It's to Kate Winslet's credit that, despite being in movies for a dozen years, her persona is so normal and humane, yet diverse. And when she arrives for this interview, the 31-year-old English actress doesn't disappoint. She is all of those things, as well as earthy, smart and friendly.

And busy: Within three months, she will have starred in four films. First came last month's political drama All the King's Men . Then there's the dark contemporary drama Little Children , out now. Then she's a starring voice in November's animated Flushed Away . And in early December comes the romantic comedy The Holiday .

“I've always applied the same attitude to things, an impulsive, instinctive reaction,” says Winslet. “It's hard to describe, but I often get a sense of absolute certainty – like, ‘Yeah, that's the thing I really would want to do.'

“Maybe this is the part of me that's not very business-savvy, but I never think, ‘Oh, this or that will be good for me.' Only afterward will it dawn on me, where I say, ‘Oh, this is good because I haven't played an everyday American woman as I do in Little Children , or a modern Englishwoman as I do in The Holiday . It's only after I've finished it that I realize something worked out.

“Which is very typical of me in life. I've never been a good planner. I can plan my life and kids and everything, but in terms of work, I've never been good at it. I like the flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants thing. Life is more interesting then.”

Winslet reveals that even before she first appeared onscreen in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures (1994), she was pretty matter-of-fact about things. It's all part of being from a middle-class family and the daughter of two working stage actors who valued every paycheck.

Her first audition for a film, after some English TV, was Creatures . Jackson's film about real-life 1950s teen murderesses was a critical success. She followed it with Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility (the 1995 film brought the first of her four Oscar nominations so far) and Kenneth Branagh's 1996 Hamlet (as Ophelia). Then she did Titanic (1997), but the film's insane popularity didn't really get to her.

“My life did change from Titanic , and for the better in many ways – but I was only 21, and there were some things that were so tough,” Winslet says. “I never stuck a needle in my arm, or snorted tons of cocaine or was found drunk in a gutter – I never even skimmed the edges of that world. And that's really because of my parents, how they raised me.

“But my life is so drastically different now from what it was then, my day-to-day life. I have my two kids and my marriage, and it feels like it happened to another person, which makes it easier to think through.”

She followed Titanic with characteristically quirky roles (1998's Hideous Kinky , where she met her first husband, Jim Threapleton) and 1999's Holy Smoke . Then came more high-profile roles in quality art films: Quills (2000), Iris (2001), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). Her reputation steadily grew, from being the go-to girl for period films to being an overall stamp of quality.

Little Children , directed by Todd Field ( In the Bedroom ), is getting attention, however, not for Winslet's show of skin, but her show of emotion. The film, a rich, twisted tapestry about life in a Massachusetts suburb and the damaged and desirous souls who live there (played by Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly, Jackie Earle Haley and Noah Emmerich), is already generating talk of another Best Actress nomination for her. It also offered her a chance to play a close-to-the-bone modern woman (she does it again, comedically, as a Londoner who trades homes with L.A.-based Cameron Diaz in The Holiday .)

“There was so much about this character in Little Children that I related to, but there were parts of her I didn't respect,” she says. “I had to accept the things I didn't like about her – her weakness as a parent, for instance – but it was very liberating to just not care about whether I liked her, and to throw myself in.”

© 2006, New York Daily News.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Little Children is currently in select theaters.