Kate Beckinsale trades latex for corset

LOS ANGELES — When female fans approach Kate Beckinsale in public, it’s often to tell the 42-year-old English actor that she represents a fantasy — of their husbands.

“Women will come up and say, ‘You’re my husband’s hall pass,’ which is a really strange thing to have someone say to you,” Beckinsale said, in a recent interview at a Brentwood restaurant. “I always feel slightly panic-stricken and guilty and implicated, which is my own problem. Then it turns out that the husband is hiding behind a trash can, and he was too shy to say anything, and you find yourself in this awkward spot where you’re slightly in a precursor to swinging, when you’ve just been wandering around a store.”

Beckinsale’s come-hither public image has been shaped by her most widely seen films of the past decade or so — action movies such as the Underworld series and Total Recall that call for her to wear figure-hugging latex costumes and convincingly wield a weapon. Less known are the kind of movies with which she began her career in the 1990s, comedies of manners such as Cold Comfort Farm, Emma and Last Days of Disco  that made use of another of Beckinsale’s notable gifts — a cutting wit.

The actor’s latest film, the period comedy Love & Friendship, opening in Victoria on Friday, brings her back to those roots in a performance that’s earning some of the best reviews of her career.

“My character’s got so many constraints on her as a woman because of [the] time period. If she were transplanted to now, she would have a high-powered job and a string of lovers, and she wouldn’t have to put all of her intelligence into finding a husband who’s got money,” Beckinsale said.

In the sophisticated comedy, which Beckinsale’s Last Days of Disco director Whit Stillman adapted from a little-known Jane Austen novella called Lady Susan, she plays the title character, a charismatic, manipulative widow channelling her guile into finding rich husbands for herself and her daughter. She’s the kind of lovable, hateable, tricky female character that has become an unfortunately rare type in contemporary film.

“I’ve always loved broads, the kind of women Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck played,” Beckinsale said. “A woman at the height of her maturity, power, intellect and sexuality. It’s kind of a cool moment in a woman’s life, and I feel like it’s not valued as much as it should be.”

In person, Beckinsale is wickedly funny, with a loud, throaty laugh and a tendency to dart from high topics to low — including the books she’s reading and the cat puke she cleaned up while she was wearing her première gown the night before. If there is a broad in this restaurant full of lunching Brentwood women avoiding their bread baskets, it is surely her.

Some of Beckinsale’s best scenes in Love & Friendship are opposite Chloe Sevigny, who appears as Lady Susan’s co-conspirator in matchmaking and match-breaking. It’s a reprisal, of sorts, of the roles the two actors played in their 20s, as tube top-clad young New Yorkers in Last Days of Disco, with Beckinsale as the stinging queen bee of their social circle. This time they’re in corsets, and Beckinsale is again the alpha.

“Kate is expert at playing this dominant brunette,” Stillman said. “She’s great at the stiletto chops, the knife that is invisible to the victim.”

There has been a directionlessness to Beckinsale’s career choices over the years, as she is the first to admit. Her film selections have been defined less by any kind of professional strategy than by her off-camera life. Shortly after she made her first appearance in American films in Last Days of Disco, Beckinsale had her daughter Lily with her longtime boyfriend, actor Michael Sheen. In 2003, she married her Underworld director Len Wiseman, with whom she would go on to make several films before they separated last year.

“My career has reflected my personal life very much,” Beckinsale said. “There was never a plan. It was all me reacting to things. Being a mom rather young, that affected every decision I made. It wasn’t a question of choosing from all the possible movies. First of all, I wasn’t being offered all the possible movies. But there were certain things it wouldn’t have been appropriate to put my kid through.”

Beckinsale was born in London to two actors, and her early life was marked by a very public tragedy when her father, a beloved star of English sitcoms, died suddenly of a heart attack when she was five. She went on to study French and Russian literature at Oxford before deciding to pursue her parents’ vocation and, after a few TV gigs, landed a role in Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing  opposite Emma Thompson, who made a strong impression as a cool, independent-minded female role model.
 
As a young actress, Beckinsale said she approached Hollywood with arms folded, prepared to be underestimated and oversexualized. “I was really sensitive to that idea of being exploited as a young girl,” she said. “I had the big boots on and the feisty opinions. I wore a backpack with rubber spikes. I didn’t dress or do my hair in a sexy ingenue way. I wasn’t giving out the signal, ‘If you’re a producer . ..  I’m available.’ I was more, ‘I’ll fight you. And write some angry poems.’ ”

After a breakout year in 2001, in which she appeared in Pearl Harbor and the romantic comedy Serendipity, Beckinsale began to let down her guard and see a change in her image, toward a racier persona.

“At 28, 29 I felt like the part I’d kept closed up for my own safety, I could now direct, and within minutes, suddenly you’re in all these sexy photo shoots and you become associated with being sexy, when you weren’t particularly before,” she said.

“I couldn’t have handled that earlier on.”

The action movies followed, and with them came the public ideal of the icy vixen — a fantasy woman who bears little resemblance to the real woman.

“The character I’ve played the most is rather frozen and grim and not very expressive,” Beckinsale said. “She’s a cool character but you don’t necessarily want to have her over for an evening and watch Dirty Dancing, which, I’m more that girl.”

article continues below

Read Related Topics

© Copyright Times Colonist



Most Popular