"Right when I started doing American movies [in 1998], I got pregnant [by then-boyfriend Michael Sheen], probably 10 or 12 years earlier than any of my friends or anyone normal," says actress Kate Beckinsale as we record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast at the Empire Hotel in New York. "I was sort of navigating all of this [newfound stardom] while also being largely a single mom to quite a small baby and being very, very concerned with doing a good job at that. So, really, I kind of look at my career before that and now [with daughter Lily Mo Sheen nearly 18] as kind of bookends."
On one end is the first film the now-43-year-old made in America, 1998's Last Days of Disco, an original story about New York party girls in the '80s, and on the other is 2016's Love & Friendship, an adaptation of a little-known Jane Austen novella about a widow constantly scheming for ways to attract rich husbands for herself and her grown daughter in 18th century England. The former put Beckinsale on the map. The latter had its world premiere at Sundance in January, opened theatrically in May, received notices that still are among the year's best and landed her on many best actress Oscar shortlists. Interestingly, both are comedies of manners written and directed by Whit Stillman, co-starring Chloe Sevigny and centered on Beckinsale playing characters she lovingly calls "difficult women."
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Over the 18 years in-between those projects, Beckinsale became a huge international star and sex symbol, partly through the blockbuster Pearl Harbor and the rom-com Serendipity (both released in 2001), but mostly by playing a latex-clad vampire in five installments, over 15 years, of one of the first female-led and last original-concept film franchises, which started with 2003's Underworld and will continue on Jan. 6 with Underworld: Blood Wars.
Along the way, many forgot - if they ever knew - that the heroine of these blockbusters first rose to prominence not on her bankability or looks, but because she demonstrated, first in her native England and then in America, that she is a damn good actress. Beckinsale accepts responsibility for this. "I was so busy having my baby and juggling nine movies that I didn't ever sit there and think, 'Right, I need to have a persona and a niche, and I'm going to create that,'" she says. "I didn't do that. I think other people do that and I think that's really smart. They decide, 'What am I and what am I gonna market myself as?' I just kind of blew along. And what happens is, I think, other people then decide your persona for you, and I didn't realize that until I was knee-deep into the persona." She continues, "If I hadn't had a child, would I have done different movies? A hundred percent. But there were so many reasons that weren't to do with just the movie that would make me do certain movies." Moreover, she adds with a laugh, "It's not like I sat there going, 'Well, no, I don't think I'll do Blue Jasmine, I think I'll do Underworld 7!'"
Beckinsale, the daughter of an actress and an actor (her father was a well-known star of British comedies who died of a heart attack when he was just 31 and she was just five), has been performing professionally for 25 years now. She landed her first parts while still a student at Oxford University, mostly in British period-piece productions adapted from great works, like Kenneth Branagh's 1993 film version of Much Ado About Nothing and the 1996 TV movie version of Emma. She accompanied boyfriend Sheen to New York when he landed a part on Broadway and soon began working there herself.
Early on, Beckinsale's looks received little of the sort of attention they do these days, quite by design. "I did have a kind of 'I'm not going to be that kind of longhaired, pretty starlet that you feel that you can wrestle in a hotel hallway,'" she says. "I had, you know, steel toe-capped Dr. Martens and kind of a boy's haircut and went around looking fairly cross and all that. And I think that really did protect me, actually. I haven't ever had somebody, you know, really seriously try and casting-couch me and I haven't been asked those kind of inappropriate questions that I hear other actresses get when they go into an audition with a really important director and the first question is, 'Are you dating?' I've never had that."
She did, however, encounter sexism of a different sort when she went to work on Pearl Harbor, her first big studio movie. "I didn't know who [director] Michael Bay was, I didn't know who [producer] Jerry Bruckheimer was and I didn't know what that meant," she says. "It was a bit shocking turning up and going, 'Okay, I'm playing a '40s nurse,' and then finding this insane workout schedule [to force her to lose weight], which was just kind of like, 'Wait, am I playing a bodybuilder? What's going on here?' Ben [Affleck] had already done a movie with them and Ben had had all his teeth [fixed] or something - like, there were much worse things. So it really wasn't kind of, 'Oh, let's beat this woman up.' It wasn't that. It was just, I didn't fit their aesthetic." After the film was finished, Bay told interviewers he had cast Beckinsale because she wasn't beautiful enough to be distracting. "That was where I kind of was like, 'Okay, dude, now you need to relax on this,'" she says. "I think there's something shaming about saying, 'We don't think Kate is attractive enough,' whatever it was he said." (She insists, though, that she has no hard feelings.)
Beckinsale's next project, Serendipity, didn't find much of an audience upon its initial run, as its world premiere came two days after 9/11 and its theatrical release less than a month later. "We had shot it in New York," she says. "The Twin Towers had to be removed [digitally from the film]. It was a really kind of awkward and upsetting thing." The film did, however, become a cult favorite on DVD and airplanes, "most particularly with men, weirdly enough," she says. "If a man comes up to me and says, 'I just want to say my favorite movie of yours - ' it's always Serendipity, which is interesting."
If that's true, fans of the Underworld film must be close behind, since men, as much as women, seem to enjoy watching Beckinsale kicking ass in that iconic costume. She signed on to the first installment because, after a string of movies that had her in corsets, she wanted to do something that "really was outside my comfort zone." She explains, "I'd had a couple of meetings for movies where [I would be] playing a cop or something, and they'd say, 'Well, but she's sort of English and fragile and a bit classy and we're not sure she's really got an edge.' And I thought, 'I'm gonna have to take care of that.'"
While none of the Underworld films ever will be compared to Citizen Kane, Beckinsale still is happy she did them. On the first one she met the man who would become her husband, director Len Wiseman (they married in 2004 and separated in 2015), and the series is, in a way, socially significant. "When we were doing the first Underworld, the two women that you would reference [as female action heroes] were Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton," she says. "Now there's a ton. I feel really good about being part of having moved that needle." (However, she reveals, not even on Underworld could she escape corsets: "That's what's so crazy, is that Underworld has a corset [under the latex], too!")
Much of Beckinsale's best work has gone under the radar. She was handpicked by Martin Scorsese to portray Ava Gardner in The Aviator (2004), and proved an effective but largely overlooked part of its ensemble. She and Sam Rockwell gave tour de force performances in the little-seen indie Snow Angels (2007). And, most notably, she gave a great performance as a Judith Miller-like journalist protecting a source in Nothing But the Truth (2008), the demise of which she calls "the biggest tragedy" of her professional life. Just as the film was about to be released, its distributor went bankrupt, so it barely got seen at all. (Enough press had seen advance screenings of it to bestow upon her a Critics' Choice Award nomination.) "Oh, my God, it was like a miscarriage," she says. "I mean, this thing that you were feeling so proud of and precious of and actually excited about was just, all of a sudden, absolutely dead. And that was really destabilizing. It just makes you go, 'What's the point of doing this?'" Beckinsale didn't work again for three years. "That took a little bit of the momentum out of it for me."
But reuniting with Stillman on Love & Friendship, nearly two decades after Last Days of Disco, has changed everything. She was touched to learn that, even back when they first worked together, he had been thinking of her for the part of Lady Susan. When she read his script, she says, "I just felt, 'Oh, this is so exactly my kind of humor.' I love that kind of humor where the character's got kind of a blind spot and could be just the most awful person in the world, but actually is somehow charming and likable." And, not insignificantly, as a young single mother who would do anything for her daughter as she enters the adult world, she felt a personal connection to the material, as well.
Now, with Love & Friendship applause still ringing in her head, Beckinsale is plowing ahead with a renewed sense of enthusiasm. She's currently in New York shooting The Only Living Boy in New York, a Marc Webb film in which she stars opposite Jeff Bridges. She's once again writing, something she enjoyed and for which she received recognition in school, specifically a screenplay, with her friend Emma Forrest. And she's excited to return to the theater, to do more comedy and generally to take on challenges that frighten her. "Now that I'm no longer toting around a three-year-old everywhere," she says with a chuckle, "it'll be interesting to see what effect that actually has, 'cause I think it will have one."