Kate Beckinsale is a performer who has always ably jumped between such bombastic Hollywood fare as Total Recall and her signature Underworld series, and smaller offerings such as her latest project, Love & Friendship. The film, currently in limited release, reunites Beckinsale with writer-director Whit Stillman, with whom she first worked on 1998’s Last Days of Disco.
Based on Jane Austen’s unfinished novel Lady Susan, Stillman has turned the epistolary prose into a film that not only highlights not only Austen’s particular brand of comedy, but Beckinsale as the conniving “Lady” of the title, Susan Vernon, who is at turns devious and alluring as she manipulates friends, family, and acquaintance alike in her search for physical and material contentment.
It’s a showcase turn for the actress, and it’s clear that the actress had a great experience reuniting not only with her Last Days director, but also with her co-star form that film, Chloë Sevigny, an enthusiasm that was palpable during my conversation with the star during her recent visit to the Bay Area. Read on for some highlights of that chat:
Can you talk about reuniting with Whit after this many years was it something you had been hoping for; was it a pleasant surprise?
Well, Whit sort of went subterranean for a really long period of time so I didn’t really know if that was something to even hope for, to be honest. Whit is a really interesting creature, so he could easily pop up in any other career. I sort of believe Whit can kind of do anything, and wouldn’t be surprised by anything, but it was an extraordinary experience — the first movie we did together was my first American movie that I’d ever done, and it was the first time I’d ever had to do an American accent on film.
And the thing about Whit is that he is sort of Jane Austen in that respect, where he was at that time kind of specializing in a very particularly strata of sort of social milieu, which I was absolutely unfamiliar with; you can imagine coming from England and not having been to America at all, so I felt very unqualified to, you know, when I first got out there I felt like this foreigner who had to really learn about Connecticut and those sort of people and all of that.
And luckily, there was Whit; Chloe was very familiar with all that, so I really was sort of following them around going, “A little help?” and “Who’s this?” and “Who should I listen to, and who’s voice should I copy?” and funny enough Whit said to me yesterday that accent-wise the only problem they had in Last Days of Disco in the end scene between Chloe and I she’d taken on my English accent so they had to redo that, which was very funny.
I didn’t know that until yesterday, which made me laugh. So this time it was a bit different because it was a bit more my territory. I kind of started out doing Jane Austen. Obviously, I’m English so….
There was that.
There was that and it was a little bit easier. You know we had to sort of epistolary relationship at first, the back-and-forth emails. Given that I’m at-base an academic more than anything else, when Whit said I’d like to have your notes on the script, of course I sent back a small thesis, and he’d harass me with these notes for ages and I was feeling like, “Oh god I’ve got to…” ’cause I’d prepared like I’d prepare for anything I was doing at university.
He was like, “Oh, thank you. Can you send some more?” and I sent some more, and then he was like, “Right, I’m getting a bit offended now!” and I was like, “Oh no!” (laughs) So we had a bit of a giggle over that, but he’s amazing because he writes the script and he’s directing, and he’s also got kind of a weird obsession with background actors.
I remember that from Last Days of Disco, where you’d have your most involved scene with your most dialogue and possibly a dance as well, and God knows what going on, and you’d get to the end of it and Whit would be going, “There’s a gardener there, and…” and you’d go, “Well, you’re not looking at all!” But he is, obviously.
This time around I was prepared for it, but the first time I was like, “Oh my goodness, does he hate what I’m doing? He’s looking at the gardener!” it. He’s also got such an amazing gift for what truly is funny, and it might be that the gardener is funnier than you.
Picking up on what you said, this character could very easily have become sinister to the point where the audience turns against her, and I think you manage a very delicate type of walk. What was your process as a performer?
I think the thing that you really don’t want is for it to be arch, and have that kind of mustache twiddling, “I’m a villain” thing. But Whit is so sensitive to nuance. The script that he wrote, I didn’t feel she was like that and I think if your sensibility and the director’s are very similar, it wasn’t something that we were going, “Oh, watch out you’re coming off way too much of a bitch here.”
In fact, his notes were always, “Act a bit less,” or, “Do a bit less.” “Don’t have so much emotion here or there.” They’re pretty much usually that, or something to do with the background. I found it very important to be very aware of the social situation that she was in because this character, who’s an intelligent charismatic woman with a healthy sexual appetite would be doing just fine in 2016. She’d have an extremely high-powered job.
She would have a few lovers and she’d be making her own money and she’d be fine. Trouble is she has all of those qualities and yet she’s in this kind of constrained society where it is sort of impossible to have that kind of a lifestyle unless you’ve secured yourself a husband, and it’s frowned on if you’re not married, and you can’t have multiple lovers and be a serial monogamist or whatever it is.
And yet she has that sensibility so how’s she going to go about that. And I think the way I would most see it is that she’s somebody who very much wants to have her cake and eat it — and does, which is, especially for this period of literature, for a women it’s kind of super unusual. It kind of subverts — what’s supposed to happen if you’ve got multiple lovers and you’re doing all this business that she’s doing you’re supposed to get syphilis and die you know that’s what normally happens or you die in a fire like Dangerous Liaisons, or whatever.
Something terrible happens to you to be a sort of morality tale; Even Mansfield Park, I mean, the adulteress doesn’t do well at the end of that. Whereas she gets every single thing that she wants, and there’s something kind of — you do root for that a bit. There’s a sort of spirit there that even if you didn’t want her in your life, there’s a spirit. (laughs) You kind of cheer a bit. She’s a hundred percent self-serving, and self-justifying. And she’s not insecure at all. There’s something quite nice about…
Yeah. Playing and seeing a female who isn’t plagued by any sort of self-doubt whatsoever yet you don’t want her in your family but as a thing, it’s kind of like, “Go you!” And that kind of slightly sociopathic thing of, “This plan has failed. Oh, no worries…”
Yeah, exactly. But in a second. It’s quite heroic. (laughs)
Jane Austen is almost a genre in and of itself, and it’s something that has transcended the period in which it originated. What do you attribute that to? What to you is the appeal of the Jane Austen genre?
I think this is such a different vibe than what we typically associate with Jane Austen. I think she’s obviously the kind of social commentary and the sort of very light, very character-based humor is amazing. She’s also the most brilliant romantic writer.
That whole Mr. Darcy relationship to me forms the kind of template, blueprint, for nearly every romantic comedy there is. It’s like, “Oh, I don’t like him he’s very grumpy and rude…No, no, I’m in love with him.” That’s like every movie, and she’s sort of created that whole thing and that does kind of capture the imagination.
I’m not sure. I think what I was struck by, for example, seeing how many hundred years ago this was written: we had this screening last night, and people were sort of laughing a lot, which was great, but also kind of gasping with a kind of shock at this behavior, and I’m thinking, “That was written in 1794!”
We’re in 2016. We’ve got Internet porn. We can see people f___g animals, and you’re going “(gasp)!” at a Jane Austen pic? I love the fact that we’re in the Castro in San Francisco in 2016, and people are gasping in shock at a Jane Austen heroine. Not much has changed really in that sense of, oh, that human thing.
Many thanks to Kate Beckinsale for her time. Look for Love & Friendship in select theaters now. To hear the audio from this interview, check out the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast at this link or via the embed below:
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