Kate Beckinsale: Phone taps and Austen super powers

Kate Beckinsale might be a go-to girl for Jane Austen adaptations, in between badass superhero roles. But her family life growing up had more to do with miners’ marches, Trotskyism and having their phone tapped

It seems only right and proper that a sparky, funny clever-clogs like Kate Beckinsale is something of a Jane Austen veteran.

During the 1990s, the London-born actor became the go-to girl for classy literary adaptations: she was the heroine of Cold Comfort Farm (1995), a proto-Ophelia opposite Christian Bale's proto-Hamlet in Prince of Jutland (1994); and the steadfast wife at the centre of Henry James's The Golden Bowl (2000). Kathrin Romary Beckinsale then became the Emma of choice among Austenologists, when her performance as the titular meddler in a TV drama went head to head with a big-budget feature version starring Gwyneth Paltrow.

Her return to Austen has been a roundabout affair. Almost two decades have elapsed since Beckinsale hit the dance floor as a catty New York socialite in Whit Stillman's The Last Days of Disco, thereby kick-starting a remarkably bi-continental career. It was, she says, the film that changed everything.

“I hadn’t done any American movies,” she recalls. “I hadn’t spent any real time there. It was a very transformative experience for me because I was really afraid of it. I felt then, and still do feel, that if something frightens you acting-wise, it’s probably worth doing.


“So I came out and started playing this very specific social New York person that I had absolutely no experience of. And suddenly I realised I could act in America. And the whole world opened up.”

Beckinsale and her Last Days of Disco co-star, Chloë Sevigny, have reunited with Stillman for Love & Friendship, a deliciously arch adaptation of Jane Austen's abandoned early novella, Lady Susan. Beckinsale plainly has a ball as the devious Lady Susan Vernon – a "genius of the evil kind" by her sister-in-law's reckoning – perhaps the most conniving of Austen's creations.

“I know that Jane Austen wrote the novella when she was 20 and she chose not to publish it,” says Beckinsale, who read French and Russian literature at Oxford. “More than any of the other works, I think this is her roar of frustration at the constraints that one was under as a woman at that time.”

In other respects, Love & Friendship represents a new frontier for its star. She loved the Irish shoot, but was rather less enamoured with the weather. Or, more accurately, weathers.

"I once did a press day in Dublin with Colin [Farrell], bless him, for Total Recall. But apart from that I'd never spent any time in Ireland before. Like most English people, when I go on holiday, I want to go somewhere that has less rain than London. And as much as I loved Ireland and loved that everyone has a fantastic story about Bono or Graham Norton – who must be the most consistently nice people in the world – nothing could have prepared me for the weather. It's rainy. It's windy. It's sunny. There are hailstones. Then back to windy.

“Normally if I’m cold I put my thermals on and get on with it. But you can’t dress for Irish weather. It’s impossible.”

Slightly nuts

Between Stillman films, Beckinsale, who was once described by Oxbridge contemporary Victoria Coren as “whip-clever, slightly nuts, and very charming”, has presided over one of the movieverse’s most surprising careers.

Nobody, least of all Beckinsale, had expected the classic English Rose to become a very Hollywood heroine, especially not of the kick-ass variety. And yet Underworld: Blood Wars, the fifth film to feature Beckinsale's vengeful vampire Selene, will hit multiplexes everywhere this coming October.

“It’s still ludicrous to me,” laughs the 42-year-old. “I wasn’t somebody who was doing a bunch of martial arts. I wasn’t even a fan of PE at school. When I first started making movies, it was assumed that I was this posh English girl who could handle Shakespeare and Chekhov and things like that.

“It’s very different. You can do dozens of movies, but once you’ve done that kind of genre piece – where the costume is almost a character in its own right – it carries an entirely different cultural weight. I think I was so absolutely confident in my actual persona and sure who I was that I didn’t think for a second that anyone would say, ‘Oh, the woman from action movies’. But people have cobbled together an idea that I’m a badass. It’s hilarious.”

Sheen break-up

Beckinsale's unexpected move to the US and the big leagues was not always cheered on at home. There was more than a touch of Tall Poppy Syndrome in the manner the British press covered her break-up with the actor Michael Sheen, her partner for eight years and the father of her only daughter, Lily. (She subsequently married the Underworld director Len Wiseman in 2004; they separated last year.)

More eyebrows were raised when she relocated to Los Angeles. She is probably the only ever jury member at the Cannes Film Festival to have received criticism from the tabloids regarding the whiteness of her teeth and – a real non-faux pas – daring to wear make-up.

“I suppose it was a weird moment when I went to Los Angeles,” she says. “Nowadays every other British actor has a place out there. But back then it was just me and Catherine Zeta Jones. And people said: Oh, she must be terribly ambitious. But that wasn’t reflective of me at all. I just happened to marry an American. It was one of those unexpected things that life throws at you.”

She laughs: “When I think back on it, it’s as if I’m talking about the 1930s. But it simply wasn’t as easy to hop across the Atlantic. It wasn’t as easy to stay in contact. You’d send Christmas cards. But long-distance phone calls were expensive. Nowadays if you worked with someone and didn’t talk for 15 years, people would think there was a horrible story there. But it was very easy to lose touch before cell phones and everything else.”

Remarkably, daughter Lily Mo retains an English accent after all these years: “My mother worked very hard in theatre,” Beckinsale says, “so she’d often be leaving not long after we came home from school. I think that’s why I decided that bedtime was going to be very important in our house. I read to Lily every night. All of Harry Potter and things like that. I think that hypnotised her into having an English accent.”

The only child of actors Richard Beckinsale and Judy Loe, Kate made her first screen appearance at the age of four on an episode of This Is Your Life. Within a year, her father, the star of such sitcoms as Rising Damp and Porridge, had died from a heart attack. He was just 31.

“There’s a degree of anxiety that comes with losing a parent very early,” says his daughter. “It establishes a kind of baseline. You do feel very passionate about things because you’re really too young to be made aware of how transient life really is. Ideally, you should learn about mortality when your hamster dies. Losing a parent puts you in a strange spot that you have to spend quite a bit of time making your peace with. And I don’t know that you ever quite do.”

Beckinsale would spend four years undergoing Freudian psychoanalysis: “I still have a great deal of time for Freudian analysis,” she says. “It’s very creative.”

When Beckinsale was nine, her widowed mother moved in with Inspector Morse director Roy Battersby, a Trotskyist and activist for the Workers Revolutionary Party. The girl was raised alongside his four sons and daughter. She was close to her stepfather, but I wonder if she is as politicised as him?

Trotsky kids

“Oh, I don’t think I can ever match my stepfather,” she says. “There was a sense growing up that that was his territory, really. He was an expert on so many amazing things. I grew up with amazing conversations. I grew up with miners coming in and out of our house during the strike. We used to sell Trotskyite newspapers on the street when we were kids. I think our phone was tapped at one point. And my stepfather was blacklisted by the BBC because he was considered too left-wing.

“I remember when I realised that not everybody’s parents were like ours: that they weren’t all deeply involved in trade unions and rights. It was a shock. When I started meeting my friends’ parents, who were voting Conservative? Oh my God, it was like meeting the Yorkshire Ripper.”

Beckinsale laughs at the memory: “I think that’s when I decided I was going to have to do this for a living.”

Love & Friendship opens on May 27th