Kate Beckinsale: ‘Austen’s Lady Susan is like Emma on steroids’

Her second collaboration with Whit Stillman in Love & Friendship has brought her the best reviews of her career

Kate Beckinsale has earned the best reviews of her career for Love & Friendship, an adaptation of Lady Susan, the remarkably wry and worldly novella Jane Austen wrote as a teen. The film, Beckinsales second collaboration with director Whit Stillman and co-star Chlo Sevigny, 18 years after The Last Days of Disco, is a comedy about a brilliant widow hoping to secure a moneyed future for herself and her daughter. Beckinsale, 43, spoke to the Guardian before picking up the Evening Standard best actress award this month.

Did the film change your feelings about people getting more cynical as they get older?

We always think of Austen as so poised and elegant; there is a sort of rage underneath that lives in this character, which I really liked seeing. Its almost like she had to purge that in order to be able to write everything else. She was such a smart woman facing all those social constraints, so it felt a bit like her going: Right, this is my shadow having a scream. And then she went: Oh, I shouldnt do that. And put [the manuscript] in a drawer. There is something more raw about it, which probably is to do with being younger.

Lady Susan is said to have an uncanny understanding of mens natures. Is that still the key to social success?

Yes, except that I think the advent of constantly available porn, which would have horrified Austen, has changed things rather. Its just more apparent now: mens natures had to be covered up a little bit more, just as womens did. I would never be able to go on a dating site, ever. I would just be expecting a murderer and a psychotic rapist. However, I do have friends that are on it, and it does seem like there is a sort of loophole for free prostitution that seems to be beneficial to the bloke. Im sort of aware thats happened.

Do women today still have to do a lot of what Lady Susan calls enduring ridiculous manhood?

No. I mean, one of the things the film does make you think is: my God, we have come an awfully long way. Obviously, in the light of certain political events this year, one worries those things are a bit more under threat. But if this was transposed to a modern setting there would be no story. This is a bright woman who would probably be the CEO of a company with a ton of boyfriends. She has operate in that slightly machiavellian way because society doesnt give her intelligence enough of an outlet.

Why are audiences so drawn to bitches and bullies?

When we were making it, Whit referenced Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and its a very similar thing: you dont necessarily want to go on holiday with these people, or have them in your family, but its quite thrilling watching them at work.

Is the key to Lady Susans success her absolute confidence?

I think so. I think shes got an absolutely iron-clad self-belief, which I deeply envy. Her nature is incredibly practical; theres nothing practical about self-doubt and self-loathing and self-torture. She doesnt waste any time doing anything like that. That would be novel for me. I think we all spend far too much time doing that.

Why do we?

Partly because were not working in a potato field and worrying our children are going to die of leprosy. Its the luxury of the middle class to have those kinds of things going on, I think. And also, we have so much information coming at us now. Lady Susan would hear what was happening one county over, possibly, but were panicking about air crashes all over the world and what kind of mosquito might bite us. Our general level of anxiety is related to how much is going into our little brains.

Which freaks you out most?

Climate change really bothers me, and it doesnt seem to be quite as pressing to certain politicians as it think it ought to be its pretty terrifying.

Is the real love the friendship?

I think so. The love in the title, which is not the title of the novella, is between Chlos character and mine. It was a really nice thing to revisit that. I was so rotten to her in our earlier movie, whereas this is women complicit and battling against everything.

Do you think such bonds can be more enduring than romantic love?

I know that my oldest friends are from primary and secondary school and I dont know if I will have a relationship that has lasted or will last as long as that. Im not pressured to find friends physically attractive over several hundred decades, which is a slightly easier thing to sustain. Female friendship in movies is something that you jump at because its not every day that a director, especially a male director, wants to write a movie about pretty complicated women with the kind of love that Whit has. Ive had two characters with him who you wouldnt want to go on a mini-break with, but its so delicious to see his real enjoyment of a prickly woman. And its borne out: people have loved this movie and gone to see it a lot. So, there is a place for not just the whore, not just the madonna, but this kind of difficult woman. Shes like Emma on steroids.

Is it rare to have a female lead who is older, cleverer and better-looking than the men shes paired opposite?

Not necessarily. I know that it exists, finding parts harder to come by but it hasnt [happened] so far to me. Im having a wonderful time being the age I am being an actress. Its partly Whit having had the idea for me to do this when I was 22 and doing Last Disco, and him waiting for me to ripen. I didnt know that until recently and I thought: God, thats really playing the long game. You dont usually find directors patiently waiting for you to age.

Is he waiting for you to ripen further?

Im hoping. Maybe hes got Miss Havisham in mind.

Did you find the reviews saying you were a revelation and surprisingly funny patronising?

I wouldnt say patronising. I think people tend to remember the last couple of movies they were aware of your doing. And it depends on whats more important to you: how youre perceived or your experience of your career. Ive done a lot of films that a lot of people havent seen, coupled with films that are a bit outside my comfort zone, actually, which a lot of people have seen or certainly been aware of. And, for me, the ability to be able to sort of flit between genres that shouldnt go together and generally dont has been an incredible privilege. I dont mind pockets of time where people go: Oh, maybe shes a bimbo, because I know Im not.

It really depends how much meaning exists for you in your own experience of it and what youre doing it for. If you were doing it to hear marvellous things about yourself all the time then you would stop immediately when you had a horrible review probably aged about 19. I think its important as an actor to have periods where youre not flavour of the month or rewarded every single time you leave your house, because it really does make you question if its what you really want to do and how you can get better.

Beckinsale with Chlo Sevigny in The Last Days of Disco. Photograph: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

Do you agree with Lady Susan that facts are horrid things?

Sometimes. I generally want to get to them, but Im not necessarily pleased when I do. My favourite thing is transparency and honesty, but that can be a bit of a brutal life, it can be perhaps easier to get in a bit of a bubble. But its generally better to know what ones dealing with, I suspect.

Particularly in 2016?

It is a bit tricky. Both countries that I am part of are so divided, and that is a really scary thing in itself. Thats just a sign of restlessness and trouble, and its a really new and strange position to be in, to be so aware of it. I think everybody found that out twice this year, and those facts were quite horrid things.

How does Britain look from LA?

Well, I come back eight or nine times a year and my mums here and my best friends are here. But its weird that a country and a city moves on and grows up independently. You do have it in your mind as staying the same and youre homesick for something that is different when you come back. That can be a little bit jarring. It looks different. The skyline is completely different. I keep wondering where the old ladies in John Lewis went.

They all had to be killed did you not hear about that?

Yes, I knew something must have happened. The high street where I grew up seems a bit more fancy and worldly. I remember when you spent a whole afternoon gluing a 50p to the pavement and hiding. Children dont do that sort of thing any more. I would still happily do it. In fact, I might my mum has got a brilliant front gate for that sort of thing.

Love & Friendship is available now on DVD and Blu-ray

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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