Kate Winslet

Road to Love

UPDATED 07/29/2002 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/29/2002 at 01:00 AM EDT

A perfectionist and workaholic, Sam Mendes worked everyone hard on his new gangster film Road to Perdition. But cinematographer Conrad Hall, who also teamed with Mendes on the 1999 Oscar winner American Beauty, has reason to hope the British director might take a more relaxed approach in the future. "I'm thinking that on the next film, the days might be shorter," says Hall, "because he's in love with a very beautiful lady."

Said beauty, British actress Kate Winslet, also seems rather laid-back of late. "She's quite radiant and very, very happy within herself," says designer Ben de Lisi, who created the star's much-praised tomato-red gown for this year's Oscars. Last November, to put tabloid rumors to rest, they revealed their romance two months after Winslet's surprise separation from her husband of less than three years, assistant director Jim Threapleton. Mendes, 36, had been spotted with Winslet, 26, that month in Austin, Texas, where she was filming her upcoming movie, The Life of David Gale. Since then, they have been flashing their grins from Los Angeles (where they were a fixture at pre-and post-Oscar parties) to New York City (she jetted in to attend the Perdition premiere on July 9) and even at Winslet's parents' home in Reading, England—which, as fate would have it, is Mendes's hometown too. "He's a good man," Winslet said at the December premiere of her film Iris, where they made their official dating debut. "You can say I said that with a large smile on my face."

The pair, who have until now kept separate London homes, recently purchased a $3.8 million house—complete with a private garden and an artist's studio—in the city's tony Belsize Park neighborhood. "They're both very energetic, highly motivated, and I think they understand each other's condition," says Richard Eyre, a mutual pal who directed Winslet in Iris. "To be with a partner who can mutually understand what pressures the other is under—I think that's a rather rare bond."

And one that was apparently lacking in Winslet's marriage. She and Threapleton, who met on the set of the indie flick Hideous Kinky, wed in 1998 and had a daughter, Mia, now 21 months. But "Kate was always busy traveling and Mia would be with her," Threapleton, 28, told Britain's Mail on Sunday last November. Winslet, the second of four children born to actors Roger, 63, and Sally, 56, rose from working in a London tea shop to starring in the biggest film ever, 1997's Titanic, in a matter of a few years. For her part, friends say, Winslet felt a lack of support. As one mutual pal summed it up, "She's incredibly needy, and he is incredibly moody. The bubble burst very quickly."

But for Winslet, at least, recovery was similarly speedy. She and Mendes met last August, when he approached her to star in two upcoming stage productions at his Donmar Warehouse theater company in London (she turned him down). They confirmed their relationship three months later, and Mendes subsequently pointed out that they had not dated until her marriage "was already over." Previously linked with actresses Calista Flock-hart, Brit Jane Horrocks and About a Boy's Rachel Weisz, Mendes has declared that "I don't believe in marriage. People from broken homes just don't buy it."

The only child of Peter, 62, a college English professor, and Valerie, 62, a children's books author, Mendes was 3 years old when his parents split; soon after, he moved to London with his mother and then to Oxford, where he excelled at cricket and English in high school. Later he attended Cambridge University. Mendes's sporting skills ultimately helped land him his first postcollege job, when John Gale, then director of the Chichester theater festival, looking to improve his cricket team's odds, gave Mendes his first break. "He seemed like a 30-year-old even when he was 22, in his manner and communication skills," says Gale. Hailed as a theater wunderkind, Mendes went on to direct smash productions of Cabaret and The Blue Room, the latter starring a famously (albeit briefly) nude Nicole Kidman.

Now working on several theater productions—including a 2003 staging of Gypsy on Broadway—Mendes is also savoring the stellar reviews of Perdition, which brought in $22 million on its opening weekend, while his girlfriend is taking a break before her next film, The Life of David Gale, opens in the fall. In London the pair lie low, dining out with friends or staying in with Mia, of whom Threapleton shares custody. Mendes "loves her," Eyre says of the child. "It gives him a surrogate family." As for the road to the altar, friends predict Mendes's onetime reluctance might eventually give. "Kate is definitely the one for Sam," says Eyre. "I think they're both really lovely people, and they deserve their happiness."

Michelle Tauber
Liz Corcoran, Caris Davis and Pete Norman in London and Rachel Biermann in Los Angeles

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