Director John Hillcoat Reveals How Kate Winslet Got So Evil in 'Triple 9'

The filmmaker told us he had some interesting advice for the seven-time Oscar nominee.

Getty Images | Open Road

In Triple 9, Kate Winslet plays the head of the Russian Israeli mob, a far cry from her usual turns as dainty Austen heroines and desperate American housewives. She's a great actress, a seven-time Oscar nominee, but she's never played a character quite like this. Her director, John Hillcoat, however, is well-familiar with the type. The filmmaker behind The Propostion and The Road has made his career in the darkness of violent suspense. So he was more than willing to lend a hand.

We spoke with Hillcoat recently about Triple 9, his latest foray into the darkness, about a group of corrupt cops and former soldiers pulling bank heists under the watchful eyes of the law and mafia. We asked him about directing an actress like Winslet in a movie like this. And we inquired about those mysterious themes, why he loves them, and what other filmmakers inspire him to be great. Here's what we learned:

Zimbio: I wanted to start off by asking about the darkness of Triple 9. The film opens in darkness and takes its time giving us the names of the characters and how they relate to one another. Could you talk about the importance of introducing the characters that way?

John Hillcoat: Yeah, it's murky terrain, the world of crime, and I love genre films. I love characters acting under pressure. I think it does bring out the best and worst in us. So it's something I like to explore. What I like about film noir, and I've talked about this being a "color noir" you know, because it's contemporary and its full of vivid, rich colors, there's a lot of energy there. I guess it's because of that urban atmosphere. What I try to maintain though is that sea of humanity where they feel like real flesh and blood - even though we break the tradition here of the two-hander - it's very much a huge ensemble and, visually, leaned heavily on those traditions, but tried to make them fresh again. Like, for example, we tried to avoid the color blue since we've seen that so much in crime movies.

Anthony Mackie and Casey Affleck in Triple 9. (Open Road)
Anthony Mackie and Casey Affleck in Triple 9. (Open Road)

Interesting. The film is a lot like your others in that it lives in that gray area where good and evil co-exist. What, in general, attracts you to those types of stories?

I think they're richer moral dilemmas that are more like the human experience and I think part of the reason I'm able to get such great actors is they're very keen to explore those multi-dimensions. Especially with genre fillm there's a tendency to reduce characters down to black and white, two-dimensional characters that are chasing the plot in some way. Then it's a bunch of fireworks without much depth or gravitas. 

Speaking of those great actors, the one that stands out the most to me in this film is Kate Winslet. She's played villains before but never anyone quite like Irina...

Hold on, I've got to stop you there. What villains? Because we were extra-excited we felt like she hadn't explored that before...

Well, not in this way. She plays a villain in Heavenly Creatures, and in those Divergent movies...

Oh, I see what you mean. It's funny because Heavenly Creatures was where I first noticed her and I thought she was so phenomenal in that film. What she managed to do there, speaking of rich human characters, she made it so credible how this person ended up doing what she did. Often we can't comprehend this stuff. and she did a brilliant job making us comprehend. But yes, back to working outside of the comfort zone. Doing something they've never done before is something these great actors are hungry to do. 

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Kate Winslet in Triple 9. (Open Road)
Chiwetel Ejiofor and Kate Winslet in Triple 9. (Open Road)

Did she need any help getting to that place, or is it... this is Kate Winslet, she can kind of do what she wants?

Well, she's very meticulous and she's insanely talented so she can channel a lot of emotion. But I did do something that she told me no one had ever done with her before which was to give her a lot of reference material. I love research and I give all my cast immense piles of stuff, contacts of real people in these worlds, a lot of visual references, a lot of articles, documentaries, and it's up to the actors how much they draw from that. But she was an actor who was hugely excited and welcomed that material. Ray Winstone, on The Proposition, confessed to me years later that huge pile of stuff I gave him he put to one side and never touched (laughs). But he's such a force of nature and had his own rich life experience that he was drawing upon anyway. But I feel like whatever gets them there is the key and Kate in this case, really appreciated that pile of stuff.

Tell me more. What were some of the specific references?

There's a documentary called Cocaine Cowboys about the drug empire in Miami in the '80's and most feared crime figure in that landscape was actually a woman. There's also a lot of stuff about the Russian Israeli mob, FBI reports and links to the history of Russian Israeli mobsters. So it's more to do with documentaries and real stuff than movie references. But I did give some actors like Chiwetel (Ejiofor) a bunch of Jean-Pierre Melville stuff to watch. He was a master of capturing existential characters who've made a choice they can't escape from. They're always trying to do one last job and can't stop themselves. And he loved that. He really embraced that element into his character as well as all the serious training he did with the Special Forces.

Was he familiar with Le Samouraï or any of Melville's work?

Yeah, particularly Le Samouraï, Bob the Gambler, and Un Flic were the three main ones.

Director John Hillcoat Reveals How Kate Winslet Got So Evil in 'Triple 9'
Magnolia | SN Prodis | Warner Brothers

Who are your personal directorial inspirations?

Oh, well, that would go on for possibly weeks (laughs). In this case, with crime thrillers, I looked at, starting way back with film noir... How do we make a color contemporary noir? So it was that kind of... the visual thing, the mood, and paranoia, the fatalistic choice these people caught up in crime get swept into. So there was the visual referencing of that, but also the whole thing of the characters not being what they seem to be. That was a major reference point. But then how that genre developed and has been made into gritty crime thrillers like The French Connection, obviously. That was a big one. Sidney Lumet was a big one. He worked with large groups of people, the moral complexities he had. I still think Prince of the City is the greatest cop movie ever made. That was a big influence on The Wire. And both were a huge influence on me... And all the way through to Michael Mann's Heat and his first film, Thief. And more contemporary examples, probably the last, for me, great gritty crime thriller was A Prophet, the Audiard film. Gomorrah.. just to name a few.

So you definitely look outside the US for those authentic depictions of crime...

Yes and Takeshi Kitano who did Violent Cop, the way he approaches violence. And Peckinpah, The Getaway was a big one. There's an incredible action scene in there where he incorporates bystanders. And the way that element of chaos intersects when action kicks of. So that was another one. I could go on endlessly...  

I wish we could. Thank you very much, John.

Thank you.

Director John Hillcoat Reveals How Kate Winslet Got So Evil in 'Triple 9'
Open Road
Senior Editor at Zimbio. I'll take Johnny Clay, the Rev. Harry Powell, and Annie Savoy. You can have the rest.