Confession: The Santa Monica pier is not a particularly supernatural setting to do an interview with the star of a very supernatural franchise’s fourth installment. The quicker we get past that, the more we’ll all just be able to focus on the beautiful woman strolling up the boardwalk, in casual black pants and a sweater, aviator glasses blocking out the unseasonable grayness, and blocking in the face that is so recognizable for its graceful cheekbones and slender, sharp features. Kate Beckinsale’s first admission to me is that she’s never put her fingers on a Ouija board’s stylus. “In England,” she’s quick to point out, “it’s kind of up there with taking the head off a chicken.”
In lieu of meeting a medium, palm reading, or Satanic ritual, I have dragged Beckinsale out to the Pier because, appropriately behind the arcade, is Zoltar, the famed genie from the ’80s classic Big. “Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice,” Zoltar bellows, before spitting out a small card, Beckinsale’s fortune.
“A dark-haired person who is trying to harm you will soon disappear from your life, and you’ll be extremely happy,” Beckinsale reads with the elongated o’s of a finely-educated British gentlewoman. “How can that not be you?” She looks at my dark-haired personage with grave suspicion, and continues.
“Are you tired?/ Are you weary? / Does life feel drab and dreary? / Despair not of this my friend / I see happiness around the bend. I think it’s nice that he made it rhyme.”
Beckinsale—for a woman who carries the Underworld action franchise as Selene, a beautiful vampire warrior—is remarkably unaffected. She’s frank, and genuinely funny. You could be around her for a touch more than an hour and feel like you’ve gotten the same treatment as someone who’s hung out with her for years. I do have the advantage of having met her at the photo shoot you’re ogling, where she regaled me with a story of her fear of heights. While on a recent vacation to the Caribbean, her and her tweenaged daughter, Lily, found themselves high in the sky after a misunderstanding of what exactly parasailing was. Beckinsale blames Lily for making a scene and begging for a premature descent from the seamy operators of the parasailing operation below, but there’s the sense that mummy may have pulled the real proverbial plug.
In an effort to invoke Beckinsale’s fear of heights, I suggest the Ferris wheel. “I’ve been pushed off several buildings this year,” she says of her Underworld Awakening stunts, canceling out any idea that she’s a wuss. We decide on the rollercoaster. “I’m not terrible on heights,” she explains. “I’m worse if you wanted me to get into a coffin.” So, no coffins for the vampire warrior. “I also wouldn’t like to be in a pod in space, and then suddenly be absolutely cut off, and just be whizzing around space forever by myself. We’re absolutely not doing that today either.”
We are the only ones riding—it’s quite cool and overcast today—so the surly attendant ushers us to the front car. The scariest seat. I realize I have a latte with me. I ask the surly attendant if I can leave it on the platform of the coaster. She doesn’t mind. “She might wee in it,” murmurs Beckinsale under her breath—perhaps a veiled reference to the oft-tittered about legend that Beckinsale peed in director Whit Stillman’s tea following a row about a nude scene—and we’re off. Did I mention she’s funny?
As we fly around death-defying curves and into stomach-dropping canyons, let’s remove ourselves from this set piece and examine the rollercoaster of the lady’s life.
Kate Beckinsale was born 38 years ago to one of England’s most famous sitcom actors, Richard Beckinsale. In her last cover of Flaunt, for the Martin Scorcese-directed Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator, she compared her father’s fame in England to Elvis’. Beckinsale hardly knew her father, however, as he died suddenly when she was five years old. Her mother, Judy Loe, was also a television actress, who continues to win roles on doctor dramas. Safe to say, she didn’t have a very normal childhood. “Who did, though, quite frankly?” says Beckinsale. “My mother was very against coloring your hair. I was the girl who wasn’t allowed to do that stuff … My mother would never have said it was okay to buy me a car; that would never happen. We always had to work for that.”
And so, Beckinsale worked in school. She was twice awarded Best Writer of the Year in England. “I was given the prize by Ted Hughes,” says Beckinsale. “It was the most exciting thing to this day. It was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m actually getting a poetry prize from Ted Hughes. He’s read it, and he’s picked me.’ That was crazy.” She trails off, and her eyes go distant. “What happened?” she wonders.
What happened next was that, at 15, according to an article in The Independent in 1997, Beckinsale developed anorexia—she simply stopped putting food in her mouth. She sought Freudian analysis, which unearthed anger over her father’s passing, and she eventually overcame her eating disorder. Meanwhile, she studied Russian and French Lit at New College, Oxford, but a high education couldn’t stop her from pursuing her eventual destiny.
She began to act in British TV movies at 17, and by 19, she’d appeared in Kenneth Branaugh’s Much Ado About Nothing, as the death-faking Hero. From Shakespeare, she leapt to Jane Austen to star in Emma, a period piece notable for the Art Direction and Costume Design Emmys it won. Both films had fancy literary pedigrees, and Beckinsale gained a reputation as a fine actress.
This all led, of course, to a hipper kind of period piece: Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco, for which Beckinsale had mailed the director an audition tape. He was immediately rapt by her, and handed her the role in the drama about the early-’80s, when disco had started to fizzle. “I came out to do that,” says Beckinsale. “That was the longest at that point I had ever been in America. I winged (the American accent). I read the newspaper out loud to myself in my hotel room, and I would phone up businesses and ask about real-estate, or try and book a fake haircut in an accent, and see if they went, ‘Why are you talking funny?’”
She is pitch perfect in the film, her Charlotte Pingress an icy proto-yuppie, bitchy and unforgiving. When her co-worker chastises her for complaining about paying rent, saying she’ll probably marry upwardly someday, you can’t help but get behind her knife-twisting response: “What if in a few years we don’t marry some corporate lawyer? What if we marry some meatball, like you? Or not you, personally, but someone with similarly low socioeconomic prospects.”
Ah yes, brilliant. The rollercoaster metaphor. “Waa-haaa,” sings Beckinsale on a dip, and then, “Unghhhh,” around a corner. Listening back to the tape, it’s quite cute the way she grunts and yelps. There’s a bit of the coaster that hangs over the Pacific, and when we fly around the corner, the smell of fish smacks us in the face. “Was that you?” Beckinsale ribs.
When we finally pull into the platform, a man is waiting there. “I saw you!” he exclaims. “Can I take a picture?” Beckinsale nods, a little queasy.
But, we’re still moving. The coaster operator has decided to send us around again. “I hate it when they give you special treatment,” Beckinsale whispers, gripping the railing in preparation.
Let’s continue along the metaphorical ascent to Beckinsale’s career. Next came the vacation-nightmare Brokedown Palace and the Merchant Ivory production The Golden Bowl. Just prior to the two films’ releases, Lily was born. None of which could have prepared her for the Michael Bay-directed Pearl Harbor. And this is when the rollercoaster turns into a multi-million dollar piece of exploding excrement.
“When Pearl Harbor came out,” says Beckinsale about the surrealistic nature of waking up very, very famous for a movie you’re not quite proud of, “I never really paid any attention to the box office, and they called up—I don’t remember the number but it was really high—‘We’re really happy it made 49 million in a weekend,’ and I went, ‘Is that good?’ I had no idea. And I hadn’t just got off the boat. I had a kid by then, I had been working for a good six to seven years. I didn’t feel like a hick; I felt rather sophisticated, but I clearly was a hick.
“No one had ever said anything to me about it,” elaborates Beckinsale. “Bear in mind, I had not really done a big American movie. That was the first one I did. So, I always judged it on: does it get good reviews or bad reviews? Because I’m an actor. So, if the movie got really great reviews, I felt that it was a success, even if no one had gone to see it. Like Last Days of Disco, that was a roaring success. I’m sure it made 12 bucks, you know what I mean? Pearl Harbor, on the other hand was a major flop for me, because the reviews were just horrible. People hated it; they hated it before it even came out.”
Pearl Harbor, budgeted at $140 million, was the highest priced movie in history at the time. But Beckinsale pleads ignorance to the implications of its players. “I mean, I do remember being in our apartment in New York,” she says, “and being told it is [directed by] Michael Bay, and me going, ‘I don’t know who that is?’ Anyway, they sent me one of his movies, and it was Armageddon, and I thought it was quite good. You know, for what it was. So, that didn’t set off any red flags or anything. I didn’t realize that the idea of Michael and [producer] Jerry [Bruckheimer] taking on a story like Pearl Harbor would seem preposterous to people as it did, because I didn’t know what Michael and Jerry meant at the time.”
What it ended up meaning was a big explosion movie about explosions, with some romance and questionable history tacked on for good measure. “The original script was very good,” says Beckinsale, “and really moving, and you sort of cried three times when you’re reading it. So, I went into just like I went into the movie that I did before it, which was a Merchant Ivory film of a Henry James novel. It was exactly the same mindset. I got disabused for that very quickly. I hadn’t realized how in a bubble I had been until then. I remember being asked [by the producers], ‘If you do this movie, will you work out?’ ‘Why, what’s going to happen to me? Am I going to be required to lift a tractor?’ I don’t know why I was such a hick. It’s bizarre to think of it.”
Bay’s comments about Beckinsale—he said she looked like a “slut” during her audition tapes, and that he cast her because she was “not too beautiful”—were insensitive to the point of being disgusting, and Beckinsale has commented previously that it took her a bit to get over them. But, the film did burst Beckinsale’s star, leading her to the rom-com schlockfest Serendipity opposite John Cusack and the brilliant Laurel Canyon, which features her in one of the more delightful cunnilingus-into-thrustings in cinematic history. Despite the little hiccup on the track, Beckinsale’s roller kept on coasting.
But maybe it was coasting a little bit too much. In the year 2002, Beckinsale accepted another mass-market role, as a vampire in a war against the werewolves. It was there, after securing a lead part for her boyfriend and Lily’s father, Michael Sheen, that she met Len Wiseman, the director of Underworld. Long story short, the first movie was a major success, and Beckinsale ended up moving to Los Angeles, only because Wiseman couldn’t move to England. “I actually moved out here because I fell in love with somebody who couldn’t live in England,” she says. “So, even though I had been doing some movies here and had spent four months at a stretch, but Len couldn’t really work in London. It’s different when you move out and realize, ‘Oh my god, I haven’t got a dentist.’ You start from scratch building all that stuff up again.”
Okay, so let’s drop the rollercoaster bit. It’s getting a bit boring, and anyway, the real time ride has ended, and the guy from before who wanted to take a picture has clambered over the cars and got his shot. I make a little face in the photo. Sorry, guy, if there’s a weird journalist making a funny face in your shot. I wonder aloud if she’s sick of the attention. “No, I never come across anyone who’s not [nice],” she says. And the paparazzi? She takes it all in stride. “I was wearing a summer dress that was strapless,” laughs Beckinsale. “I was walking with my kid and her friend, and as we’re walking by I’m like, ‘Oh shit, there’s a whole bunch of paparazzi.’ And my kid’s friend stood on my dress, and my whole boob popped out. But I happened to be literally just walking by a lightpole at that moment, and I thought to myself, ‘Okay, maybe there’s a God.’”
Beckinsale and I wander to the end of the dock. The day hasn’t really peaked anything above grayscale. It’s almost forlorn. There are very few people on the promenade, which may be a good thing, because just as our stomachs settle from the rollercoaster, and we’re settling back into conversation, a couple walks up and asks for a picture. Again, Beckinsale obliges. Again, I make a face. I do this in honor of Beckinsale, who happens to love a good prank.
“Poor Len,” Beckinsale sighs. “He puts up with a lot. That poor guy does not come home without somebody dropping off the top of a wardrobe at his head. It’s because I’ve never come across anybody as un-neurotic as my husband, and so I do feel compelled to test it all the time. I’m like Wile E. Coyote sitting there with my dynamite: ‘Come on, is this going to make him raise his eyebrows?’ When he goes to sleep, there was a whole period of time when I was gluing beards to his face, and mustaches, and bullet holes in his head. That was when he was directing Die Hard, so my greatest hope was that he would not be able to get the Abe Lincoln beard off and have to turn up in makeup and go, ‘Help me!’ He would’ve torn his face off to get it off. But, I love that kind of stuff.”
Since marrying Wiseman, Beckinsale has shown up in roles both big and small. From Van Helsing to The Aviator to the Adam Sandler vehicle Click to David Gordon Green’s absolutely gorgeous Snow Angels to the ultra-scary Vacancy to Nothing But the Truth—a film based on the story of Valerie Plame that never saw theaters as the film company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy just prior to its release—Beckinsale has built a career filled with movies that both challenge and titillate, scare and make you laugh. She’s also made some questionable moves, and she’ll be the first to admit it.
“Basically, the really big movies that I have done that suck,” Beckinsale allows, “have, for me, turned out at various crisis points in my life where I think, ‘Shit, I need to make sure I can take care of my kid.’ As simple as that. You know, it’s a weird thing that your hobby, the thing you feel great about, is also the thing that makes you go, ‘Okay, well, I have to be able to pay a mortgage bill.’ It shouldn’t be the case. The bottom line is that will happen sometimes.”
The Underworld franchise is one of two true action franchises carried by a woman in the lead role these days, Milla Jovovich’s Resident Evil being the other (it’s interesting to note that Jovovich’s husband directs the Resident Evil films). Beckinsale sat out the last edition, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. In fact, she took some time off from filmmaking altogether to spend quality time with Lily. “I’ve been away for a whole year,” she says. “It’s been great. I didn’t find anything I wanted to do enough to take me away from my kid. After the writers’ strike, everybody thought there would suddenly be this surge of really great material that everybody had been quietly doing during the strike. But, it turns out they weren’t—they were having breakdowns. It’s not much of a creative time, when you’re really depressed and you’re worried your house is getting foreclosed.”
A bald, bearded man with a Mr. Bean bobbleheaded doll darts for the edge of the pier. He sets the doll down on a platform and determinedly photographs it. It’s all a bit creepy. But then he turns and, without provocation, says, “He’s been to 13 countries.” The Mr. Bean man turns and leaves as quickly as he came. Beckinsale and I look at each other with astonishment. She shrugs. “It’s nice to have it explained, though.”
Beckinsale, like the Mr. Bean bobbleheaded doll, has been making time lately. In addition to Underworld Awakening, she plays the wife of retired international currency smuggler Mark Wahlberg—who has to do one more job to save her life—in Contraband. Beckinsale, as in Pearl Harbor, and pretty much all the giant films she’s done, does the best she can with the role, despite her character being not much more than bait for the bad guys to piss Wahlberg off.
But the film that’s going to really catapult her back into the world of super big action fare is the Total Recall remake, helmed by Wiseman and starring Colin Farrell in Ahnold’s classic role. As far as re-makeable concepts go, the original Total Recall isn’t exactly sacred cow material. But, Beckinsale still has her reservations. “I do think it’s a shame that it’s hard for directors to get an original idea that wasn’t a comic or wasn’t a remake or wasn’t a game or something,” she sighs. “I think it’s very frustrating for directors in general and actors. You’re constantly finding yourself having to defend doing a remake when you didn’t really want to make one in the first place. If it was up to you, you would be doing your own original sci-fi. I know [writers and directors] have the ideas, it’s just [the studios] won’t finance it. What’s next? I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter: The Movie, because it’s a known franchise?”
Total Recall was originally culled from a Philip K. Dick short story, though, and that leads to a bit of discourse about hard sci-fi. Beckinsale won’t make any bold predictions, but she’s sociologically in tune with the way things are headed. “I just feel everyone’s tolerance for violence is so numbed and blunted. ‘Look at these pictures of Gaddafi.’ I almost fucking died. I know that it’s true that, because we have such advanced communications, we are hearing about stuff that is not happening next door. Somebody was saying recently to me that if you only knew what was happening within a 40-mile radius from your home, you wouldn’t hear that the world is such a dangerous place, but because we’re hearing that everywhere from China or all over America—everywhere—it makes you think there’s a horrible nightmare around every single corner, which also isn’t completely accurate, but it feels like that because of the way things are reported.”
As if on cue, a seagull takes off from the pier, squirting a trail of shit in his wake to drop into the sea, in two distinct arcs. Beckinsale nudges me. “Did you just watch that? Did we share that? That’s nice, isn’t it? That was a double; that was weird. Two directions.”
Much like Beckinsale’s career arc. There’s the indie-queen of Snow Angels and The Last Days of Disco and there’s the action hero of Underworld and Total Recall. It’s as if she yearns for her early days of Shakespearean drama, but knows Hollywood doesn’t have the patience for such filmmaking any longer. And, as the age-old roller coaster metaphor dips and bobs around bends, she’s weathered the lull, held onto her daughter, and prepared for the loop-de-loop of blockbuster action films in the early part of 2012, with Contraband and Underworld. All she can do is look to the future. And then she takes one last look out at the Pacific.
A large school of dolphins breaches the water, accompanied by a seal playing around them. “How did you pull this off?!” exclaims Beckinsale. “This is the best date I’ve ever been on, just so you know, two dolphins and a sea lion. And a shitting seagull. It’s a wildlife bonanza.”
“It’s interns in dolphin suits,” I say, my only good joke of the day.
And this is how the Santa Monica Pier became a perfectly supernatural place to interview Kate Beckinsale.