For GQ Magazine, Feb 2006
The Lady Is A Vampire
Having cornered the Hollywood market in swashbuckling Gothic heroines, gorgeous British expat Kate Beckinsale is now pure paparazzi gold. GQ stays one step ahead of the chasing pack to talk fame, falsehoods and flatulence.
We’re curled up on the sofa, Kate Beckinsale and I, in the lobby of Shutters by the Beach, a top dollar hotel in Santa Monica. Shoes off. Glass of merlot. There may be better ways of spending an overcast Monday afternoon, but I can’t think what they are, not now anyway. Not while Kate’s in full flow, tapping me on the knee and telling me how much she misses Marmite now she lives in Los Angeles. Marmite and Bird’s Custard. And I’m thinking, I miss Marmite too, we’ve got so much in common.
Then a man shows up and stands hovering over us, a security type with a wire dribbling out of his ear. “Miss Beckinsale, excuse me,” he says. “The paparazzi are here.”
She laughs out loud. “Already? You really must stop telling them I’m here, you know.”
“Yes ma’am, ha ha,” the security man says stiffly. “So when you want to leave, let me know and I’ll arrange for your assistant outside to drive right up to the door.”
“Right you are,” says Kate sitting up straight, ready for action. She starts singing the Mission Impossible theme. “It’s exciting isn’t it?” she says, her eyes sparkling. “This doesn’t happen in Chiswick you know. What I need is a disguise. Have you got one?”
What, like a beard and glasses?
“Yeah a wig or something. No, no, what I need is a burkha! That’s it! I could cause all kinds of havoc in a burkha! Times like this, it would be so handy to be a Saudi!” She giggles. “Actually, I’m surprised there aren’t more celebrities in burkhas. You wouldn’t have to work out. You could entirely let yourself go. Maybe we should design a non-religious celebrity burkha with a floral print? What do you reckon? Are you in?”
I want to say yes, but looking at her I’m having second thoughts. The last thing I want to do with Kate is stick her in a burkha. Skinny and biscuit brown, with perfect skin, glossy hair tumbling around her shoulders and gleaming teeth, she’s every bit as beautiful up close as on the big screen. Anyway, even a burkha wouldn’t be disguise enough – her voice is a dead giveaway, especially in Los Angeles. She has a girlish, semi-posh natter, sing songy but delicate, fast but discreet – it’s as though the words come scurrying out on tip toes.
“Hold on – how do you smoke a fag in a burkha?” she wonders. “We might have to fit a little smoke hole in the design. Write that down.”
It wasn’t always this way, with the paparazzi lying in wait. In fact for her first five years in Los Angeles, she scarcely blipped on the tabloid radar - somehow, she had pulled off that oxymoronic feat of joining the A-list without anyone really noticing. She arrived in LA for Michael Bay’s behemoth Pearl Harbour in 2000 and decided to stay on account of her 2 year old Lily: “I could hardly keep flying her back and forth from Chiswick for meetings, poor thing.” So for the next few years, she worked out of a pad in Venice Beach, quietly continuing her ascent with leads in Serendipity, Laurel Canyon and Underworld.
But then in late 2003 she ran off with the director of Underworld, Len Wiseman, leaving her partner of 10 years, the actor Michael Sheen. The scandolometer spiked, gossip page antennae started twitching and fleets of snappers were dispatched into the night to shoot this lusty English Jezebel. And they haven’t stopped since. Never mind that Kate doesn’t drink or take drugs or stay up late. Nor that Wiseman is only the 2nd man she’s been seen with in the past decade. Two! And what self-respecting Jezebel then settles down and gets married, remaining close enough with the jilted Sheen so that all three of them could happily go onto make Underworld 2?
Still, Kate’s not complaining. “Now I know they’re out there, it means I can’t pop out for a fag,” she says. “But other than that…” Shrug. I suspect she rather enjoys a few lurking paparazzi. In the fluctuating markets of modern celebrity, they’re a pretty good indicator of a star’s stock. While their presence suggests a nearby bankable talent, their concentration and determination tend to hint at the star’s wattage. There are other factors, of course - speculation about celebrity “mergers” or frequent trips to the loo – but let’s not get bogged down. The point is, when I first met Kate for GQ here at Shutters about 15 months ago, even after she’d run off with the director, we chatted for a good two hours and the paps were none the wiser. So by certain standards, that’s progress.
It happens that all this recent attention has coincided with a string of horror-fantasy movies. Kate seems to have developed a Jones for these CGI monster-mashups – lately she’s done nothing but swing around on ropes battling vampires and werewolves and things. In Underworld she’s a vampire killing werewolves, in Van Helsing, she’s the Wolf Man’s sister who’s trying to killing Dracula. And in Underworld 2, which comes out next month, she’s back to killing werewolves again.
“It’s not like I planned it,” she protests. “Like: ‘Right, now I’m just going to kill monsters’. When we made Underworld 1, we had no idea there would be a sequel. I just wanted to see if I could do something a bit tougher, and then suddenly it turned into this big blockbuster and people were putting it in a similar box to the Matrix. But it was a tiny movie. It only cost $20 million.”
You can’t get Julia Roberts out of bed for that, these days.
“I know but they had me, you see – whole different thing.”
Kate is usually the best part of these action-horror flicks she’s been making. She makes a gorgeous goth, chilly and slender, and in the Underworld franchise you can hardly blame the werewolves for drooling - she looks the business in a latex bodysuit and corset. Very fetish ball. But they haven’t been the most memorable of films and the critical applause has hardly been deafening. Van Helsing in particular was roundly panned. Does that sort of thing bother her?
“Well what are you going to do, it wasn’t exactly Spartacus was it?” she says, laughing. “But it was also one of those movies where people spent a lot of money in quite an ostentatious way, so the knives were already out. I had that with Pearl Harbour – we hadn’t even started shooting and people were saying nasty things. That’s because it was the most expensive movie ever green-lit. And I’ve been in two of those now – Van Helsing’s the other. I’ve got to get out of that habit.”
It’s a bit of a departure for Kate, all this action-blockbuster stuff. After all, this is a girl whose background is steeped in literature and theatre and complicated novels in difficult languages. She was virtually born into acting – her mother and sister are both actresses, her late father starred in Porridge, and her step-dad’s a writer and director. And though she had a miserable time at school - battling with anorexia and spending much of her teens at home reading – she still waltzed into Oxford to study French and Russian and get in as much Shakespeare as she could. (One summer holiday she went off to make Much Ado About Nothing with Kenneth Branagh.) After college she won rave reviews for Emma and Cold Comfort Farm, and more recently, there were such nuanced parts in indies like The Last Days of Disco with Chloe Sevigny, or Laurel Canyon with Frances McDormand, not to mention her Ava Gardner in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator.
With all that in the acting bank she’s earned the right to kick some vampire ass if she wants. Besides, the era of the monsters may have already drawn to a close. There are no beasts in her next movie, the comedy Click. She plays the wife of Adam Sandler, an architect who is given a remote control that enables him to fast-forward through his life. “It’s the most fun I’ve ever had doing a movie,” she says. “It’s hilarious. He’s hilarious. And the rest of the cast is just great - Henry Winkler, David Hasselhoff, Christopher Walken.”
But was it the cast that really made this movie for Kate, the thoroughbred intellectual and Shakespearean actress? Surely the complexities of her character played a part, or the twists and turns of her narrative arc?
“There’s also farting in it,” she says. “That’s always been an ambition of mine, to be in a film with a proper farting scene.”
And with that she closes her yes, clenches her fists and mouths a silent “yes!”.
You’ve done hundreds of these gothic monster films now
Ever worry about being typecast?
It’s funny, when I first came out here – a slightly fragile looking person with an English accent – they were loath to cast me in anything other than a Jane Austen. Now everyone thinks I’m just this action adventure girl. I won’t be around for Underworld 12, I can tell you that.
What’s your action figure like?
We didn’t have one this time because the ones they did on the first one were so bad. I look like someone who’s half way through a sex change operation. The werewolf came out all right. But I’m quite the she-male. Not even a 10-pinter.
Is it getting any easier, killing these creatures?
It is, a bit. First time I literally had to be taught how to throw a punch. Now, I’m a bit better at that which is good, because there’s more fighting this time. And I like the fighting. It’s not something I had a lot of experience at coming from Chiswick.
The mean streets of Chiswick.
Oh yeah, nasty brawls outside Marks and Spencers on Chiswick High Road. It’s very important to be able to elbow people in the throat, especially during Christmas shopping.
Did you do your own stunts?
As far as possible yes. Well, you don’t want to be the wuss do you? But it is scary. I don’t mind heights so much, it’s just heights coupled with being upside down.
Like diving off the top board.
Oh I never dived. I jumped. And that took me weeks to pluck up the courage. I was only 10. They shouldn’t force kids to do stuff like that. It’s very traumatic.
What about that latex catsuit. Did you get to take it home?
Yes. I get to do the washing up in it if I want to.
Now there’s a fantasy. What about the ironing?
No, ironing’s definitely not one of my things. I haven’t a clue how to iron a shirt.
So much for the Oxford education.
I know! But I had 4 brothers and they’d always say, “oh you should be in the kitchen” and all that so of course I never went in the kitchen, ever. I was like, “bollocks I’m going absailing.”
Still, that’s your Halloween costume sorted out.
Exactly. I quite like Halloween out here. Because you don’t have to go as a witch necessarily, you can go as a tin of beans.
How’s it different on the set of a film when you’re married to the director?
Well, you talk about that suit. In the first one, it caused quite a stir, I got lots of comments. But this time – nothing. And I thought, “oh my god something terrible’s happened to my arse in the last couple of years.” But then I realized that everyone was looking the other way out of respect for Len. They don’t mind saying “phwoar, nice arse” to you, but if your husband’s standing there, they go all quiet.
How did the rest of the cast and crew everyone else respond?
I think they were quite nervous at first, because they were worried - what with it being Hollywood - what if they have an awful fight and throw things and force everyone to take sides. But actually, it was really nice. We’d definitely do a husband/wife thing again after this one.
Did you get to effectively co-direct the movie?
No, I wouldn’t want to. But I definitely felt that I could make a suggestion or a comment. There wasn’t that weird stay-in-your-place type thing. But there were also times where he’d say, “put your chin down, babe, you look a bit piggy” and that was fine. On the first Underworld he’d have to say “I think in this scene your character would probably have her head down”.
And if you didn’t agree, you could always withhold sex.
Exactly! Restrict all blowjobs. No nookie for a month.
How long have you been married now?
Two years in May.
Did you sell the wedding pictures to OK!
No! I didn’t sell the pictures to anybody. Felt a bit weird about it. I think they got pictures anyway, though. It was in this hotel and there were all these helicopters going around and a bunch of photographers had booked rooms and they were taking pictures out of their windows. We tried to give them the slip – we hired a security firm and it was a bit weird, having to get in cars, go to a hotel and switch cars and all that. All very Mission Impossible. But it didn’t work.
Is it different, having a relationship with an American?
Well, he’s not very American, bless him – he’s not into American football, he’s not one of those. I think I’d have a hard time if he constantly had to watch girls fucking rugby bollocks.
That’s what I call American football. It’s like rugby except I must wear armour and scream a lot. It’s completely poofy.
And they do those gay dances when they score.
The gayest. And their other national sport? Rounders. Which is a girl’s game. The prosecution rests.
So what’s the difference then, going out with an American?
Well, there’s a lot more opening the door for you and carrying your bags. And until I came here, I’d never been on a date where someone else paid for dinner. I always went halves. I think it’s brilliant. I know that “women can do everything” and all that, but why should they, that’s what I think. If there’s a bloke there to take the binbags out then fucking great.
I can’t believe British blokes wouldn’t buy you dinner.
It’s true! But I haven’t been on the old dating scene for a long time now, so when I’m talking about English boys I’m talking about being 19 or 20. There were some personal hygiene issues back then, too. They’re a bit more into showering and general lotion here.
And abs. They’re obsessed with abs.
I don’t mind an ab. I don’t require an ab but if it’s there, you know, I’ll have a go on it. I’ll give it a poke.
Do you like it in LA?
I have to say, I had that English thing of thinking it’d be so much more horrendous than it was. Then I was like, ‘oh it’s all right’.
Have you learned to drive yet?
No, but I have mastered a golf cart.
But you’ve lived here for five years, how can you not drive?
I’ve been busy. I haven’t stopped working since January. And anyway, I can speak Russian, so fuck off. That’s my answer for everything that I can’t do – I speak Russian. Next question!
What’s the capital of Bulgaria?
Oh bollocks, I don’t know. My geography’s terrible. It’s a family joke – they get the globe out and say, “Kate, where’s Russia?” and I point to Sweden.
But you speak Russian.
I know, but I couldn’t tell you where it is. I’m very clever in about 3 directions and completely stupid in every other.
Have you got an earthquake kit?
No, what’s an earthquake kit? Waterproof knickers? A torch, a tin of beans, Kendall Mint cake, packet of fags?
No, I haven’t. Shit, now you’ve got me worried.
Do you think you’re going to stay in LA?
Well Len can’t really do his career in London and Lily’s got her school here, so yeah, for now. But I don’t see me being here when Lily’s a teenager. I just bought a house in London, in Notting Hill Gate.
Now, I’ve been on the internet and there’s a few things I want to clear up
Oh God, here we go.
Apparently your husband put up a load of nudey art on the walls and you insisted he get rid of it
Oh fucking hell. Number one, I had such a nightmare going around the fucking National Gallery with my daughter, running away from all the bums and penises, there’s no way I could put a naked anything on the wall and get away with it. Or Len. It’s a completely made up story.
God yes. And there’s another one where I’m supposed to have gone rushing off to England for a secret tryst with a male friend. Well, it’s actually my friend’s husband and they’ve just had a baby. Supposedly I took advantage of the swollen ankles and moved in for the kill! We have a good giggle about that one. I keep sending my friend emails saying, “but your husband is a fantastic shag isn’t he?”
Here’s another one - apparently you’ve got stomach ulcers.
I keep reading that I’m suffering from stomach ulcers ever since I was 18, but I’ve never had one in my life. I did have a burst appendix after I had my baby, though.
And it says here, you thought about quitting acting and becoming a doctor
Well, not really. I was hanging out with a couple of doctors and they said, you can still become a doctor, it’s not too late. So I went, “huh, really?” I did have a moment of thinking I probably want to try my hand at something else, but no, I probably won’t ditch acting until it ditches me. I definitely want to write.
Yes, you won the WH Smith Young Writers' Competition twice for your short stories at school. What were they about?
Oh I can’t remember. Angst probably. I was a pretty angsty teenager. Not rebellious angsty. I was very unrebellious actually. I never would have dreamed of sleeping around or waking up in a pile of my own sick. But I would do the odd thing to frighten my parents – make terrible announcements, stuff like that.
I’m not telling you! I’m already struggling with how many pictures of naked women are supposedly hanging up in my house.
Were you a trendy teenager?
Not at all. I wished I was born in the 60s, and wanted to go to Woodstock. I had posters of John Lennon, that French film Breathless, not the Richard Gere one. Edie Sedgwick. Honestly, no one thought it was cool at the time. It was all hip hop back then. Everyone thought I was a complete idiot. My brother was trendy though - he was the big DJ and he used to have loads of boys turn up at the house wearing woolly hats.
Loads of boys at the house, did that mean loads of boyfriends?
Not really. I had a bit of a fiddle with a few of his friends once in a while.
Ever considered joining a cult to further your career?
I’ve got a healthy terror of cults actually.
No kabbalah bracelet?
I don’t believe in all that.
Don’t you have God in your life?
Not in that red bracelet-y way, no. And I don’t go to church either. Last time I was in church was someone else’s wedding, probably. My stepdad was a Trotskyist. Not a lot of churchgoing in the life of a Trotskyist.
Ever fancy using your celebrity to help people?
I don’t know what it is, but there’s always that horrifying feeling where you think they’ll announce you as the celebrity spokesperson and everyone will go “who?” Other people always seem like celebrities to me. With me, it’d be, “Kate who? What was she in? Is she the one off Titanic?” I always get people telling me how much they loved Titanic and I just say “I’m so glad for you!” I don’t want to embarrass them.
Do you believe in therapy?
I think I do in general, but I was in full Freudian analysis when I was 15. And it just made me even more nutty. I much more believe in being around sane people.
Do you find that insane people creep up on you, especially out here?
Yeah, they do. They take turns. But you do get a bit better at spotting them.
Are there just as many mad people in London.
Yeah, but they’re probably all drunk and having quite a nice time.
What’s the best bit of advice you ever got?
I remember Emma Thompson telling me “don’t shit on anyone important”.
Would you have a tendency to shit on important people?
No, never! I’m not likely to shit on unimportant people either. I’ve got a horror of rudeness – hate it.
What’s your nasty side like?
I’m much more likely to implode and enter a zone of self-loathing than I am to start shouting at people.
What’s next for you, Kate?
Well, I’ve got to leave here, dodge the paparazzi, have some dinner…
No, not tonight, I mean in general.
Oh, I’m not sure actually. I’m quite intrigued to see what will happen. I’d quite like to do a play next in London.
Would you consider doing a Monster – you know, go all fat and ropy, or wear a prosthetic nose like Nicole Kidman in The Hours? You might get an Oscar.
Oh yes, I’m up for all that. I’m quite happy to go fat. I’m not Little Miss Hollywood you know. Anyway, I’ve been fat before.
You, fat? Rubbish, don’t believe you.
Course I have. I put on 4 stone after I had my baby. You just didn’t see me because I was in my burkha!