of Matilda" And understanding that there are a lot of similarities, the dark humor from Matilda and some of the Lemony Snicket with this one, is that something that you really respond to? Because you play it well.

KW: Well, children... I think that the element of dark humor with borderline, slightly scary things, I mean, even The BFG or The Twits, for example, they're quite alarming, disturbing characters, but the level of intrigue is so humorous that using interesting [characters] and portraying those roles in ways that are very normal and quite sometimes monosyllabic, it keeps that element of intrigue alive and keeps it away from being something that is actually scary or frightening. And so Roald Dahl, for me, always sails very close to the wind with that stuff and in a very, very clever way. And for me The Weirdies has undertones of all of that, these stories, some of the language is just skimmed through in such a blasé fashion, and you find yourself going, "Hang on a minute. Did that writer just write something really scary? Or did I hear that correctly?" And you just, however, keep on going.

And there's something about the British rhythm of speech that lends itself also very well to these types of stories, because we have quite a jolly, springy resonance to the voice, and we can just barrel through things with a certain degree of authority and impetus and good humor and well-meaning and good intention. And somehow, I feel like I can get away with a little bit more leaning into the Britishness, but Matilda was something I loved, absolutely loved doing. I had previously done a version of The Magic Faraway Tree and The Enchanted Wood years ago when I was pregnant with my daughter, Mia, who's about to turn 20. 

I've always loved doing audiobooks for children. It was a big part of my life growing up. I absolutely loved listening to story tapes in those days, cassette tapes, and still now my little boy Bear, who's turning seven in December, he loves listening to stories. Lucky for him, when I'm not there he listens to my stories that I've recorded for him or Matilda or whatever else is around.

That's how I do it. Literally, it's just play, trying things out, making things up, experimenting a little bit, changing it. It's all learning really. We all learn from children, don't we?

But it's really nice to see him sit with his little CD player and put the CD in, keep a little bit of that connection with choice as well, because when a child is sitting with a device, an iPhone or an iPad or something, it's a screen, which first of all, I know that we live in a world where we are trying to limit screen time with our children more than ever, we're trying to limit it. And so for me, it is like choosing a book. For a child to get the vision of choosing a book, to get the vision of choosing a CD, there's something really special about that. And it's nice that we do keep that alive in our household.

And Matilda... Yeah, the character of Hortensia in Matilda has been reincarnated in the form of Garlic in the way it is. And it's a character who I'm afraid might just keep reappearing because [laughs] it's just such a hilarious voice. I can't even know where it came from, this sort of slightly sideways voice, almost like the character has had a stroke on one side. I don't know where it came from. 

AW: But yet very monied and very…

KW: Yeah. It's very authoritative and spontaneous at the same time with being slightly uneducated and a little bit brash and rather rude and curt and tactless. Anyway, as long as I keep talking, nobody will notice. And as long as I keep using my posh English voice, I can get away with absolute murder.

AW: You definitely homed in on the authoritative part of the script.

KW: Exactly. Sort of commanding and ridiculous at the same time.

AW: You're talking about narrating Matilda, and you've done narrations before and won awards for it. How do you approach it differently than in-person acting, your physical acting versus narration? How do you prepare differently?

KW: I rest my voice a lot before I do it because the voice has to be extremely full and very clear. To sometimes get punchy expression, I might use much more punchy expression doing a voice for an audiobook than I would if I was doing a character in a film. Typically, these books for children... So the expression is so important because it has to land on here in a way that the child can actually imagine that character saying that thing or wearing those clothes or in that particular setting. The voice has to do all of that work, so it is a lot of work on the vocal cords, quite honestly. So I try very hard to just keep my voice rested and I try also to actually set the recording session for the later half of the day, because then I feel that my voice is warm and just has a slightly more subtle quality to it and I'm able to kind of go for a little bit longer. A little bit like warming up before a marathon or something like, it is a little bit similar to that.

So technically, actually, it's a very different experience to working on film. And I read The Weirdies to our little one, like several times before recording it, and practiced it. We tried out different voices and... "Oh not that one, Mommy. I'll try this one, Mommy." So he very much had opinions for Melancholy and Barnacle. I originally had a different voice for Barnacle and he said no. He said he thought it sounded a bit too cross. And so I changed it and made him a bit more bumbling. And Melancholy... He didn't like the sound of Melancholy at all. He said, "I don't like that voice, it makes me feel sad." Well, that actually is slightly the point. So I stuck with it.

That's how I do it. Literally, it's just play, trying things out, making things up, experimenting a little bit, changing it. It's all learning really. We all learn from children, don't we? And the thing is, with audiobooks, it's a great place to truly learn from them because it's them, they're the ones that are, they're the listeners, they're the lessons, they're the audience. So I make the most of that immediate audience in my household.

AW: It's the perfect target audience. KW: Yeah.

AW: What was it like for you recording during COVID? Did you do it remotely?

KW: Completely brilliant, because to be honest with you, when I recorded, it was very hot in the UK. We had a very hot summer and it was quite hot downstairs. We turned our laundry room into this blanket-fort space where we were able to block out enough sound to record as clearly as possible. So it was totally amazing. And honestly, I just sat there and in literally a t-shirt and undies, because it was so hot and it was brilliant not having to take a train and go into London, because we live two and a half hours outside of London. Actually it really was terrific, just have to make sure that no one was vacuuming above me.

AW: No one is outside mowing the lawn.

KW: Well, exactly. That was the thing. No one was upstairs having an argument and flinging things across the room at each other. But it was great. It worked for me. I absolutely loved it. So it worked very conveniently.

AW: One of the things I love is the way you, as the narrator, would have these little asides of like, "Oh, my narrator told me not to, maybe I shouldn't mention that." What's it like to be the omniscient and slightly conspiratorial narrator in this case?

KW: It's fun. It adds to that humor. And it also adds to that invitation that as a narrator and creating a voice for a story, you also have to somehow hook your little audience and absolutely have them feel that they're with you on that journey. You are in charge of taking them through that imaginative world. And actually having those little asides with the children, with the listener, is enormously helpful because it just reels them into the story a little bit more.

...That a child can lie there, listen to that story and absolutely create a world all of their own, that is unique to their specific imagination, is a very important and powerful part of childhood. And to lend my voice to that part of someone's childhood is a huge honor, it's a great privilege to be in a position like that.

it's almost as though you're saying, "Come on, just come with me. I'll tell you the story and I'll give you some extra secret bits on the side as well, exclusive to you. No one else is going to get this information." So there's something about the exclusivity of that. I thought it was done very, very well by the writer…because it doesn't always work, that conceit, but it worked brilliantly and again adds that element of daring and fun and just sailing a little bit close to the wind.

AW: The Weirdies triplets have the best, craziest names: Garlic, Melancholy, and Barnacle. Did you give the narrator a name for yourself?

KW: The narrator was... I mean, even though of course it was me, to me the narrator was somehow actually a man in my head. I don't know why. Maybe it's because the writer is a man. I don't know. I just kept imagining someone called John. So funny, but I did feel with Matilda, I absolutely felt like I was the female voice behind that story. Whereas somehow I was almost occupying a more masculine space in my head. I don't know why. Weird, very weird.

AW: Whatever you were tapping into, it works. Does your family have any listening or reading routines with each other? Do you have a favorite time to share stories?

KW: We do a lot of bedtime stories. Actually, I just read to my son over Skype this evening; he's not here. So I read to him Burglar Bill, which is a wonderful book by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, it's an old book actually [1977]. It's a brilliant book. It's about a burglar called Bill who finds a baby in a box and then he takes the baby home and looks after it. Then he himself wakes up to discover that he is being burgled in the middle of the night by burglar Betty, who talks like that [speaks in character's voice]. And burglar Betty is downstairs raiding Bill's biscuit tin and lo and behold Bill discovers that the baby that he found is actually Betty's baby. And so there's this very lovely story of how they then ended up getting married and parenting this little baby together and stop being burglars. He becomes a baker and it's very sweet.

So bedtime stories are absolutely a part of our life, no matter where I am, no matter where my husband is. We're almost always together. It's very unusual actually for me to be away right now, we just couldn't get them a permit to come. But they are a big part of life. We listen to audiobooks in the car. That for me... That's why I wanted to do audiobooks in the first place. My childhood was never holidays on airplanes to exotic locations. My parents just didn't have the money. It was always very long car journeys, often getting a 6 or 5 a.m. ferry from Dover to Kelly to go camping somewhere in France. And we would be crammed into the car like sardines with all of the luggage all around us.

And we would listen endlessly to story tapes in the car. It's absolutely something that I have handed on to my children from my own childhood. It's just so important. And parents don't always have time to read to their kids. I feel very lucky that I'm always able to make that time no matter what. When I can't make that time, how great that my husband can just stick on a CD of me doing a story for our little boys. So where I'm able to be that voice for other parents' children makes me so incredibly happy because the power of storytelling is so crucial; keeping that imagination alive, getting children away from screens, lots of television is not a good thing, but the power of stories, voices, characters, imaginary worlds, that a child can lie there, listen to that story and absolutely create a world all of their own, that is unique to their specific imagination, is a very important and powerful part of childhood. And to lend my voice to that part of someone's childhood is a huge honor, it's a great privilege to be in a position like that.

AW: Well, here at Audible we could not agree with you more on the power of audio storytelling and the imagination that it sparks, particularly for young people. So I'm a little jealous that your kids get to hear your voices on their own, but we're really happy that everyone's going to get to hear it in The Weirdies.

KW: Good. You are welcome.

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