Whit Stillman is known as a master observer of the "urban haute bourgeoisie", and they don't come much more "haute" than Jane Austen's sly schemer Lady Susan Vernon. In Stillman's new comedy Love & Friendship, she's an apex predator whose claws are concealed behind the courteous veneer of a society beauty. She's played with deadpan mastery by Kate Beckinsale in one of the performances of her career. With much on the agenda, including the film's The Last Days Of Disco reunion with Stillman and Chloë Sevigny, Empire headed to a suitably grand hotel to quiz her about the role and her career to date. But before any of that, there was an important @KateBeckinsale tweet to discuss...
What is going on here?
That's my panto horse. When I was a child I lived in Chiswick and on Chiswick High Road there was a very intense joke shop where they didn't like children touching the costumes. So I grew up going in there, staring at these costumes, thinking one day I'll have one. At 16, I got my first television job and made the princely sum of £200, so feeling totally flush, I went back into the shop and said, "Right, give me your most expensive costume please," and I bought this panto horse costume. Anyway, it was hours of fun in the panto horse. Then many years later a friend's mother got really sick and then her sister got really sick and then her dad got sick, and I thought, "I don't know what the fuck to do now". I was staying in The Dorchester, so I told her to come over, got out the panto horse costume and it was miraculously cheering to have a canter around The Dorchester in his panto horse costume. The hotel got really panicked and sent security up because someone reported that they'd seen a donkey on the eighth floor.
So you were just running down the corridors in the costume?
And since then it's been something I take with me in case there's a low moment. I've brought it with me from Los Angeles.
So it's not your audition for the Rentaghost movie.
It's not, although I do love me a bit of Rentaghost. It was one of the creepiest television shows ever. It gives you a weird, panicking feeling thinking about it.
Turning to Love & Friendship... this isn't your first Jane Austen adaption – you were Emma in 1996. How do you think Emma would cope with Lady Susan?
I don't know, I think Emma would be cowed into submission. I don't think Emma would like Lady Susan very much, and I don't think Lady Susan would register Emma.
Black widow? Kate Beckinsale as Love & Friendship's scheming Lady Susan.
There's so many lovely comic lines in the script. Was delivering them with a straight face a challenge? It's a masterpiece of deadpan.
It really is. That's Whit's special skill. There were two times it was hard for me: first, when Tom Bennett first came in, because his lines weren't funny on the page – they were funny-ish – but he was just hilarious and we all had a hard time with him. The other time was the hoppy-dancing scenes, especially when men were doing it. Period hoppy dancing is very funny. Also, because I was working so much [before the shoot] I didn't have a chance to do the dance choreography, so I turned up, everybody else knew where they were hopping and I didn't. That made me laugh. Also, being in the corset and hopping and laughing... I was at a high risk of dying. I nearly died in the final scene of Much Ado About Nothing, hopping along with Robert Sean Leonard. That's what will kill me eventually: hoppy dancing.
Period hoppy-dancing is very funny, especially when men are doing it.
Is it true that Stephen Fry was only on set for one day, a Friday that was dubbed 'Fry-day'? How was that celebrated?
Stephen Fry-day. I wasn't there because my character is off-screen in flagrante during his scenes, so I went home to see my mum. But I was there for Stephen Fry Eve and Boxing Day.
Was everyone visably better informed when you came back?
Yes, it was like they'd all done a thesis. He did do some sort of lecture when he was there. He's quite expert on Jane Austen.
What do you think it is about Jane Austen – and it doesn't apply as much to, say, Dickens – that foreign directors tap into so well?
It's true. Whit and Ang Lee... I'd never even thought of that. My favourite one of the films that I'm not in is Sense And Sensibility, which is beautifully done, but of course Emma [Thompson] wrote that and the script is really brilliant. Not to say that Ang Lee didn't have a hand in the movie, but the script is fucking brilliant. I don't know, are they slightly less distracted by the kind of romantic, chocolate box-y version? I don't know... that's really interesting. (Sotto voce) There have been some duff ones directed by non-English people. I'm not mentioning any.
With Mark Strong, Samantha Morton, Olivia Williams and fellow cast members on 1996's TV adaption of Emma.
Did you enjoy doing Emma as a 23-year-old? Was Love & Friendship proportionally more fun?
I had great fun doing Emma. This was harder only because we had such a short time to shoot it, and this is the most verbose character I've ever played in a film. It was a 26-day shoot, which is sort of unthinkable. It was supposed to be 27 days if I didn't learn my lines, but it was 26 because I did (laughs). That was the massive challenge of it. Emma was a six-part miniseries shot over eight weeks and everyone was hanging out and being jolly. Here, I was having to be very much a nun. The minute we wrapped I was having to run off and learn my lines, because the rhythm of the day depended on me knowing what I was doing and I never wanted to be the one capsizing [things]. Whit gestated this movie for an extraordinary amount of time – decades – but he also likes to be in the moment, to write a new scene and give it to you in the morning. Or you've learnt a giant speech with eight paragraphs but he wants them all in a different order. I wasn't saying "let's go to drag queen bingo tonight"; I had a lot of homework.
The language is incredibly ornate. Did you find your own speech patterns changing when you were doing it?
I had a lot of homework on this film. I wasn't saying 'let's go to drag queen bingo tonight'.
Probably a bit, because I talked for ten to 12 hours a day. But I'd have moments of cone of silence, because otherwise I'd just have been growling. Talking that much in a corset can give you a growly voice.
Which was easier to wear: the costumes in this one or The Aviator?
Comfort-wise, The Aviator. These ones were more bulky and cumbersome. I didn't have to go through the door sideways in The Aviator. My hat was the size of a tractor wheel, plus your bum goes on a lot further than your bum normally does when you've got a bustle on.
Lady Susan is incredibly smart and funny, but sometimes she doesn't seem aware that she's being funny. Do you think she's 100 percent self-aware?
I don't think 100 percent. She's got certain blindspots, but it's like if you've told a lie enough times it becomes true – if you've told a funny story that didn't really happen enough times, it becomes like a real memory. I think she's a bit like that.
What was the moment of peak Last Days Of Disco nostalgia on this film? Tell me it was dancing to Love Train at the wrap party...
Oh my god, whenever I hear a track from the soundtrack of The Last Days Of Disco I'm like an old grannie: (Does shouty grannie voice) "I've danced to this in a movie!" We did all the Studio 54 scenes in one go, because we had that location for a short period of time, but that was a much longer shoot and it was so amazing.
Love & Friendship reunites Beckinsale with her The Last Days Of Disco co-star Chloë Sevigny and director Whit Stillman.
Did you have the music playing in the club scenes?
Well, we'd have it playing and then if there was dialogue it'd go to playback so you'd have to do pretend shouting. It was fantastic: I was only 22 and it was the first time I'd been to New York, falling in love with it and making friends there.
Whenever I hear the soundtrack of The Last Days Of Disco, I'm like a grannie shouting: 'I've danced to this in a movie!'
It must have been a confidence boost.
I was so fantastically panicked. I'd been offered this fantastic play at The National – I'd been workshopping it with the director – and then this thing The Last Days Of Disco. But The Last Days Of Disco scared me a bit more, because it was about playing this very particular society American that I didn't know. I tend to usually go for the thing that freaks me out the most. The play was Closer actually, this fucking brilliant play, and it was one of those times where you go: "Shit, this is an amazing champagne problem to have." I went for the thing gave me actual anxiety attacks – which I did have a lot of in the beginning. I felt displaced and weird, all like, "Argh, it feels like a movie and I don't know anyone..." But it was an amazing experience.
Is it important to get out of your comfort zone in that way?
As an actor, that's the thing to do. That's the only rule I've had. Sometimes that pays off and sometimes you make a movie that nobody sees, but you still have the experience.
As Ava Gardner in The Aviator. "My mum shrieked when I told her I was doing a Martin Scorsese movie."
What did getting the role in The Aviator mean to you?
Being able to phone your mum and tell her you're doing a Martin Scorsese movie and to hear her shriek... that was amazing. I've worked with Robert De Niro a couple of times now and it's a similar thing: those people you had pictures of on your fridge at university, and it's such an incredible thing. You think, "Fuck, I'm from Chiswick!" I loved working with [Scorsese]. He creates the most fantastic space for actors to work in.
I was sent this script for Pearl Harbor that was fantastic, super moving. We didn't shoot that script.
Pearl Harbor followed close behind. It's fair to say that people don't love that film. Do you think it's unfairly maligned?
God, it's so hard to separate it from my personal life and personal experience with it. It was a strange one, because I'd just had a baby, which was a surprise in itself. So I'd just done (1999 drama) Brokedown Palace, immediately got home and got pregnant, having to be quite grown-up, then I did a Henry James movie, The Golden Bowl, and shortly after that went to do Pearl Harbor. I'd been sent this script which was fantastic, super moving and one of those scripts that you cry three times when you're reading it. We didn't shoot that script. There were a lot of rewrites that, in my opinion, were unfortunate, because the script was really, really good.
Run! Pearl Harbor was a "shocking" experience, remembers Beckinsale.
Was your character radically altered?
No, but they made everything quite broad. There'd been this lovely backdrop of a metaphorical loss of innocence, but it became this bombastic thing. I had no idea who Michael Bay was. There wasn't an IMDb then, you just trusted your agent to warn you what you were getting into. And I don't mind difficult people – I always got on with the teacher that everybody hated – but it was just a different aesthetic from what I could have conceived of with my background. Not to say that I regret doing it because it was an extraordinary achievement to survive how shocking it all was, really. The fact that I had a relatively new baby was probably what saved me from absolutely freaking out. We were doing press six months before it came out and people were already saying how shit the movie was. (Thinks) I can't really judge it as a movie. I haven't seen it for years, but if my daughter ever showed any interest I'd probably sit and watch it with her.
You've just filmed Underworld: Blood Wars after a four-year break from the franchise. Was there much hugging of furry Lycans on the first day on set?
Yep, a lot of that. A lot of fist-bumping stunt guys. A lot of that disbelief of, "Oh, are we really doing this again?" (laughs). And, "Look, there's my trousers!" My character looks exactly the same. Even John McClane gets a new vest.
I'm back in those same trousers for Underworld. Even John McClane gets a new vest.
There's quite a complex mythology in this franchise. Do you get people asking you to explain it to them?
Yeah, at Comic-Con... but I think one of the things that is cool about it and that I am proud of is that it isn't based on an existing comic book, it's not a remake, it's not based on a video game, and I think the days where you can get those movies off the ground might be over. We squeaked in last minute. I like the fact that there's this mythology that a couple of guys thought up on their sofa. Whatever you feel about Underworld, a new idea is always a good thing. Cinema is vastly more corporate so it's become, "Yes, we will make the I Can't Believe It's Not Butter' movie but we won't make an original movie."
Have you ever come close to a role in the Marvelverse? Is that something that interests you?
I don't know, those girls are often in a fairly similar costume to [my Underworld catsuit] (laughs). That might take me out of the running.
As Underworld's Lycan-hunting vampire Selene.
You think there'd be too much crossover with Black Widow?
I think it's a bit similar. I think I've got my own doll in those trousers.
You're known as an avid reader. Are you on a movie tie-in cover for Lady Susan and would you find that weird?
I wouldn't mind being on the cover of a book, that'd be lovely. I'd display them on people's coffee tables (laughs).
There are a lot of Love & Friendship posters out there at the moment...
Are there? My mum sent me a photo of the one that's up at Chiswick. Hopefully it's slightly different from when I started out and first had posters around the tube – I was 18, my brother was 18 and my step-brother was 18 – there were mysteriously quite a lot of moustaches around Gunnersbury Station by my brother and his mates. It made me feel loved. It's quite a commitment to hop over the railway line.
He risked his life to draw a moustache on you?
Risked his life. That's pretty cool.
Which movie was that?
Much Ado. At Gunnersbury Station it was me and Denzel who had beards. He Denzeled me.
Lastly, is there a lesser-known movie you've worked on that you'd love for people to search out?
I was very proud of a movie I did called Nothing But The Truth (2008), which was loosely based on Judy Miller, the [The New York Times] journalist who went to prison for not revealing her source. I got to meet Judy Miller. It was actually a tragic story because it was a very good movie and I was very happy with my performance in it, but the day after it got nominated for a Critics' Choice Award, the film company went bankrupt, so it didn't come out. It had very little life on video. I was also very proud of a movie I did with Sam Rockwell called Snow Angels (2007). The distributor dissolved right when that was coming out, so that was another one that I don't think many people have seen. Sam was wonderful in that and we had some amazing scenes together in it.
Sam Rockwell's a good dancer...
He's an amazing dancer. He's so good, you almost don't want to dance with him. Also, most of my dancing is floor work (laughs).
Love & Friendship is in cinemas now. Read Empire's review.