Kate Beckinsale once again teams with indie auteur extraordinaire Whit Stillman for Love & Friendship, their first collaboration since 1998’s The Last Days of Disco. Based on a Jane Austen epistolary novella, the film is Stillman’s first period piece, though it fits perfectly into his catalogue as yet another “comedy of mannerlessness,” with Beckinsale deftly navigating the American director’s characteristically verbose, fleet-footed dialogue even better than she did eighteen years ago.
Beckinsale plays Lady Susan Vernon, a devious, aristocratic manipulator who uses her charm and impenetrable, mannered facade to weasel her way into the arms of a wealthy scion, Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel). His sister Catherine (Emma Greenwell) sees through Susan’s schemes and tries her best to intercept the Lady’s advances, but to no avail; Susan is an upper-crust force of nature not to be reckoned with.
Austen’s social satire is as potent as ever, but Stillman injects enough of his signature urbane sense of humor to make the old feel new again. The film’s greatest boon, however, is Beckinsale, who’s so magnetic and eloquently charismatic that she commands undivided attention without lifting so much as a white-gloved finger.
We spoke to Beckinsale about working with Stillman on Love & Friendship, which is out in select cities this weekend.
Kate Beckinsale Interview:
What attracted you to the script? Whit had you in mind for Lady Susan from the beginning.
“I was in Bulgaria on another movie and I read the script. I thought it was great. I thought, Whit’s done something in the style of Jane Austen. I loved it, and I loved the work we did the last time we worked together. I know that he has a particular relish for a diabolical female. It’s a pleasure to work with somebody who gets such a bang out of that.”
Was reuniting with Whit after all these years something you’d been hoping for? A pleasant surprise?
“Whit sort of went subterranean for a lengthy period of time, so I really didn’t know if that was something to even hope for, to be honest. Whit is a very interesting creature. He could easily pop up in any other career…I honestly believe Whit can do anything. The first movie we did together was the first American movie I had ever done, and it’s the first time I’d ever had to do an American accent on film. The thing about Whit is, he is sort of Jane Austen in that respect. He was, at that time, specializing in a very particular strata of social milieu, which was absolutely unfamiliar to me, being from England and not having been to America at all. I felt very unqualified.
This time, it was a bit different because it was more my territory. I started out doing Jane Austen, and I’m English, so…[laughs] It was a little bit easier. There were seventeen, eighteen years in between [films], and people sort of have a lot of life happen to them in that time. But I think, essentially, we’re the same people. There’s something quite comforting about that.”
Talk about the dynamic between you and Chloë Sevigny.
“I remember being really blown away by her when I first went out to New York. She was so unbelievably cool. I suppose my notion of what cool-to-the-bone people were like was kind of shattered by Chloë. I thought they’d be kind of closed-up and look like how everyone looks in Warhol pictures. Untouchable. She’s so candid and so goofy. She’s so very much herself at all times, even if she’s falling over or whatever it is. She’s cooler than everybody else. She cops to everything in a way, which I realized was the sort of kernel of why she is so cool. Having never been cool–and still, not really–I found that illuminating. I think we’re quite different actresses. We prepare differently. And yet, for some reason, the scenes really spark between us. We really like working together.”
Whit is one of the most interesting people I’ve ever spoken to, interview or not. What’s it like being in a working, creative partnership with someone like that?
“We had a sort of epistolary relationship at first through back-and-forth emails. Given that I’m, at base, an academic more than anything else, Whit asked for my notes on the script and of course I sent back a small thesis. [laughs] He’d harass me with these notes for ages, and I’d prepare them like I would anything at university.
He has a weird obsession with background actors. I remember that from Last Days of Disco. You’ll have your most involved scene with the most dialogue and possibly a dance as well and god knows what else is going on, and when you get to the end, Whit would be going, ‘Well, there’s a gardener in the back…’ You go, ‘Well, you’re not looking at me at all!’ This time around, I was prepared for it. He’s also got an amazing gift for what is truly funny. It might be that the gardener is funnier than you. He’s usually not wrong.” [laughs]
You have three movies coming out this year. How do you move so nimbly from a vampire warrior to an English coquette as an actress?
“I decided to go to university as opposed to drama school. I started working when I was sixteen, so I felt a little underprepared at the beginning. I thought, I may be working professionally, but I need to treat this as a sort of apprenticeship. My big thing that I wanted to do was to do as many different things as possible. I was able to keep this up for a pretty long time. What I didn’t factor in was that doing a play at the Royal Court or doing a small French movie that nobody sees or a movie like this movie…they’re not exactly the same weight as an Underworld movie is. The clue is if you’ve got an action figure and people dress up as you for Halloween. It freights things a bit more. I’m thinking, ‘Here I am, moving nimbly between genres, and I’ve done 45 movies! Only four of them have been Underworld.’ I don’t think that’s what other people’s perception is. It started out as a sort of apprentice thing, but actually, I think you want to stay a little bit scared as an actor. A little, ‘Oh shit, can I do this?’
That’s what doing the first Underworld movie really was. I would go into meetings and there would be a part that was, like, a policewoman or something. They’d go, ‘Well, she’s really period-drama,’ or, ‘We smell crumpets on her,’ or whatever. I thought, I’d better do something that gives me a bit more edge. Underworld had legs like you wouldn’t believe. It’s not really what I’m comfortable doing, but it seems to be weighted a bit more. It’s a slightly schizophrenic position to be in, to be best known for the thing that is the least [within] your skill and comfort zone. That’s been a bit strange.”
What kind of roles are you most comfortable with?
“I’m very drawn to characters like [Lady Susan], who are difficult or diabolical or tricky, but they’re also very charming. As an actor, you’ve got to find that balance. I liked that in Last Days of Disco and I liked that in [Love & Friendship]. It’s a really fine tightrope to walk. Whit seems to be the king of this. They’ve got a lot of color in them, those parts.”
This character could have easily become sinister to the point where the audience turns against her. I think you manage a very delicate tightrope walk.
“I think the thing you don’t want is for it to be arch and have that sort of mustache-twiddling, I’m-a-villain thing, you know? Whit is so sensitive to nuance. The script that he wrote…I didn’t feel that [Susan] was like that. I think if your sensibility and the director’s are very similar…it wasn’t like we were like, ‘Ooh, watch out! She’s coming off like too much of a bitch here.’ I found it very important to be aware of the social situation she was in. This character, who’s an intelligent, charismatic woman with a healthy sexual appetite, would be doing just fine in 2016. She’d have an extremely high-powered job and she’d have a few lovers. The trouble is, she has all of these qualities, and yet she’s in this kind of constraint of this society where it is sort of impossible to have that kind of lifestyle unless you’ve secured yourself a husband. I think the way I’d describe her is that she’s very much somebody who wants to have her cake and eat it too.”
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