Kate Beckinsale: 'My dad's death was soul destroying - I spent my childhood watching re-runs of his programmes'
Kate Beckinsale, star of Whit Stillman's Love & Friendship, talks to Nick Curtis about Michael Sheen, motherhood and missing M&S
There was a feeling of absolute rightness to Kate Beckinsale winning the New West End Company Award for Best Actress at the Evening Standard Film Awards at Claridge's last week. The 43-year-old triumphed against strong performances by Helen Mirren, Emily Blunt and Tilda Swinton, for her delicious turn as the conniving widow Lady Susan, scheming for a husband for herself and her plain daughter, in Whit Stillman's Love & Friendship, adapted from a little-known Jane Austen novella.
Here was a London star, long lost to Hollywood blockbusters, being honoured by a London newspaper for a blissfully rediscovered home-grown story. The icing on the cake was that Stillman was the director who lured Beckinsale across the pond for her first American movie, The Last Days of Disco, in which she appeared with her Love & Friendship co-star Chloë Sevigny 18 years ago. Consider it a homecoming, then, or a transatlantic cultural debt repaid.
"It feels really nice," Beckinsale says, surveying her statuette. "It is a project I have loved dearly and it was very special to me." Making the film was "a Herculean task as it is a very dense script, very wordy, and it's a Jane Austen story that has not been made before, which is a bit like finding a new Shakespeare play. And we only had 26 days to shoot it, which is incredibly short." But the character was too good to pass up. "She is wonderful," Beckinsale says. "You think: is she despicable, or do I really like her? As an actress, that's the kind of tightrope I'm after.
"She is very light and deftly manoeuvres this incredibly tight social construct that she is in as a woman at that time, but (her dilemma) is real. She is incredibly smart, intelligent, she can't really have a job, she is totally dependent on finding a man, her husband has died and she has to find another one and she has a daughter she needs to worry about. She wants to have sexual freedom and social freedom, and because she is smart she manages to manoeuvre through this social situation." The Standard's critic, David Sexton, found the film "pitch-perfect, beautifully poised", with Beckinsale delivering "the whole peachy package". The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw said simply: "What audacity, what elegance."
In a way, Lady Susan was a return to the corset parts that Beckinsale played early on in her career (because, she says, that was all anyone was making back then). More importantly, it gave rein to her impeccable comic timing. She is almost always hilarious in interviews, with a naughty giggle and a docker's vocabulary. But she is rarely funny on film.
Partly, she explains, this is because she has been pigeonholed by the success of the Underworld films, in which she plays gun-toting, Lycra-clad vampire Selene (the fifth instalment, Blood Wars, which marks her fourth appearance as Selene, is due out on January 13). "Once I started holding machine guns, comedy took a bit of a back seat," she says. "I'd have meetings where people would go, 'Gosh, she's really funny, I had no idea'. Then back I'd go into the leather trousers…" But she was also nervous of comedy because she had, and lost, a very funny father - Porridge and Rising Damp star Richard Beckinsale - who died of a heart attack when she was four.
"Starting out, I was quite defensive of accusations of nepotism," she says. "It's a heavy thing for anyone whose parents are actors (her mother Judy Loe was also in the business) and in the very beginning I didn't want to tread on his patch. Having said that, comedy is my number-one favourite thing. I was raised on high-level, amazing comedy my whole life: I spent most of my childhood watching reruns of my dad's shows just to have a link to him." One of the mementos she has kept to remember her father is the Bafta he won posthumously for the Porridge sequel, Going Straight. Her Standard award will now join it and the Critics' Circle statuette she won for Last Days of Disco, in her home in LA. "Every time I work with Whit I win one of these," she smiles.
For years, Beckinsale didn't like being identified only as her father's 'tragic' daughter, although she says now that his death "was 100% soul-destroying and totally impacted me for ever". She was anorexic and had therapy for a time in her teens. When she was nine, her mother moved in with director Roy Battersby, a former member of the Workers Revolutionary Party. Beckinsale revealed recently that their phone was tapped by the security services: she and her step-siblings would therefore pick up the receiver, wait to hear the tell-tale "click", shout "bum" and hang up. "We were really young," she grins.
She was privately educated at Godolphin & Latymer School in Hammersmith, won writing prizes and knew from an early age she wanted to act but opted to go to Oxford rather than drama school. This means she has treated her career as "an apprenticeship" where every job, "even the really sh***y ones", is part of the learning experience that "adds to your musculature as an actor". She only did one play at Oxford, Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge, directed by Tom "The King's Speech" Hooper, but began to get parts in films and TV series.
After dropping out of Oxford to star in Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing, she did Cold Comfort Farm on the BBC for John Schlesinger and the same year - 1995 - met and fell for Welsh actor Michael Sheen on a production of The Seagull at Theatre Royal Bath. Four years later - during which she did a TV version of Austen's Emma in 1996, thought by many to be superior to Gwyneth Paltrow's film that same year, and The Last Days of Disco - their daughter Lily Mo was born.
Having a baby in her early twenties in part shaped Beckinsale's career. It stopped her doing theatre because she wanted to be there for Lily's bedtime, "when the magical parenting happens, when they actually tell you things". She and Sheen initially moved to New York, where he was starring in a play, during "a Dickensian winter", and realised that LA was a great place to bring up a toddler: later, they decided she should stay in secondary school there. When Michael Bay cast Beckinsale in Pearl Harbor in 2001 she seemed set on a blockbuster path that led to Underworld, Whiteout and Total Recall.
Actually, she says, she has always alternated big films with indie projects, and "went from the silliest vampire movie, Van Helsing, to a Scorsese film (The Aviator)". It's just the films that "come with a Happy Meal or whatever" get noticed more. Beckinsale is clear-headed about the Underworld films: loathed by critics, they upped her profile and remain perhaps the only cult franchise based on an original idea and with a female lead. The action sequences initially bruised her but they also taught her to be more physical and less analytical as an actor.
She and Sheen never married and split up in 2003 after the filming of Underworld, and Beckinsale subsequently married the film's director, Len Wiseman. That marriage ended in 2015 - he cast her as the vicious wife in Total Recall, after all - and all she will say about it is that she doesn't feel weird working with him as the producer of Blood Wars. Currently single, she remains close to Sheen and to his girlfriend, the comedian Sarah Silverman. "It is one of the things I am proud of having accidentally achieved," Beckinsale says. "We didn't set out to be these incredibly groovy people who all get on. But even at the start when it was more awkward and unfamiliar, we both agreed on what would be best for Lily."
Lily had a cameo as the young Selene in the second Underworld movie and, now 17, has decided she wants to act, and may go to drama school in New York. It heralds a new era for Beckinsale. She is co-writing a screenplay, The Chocolate Money, with fellow non-driving LA expatriate (and fellow Godolphin girl) writer Emma Forrest, which begins shooting next year. After that, she might spend more time in New York and also in London, where she may return to the stage.
What does she miss about home? "My mum, my best friends, who are all from primary or secondary school," she says. "I violently miss Marks & Spencer as I am a lazy cook, and they do all the helping parts for you. I miss London taxis dreadfully, and the West End, and how much culturally it is possible to enjoy here in one day. And I miss the slightly bitter, sarcastic sense of humour that everybody has." Come back, Kate. It's been too long.