Kate Winslet and Dominic Savage on I Am Ruth: ‘It’s horrifying what children can access online’

Dominic Savage and Kate Winslet, the director and star of I Am Ruth - Joss Barratt
Dominic Savage and Kate Winslet, the director and star of I Am Ruth - Joss Barratt

“I know one mother who has a child who’s doing OK: not interested in social media, super active, very creative, and is actually coping with this chapter in her life,” says Kate Winslet. “That is literally one. And I know so many mothers with teenagers.”

I’m in west London with the Oscar-winning star of Titanic and The Reader, talking about the issues raised by her new feature-length Channel 4 drama, I Am Ruth. Winslet plays the title character, a suburban mother struggling to find a way to help her teenage daughter with depression brought on by her relationship with social media. It lands at a time when there is an epidemic of mental health problems among the young, especially teenage girls.

In Dominic Savage’s film, Ruth’s daughter Freya is played by Winslet’s real-life daughter Mia Threapleton. Savage and Winslet between them developed the story, which takes in problems with body image, social media and self-harm. It’s the latest in the director’s I Am series of realist dramas that focus on our closest relationships. “I think those relationships are the real stuff of our life,” he tells me. “And unless they’re right, we’re not right. You could never explore them enough.”

One of the issues for him about teenagers and their online existence is that “you just don't know what’s going on in their life. They clam up, they don’t talk to you about it.”

I Am Ruth zeroes in on mobile phone addiction as one of the factors in Freya’s crisis. At one point in the drama, Ruth says she wants to take Freya’s phone and smash it “into a thousand pieces and s--- on it and flush it down the f------ loo”. It’s a scream of frustration that a lot of parents must have felt – has she? “Yeah, definitely. But I want to smash my own phone and s--- on it and flush it down the loo. This was completely improvised, this film. Everything was made up in the moment. So many of these words are words I have said, or that Mia has said, or that our friends’ daughters or my friends have said.”

Freya posts sexual images of herself on social media, then is dismayed by the comments they attract. Today’s teenagers, Winslet says, “are growing up in a much more sexualised society. It’s horrifying what children can access online these days. What upsets me most are the ideas that are being fed to young boys and young men about what women’s bodies actually look like. Because so much of that is inaccurate. So women are automatically feeling judged or insecure, or scrutinised.”

Winslet as the title character in the feature-length Channel 4 drama, I Am Ruth - Joss Barratt/Channel 4
Winslet as the title character in the feature-length Channel 4 drama, I Am Ruth - Joss Barratt/Channel 4

In response, she says, “a huge number of young women are digitally altering, not just their faces, but their entire bodies [in] images of themselves online. And that is enormously sad. Because when that person then looks in the mirror and sees what they really look like, half the time they don’t like what they see.”

Winslet is still cross about the way people talked about her Emmy-winning performance as a world-weary cop in last year’s TV drama Mare of Easttown – “baring all and, you know, no make-up and looking like crap for the camera – it’s ridiculous”. We wouldn’t talk about a male actor that way, she says. “We just go ‘Wow, what a great performance’, so it kind of p----- me off that so much attention gets paid to actresses when they don’t look red-carpet ready.”

Is she expecting similar comments in response to I Am Ruth? “I hope not,” she says, with a note of warning in her voice. Whereas for Mare of Easttown, “the reality is I did have make-up on every flipping day; we just made it look a certain way”, in I Am Ruth “I really don’t have any make-up on my face apart from some scenes when I have a little bit of mascara because I’m going into the office. And I shoved my hair back in a crappy old ponytail, like I do every day of my life when I’m going on the school run.”

The 47-year-old has talked in the past about being bullied for her body shape at school and even at the start of her film career, with Titanic director James Cameron mocking her as “Kate Weighs-a-lot”. “Because of what I had experienced, it was really important to me that we looked at that,” she says. “It resonates with so many people, so many parents, who just watch their children refusing to eat, [saying] ‘I’m fat. I hate myself. I’m not gonna go out. I’m not gonna wear this.’ These are sentences that come out of teenagers’ mouths all the time, that parents hear all the time.”

'It's horrifying what children can access online': Kate Winslet stars with her real-life daughter Mia Threapleton in 'I Am Ruth' - Joss Barratt, Channel 4
'It's horrifying what children can access online': Kate Winslet stars with her real-life daughter Mia Threapleton in 'I Am Ruth' - Joss Barratt, Channel 4

Winslet has three children – Threapleton, who’s 22, 18-year-old Joe Mendes (who also appears in the drama) and eight-year-old Bear Winslet, from her marriage to Edward Abel Smith. As the father of three daughters, Savage says he has witnessed first-hand the “corrosive nature” of social media on young people, “the obsession with it, the dependence on it, the belief in it. I feel more harm has come from it than good.”

Winslet has not let her own children have social media at all. For parents who ask how she stays firm when all their friends have it, she has a simple answer: “You just say, ‘No, you can’t have it.’ And that’s what I was able to say to mine. We do not have social media, and my children are very grateful that they’ve not had it.

“People who are in real authority positions when it comes to the regulation of the use of phones and social media – those people know who they are, they know the power that they have – I would like them to make some decisions about when it’s OK to allow children to have access to certain forums, to allow children or their parents to purchase those phones.”

In I Am Ruth, Savage is careful to develop the sense that both mother and daughter are thrown into crisis by the pressures affecting teenagers, as Ruth struggles to find a way to communicate with Freya that doesn’t make their problems worse. Winslet recognises Ruth’s dilemma: “I have for sure looked my children in the eye and thought, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. What do I do? What do I say to you right now?’ It’s a very, very difficult time to raise teenagers.”

A week after the drama goes out Winslet will return to movie screens in James Cameron’s $250 million Avatar sequel, The Way of Water, playing a performance-captured blue alien warrior. Its underwater filming involved a breath-holding feat of which she’s very proud. “Seven minutes and 14 seconds... I couldn’t believe I was capable of it. I literally felt bionic. And I thought, ‘Oh my God, look at me. I’m in my 40s, I’ve had three children. And I’m learning this whole new physical thing.’ And you do have to learn it. I mean, that was three weeks of training that got me to that long breath hold.”

'The reality is I did have make-up on every flipping day': Winslet won an Emmy for her performance as a world-weary cop in Mare of Easttown - HBO
'The reality is I did have make-up on every flipping day': Winslet won an Emmy for her performance as a world-weary cop in Mare of Easttown - HBO

There could hardly be a bigger contrast between the two dramas. “One version is drawing with a pencil,” as Winslet puts it. “And the other is kind of painting on huge canvases with massive rollers full of acrylic.” But she does see similarities. For Avatar, “you’ve got a helmet camera sitting right there in front of your face. So every single detail of the performance is captured. It’s the same as doing something with Dominic Savage, that camera is right in your face.”

Savage tells me that he had “lots of frank conversations” with I Am Ruth’s two leads, and was keen to develop separate but equal relationships with them on set. “I would talk to Mia a lot without Kate having anything to do with it. I would talk to Kate without Mia.” Did he ever find himself saying, as someone says to Freya in the drama, “Is mum part of the problem?” “It’s interesting you say that, because I think that is the truth about so many parents, isn’t it? We are the problem.”

He thinks parents are sometimes in denial about what their children are going through “because you don’t want to think that anything is wrong, you don't want there to be anything wrong. So you probably think it's just a phase, it’s what teenagers are like. The big thing is realising there is something wrong, and you do need to find other ways to help. I think we’ll always want to believe that we can solve it ourselves. It’s not always the case.”

Savage believes TV has lost its social conscience, with very few dramas now dealing with the things that are most important to us. Growing up, he was influenced by “authored” television pieces such as those by Dennis Potter and Alan Clarke, and The Wednesday Play. “That has all gone,” he says. “It is all about quite long-running series, isn't it? Personally I don't like that format particularly. I much prefer seeing something and then it ends. It’s quite hard to get those on TV now.”

But how do naturalistic dramas like his compete with the Marvel, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings-style fantasies, which have escaped the cinema and moved on to the small screen via the streaming platforms? “My feeling is that people do actually want to confront the difficult bits of their life. Obviously, some people say what people want is escapism from that. But I'm not sure. I think more and more people want the idea of visiting something very truthful and meaningful, that’s not fantasy.”

I Am Ruth is on Channel 4 at 9pm on Thursday 8 December