Kate Beckinsale on body image, staying off social media and her obsession with books

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Helen Bownass
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Refreshing. It’s not a word one would typically associate with Jane Austen. But Love And Friendship, the latest film adaptation of the work of the beloved author, is an unexpectedly funny take on Austen’s least known novella, Lady Susan, about a scheming female protagonist. It’s also not a word I expected to associate with Kate Beckinsale. But talking to her, you soon realise you are in the company of someone funny, passionate, candid and whip-smart who, rejoice!, knows how to swear. Another thing I quickly notice is how incredibly fast she speaks – you have to readjust your ears to get used to it. It’s a nice trait though, it smacks of excitability. Something you don’t frequently see reflected, especially by someone with 40-odd films to her name and 25 years in the industry.

But Beckinsale, who grew up in Chiswick, is on the cusp of something special (all over again). After a terribly British start making her name in period dramas including Much Ado About Nothing alongside Emma Thompson and quirky Brit flicks (matched with the quirky pixie crop beloved of indie pop stars in the Nineties) – while also studying at Oxford University for a joint honours in French and Russian literature – Beckinsale somewhat unexpectedly embraced big blockbuster Hollywood life. Coupling a move to Los Angeles with a segue into action films (and a new lustrous hair-do to match), she starred in the Underworld series, which she made with her now ex-husband, Len Wiseman, who she married after splitting from Michael Sheen, the father of her 17-year-old daughter Lily. Other than seeing her out on occasion with celebrity friends like Victoria Beckham, she has also – for a bona fide movie star – kept out of the limelight.

Now though, with Love And Friendship (set in the 1790s), she returns to her period drama roots, reuniting with co-star Chloë Sevigny and director Whit Stillman (with whom she made The Last Days Of Disco in 1998) and is very much coming full circle. As Lady Susan Vernon, she is a Machiavellian, acerbic and quick-witted widow and anti-heroine who is determined to secure a financially viable marriage for herself and her daughter. Elizabeth Bennet she is not. But it is a gift of a part that gives Beckinsale the chance to showcase her comic talents. Here’s hoping there’s more of it to come.

The reviews for Love And Friendship have been very positive with lots of praise for your role. Is that nice to hear or galling in a way – you’ve made so many films already, why are people picking this one?
Not really because this does feel like a special film for me and it does feel like it’s a different period of my life. It’s absolutely possible to have kids and families and move thousands of miles away from home but it doesn’t mean that every aspect of that is going to go the perfect possible way. There have been things that I have compromised on because of placing family before [my career] and that’s not admitting defeat. I would do the same thing again. I’m coming to the point in my life where I’m very lucky, and because I had my daughter so young, I’m experiencing a sudden new sort of chapter.

You’re working with Whit Stillman and Chloë Sevigny again after 18 years, do you feel like a different actress now to how you did then?
My daughter’s dad [Michael Sheen] is an actor and we were talking about it the other day and he said, “It’s funny isn’t it? You start out very early on in your career, especially if you’re really young, and you feel like you know absolutely everything. You’ve got so much confidence and very little experience. And as you get older, you get less confident but have far more experience, so you’re a much better actor but you feel much more self-doubting.” But you have to have that kind of confidence to get through the horror of being a teenager. It’s silly and awful and bleak however you slice it [laughs].

Everybody seemed to be surprised that Michael [Sheen] and his girlfriend Sarah Silverman were at the Love And Friendship LA premiere recently…
I don’t know why everyone was so surprised. Sarah’s such a fantastic woman, I love her and Michael and I have gotten on for years now. I’ve known him since I was 22, we’re basically family. The thing that surprised me was what a big deal everybody made about us all getting on and then thinking, ‘F***, that’s really sad if it’s that unusual’. I don’t think any of us were thinking, ‘This is a huge achievement we’re not punching each other’. I’m completely open to any other strong, cool sensitive independent-thinking women who are going to be an influence in my daughter’s life. Sarah’s a great person and I’m glad she’s in the village that’s helping. It’s important as a teenager to have good women in your life building up the fabric of your experience of becoming a woman. Even if Sarah wasn’t Michael’s girlfriend I’d want her to be in that.

What do you think Love And Friendship says about relationships in the 1790s? It felt to me quite anti-romance.
I think it’s interesting that Jane Austen wrote [Lady Susan] as an extremely bright woman who was acutely aware of the kind of social and cultural constraints that were on women at the time and very much in her own way bucking the system, but she didn’t actually publish it. Here’s this woman who – if she were transplanted to 2016 – would have a great education, she’d have had her own money. If she were to hold out on getting married she’d wait for someone she was sexually attracted to; she wouldn’t have to put all her intelligence and wit into bucking a system that was extremely oppressive to women. She’s just sort of saying, “F*** everything,” or that’s how I’ve chosen to see it. That’s the reason Lady Susan is appealing – she ends up having her cake and eating it twice.

I like the idea of having your cake and eating it twice. Do you think women are more able to do that today?
Women have a much harder deal [than men]. I say that as a woman but also as a mother. We might not have corsets any more but we have just as much body oppression – you have to become the corset now, when you’re naked. There’s the same amount of mental energy going into trying to make your body do something it doesn’t naturally want to do; it’s an excellent way of controlling women. Whenever there are strides made in terms of women getting a vote or the pay gap closing or abortion laws improving, it seems strange that culturally it becomes the vogue to have people emaciatedly underweight or have boobs bigger than their head. It distracts everybody and slows the fight. My daughter is expecting to go to university and have an education and thank God for that, but there are other countries in the world where that’s not the case even now, so we’re still not as far away from it as we might like to think.

Was it nice to finally indulge your comic side?
It is because it’s my favourite thing really, it’s something I’m actually good at. The sort of things that I find funny and the comedy I like, they’re not written that often. I like witty, dry comedies – I love Noël Coward for example.

You studied literature at university. Do you read much now?
We were definitely a family with a lot of books [Beckinsale’s mum is actress Judy Loe and her late father Richard was also an actor]. Then at Oxford, doing double honours in modern languages, I had to read everything in the original. They’d say, “Your next essay is going to be on Dostoyevsky,” so you go, “F***, I’ve got to read all his work in Russian.” Having been addicted to books, it put me off reading for about three years, which was a real identity crisis. It’s like if you work at a chocolate factory – you don’t want to see a Twix ever again. Luckily, I distracted myself by suddenly getting pregnant and once you’ve got a baby you don’t really have time. Now I always travel with at least six books because I get panicky if I don’t have another one ready.

What did you read as a teenager that changed the way you thought?
I remember discovering Ian McEwan aged 13 and being blown away – I got caught reading The Cement Garden in a music class. It’s so amazingly spare and brutal. Also Raymond Carver, Sylvia Plath… I loved all those suffering authors.

What’s the last thing you read that made an impact on you?
Did you read I Love Dick [by Chris Kraus]? I loved that. It was a really bothering book. I think I’m attracted to that feeling when you want to throw a book across the room and also carry on reading.

Is it important to keep that part of your brain stimulated?
I’ve got no choice – I wake up, brush my teeth, open a book. My house is full of books. They’re under the bed, my daughter’s bed, we’ve got a whole closet full… I’m a hoarder. There are certain bookshops I’ll go to and buy 15 books and they’ll say, “That’ll keep you going” and I’ll think, ‘Sh*t, I can’t come in here now.’ It’s like being a drinker!

Would you ever go back to studying?
I took Lily to my old college a couple of years ago and my old French tutor said, “Listen, come back, it’s fine” and I was like, “Maybe I will”. But I need to wait a bit. I don’t want to become that awful mother who’s like, “Oh, you’re at college. So guess what? I’m at college too. You can’t get your identity, I have to have it,” [laughs]… I do love the idea of going back to study English literature though.

You’re not on Twitter or Facebook: is that a calculated decision?
When [social media] first started I could not think of anything more oppressive than Tweeting “I’m having a boiled egg” and because I’m English I like to reserve the right to complain about any loss of privacy. I also have a hard enough time keeping up with text and emails so I thought, ‘Oh my God that’ll be another thing to feel like I’ve failed at, how am I going to get everything done?’ I am starting to realise what’s good about it, though, I’ve never been in charge of how my voice comes across in an interview for example. Social media is an opportunity for people who are in the public eye to go “This is who I am” [as if to prove her point, six days before we go to press Beckinsale joins Instagram]. But at the same time I feel I’m that person who will be about to fall asleep and then decide to pontificate about something or send a picture of my knickers and that would be terrible [laughs].

As a Brit living in America, how have you felt watching the US election unfold?
The whole Trump thing is kind of mind-boggling. It seems like he must have started it as a joke and now look, we’re in real trouble. My daughter’s dad’s girlfriend is a huge Bernie Sanders supporter – she made the most fantastic video – so I’m in that environment where she’s very politically involved and my daughter is too so it’s not like I can sit there going, “This doesn’t apply to me at all.” It is a kind of lurching terror going, “This is a real thing, please can we find anyone else, Howard Stern, anyone…”

Now, as you look ahead at your career, does it feel like an exciting place to be?
It feels really exciting because it feels more reflective of my sensibility. I’ve spent so much time doing action movies or being at home that I think people think that’s my whole thing and it really isn’t. I’m writing a screenplay with another British writer who went to the same school as me and is also the only other person in LA who doesn’t know how to drive! I was really into writing as a young person and then got very tied up with acting and bringing up Lily, so it’s a nice moment to inherit some of the things that had to by necessity go on hold. And it softens the terror of feeling, ‘Oh my God, my baby’s going to go to college’. Because that is true, but it’s also true that it’s biologically imperative that she does otherwise she turns into a complete eejit. It’s a great moment for me to become my own woman.

Love And Friendship is in cinemas on 27 May

Photography: Simon Emmett/, Rex Features