Kate Winslet has always been highly regarded for hurling herself headlong into emotional mine fields unbreached by peers of her generation. This awards season, she's done it again, twice.

An Oscar front-runner for her role as a frustrated 1950s suburban housewife in "Revolutionary Road" and also a supporting-actress candidate for her portrayal of a former Nazi guard who seduces a teen in "The Reader," Winslet has never been more celebrated -- or slagged. When your status shifts from admired craftswoman to spotlight siren in Vanity Fair, catty gossip-rag comments about airbrushed nude photo spreads come with the territory.

Winslet is a drama queen in the truest sense. No toss-off funny-girl parts for her (excepting a cameo turn as a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking actress playing a nun on the Ricky Gervais HBO series "Extras"). From the object of another schoolgirl's adoration in "Heavenly Creatures" to the shut-down, playground-prisoner mom in "Little Children," her performances are intelligent, complicated and intense. At 33, she is the youngest actor to have racked up five Oscar nominations and yet to score a win.

From the New York home she shares with her husband, director Sam Mendes, and two children, Winslet spoke of her most challenging professional year, reuniting with Leonardo DiCaprio on "Revolutionary Road," working with Mendes for the first time and those two looming little gold statues.

While she says she has no agenda or checklist of requirements when choosing scripts she wants to pursue, Winslet does have one "tell":

"If I'm freaked out by it and think I could never do that, that makes me think I should be doing it," she said. "I felt that way for both of these films. Playing these two incredibly strong characters has been the most creatively rewarding year of my life, taught me more and stretched me more than ever before."

A 'poisoned' love story

Based on a bestselling German novel, "The Reader" (opening Christmas Day) follows a 15-year-old Berlin boy's affair with a 35-year-old woman he meets by chance who loves being read to as foreplay. She disappears abruptly, and years later the boy, now a law student, witnesses her trial for a horrific war crime committed when she was a Nazi concentration camp guard.

Some reviewers have blasted "The Reader" for its intimate sex scenes, calling the age difference between the characters a tacit condoning of child abuse. (Actor David Kross, who plays the boy, was 18 when the film was shot.) Another charge is that the scenes manipulate viewers into feeling sympathy for Winslet's character, Hanna, whom director Stephen Daldry calls "morally illiterate." One critic directly faulted the use of Winslet's "nubile body" to achieve that end.

"I don't have a particularly nubile body, so what the hell are they talking about?" she said. (One glance at those ballyhooed magazine shots and you may beg to differ.) "All I can tell you is that I didn't feel it was manipulative, it's much more complex than that. This is a love story, and it's as much a sexual awakening for Hanna, who's never had such a relationship, as it is for the young man. It was essential to have this age gap so this man is forced to deal with the crimes of a previous generation.

"As for Hanna being sympathetic, I can't know whether people will feel that or not, but I would hope they would feel a bit poisoned by it if they do."

Another source of controversy around "The Reader" is the movie studio's campaign for her nomination as best supporting actress, so she won't have to compete with her performance in "Revolutionary Road" in the best lead actress category. When asked how the role of Hanna, clearly a female lead, can be considered supporting, Winslet turned uncharacteristically but predictably coy.

"I have no idea how these things work," she said. "I don't know what makes a supporting role. My job is to talk about these films in a genuine way and have an open heart and just hope audiences respond."

Adding the 'extra' to ordinary

In "Revolutionary Road," opening Jan. 2, she plays April, an aspiring New York stage actress whose dreams of an artistically rich and unconventional life erode into bland homogeneity after marriage to office drone Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and a move to suburban 1950s Connecticut.

The below-the surface simmer Winslet brings to her characters has never been more crucial to a film's success than in "Revolutionary Road." As can be surmised from the rather dull trailers, this is in many ways an ordinary story that depends almost entirely on the actors' ability to draw you into their psyches -- and they do.

"Yes, it isn't about tricks or clever shots," she said. "It's about seeing people arguing in their living room, and feeling their love and pain, sometimes expressed simultaneously and sometimes opposite, like real life."

Those expecting the film to be Jack and Rose from "Titanic" all over again will be disappointed. While it's the same lovebirds coupled up, they're older, more battle-scarred and, this time around, actually intriguing. It may be the first time many moviegoers will stop thinking of baby-faced DiCaprio as an overgrown kid.

"I hope people will come to love Frank and April as much as they did Jack and Rose, but we're so much older, and it's such a wildly different love story. There wasn't a moment when we caught ourselves doing Jack and Rose."

"Revolutionary Road" will draw comparisons to the film "Far From Heaven" and even the cable series "Mad Men" for its period look and its reflection of the post-World War II era's stultifying morality, but both of those productions are lush and stylized. This one's more muted, from its colors to its characters. "Bleak" is a popular adjective being used -- not quite accurate, nor one Winslet would choose.

"The killer ending takes you to some very dark places. It's a brutally honest take on marriage, particularly at a time when women's choices were limited, and so were men's, in many ways. But the moments where April and Frank love each other, you share their joy."

There's a scene near the end of the film that's quietly horrifying, prolonged intentionally to compound the effect. Because April is alone, Winslet has to convey everything she's going through silently.

"I was walking around with a permanent sick feeling in my stomach," she said. "It's very difficult to do something of that intensity of emotion, because you don't have a vocal outlet."

Significant others

"Revolutionary Road" marks the first time Winslet has worked with husband Mendes ("American Beauty," "Road to Perdition") as director. Based on a beautifully written but generally underappreciated 1961 novel by Richard Yates, the script caught Winslet's attention as the right vehicle for a husband-and-wife collaboration.

"Just like getting back together with Leo, I was sort of quietly looking for something for us to do together. It was unconventional in that it's not often an actress is the first to become attached to the material and everyone else comes later, but I felt this was it."

One of the best aspects of working with Mendes was that "his focus is absolutely on the actors, because of his theater experience," Winslet said. "All the closeups are so you can really make sure you're seeing everything going on in the faces, and every mark and wrinkle along with it. It's one of the things Sam's proudest of."

Winslet has made no bones about her desire to snag an Oscar. (Her bleeped-out quote from Vanity Fair's cover was: "Do I want an Oscar? You bet your @#*%ing ass I do!") So can she stop thinking about the Academy Awards, even for five minutes?

"No," she said. "It's very hard to avoid, and that's coming from the heart."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046