KATE BECKINSALE never dreamed that a role as an ass-kicking vampire assassin in Underworld would vault her into superstardom. But, as
MATHEW SCOTT discovers, behind the blaze of bullets is an actress able to inhabit a variety of roles
IT’S THE HONESTY that makes the first impression. To make time for our chat, Kate Beckinsale has rushed off set from her latest film – the Karen Moncrieff-directed drama The Trials of Cate McCall – which has only been in production for three days, and there’s an immediate sense that the actress is completely and utterly thrilled to be involved once again in the process of creating something “new”.
“I just love it,” she says when referring to the art of acting, but then (and here comes the honesty) she’s the first to admit that when success came her way – and we’re talking here about the sort of massive global success few actors really ever get to experience – it came in what to her was the most unlikely of circumstances.
It’s not a word Beckinsale says was readily associated with her formative years, but the decision to take on the role as the werewolf-hunting vampire Selene in the hit Underworld series of films (an estimated half billion dollars in box-office receipts, and counting) seems now as completely inspired as to her it was, at first, completely unusual. The surprise to Beckinsale was both how easily she took to the genre and how readily audiences across the globe took to seeing her up there on the big screen as an all-action hero.
But such is Beckinsale’s passion for her craft that she’s been able to cut her way across genres too. There’s been drama, in the likes of Nothing But the Truth andThe Aviator, and the British-born actress is now obviously thoroughly enjoying the experience of being asked to fully flesh out the character she’s currently bringing to life in The Trials of Cate McCall.
Soon, too, audiences will see the 38-year-old throwing herself around in the remake of the classic 1990 sci-fi thriller Total Recall, reworked for a new generation by her husband and director Len Wiseman.
Perhaps the fact that Beckinsale is able to take it all in her stride should come as no surprise. Her father, Richard Beckinsale was, after all, a much-loved star of British television. Acting, she reveals, first really grabbed her attention as she sat as a teenager in darkened Parisian cinema houses watching one of the greatest stars there has ever been.
And we can all be thankful that it has never really let her go.
Can you talk a little about the film you’re shooting today, The Trials of Cate McCall?
[Director/writer] Karen Moncrieff first approached me about two years ago when she first started talking about the movie being made. I really liked her. I thought she was very clever and interesting, and I thought this was a great character. Sometimes it takes time to get these movies together and we’re all thrilled to bits. We have Nick Nolte and James Cromwell, and we’re now in the third day of shooting and we’re already pleased.
What can you reveal about the character you play?
She’s somebody who has lost everything – she’s blown it. She’s a very successful lawyer whose marriage has collapsed because she’s basically become an alcoholic. She messed everything up, she’s lost custody of her daughter and she’s been fired. So she takes on a case to get off probation, basically. She inherits this case about a woman wrongly accused of murder. And it all sort of unfolds from there.
Is it a different experience, working with a female director?
I’ve worked with a female director before – with Lisa Cholodenko on Laurel Canyon – and I really enjoyed it. I don’t necessarily think there’s an enormous difference when it comes to gender. Karen is very nurturing, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily female as I’ve had very nurturing male directors. I really enjoy working with directors who have written the script, actually. I find in the preparation of the movie it’s wonderful to have a communication going with the director when they’ve written it. Oddly, they’re much more ready to hand the character over to you if they’ve written it. It’s surprising but that has been the case most times. But I haven’t really noticed a vast difference with having a female director, apart from the fact that she’s very pretty.
What about the work you’ve done with your husband – does it put any strain on your relationship?
I don’t really know about any power play. We really get on very well. We met on a film set and we enjoyed working together then, and we still do. I suppose if you have an argument with your director and you’re married, it’s more likely to continue, but it doesn’t really happen very often. We have quite similar tastes and one of the reasons we like working with each other is that we can see eye-to-eye on most things.
That leads us to Total Recall, which is soon to land in Hong Kong cinemas. How did the role come about – did your husband always want you to be involved?
Well, of course I was aware that my husband was involved with the movie, that he was writing the script and all that. At the beginning when he started working on the script, he said, ‘I’ve got you in mind for this,’ and I just thought, ‘OK.’ But when it came down to it, I was actually not available. I was very much aware of him going through the casting process while I was doing Underworld 4, so we were both a bit sad about it. But he was very grown-up about it and asked if I’d like to play the three-boobed woman, which meant being on set for about a day, so I said, ‘OK, I will.’ So for about three weeks I was going to play the three-boobed woman for an afternoon. But then the dates of my other film moved and suddenly I was available. It was a complete shock. I’d been familiar with it all so that helped, but I was straight into it.
How aware were you of the original version?
I’d seen the original but not very recently, and I made a conscious decision not to watch it again. I think there’s nothing really less creative than just trying to make something different from the way somebody else did it. It’s a very different tone of movie and I think it would have been very odd if I’d just tried to be Sharon Stone. My character, anyway, is sort of an amalgam of Sharon Stone’s character and Rachel Ticotin’s character. It’s similar in that I play the wife and I turn out to be not very nice. But the tone and context are very different.
How different are the processes involved in preparing for action and for drama?
In a sense it’s similar in that you want to build and create the character very well. But there are different requirements. A movie like Underworld or Total Recall, it’s not a character study in the same way – but that’s not to say one is better than the other. Really, there’s not that much time in an event movie to ponder whether that character has had a bath that morning. But the process is similar in the preparation. Obviously in a film like Total Recall the preparation is a lot more physical than for the one I’m doing now. You have to learn how to fire guns and things. But in this one I also have to learn to do things I’ve not done before or I’m not particularly good at. I’ve not been a lawyer before, so I’ve had to meet with a lawyer and go and watch a trial. I have to play pool in the movie, which I’ve never played before in my life. Always with a film there are things you have to learn that you haven’t learned before. The things themselves may vary but they all come under the umbrella of your “prep”.
And does the role of action-movie star sit easily with you?
I never imagined myself as an action star. If you’d said I would be in those sorts of roles I’d have laughed at you. I did it because I like to do things that I haven’t done before. At the time I was offered Underworld it seemed like such a preposterous idea – that I personally would be able to do a film like that – but it also seemed to me a really interesting challenge. It was, and then all of a sudden it turned out that people seemed to buy that and I’ve ended up doing more of them. But I’m not nearly as comfortable doing the physical roles. I was always feeling like the last person picked for teams in physical education. It’s something I still find quite frightening because I’m more comfortable in a movie like I’m doing now.
Have you always been comfortable watching yourself go through the process of acting?
When you first watch a movie that you’re in, I think most actors find it terribly disappointing and even devastating. As an actor, you’re aware of every tiny thing that you’ve done, and obviously you’re not in control of cutting the film and of what ends up on the screen. It’s such a collaborative process really. With action films it’s interesting because quite often there are visual effects that you haven’t seen or certain things make more sense in a way that they haven’t until they’ve gone through the post-production process. But I’m always dying to see the finished product. I always have a quiet moment afterwards feeling horrified. The second time I sort of evaluate it and then if you can wait a decade you can watch it like an audience member. I really think it takes that long
Can you pinpoint what it is about this craft that attracts you to it?
I love the whole knitting together, from the various clues, of a whole person and really starting to discover what makes that person tick. It’s like a mystery, almost like an autopsy where you’re finding out how it got to this point. I find that fascinating and engaging. It’s also very enjoyable. For an actor there are so many things you have to do to connect with the part. Some of it is imaging yourself in a situation you might not have been in before, some of it is drawing on things that have happened to you. I just find all of that process extremely engaging and different every time.
So curiosity plays a part in this process, about character and about life?
For sure. If you’re fascinated by people or by the psychology of people – what makes people different and on what level we’re all fairly similar – it’s interesting. I’m interested in all those sorts of things.
Was there a particular moment that set you on the path you’ve chosen?
I was definitely seduced into acting when I used to go to Paris every Easter with my friend, from when we were about 14 or 15. We used to go to watch all these French movies and we didn’t speak fluent French yet. So it was a bit mysterious trying to work out what was going on. But I absolutely fell in love with Jeanne Moreau. That was when I first thought – I really want to do that.
What is it that you think Moreau has?
She was just a fascinating, extraordinary woman and I was fascinated with everything she was in. It seemed like a really important job. I loved what she brought to her characters, the sensitivity she had and the strength she had. You can’t find anyone who doesn’t like Jeanne Moreau.