From writer/director Whit Stillman, Love & Friendship is an adaptation of young Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan, which is set in the 1790s and follows the beautiful young widow Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale). Lady Susan has come to Churchill, the estate of her in-laws, to wait for the rumors and gossip about her dalliances to quiet down, but while she’s there, she decides to secure a husband for herself and for her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark).
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Kate Beckinsale talked about how surprised she was to have this script come her way, why she was attracted to Lady Susan, as a character, the challenge of doing so much dialogue, and how extraordinary it’s been to originate a Jane Austen character on film. She also talked about why the Underworld franchise is special to her, what she’s most enjoyed about playing Selene, and what fans can expect from the next installment, Underworld: Blood Wars, due out in theaters in October.
KATE BECKINSALE: Yeah, isn’t it? I know. I don’t think people are expecting to belly laugh in a Jane Austen movie. It’s been really fun watching people at screenings go, “This isn’t what I was expecting.”
How did this come about? Had you and Whit Stillman talked about finding a way to work together again, or was this project a total surprise?
BECKINSALE: It was a total surprise. I hadn’t really known where Whit was in the world. He was subterranean for awhile. He’s an extremely interesting cat, Whit Stillman. If you had told me that he’d moved to some really outlandish place, I would totally buy it. Whit is a renaissance person who’s incredibly interesting. I had an amazing time working with him on The Last Days of Disco, but we weren’t super in touch after that. He lived in Paris, I think, and Florida. I lived in London, and I was startled by getting pregnant and having a baby, so I was very busy. I suddenly got sent this script, a year or two ago, and I was like, “Wow, is this what you’ve been doing, this whole time?” It was really amazing. I just loved that he obviously has this love of complicated, tricky female characters. He writes them so well. He obviously relishes them and enjoys them. It’s just so lovely to have a man with a great sense of humor really enjoy that.
How do you view Lady Susan? This is a woman who’s not particularly nice to her family and friends, or even her own daughter. Did you worry about that, at all, or was that part of the fun of playing someone like this?
BECKINSALE: I have to say, ever since I was very young, I’ve always been attracted to, in England, what we call marmite characters. Marmite is this fairly disgusting vegetable-based spread that you put on toast. You either really love it or you really hate it, so it’s like polarizing characters. Even if it’s only for my own personal self, I’ve always enjoyed finding the humanity in someone who’s not easily likeable and having fun with that. I guess Lady Susan is a turbo version of that. Jane Austen said that Emma was a character that she wrote that she didn’t feel was likeable, and she wasn’t intended to be likeable, but I actually think Emma is very likeable. I played Emma and felt very defensive about that comment about her not being likeable. When you play a character, you feel justified in what they’re doing. In particular, with this one, the longer I researched it and sat with it and really imagined being a woman in that time period, where the oppressiveness of your security and your financial future being completely out of your hands aside from marriage, and if you are a woman who is intelligent, bright, ambitious and smart, you were really hemmed in by that. Lady Susan is finding a way to go, “Okay, I get that this is the situation. I’m not giving up what I consider my rights as a person to have certain freedoms that are denied to me by the culture that I’m living in. I’m going to go ahead and have them anyway, and charm everyone while I’m doing it.” There’s something that I find rather pioneering about that, even though her methods are a bit shocking sometimes. I get it. I went to Oxford. I’ve had a career. I’ve had all the freedoms that have been hard-won since that period in time. I imagine that, on some level, Jane Austen’s writing, at the age of 20, has to be expressing, as a very bright woman herself, her own frustrations with that and the fantasy of what it would be like to not care.
Lady Susan is not looking for redemption or trying to prove that she’s anyone other than who she is, which must be pretty refreshing when you’re playing a character in a corset.
BECKINSALE: Yeah, it’s nice because she’s so determined to have her cake and eat it, at least once, if not twice. There was so much social behavior and stuff that you’re so used to in Jane Austen, but she’s gliding over that rather effortlessly. She’s fun.
This movie is very wordy. There’s a lot of dialogue, especially from your character. Was that something that you enjoyed, or was that a tremendous challenge?
BECKINSALE: I really enjoyed it. I started out with Shakespeare and Chekhov. Chekhov is not wordy, particularly, but I was used to doing theater and used to learning lines. I love all of that. It was a little bit daunting, on the level of the schedule that we had. Because it was a modest budget, the schedule for the movie was very, very, very short. The movie had 27 days to shoot and more dialogue than probably the last five movies I’d done, put together, so that’s daunting. It’s daunting when it’s a smallish project and everybody involved is very, very passionate about it. With every department, whether it was costume or hair or the locations, nobody wants to be the person that derails it and makes us lose time. So much of this movie was shot outside and we were shooting in Dublin, and we didn’t have unlimited light. There was that pressure of not wanting to be the person that collapses and capsizes the day because I didn’t know my lines. That was really challenging.
I was bothering Whit for a few weeks before by saying, “Are we going to have a final draft of the script that’s not going to change, so that I can make sure I’ve learned it all before I turn up?” I didn’t want it to be me staying up until five in the morning, learning my lines. He’s so precise and he’s so intellectually gifted and he writes these brilliant scripts, but his other great strength, as a director, is being incredibly responsive to what’s happening in the moment. Because he’s a writer, sometimes that means that you will find yourself in the make-up chair, having learned seven or eight pages of dialogue the night before, only to come in and find that he’s gone, “Well, we’re keeping these scenes, but I’m just switching your speeches around into different segments.” That was harder than learning a whole new speech. I credit him with keeping me from losing my marbles because that was a fairly rigorous work-out and it happened quite a lot. He’d come in and go, “I’ve decided to give you another whole speech about Chloe being American. Here you go.”
Knowing how beloved Jane Austen is, is it fun to be a part of telling one of her stories that not too many people are familiar with and they don’t know what to expect from the story or characters?
BECKINSALE: That’s been extraordinary, actually. I’ve done one Jane Austen project before, which was Emma, but I certainly wasn’t the first Emma and I definitely wasn’t the last Emma. She’s very much like Shakespeare, in that way. Every few years, there’s another interpretation. But I think, who is there alive, besides our cast, who can say, “I was the first person to put this Jane Austen character on the screen, in any form.” It’s an amazing privilege. It’s not been played before. You’re not compared to anybody else’s interpretation. That is an amazing feeling with Jane Austen. That really does feel incredible.
You’re one of the few actresses who can so effortlessly move between period pieces from Austen and Shakespeare to modern-day characters to the supernatural genre, and be believable in them all. Does it feel that effortless, or is that something you’ve really had to work at, so that you don’t get pigeonholed?
BECKINSALE: You know, it’s funny, I really did work to make sure that I wasn’t pigeonholed, from early in my career. In terms of planning your career, which I haven’t done, really, and probably should have done much more, my big thing was that I didn’t want to be stuck doing the same thing, and I really haven’t been. You do want it to look effortless. You don’t want everyone to see all of the wheels turning. Some things have been much more of a stretch and a challenge for me than others. For example, I’m not naturally this action person. I didn’t spend all of my teenage years doing karate, at all. For me, the moment of deciding to do that was very much in the spirit of everybody being very, very used to me doing period dramas and literary adaptations.
What I didn’t realize, until very recently, having been distracted by being a mother, is that movies are weighted differently. My experience of my career is that I’m doing a lot of different things. I did a movie called Snow Angels with Sam Rockwell that I was very proud of, but I think about four people saw. That was a movie versus a movie in which I jump off of a building and then kill a bunch of people with a machine gun have different weights, in terms of people’s consciousness and perception of you. I think what inadvertently happened to me, which was an amazing shock, was that I did get slightly pigeonholed as the complete reverse of my comfort zone. I feel very glad and lucky and happy that I’ve somehow been able to be in the arena of a fairly small number of women who get to do these action things, and I wouldn’t trade that, at all, but it’s just odd that thing that you become most associated with is actually the biggest stretch for you and is the thing that is probably the least effortless.
When you made the first Underworld film, could you ever have imagined when you started out on that journey, that you’d still be playing that character across multiple movies?
BECKINSALE: God no! And to be honest, most of the time on that movie, I was expecting to be fired because I knew that it was such a huge stretch for me. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised of someone coming to me and saying, “I’m sorry, we made a terrible mistake. You should probably go and do The Cherry Orchard now.” I was extremely lucky, in terms of being trained by brilliant people. I was helped out by the whole machine of that movie. And then, obviously, I did become more familiar with it. I look at my whole career and I’ve swung back and forth with, “Well, she does a lot costume dramas,” to “Well, she’s a bit too much of a bad-ass,” to “Oh, yes, she can do costume dramas.” My career has been very much like that, perception wise, but for me, there have been a lot of different things going on. I’d not really had an experience on a job before, where your costume is a character, in itself, and that seems to spark people’s imaginations. There are dolls wearing it and people dress up as me for Halloween. I’d not really had that experience with Much Ado About Nothing. It was a very new world for me, but obviously, it isn’t now. It’s only now, with a little bit of perspective, that I can go, “Oh, that happened.” I’m going to carry on doing what I feel I’ve been doing all along, which is zipping about between different things, but you keep finding out that you’re a revelation to somebody and that’s a weird feeling.
What do you think will most please and surprise fans of the Underworld franchise with this latest movie?
BECKINSALE: It’s got a lot going on. The character goes through lots of interesting evolutions and a lot of crazy stuff happens to her. There are some really great actors in it. I think that’s one of the things I like the most about the Underworld franchise. They mine the great British theater actors, and they all appear in silly costumes and have fun with that. So, we’ve got some great villains and some interesting new worlds within the world that is Underworld. I think they’ll really like that.
What have you personally most enjoyed about embodying Selene, over such a long period of time?
BECKINSALE: Honestly, one of the coolest thing about doing a movie like that is that I don’t know if that movie would get off the ground today. It’s become so much more difficult to make a genre movie that isn’t based on a comic book or a video game or is a remake of another movie. I think we squeaked in, very last minute. It’s like, remember when there were no cell phones? I know this movie was greenlit because somebody walked into a room and said to a studio executive, “Hey, how about the idea of putting vampires and werewolves in a movie together?” That was a groundbreaking, new idea. Now, nearly every movie has that and every TV show, but it hadn’t really been done. That tickles me. Not every female-led franchise works. I feel proud that I get to be a part of something that has worked. I’m all for women having as many opportunities as they possibly can. To refer back to the question you asked me before, about being able to pop back and forth, I think it’s quite commonplace for men to. We can be comfortable with Daniel Craig playing James Bond, and then doing a period movie, and you could happily see him in a Marvel movie, if he chose to do that. Even though there are a lot of really seriously respectable female action characters, I still think it’s a little bit more surprising for people to not keep a woman stuck in one spot. Even though it got away from me a little bit and took over, I like that I got to be one of those.
With how all over the map your career has been, is there anything you’re still yearning to do that you feel like you haven’t gotten the opportunity to try?
BECKINSALE: I think [Love & Friendship] is very much my speed, in terms of comedy. I love a comedy that has wit to it. I love older comedy and I love Katherine Hepburn, and there aren’t a lot of those type of movies being made. That level of wit in a comedy is great. I haven’t had that much opportunity to do comedy, in general. My father was an extremely well-known and beloved comedy actor in England. Comedy wasn’t the only thing he did, but he was very well known for it, and he died very young. In the beginning, I was very nervous about stepping on his patch and wanted to create my own little zone. It’s also made me quite snobby about comedy. I was raised on really excellent, enduring comedy. Some of the stuff that would come my way and be offered, there was a period of time, early in my career, where the romantic comedies, in general and on the whole, were more romantic than funny, and that didn’t super appeal to me. In terms of being the woman in it, you were very often not the one that was funny, so I wasn’t massively drawn to those things that came my way. People aren’t quite sure what to do with me, but that’s why I’m so lucky that Whit [Stillman] gets me. I think he’s still a bit startled by the whole latex catsuit side of things, but politely has ignored that whole thing.
Love & Friendship is now playing in theaters.