It’s possible that Kate Beckinsale has been a bit undersold by a career so far dominated by the likes of four entries in the Underworld franchise (with a fifth on the way) and a few recent duds like the Total Recall remake or last year’s Absolutely Anything. Or at least, that’s the immediate feeling one’s struck with a few minutes into Love & Friendship, when it becomes clear that Beckinsale has turned out the sort of astonishing, tour de force performance many of us might have forgotten she was capable of.
In Whit Stillman’s adaptation of an early, posthumously published Jane Austen novella, Beckinsale is the scheming widow Lady Susan. Manipulative and cruel as she manoeuvres herself and her daughter into secure marriages, she’s the driving force of the narrative, but rarely its beating heart. Beckinsale finds the charm and appeal of the character though, and it’s impossible not to be won over by her twinkling smile – even at her most heinous moments. We caught up with her at Mayfair’s Beaumont Hotel to talk Love & Friendship, Jane Austen, and why it matters to everyone that Underworld number five is on the way–whether you like the films or not.
How did you first get involved with Love & Friendship?
I was in Bulgaria doing another movie and I got sent a script by my agent, saying this is Whit Stillman’s new movie. Of course I’d worked with Whit Stillman years ago [in 1998’s The Last Days of Disco] and was obviously very interested to read anything he’d done. It said it was adapted from a Jane Austen novella which I’d never heard of, and I then started reading, and actually called my agent about 20 pages in and went, ‘It’s not actually based on a novella, is it? This is just Whit writing sort of like Jane Austen.’ She said, ‘I really think it is.’
Then I looked it up, and was like, ‘Wow, it really is.’ And then it was astonishing how much it just is the novella, and there’s very little actually that he’s messed about with. So that was surprising. And then I went and met with him, and it sort of went quiet for a bit, and then all of a sudden six or eight months later they got the funding together, and that was that and off we went.
So it sounds like you went back and read the original novella, Lady Susan.
Oh yeah, I did a little PhD in it.
Did that inform your performance?
I thought it was so funny. That was what was so striking to me. It’s so funny, and she’s so extreme–and she is a little more extreme in the novella even. I was so in love with this character that I kept probing Whit, saying, ‘Oh, go on, put this back, put this back.’
Was that one of the challenges, trying to keep her sympathetic?
I don’t think you can ever set out to make a character sympathetic, because I think that’s a hiding to nothing. I felt quite passionate about her from the get-go, because I thought her spirit was so great, and she was such a force. I’ve always been attracted to those characters–you should really dislike them, but you sort of like them really. I love those. But they don’t come around as often as I’d like.
And also about placing her in the context of the social constraints that were on her at that period in time and being a woman and all that. I don’t, for example, think if Lady Susan, her DNA and personality, appeared in 2016, she’d be up to anything particularly scandalous. She’d be having an education, she’d be having a great job, she’d have a couple of boyfriends, and there’d be no story. But the point is that she’s kind of subverting the expectations of that period, and also navigating herself through in the most elegant way to get everything she feels she should have. Which is basically freedoms, in terms of financial, sexual, personal–which I don’t think at base is a bad thing to want. It’s just that she’s got to go some slightly unorthodox ways to get it.
It’s not the first Jane Austen you’ve done [Beckinsale was in a 1996 ITV adaptation of Emma]. How was it returning to Austen?
Very familiar. Obviously I didn’t do five or six Austens, but I spent quite a long time doing Emma because it was a mini-series, so that was really nice. But also I did this film Cold Comfort Farm where the heroine was obsessed with Jane Austen and was trying to write in the style of her. When I was starting out acting, the British film industry really was making those and not a whole lot else at the time. It was super unusual to make anything else, unless you were Ken Loach or Mike Leigh you weren’t really making any movies that required jeans.
So it felt very familiar, and quite weird, because Whit was the one who dragged me out of that and into America, and then just when everyone went, ‘Oh, she does American movies,’ Whit then took me back to Austen.
So this is something we asked Whit as well. Do you see this as a feminist film?
I guarantee Whit said no. [Laughs]
Actually on some level I do, but obviously that’s not the intention of the director. I think there is a celebration of a woman who is going for freedoms that are denied to her. Pretty universally people are supporting this character who is kind of a naughty person. And I think that that’s partly why, even if it’s subliminally, because it’s within this very rigid social situation–that’s partly why you forgive some of it.
You feel like she’s earned the right.
Yeah, exactly. What she’s going for is absolutely right. How she’s going for it is a bit more under debate.
But then it’s not clear that there is any other way for her to achieve it.
Quite. And she’s still doing it with very nice manners.
Moving away from Love & Friendship, you’ve got another Underworld film on the way. Did you ever imagine you’d still be making them now?
I didn’t know if I’d make it through the first one, to be honest. When I turned up and they asked me to throw a punch and run around a car park, and they all went, ‘Oh, fuck.’ I thought: ‘I’m gonna be fired.’ Because it was such a stretch for me, it really was not what I’d been doing. I was that girl always had some complicated hairdo going on as a teenager–I didn’t run for the bus, I’d wait for the next one. Not sporty, captain of the hockey team, at all. So yeah, that has been a surprise.
I’m quite proud of it in the sense that, one, there aren’t so many female-led action franchises, and that feels like a nice thing to have contributed–however one feels about the movies. It’s quite nice to have contributed some sort of butt-kicking female-ness, especially when we did the first one, when it was quite unusual for those to work.
And also, which wasn’t my responsibility but I do feel proud of, that it is probably one of the last times an original idea became a franchise. Because it’s all comic books, remakes, video games, and I think because it was in the general scheme a pretty small budget–it was $20 million, the first one, even though it looked like quite a bit more than that–it just about scraped by. And it’s got its own mythology, and its own fan base and all that, and I’m sad because it’s become such an important thing now for it to be attached to something that already exists, and I don’t think that movie would get off the ground any more–or movies like that. So the fact that we’ve got to five, there’s something quite nice about that.
Love & Friendship is out in UK cinemas from May 27th, and you can read the Candid review here.
Words by Dominic Preston