by Gill Pringle

“It’s a twisted love story about two people who should never have fallen in love,” explains Kate Winslet, discussing her latest role as the Chancellor of a modern authoritarian regime in HBO six-part series, The Regime.

Set in an indeterminate Eastern European republic, Chancellor Elena Vernham has not left her palace for some time, growing increasingly paranoid and unstable when she turns to a volatile soldier, Herbert Zubak (Matthias Schoenaerts), as an unlikely confidant and lover – sending her husband into exile.

“It’s also a geopolitical satire where, at times, nothing makes sense at all, and things that happen are so absurd, all you can do is laugh your head off,” she explains.

That absurdity includes Elena’s regular visits to her basement mausoleum for talks with her father’s decomposing corpse and delivering Christmas greetings to her ‘people’ dressed in skimpy festive costume, oblivious to the rioting just beyond the palace walls.

“I lent right into those scenes with her father, because for a person to have kept the corpse of their deceased parent and go and have chats with them downstairs – I knew that was not a safe, emotional place in which that person existed,” says Winslet, whose Chancellor is perhaps at her most unhinged when we see her alternatively scold and chat with her dead father through a glass coffin.

“This is a global leader singing ‘Santa Baby’ as her Christmas message and we decided to lean into the sheer lunacy of it. Here is a woman who thinks people want to see her body all of the time. So, we went all out. We had her sing the song dressed in this dreadful, trashy Santa/Elf gimmicky thing. It was totally mad!”

Created and co-written by Will Tracy (Succession), The Regime is directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen) and Australia’s own Jessica Hobbs (The Crown).

Tracy found inspiration for The Regime after reading Ryszard Kapuschinski’s book The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat about the last days of Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia.

“But the germ of the idea wasn’t about Selassie – more that the book is told in a sort of oral history with his servants and functionaries who worked in his palace. And you can just browse through his day, when he would wake up, what he did for breakfast, how he would dress, who would dress them. And it just seemed a premise I hadn’t seen before – almost like an Upstairs Downstairs or a Downton Abbey,” he says.

“But instead of an English manor house, it’s an autocrat’s palace. And that was really the idea for a setting. And then, more thinking about where this country would be located and fixed geopolitically, kind of between East and West, where they look behind them, and they see China and Russia and they look ahead, and see NATO and Western powers, and they feel somehow, betwixt the two… They’re not really at the big kids table of hegemonic superpower politics, so that seemed like an interesting place to begin,” adds Tracy.

Casting Andrea Riseborough as the beleaguered Agnes – Elena has decided to ‘co-parent’ Agnes’ young son – and Guillaume Gallienne as Elena’s compliant husband Nicholas; with Hugh Grant, who has a cameo as a political dissident.

If everyone around her is acquiescent, then we know we’re in dangerous territory when Elena sets her sights on Schoenaerts’s Zubak [above, with Winslet] – a soldier whose bloodthirsty acts have earned him the nickname, The Butcher.

“Zubak is damaged and haunted by his past,” says the Belgian actor whose films include Rust and Bone and Far from the Madding Crowd.

“It was a very special universe to dive into, because there’s a lot of pain with that character, there’s a lot of self-harm, a lack of self-love that manifests itself into different forms of desperation and violence, which are actually inverse screams for love.

“At the heart of it all, it’s two lost souls coping with existence in a very peculiar context,” he says of finding some kind of twisted happiness with Elena.

“When I read the script for the first time, it was like, ‘What? Am I meant to laugh or be horrified?’ And maybe it is both?

“But when we were making The Regime, we never once mentioned the word ‘satire’. It was as if we were never willing to label it, because once you call it satire it might affect the way you play it. The thing about satire is, it only works when you are serious about it, when you’re not trying to be funny, and you let the inherent comedy that is part of the context and the situation play out,” argues Schoenaerts.

Guillaume Gallienne [above] fully embraced the ludicrousness of his situation playing a cuckolded consort, powerless to change his situation.

“It was great to do because he’s such a wally, and at the same time, you can’t underestimate him because he’s the only one who’s not scared of her, so he can speak the truth but at the same time, he’s still walking on eggs,” says the French actor.

“But I thought it was really funny to do – the consort being always one step behind and, thinking that he controls his world, but he doesn’t control anything. And he’s a bit of a lazy bum and very pompous. But I liked him a lot.

“And you can see there are many layers in their relationship. I mean, they’ve been together for like 15 years. They’ve had ups and downs, and he knows that she can be a bit crazy, but it’s like, I know her so I can deal with her,” he adds.

Riseborough [below] and Winslet had already grown close working together on [still to release] biopic Lee two years earlier.

“At the time, I had just played a character going through chemotherapy, so I had a shaved head. And so, with Agnes, we talked a lot about how perhaps that was Elena’s doing – because she was unable, through her own insecurity, to face Agnes’ motherhood and fertility and youth in some sense – although they’re kind of the same age.

“And while it felt very painful, what I love most about their relationship is that in so many ways, Agnes represents the working people outside of the palace whose lives are being so torturously controlled by the decisions inside of this political bubble – by people who have no experience of what it’s like to live outside of that. And so, the contrast between them is just heartbreaking,” says the British actress whose films include To Leslie, Birdman [The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance], Matilda: The Musical and Possessor.

While there is so much comedy surrounding The Regime’s uncomfortable scenes, Tracy was careful to not let the humour permeate the set, instructing his actors to play it for real. “To me, the comedy or absurdity of the piece is built into the world because she’s so extreme. And because she has unlimited material access and unlimited power, she can create her own reality. And when someone creates their own reality – who is that powerful and that dangerous – everyone around her pretends their reality is reality, and the sky is green, and two plus two equals elephant.

“So, that is inherently funny, that people have to continue down that path with her. It almost would be difficult for me to write the very earnest serious version of that. And also, we have to be careful not to be too playful with it, because of the underlying seriousness of the subject matter. And also, it is the tragedy of the character, too.

“I think she has something in common with a lot of authoritarian figures, in that when they first arrive on the scene, there’s something very off about many of them, they look a little funny, they sound a little funny, and people might even laugh at them. But they take those idiosyncrasies and make them into superpowers; they weaponize them. And then they become even more powerful, but they never forget that they used to be laughed at. And I think that Elena, deep down, may be hardwired by her father, to believe on some level that they’re still laughing at her, but wants to be taken seriously,” he says.

Filmed in palaces in Vienna and inside grand homes in Northern England’s Rotherham, Winslet fully embraced her new universe. “We were given this extraordinary story that constantly peeked behind the curtain. So, even if she is giving a speech and talking to her people, we actually always have the opportunity of seeing what’s behind the curtain, even if it’s seeing her feet under the desk, which is typically not something that you would see of a politician when they’re giving a public address. We always had that insight,” says the actress who won an Oscar for The Reader and Emmys for her roles in two other HBO series, Mildred Pierce and Mare of Easttown.

The Regime is streaming now on Binge, with new episodes every Monday.