Austen­su­per pow­ers

Kate Beck­in­sale might be a go-to girl for Jane Austen adap­ta­tions, in be­tween badass su­per­hero roles. But her fam­ily life growingup had more to do with min­ers’ marches, Trot­sky­ism and hav­ing their phone tapped, she tells TaraBrady

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - COVER STORY -

It seems only right and proper that a sparky, funny clever-clogs like Kate Beck­in­sale is some­thing of a Jane Austen vet­eran.

Dur­ing the 1990s, the Lon­don-born ac­tor be­came the go-to girl for classy lit­er­ary adap­ta­tions: she was the hero­ine of Cold Com­fort Farm (1995), a proto-Ophe­lia op­po­site Christian Bale’s proto-Ham­let in Prince of Jut­land (1994); and the stead­fast wife at the cen­tre of Henry James’s The Golden Bowl (2000). Kathrin Ro­mary Beck­in­sale then be­came the Emma of choice among Auste­nol­o­gists, when her per­for­mance as the tit­u­lar med­dler in a TV drama went head to head with a big-bud­get fea­ture ver­sion star­ring Gwyneth Pal­trow.

Her re­turn to Austen has been a round­about af­fair. Almost two decades have elapsed since Beck­in­sale hit the dance floor as a catty New York so­cialite in Whit Still­man’s The Last Days of Disco, thereby kick-start­ing a re­mark­ably bi-con­ti­nen­tal ca­reer. It was, she says, the film that changed ev­ery­thing.

“I hadn’t done any Amer­i­can movies,” she re­calls. “I hadn’t spent any real time there. It was a very trans­for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ence for me be­cause I was re­ally afraid of it. I felt then, and still do feel, that if some­thing fright­ens you act­ing-wise, it’s prob­a­bly worth do­ing.

“So I came out and started play­ing this very spe­cific so­cial New York per­son that I had ab­so­lutely no ex­pe­ri­ence of. And sud­denly I re­alised I could act in Amer­ica. And the whole world opened up.”

Beck­in­sale and her Last Days of Disco co-star, Chloë Se­vi­gny, have re­united with Still­man for Love & Friend­ship, a de­li­ciously arch adap­ta­tion of Jane Austen’s aban­doned early novella, Lady Su­san. Beck­in­sale plainly has a ball as the de­vi­ous Lady Su­san Ver­non – a “ge­nius of the evil kind” by her sis­ter-in-law’s reck­on­ing – per­haps the most con­niv­ing of Austen’s cre­ations.

“I know that Jane Austen wrote the novella when she was 20 and she chose not to pub­lish it,” says Beck­in­sale, who read French and Rus­sian lit­er­a­ture at Ox­ford. “More than any of the other works, I think this is her roar of frus­tra­tion at the con­straints that one was un­der as a woman at that time.”

In other re­spects, Love & Friend­ship rep­re­sents a new fron­tier for its star. She loved the Ir­ish shoot, but was rather less en­am­oured with the weather. Or, more ac­cu­rately, weath­ers.

“I once did a press day in Dublin with Colin [Far­rell], bless him, for To­tal Re­call. But apart from that I’d never spent any time in Ire­land be­fore. Like most English peo­ple, when I go on hol­i­day, I want to go some­where that has less rain than Lon­don. And as much as I loved Ire­land and loved that ev­ery­one has a fan­tas­tic story about Bono or Gra­ham Nor­ton – who must be the most con­sis­tently nice peo­ple in the world – noth­ing could have pre­pared me for the weather. It’s rainy. It’s windy. It’s sunny. There are hail­stones. Then back to windy.

“Nor­mally if I’m cold I put my ther­mals on and get on with it. But you can’t dress for Ir­ish weather. It’s im­pos­si­ble.”


Be­tween Still­man films, Beck­in­sale, who was once de­scribed by Oxbridge con­tem­po­rary Vic­to­ria Coren as “whip-clever, slightly nuts, and very charm­ing”, has presided over one of the moviev­erse’s most sur­pris­ing ca­reers.

No­body, least of all Beck­in­sale, had ex­pected the clas­sic English Rose to be­come a very Hol­ly­wood hero­ine, es­pe­cially not of the kick-ass va­ri­ety. And yet Un­der­world: Blood Wars, the fifth film to fea­ture Beck­in­sale’s venge­ful vam­pire Se­lene, will hit mul­ti­plexes ev­ery­where this com­ing Oc­to­ber.

“It’s still lu­di­crous to me,” laughs the 42-year-old. “I wasn’t some­body who was do­ing a “Ithas­beenal­labout­corsetss­ince the­be­gin­ning,”KateBeck­in­sale says. “EvenUn­der­world­hasthose ex­ter­nal­corsets.But­they’restill corsets.Idon’tthinky­ouev­er­fully ac­cli­ma­tise.I’veno­ticedthati­tal­ways take­safewweeks­formy­breath­ingto get­back­towhereit’ssup­posed­tobe. Youbreatheon­lyiny­ou­rup­perch­est. Whichis­ter­ri­ble. You’re­con­stantly on­afast­track­toa­pan­i­cat­tack. It’s theon­lyite­mof­cloth­ingth­at­can makey­ou­men­tal­ly­ill.” bunch of mar­tial arts. I wasn’t even a fan of PE at school. When I first started mak­ing movies, it was as­sumed that I was this posh English girl who could han­dle Shake­speare and Chekhov and things like that.

“It’s very dif­fer­ent. You can do dozens of movies, but once you’ve done that kind of genre piece – where the cos­tume is almost a char­ac­ter in its own right – it car­ries an en­tirely dif­fer­ent cul­tural weight. I think I was so ab­so­lutely con­fi­dent in my ac­tual per­sona and sure who I was that I didn’t think for a sec­ond that any­one would say, ‘Oh, the woman from ac­tion movies’. But peo­ple have cob­bled to­gether an idea that I’m a badass. It’s hi­lar­i­ous.”


Beck­in­sale’s un­ex­pected move to the US and the big leagues was not al­ways cheered on at home. There was more than a touch of Tall Poppy Syn­drome in the man­ner the Bri­tish press cov­ered her break-up with the ac­tor Michael Sheen, her part­ner for eight years and the father of her only daugh­ter, Lily. (She sub­se­quently mar­ried the Un­der­world di­rec­tor Len Wise­man in 2004; they sep­a­rated last year.)

More eye­brows were raised when she re­lo­cated to Los An­ge­les. She is prob­a­bly the only ever jury mem­ber at the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val to have re­ceived crit­i­cism from the tabloids regarding the white­ness of her teeth and – a real non-faux pas – dar­ing to wear make-up.

“I sup­pose it was a weird mo­ment when I went to Los An­ge­les,” she says. “Nowa­days ev­ery other Bri­tish ac­tor has a place out there. But back then it was just me and Cather­ine Zeta Jones. And peo­ple said: Oh, she must be ter­ri­bly am­bi­tious. But that wasn’t re­flec­tive of me at all. I just hap­pened to marry an Amer­i­can. It was one of those un­ex­pected things that life throws at you.”

She laughs: “When I think back on it, it’s as if I’m talk­ing about the 1930s. But it sim­ply wasn’t as easy to hop across the At­lantic. It wasn’t as easy to stay in con­tact. You’d send Christ­mas cards. But long-dis­tance phone calls were ex­pen­sive. Nowa­days if you worked with some­one and didn’t talk for 15 years, peo­ple would think there was a hor­ri­ble story there. But it was very easy to lose touch be­fore cell phones and ev­ery­thing else.”

Re­mark­ably, daugh­ter Lily Mo re­tains an English ac­cent af­ter all these years: “My mother worked very hard in theatre,” Beck­in­sale says, “so she’d of­ten be leav­ing not long af­ter we came home from school. I think that’s why I de­cided that bed­time was go­ing to be very im­por­tant in our house. I read to Lily ev­ery night. All of Harry Pot­ter and things like that. I think that hyp­no­tised her into hav­ing an English ac­cent.”

The only child of ac­tors Richard Beck­in­sale and Judy Loe, Kate made her first screen ap­pear­ance at the age of four on an episode of This Is Your Life. Within a year, her father, the star of such sit­coms as Ris­ing Damp and Por­ridge, had died from a heart at­tack. He was just 31.

“There’s a de­gree of anx­i­ety that comes with los­ing a par­ent very early,” says his daugh­ter. “It es­tab­lishes a kind of base­line. You do feel very pas­sion­ate about things be­cause you’re re­ally too young to be made aware of how tran­sient life re­ally is. Ideally, you should learn about mor­tal­ity when your ham­ster dies. Los­ing a par­ent puts you in a strange spot that you have to spend quite a bit of time mak­ing your peace with. And I don’t know that you ever quite do.”

Beck­in­sale would spend four years un­der­go­ing Freudian psy­cho­anal­y­sis: “I still have a great deal of time for Freudian anal­y­sis,” she says. “It’s very cre­ative.”

When Beck­in­sale was nine, her wid­owed mother moved in with In­spec­tor Morse di­rec­tor Roy Bat­tersby, a Trot­sky­ist and ac­tivist for the Work­ers Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Party. The girl was raised along­side his four sons and daugh­ter. She was close to her step­fa­ther, but I won­der if she is as politi­cised as him?


“Oh, I don’t think I can ever match my step­fa­ther,” she says. “There was a sense grow­ing up that that was his ter­ri­tory, re­ally. He was an ex­pert on so many amaz­ing things. I grew up with amaz­ing con­ver­sa­tions. I grew up with min­ers com­ing in and out of our house dur­ing the strike. We used to sell Trot­skyite news­pa­pers on the street when we were kids. I think our phone was tapped at one point. And my step­fa­ther was black­listed by the BBC be­cause he was con­sid­ered too left-wing.

“I re­mem­ber when I re­alised that not ev­ery­body’s par­ents were like ours: that they weren’t all deeply in­volved in trade unions and rights. It was a shock. When I started meet­ing my friends’ par­ents, who were vot­ing Con­ser­va­tive? Oh my God, it was like meet­ing the York­shire Rip­per.”

Beck­in­sale laughs at the mem­ory: “I think that’s when I de­cided I was go­ing to have to do this for a liv­ing.” Love & Friend­ship opens on May 27th

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