Whit Stillman’s newest film “Love & Friendship”, a gobsmackingly great Jane Austen rom-com, opens in Bay Area theatres tomorrow, promising more pizazz and style than most movies coming out this summer. Based upon the little known Austen novella “Lady Susan,” “Love & Friendship” is a deliciously genteel gaze at a recently widowed high-society lady (Kate Beckinsale) who wants her daughter to learn the ins and outs of English aristocratic society. As woman in a world that rigidly limits what they can and can’t do, Lady Susan, along with her American best girl friend Alicia Johnson (Chlöe Sevigny, “Boys Don’t Cry”), scheme to get the upper hand on the dullard gentry around them.
With “Love & Friendship,” Beckinsale, best known for her lead roles in the vampire action series “Underworld,” marks her second collaboration with Whit Stillman. (The first was as a struggling Manhattan book editor and disco patron in Stillman’s best film, “The Last Days of Disco” of 1998.) The Stanford Daily recently sat down with Beckinsale to discuss her work on the film, her experiences as an actor and her path beyond the popular “Underworld” blockbusters. Because of the length of the interview, it will be divided into two halves. This is the first.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): What was your reaction when you found out about the role in Whit’s latest film? Why were you attracted to it?
Kate Beckinsale (KB): I was in Bulgaria filming another movie. And I read the script, and I thought, “Well, this is great, but it can’t really be Jane Austen.” But, no: Almost every single word out of my mouth is hers. So Whit did a pretty bang-on [job]. I loved the script and I loved the work we did the last time we worked together. So I knew that he had a particular relish for that sort of diabolical female. It’s wonderful to work with somebody who gets a bang out of that.
TSD: Can you talk about reuniting with Whit after this many years? Was it something you’d been hoping for, a pleasant surprise?
KB: Well, Whit went subterranean for a long period of time, so I didn’t really know if a reunion was something to even hope for. Whit is a very interesting creature; he could easily pop up in any other profession and kill it. Interesting cat, that.
I wouldn’t be surprised by anything Whit does. The thing about Whit is that he is sort of Jane Austen-ish. His movies specialize in a very particular strata of social milieu that only he has the precision to analyze. And in his previous movies, the social settings he presents were just absolutely unfamiliar to me. You can imagine me coming from England and feeling very unqualified, feeling like some foreigner who had to really learn about, you know, Connecticut and that sort of people.
But this time around, it was a bit different, a bit more my territory. I had started out doing Jane Austen in my school days, doing “Emma” and that sort of thing.
TSD: As we saw in “Last Days of Disco,” you’ve already proven you’re dynamite when you work with Chlöe Sevigny. I was wondering if you could describe the dynamic between you two. What draws you to Chlöe, and vice versa?
KB: I remember being blown away by Chlöe who, when I first went up to New York, was so unbelievably cool. She shattered my notion of what really-super-to-the-bone-cool people are. I thought she’d be like looking at an untouchable Warhol picture. Really closed-up. In reality, though, she’s so candid and goofy. And because she’s so very much herself at all times, she’s cooler than everybody else.
TSD: What’s it like to be in a creative partnership with a man like Mr. Stillman? Being in that environment and talking to him for extended periods of time, I’d imagine it must be a gift.
KB: At first, we had sort of an epistolary relationship at first, back-and-forth emails. I’m at base an academic woman. Whit asked if I could have my notes on the script, so of course I’d sent back this thesis.
Because he writes the script and directing and producing, he’s got this weird obsession with background actors. I remember this from “Last Days of Disco,” where you’d have your most involved scene with your most dialogue and a dance and God knows what else going on—and you’d get to the end of it, and Whit would go, “There’s a gardener who looks…” and we’d go, “Were you not looking at all?! Does he hate what I’m doing?”
But, of course, he’s also got such an amazing gift for what truly is funny. And it might be that the gardener’s funnier than the hero. He’s usually not wrong.
TSD: This year, you have three different movies coming out, which are very different types of movies. And you play three different characters…
KB: Yes, I’m hoping to assemble a reel.
TSD: Ha, yes! Well, how do you move so nimbly from being a vampire warrior to an English coquette?
KB: Well, that was always my plan, I think. I decided to go to university rather than drama school, and when I started working at sixteen, I always felt a bit underprepared. At the beginning, I thought, “I may be working professionally, but I need to treat this acting as an apprenticeship.” So I didn’t go to drama school, didn’t get the magic secret there. I wanted to do as many different kinds of roles as possible. And I kept that up for a pretty long time.
But I didn’t factor in one crucial thing. Obviously, doing a play at the Royal Court, doing a small French movie that nobody sees, or doing “Snow Angels” (2007) or Whit’s movies—they’re not exactly the same weight as an Underworld movie. The clue that that’s the case is when you play an action figure and people dress as you in that character for Halloween.
I strive for what you described when I was starting out: that whole nimbly moving between all the genres, staying a bit muscular, always asking yourself, “Oh shit, can I do this?” You ideally want that sense of fright as an actor.
“Underworld” is not really what I’m comfortable doing, but it’s something that’s been weighted more. It’s a slightly schizophrenic position to be in: to be best known for the thing that is least in your skill and comfort zone. That’s been very strange, but rewarding. So I hope I still get to move nimbly between all the different genres.