In the first film adaptation of Jane Austen’s posthumously published novella Lady Susan, Kate Beckinsale, 42, plays the title character — a charming and delightfully manipulative widow who is determined to reverse her dire circumstances and marry into money, even if it means upending societal conventions. Here, Beckinsale chats Austen novels, big petticoats and kicking butt.
How familiar were you with Lady Susan, the long-lost Austen novella on which Love & Friendship is based?
I didn’t know it at all, but it was a real delight to see how much of the script was from the novella, because it was so not what I thought of as typical Jane Austen.
What’s your favorite Austen book or film adaptation?
I loved Emma most as a book. I think it’s actually a quite difficult one to adapt because so much of what I love about Emma is in her thoughts and thought process. There have been some great adaptations, and I’ve done an adaptation myself, but I think what I really miss from the book is that you can only have Emma talking to herself or doing a voiceover so often in order to convey the character sensibly.
What do you make of Lady Susan? She’s seeking a man to improve her social standing, but she is smart and cunning, and has quite a competitive streak.
It was such a narrow, limited life that one could expect as a woman during that period. Lady Susan is a fighter for what becomes feminism. Yes, she’s fairly ruthless, but I admire her for rising above the limitations placed on her.
The dresses worn by you and Chloë Sevigny, who plays Lady Susan’s best friend, are so detailed. How long did it take to get ready every day?
It took about 40 minutes. We would have our underwear, leggings, and then a corset, a petticoat, and then another petticoat, a skirt, a top, then a kind of long coat, then another coat, then a choker, shawl, gloves, hat, and then a veil. You’d just sort of stand there like a Christmas tree, going, “Bloody hell!”
At least there was no danger of flashing anyone with all those layers.
[Laughs] Exactly. That would have been a huge achievement.
You worked with director Whit Stillman in 1998’s The Last Days of Disco. How has he changed in that time?
It’s amazing that it’s been over 17 years and he’s the same person as he was. There’s nobody like him — he’s entirely himself. He’s American, but he’s got such a European sensibility. He’s intellectual but also quite silly. There’s not many of those wandering about.
In Disco, you and Chloë were rivals. What was it like playing pals this time?
My character was so unpleasant to hers in Disco, so it was a relief that we were co-conspirators in this one. Disco was the first movie I did in America, and the first that required me to do an American accent. I was in a bit of a crisis. Chloë was my Virgil, guiding me through New York. I’ve lived in America nearly all that time since, but she was the one who introduced it to me. It was particularly sweet to be back with her.
You begin your career in period film – in Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. What about returning to the genre is special for you?
I certainly didn’t intend to not do them anymore. I feel that at the point I started acting in England, that’s all the film industry was making at the time. We weren’t making a lot of modern, contemporary movies. That was great for me, because I loved all that. I wasn’t planning on not doing them any more. I think that people got distracted by the machine guns I was holding and didn’t necessarily think of me in those terms, which you know, obviously that didn’t change how I felt. But what I found so particularly sweet about it was that it was Whit who got me out of England, and then it was Whit who got me back with this movie. [Laughs]
You’ve played some fierce women who aren’t afraid of doling out a good butt-kicking. Is that true of you in real life?
If somebody was mean to my mother or my daughter, 100 percent. Other than that, if I don’t like you, you probably won’t see me for at least 15 years. I’m very British in that way. But if somebody shouted at my daughter in the street, I would probably leap over 10 cars to go and smack them, no problem!