DAVID A. KEEPS: Let’s start at the top: What was it like sharing a shower with Emma Thompson in Much Ado About Nothing?
KATE BECKINSALE: Excellent. I’d do anything with Emma. I’d soap anywhere with her. [laughs] It was such an unrealistic experience for me at 17 years old. I had the blues after it was over. I went back to university completely bereft.
DK: At the time you were studying theater at Oxford?
KB: No, Russian and French. I definitely had the feeling that I should spend time with people who are really passionate about things other than theater—languages, photography, marine biology or something. You become more interesting that way—particularly if you’re going to be an actor and if you’ve been around actors your whole childhood and you’re planning on being around actors your whole adulthood, as well.
DK: You are part of an acting family: Your mother, Judy Loe, is a stage actress; your late father, Richard Beckinsale, was a huge TV star in Britain. What was that like?
KB: Growing up, there was a game show called Family Fortunes, which in the States you call Family Feud. And I remember at around the age of nine suddenly thinking — because my parents were well-known [Richard Beckinsale remains, even after his death, a popular figure in Britain] — „Shit, we can’t go on that.“ That was the first time I realized maybe it’s not a great thing having famous parents, because you don’t get to do stuff like that. But on the other hand, I got to meet the Monkees.
DK: Your dad’s death of a heart attack at the age of 31 really hit the British public hard. You were only five, but do you recall how it affected you?
KB: There were two really definitive British sitcoms in the ’70s, and he happened to be in both of them [Rising Damp and Porridge]. He had an innocent sort of charm and he was also extremely attractive, so he had quite a wide appeal. When he died it was really shocking and he became someone that everybody remembers, even now. When I do press in England there’s still so much interest in him and I find that a little bit tricky, ‚cause it was 22 years ago, and I think I’ve said everything there is to be said about him.
DK: Four years after his passing, your mother met your stepfather, Roy Battersby, a stage director. Did they encourage you to act?
KB: I felt like they didn’t, no, because they weren’t lifting me up and shouting hooray when I said that was what I was going to do. I think they were just concerned that I kept my options open as long as possible. I originally thought I was going to be a writer.
DK: You actually won some writing awards for short stories and poetry. Care to recite a Beckinsale couplet?
KB: I don’t remember any. They were not free verse. One of them was called „Nine Left, One Departed.“ It was about cutting off somebody’s toe.
DK: Sylvia Plath-induced, no doubt?
KB: You totally get me.
DK: So I suppose you were riddled with childhood fears?
KB: The main one was being poisoned by the au pairs. My mother actually has a letter that I wrote to the fairies saying, „Did Ursula put poison in the jam tarts?“
DK: Wait a minute—I need to know about these fairies. Did they live at the bottom of your garden?
KB: No, but I used to write to them every Saturday, and leave them food and things. And after a while of benign writing I started coming out with outlandish requests, like for a magic wand. And my mother got me one — it was essentially a gold stick — and she told me, „It works when you come to fairyland in your dreams.“ I was just like, „Ah, this is bogus\“ [laughs] Although I was a girly girl, I was also sort of a mercenary. I was kind of squat and intense and my best friend was this fragile little thing. If anyone was tricky with her, I’d kick their ass. I did a lot of that. I was always in trouble. But it wasn’t like I was sniffing lighter fuel at home, reading Roland Barthes or something.
DK: They don’t really go well together, do they, Barthes and lighter fluid?
KB: I suppose it could work with Baudelaire. [laughs] You know, I really enjoyed the fact that I was in an all-girls‘ school. I had the baptism of fire with boys at nine when, after my mother met my stepfather, I suddenly had four stepbrothers; two of them [feigns a shudder] being red-haired. So I really enjoyed it until I got to 15 and started to get into self-flagellation and poetry [laughs].
DK: Your own Bell Jar period involved an eating disorder and four years of therapy, did it not?
KB: I was anorexic. I think it’s just as likely that one would be an alcoholic or a drug addict, but in terms of young teenage girls, good students from nice families, they’re not quite as au fait with scoring heroin. Luckily, though, my family was on to what I was doing. And although four days a week of Freudian analysis is a heavy and slightly odd thing to do at 15, it was certainly a lot better than throwing me into a hospital.
DK: Did you do any dabbling in drugs?
KB: I didn’t really get into drugs, probably because it wouldn’t have ruffled any feathers. My house was the one everybody came to to smoke pot, and my mother’s biggest complaint was, „OK, you kids can smoke pot in my house, but I am not buying any more fucking cereal,“ ‚cause there’d be like 15 of my brothers‘ friends chomping down Cheerios at two in the morning.
DK: And you were never tempted to join in?
KB: I was in a hair shirt in my room. I was the most uncool person. I was into the Kinks and Bowie and the White Album when everyone else was listening to house music and all that club stuff. My mother was always much hipper than I was; she had been in Hair, you know, and wore pants to her wedding with my father when I was four. My stepfather was a Trotskyite and had been tripping throughout the ’60s. He and my mother only got married recently, after being together 16 years. We’ve had long engagements in my family, you know. Michael and I haven’t actually managed getting married yet, either. We’ve been together for seven years — it’s like if you keep a library book out long enough, eventually you just sort of feel like it’s yours.
DK: But you became a mother at quite a young age, no?
KB: I certainly felt that way when I was pregnant. I was rather round-faced and looked about 11. [laughs] I didn’t like the pregnancy as much as I thought I would, but that could have been because it was simply hard to get up off the couch. The labor was great, though. All 30 hours, though it went to pot after the 25th hour because I had to have an epidural. I was willing to go again straight away.
DK: You seem quite comfortable with the facts of life.
KB: I remember really well being 10 years old when my brother said, „I’m going to tell you what foreskin is.“ And I then took it upon myself to educate everyone at school. A lot of people remember me as the girl who on the first day was like, „Right, I’m going tell you something you’re really gonna hate.“ [laughs] I wasn’t a big fan of boys at the time. I was sort of busy having an interesting relationship with horses. You know how girls have that whole thing.
DK: That sounds rather sexual to me.
KB: [laughs] Yeah, but don’t print that… I’m already in enough trouble for peeing in someone’s thermos.
DK: That story is true? You did that?
KB: I did. And I’m not proud of it. I was 17 and this director, who shall remain nameless, was really cruel and horrible to me and I was really devastated. Since I have four stepbrothers, I was familiar with revenge, but I couldn’t exactly give him a wedgie—although I’ve had my fair share of those. The thermos incident was a very particular thing. He was so awful. At one point I was just standing there naked and sobbing. But you know, I haven’t been quite as slighted in the same way ever since, [laughs]
DK: Don’t you have a no nudity policy?
KB: After that experience I did. And, of course, after all that, the scene wasn’t even used. When I first got into the business I was quite shocked by how every single script had a scene where you peeled off your clothes.
DK: But to be fair, English films often feature full-frontal male nudity as well.
KB: Yes, nowadays it’s all penis, penis, penis, isn’t it? It’s unbelievable, the explicit things one sees. Back in England the other night, we turned on the TV, and there was a clip of a woman who pulled out a flute, removed her underwear and played „God Save the Queen,“ having kind of, you know, sucked some air into herself.
DK: On another note, what was it like being a lead in Pearl Harbor, the summer’s first blockbuster and the most expensive war movie ever made?
KB: I hadn’t really taken on what being in a Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer film actually meant. There was a lot of running and screaming. Even something as simple as a bathing suit scene required lots of preparation — the filmmakers were quite particular about where your breasts fell when you moved. And I managed to be a wuss about every single thing.
DK: Even about kissing Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett, the two guys who are romancing you?
KB: They were both excellent, and actually very sweet-smelling. But I got into trouble with Ben because by the time we had our big screen kiss, it was towards the end of the production, and it was just kind of odd and embarrassing, because he was a good friend by then. He got offended because I laughed in his mouth.
DK: How do you feel about your husband doing love scenes?
KB: Well, he played Robbie Ross, the first lover of Oscar Wilde, in Wilde (1997), so he did hump Stephen Fry. But I’ve been very lucky, actually — I’ve not had too many leading ladies other than Stephen to worry about. I was slightly worried when he was in the desert shooting Four Feathers with Heath Ledger because I thought, Well, Heath is younger and prettier than I am.
Stylist: ANNE RAYBAUD. Hair: VALENTIN with Lighthouse, Paris. MAKEUP: THIERRY MAUDUIT with Marie-France Thavonekham. Set builder: JEAN HUGUES DE CHATILLON. Special thanks: LIGHTHOUSE PRODUCTIONS, NYC/Paris.
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