GQ, Jun 2004
From voluptuous vampire killer in Van Helsing to man-mad Fifties siren The Aviator, Kate Beckinsale is taking the world’s multiplexes by storm.
She strides into the lobby of Shutters, the swishest beachfront hotel in Los Angeles, all honey tanned and gorgeous with her hair bunched into a bouquet. “You’ll never guess what’s on the internet today,” she says, breaking into a wicked grin. “Supposedly I eat cotton wool to stay in shape and I fucked Colin Farrell. And I’m supposed to have had a boob job this week. They had before-and-after pictures and everything. My brother called me. He said I should have got a size bigger!”
She looks down at her assets, tucked tidily into a jogging blouse, and instinctively grabs them, hoists them up together and pulls one of those Les Dawson faces. “If I’d bothered with all that,” she says, “I’d have dressed a little less modest!” Her pert little nose scrunches up, her eyes soften and sparkle, and she laughs. She has a lovely laugh, Kate – light and trilling like a bird.
If nothing else, the whirring rumour mill confirms her arrival among the Hollywood elite – you’re no one in this town until you’ve been accused of eating wool, fucking Farrell or buying boobs. Yet for years Kate lived happily below the radar, sidling discreetly onto the A-list with nary a whiff of gossip, not even after Pearl Harbour in 2001, which almost did for Beckinsale what Titanic did for Winslet, England’s other great Kate.
Then, last summer, she roused the yapping dogs of the splasherazzi press by leaving Michael Sheen, her co-star on her vampire movie Underworld, for the director Len Wiseman, to whom she’s now blissfully engaged. The fact that Sheen is both stout Welsh stock and the father of her 5 year old, Lila, was only red meat to the goss-hounds who sensed a vixen ready to sacrifice a 10 year relationship on the altar of her Hollywood ambition. It didn’t matter that Kate had spent her 20s faithfully monogamous and untarnished by scandal, nor that she’s far more accomplished than Wiseman in industry terms, so the career move would be his if anyone’s. None of this matters, once the yapping begins.
Nevertheless, her tabloid baptism only heralded what this year, Beckinsale has put beyond doubt – that she is indeed a bonafide star, right up there with the Gwyneths of this world. This month, she stars opposite Hugh Jackman in Van Helsing, a riproaring action blockbuster. “They said, ‘Kate, go and waft a sword about and kill things.’ So I did. I don’t half get about in that film, I tell you.” And come December, all the ships come sailing in – she plays Hollywood legend Ava Gardner opposite Leonardo Di Caprio’s Howard Hughes in The Aviator directed by none other than, ahem, Martin Scorsese.
“Oh Marty, yes,” she says, grinning. “What do you mean? Everyone calls him Marty! It is a bit scary though, especially when he says, ‘OK great so shall we try a take now?’ And you think, ‘no! I’m from Chiswick. I’ve no business being here. Actually, is there any cleaning you’d like me to do or should I just go straight home?’”
Kate’s passage from Chiswick to Hollywood began aged five at her father’s funeral. This much we all know. So tragic was the early death of Richard Beckinsale – the star of Porridge and Rising Damp – that young Kate was long presumed to be a maudlin, tortured girl to be handled with emotional kid gloves. There were indeed years of teenage tailspin at the Godolphin and Latymer girls school, with a brief battle with anorexia nervosa thrown in, but the clouds had passed by the time she went to Oxford to study French and Russian, and to do a spot of acting on the side – just a few movies, spot of Much Ado About Nothing with Kenneth Branagh, that sort of thing.
Acting was always on the cards, what with her family being a virtual troupe. Her mother Judy and sister Samantha are both actors and her step-dad Roy is a writer and director. Some may remember her fresh-faced Flora in Cold Comfort Farm, or the barbed Charlotte in The Last Days of Disco. But the gates only properly swung open when Jerry Bruckheimer threw her into Ben Affleck’s arms in Pearl Harbour. Then she moved to Venice Beach with baby Lila, and the leads came rolling in, one by one – Serendipity with John Cusack, Laurel Canyon with Christian Bale and, last year, Underworld with, well, the director in the end.
“I still can’t believe I’m marrying a septic!” she laughs. “Do you know what I mean?” And she laughs again, as sunny as the Californian skies.
Two hours fly by at our little table in Shutters where we drink only water, skipping lunch entirely. She’s a wonderful talker, Kate, a born nitter-natterer. The words tumble out terribly quickly, but never rushed. Though her sentences come skidding around corners, they never screech – everything Kate says has the gentleness of a nurse and the chirrupy lilt of birdsong.
And it’s obvious, that no matter how starry Hollywood would like her to be, she remains resolutely one of us – self-effacing and cheeky, without the slightest trace of west coast twang polluting her melodious west London posh. She punctuates everything with her delightful, delicate little laugh, and she butterflies prettily from subject to subject. One minute she’s talking about how she misses the “black cabs and the slightly grumpy people in England” or how “I just get a bit claustrophobic wearing knickers”, and the next she’s about to reveal her secret talent, that no one really knows about.
“I can sneeze,” she says, giggling. “At will, I mean.” She demonstrates and beams as though she just won an Oscar. Now there are some actresses who might follow that with an anecdote about how they sneezed for so-and-so legendary director in that Hayfever epic etc etc. Not Kate. “I can do that 200 times in biology until I get sent home.” Which just goes to show that you can take the girl out of Chiswick…
Sneezing apart, what are you up to these days?
I’m kind of tootling around ready to do some whoring, you know.
And why not? A girl’s got to eat.
No, silly. Publicity whoring for Van Helsing.
Yes, more vampires. You’re the go-to girl for vampire stuff these days.
I know. And now I’m doing Underworld 2 too, so I’m literally becoming goth queen. But I’m not interested in vampires at all. When I hear about a vampire movie, I think of bitey necks and garlic and long white nighties.
Underworld was more of an action movie.
Yeah, and I love action movies. I love Rambo, Lethal Weapon, Terminator, Diehard – all that stuff. Van Helsing’s more like Romancing The Stone – sort of old-fashioned, a girl and a guy on this adventure thing. And I’m not a vampire this time. I’m a gypsy princess who has swords and kills vampires and kicks ass. Not really kung fu style, more sort of rushing about with a stick. Bit of flipping over, you know.
So you had months of intensive ass-kicking lessons?
Well, on Underworld I did. I had three months of it. First I learned how to run not like a girl. Then I had all the boxing lessons and guns. I quite enjoyed the guns to my amazement.
Did you rush out and buy one?
No, I’ve got a five year old. I have got a spud gun, though. I think they got banned in England, because you can really give someone a wicked mark on the neck!
It must be good for your resume, all that shooting and fighting. And sneezing.
And falling off stuff and flying around on wires. It’s not bad for someone who bunked off PE for years. Me and my friends, we said we had our periods and we bunked off to the café.
I thought you were a good girl at school who went to Oxford and everything
No, I was naughty. Well not naughty so much as I just didn’t go. I stayed at home.
Were the other girls mean?
They were. Mean, nasty girls. I was also a bit of a nut at the time. I didn’t love being a teenager all that much. It was better for me to contain it at home. Inside a wardrobe.
I tried sciving too, but my parents wouldn’t have it.
Mine did, because I was a poor little bastard. And because I wasn’t smoking crack in my room, I was reading Solzenitsyn and writing essays. When I got into Oxford it did raise the odd eyebrow, because I was the naughty truant.
When do you get to use your French and Russian?
It’s been so useful in my career. Not. I occasionally get to speak French, because we do a lot of films in Canada. And Russian, really, it’s just taxi drivers and bikini waxes. That’s all you get in LA.
Surely you A-listers don’t get taxis like the rest of us?
I have to get cabs because I don’t drive. But I do occasionally fling myself out of them because the guy’s talking to himself and I think he’s going to kill me so I throw some money at him and run. I’ve done that three times.
You could kick his ass now, with all your action movie training.
‘Course I could! I remember Ben Affleck telling me, “I can’t fly commercial airplanes any more because now I’ve done so many action movies, if anything terrorist goes down, everyone’s going to look at me and go: ‘kick his ass’.” It works for my kid, though, she’s five. There was a mean older boy who said he was going to kill her rabbit, Bob, but then she showed him a picture of me in a magazine, holding a gun.
A spud gun?
Yes! So now, I’m going to end up having to beat up somebody’s dad with a spud gun. Excellent.
It’s not worth it for a rabbit.
Bob’s a vicious bastard, too. Sexually, terribly frustrated. Rabbits are supposed to be at it all the time but he’s just a poor guy on his own. Fucks his food bowl a bit. It’s like boarding school isn’t it?
How did you get the part for The Aviator?
Oh, amazing. I was in the middle of Van Helsing and then I get this message that Martin Scorsese is going to be here tomorrow and I have to learn Ava Gardner’s accent in a day and audition with Leonardo Di Caprio. That was about the worst news I’d ever heard! But you can’t say no I’m not going.
Bit boyish isn’t he, Di Caprio?
Yeah, he is. But he’s so fucking good. And he’s good in a grown up way. He’s not someone who by some autistic act of God is really talented. He’s very in control of it, it’s really impressive. I thought he’d be this arrogant skate kid, LA sort of snotty mean boy. And he’s just like the nicest person. The best actor. I also thought he’d be incredibly short, but he’s six feet tall.
Wasn’t Ava Gardner like Mae West, always quick with the one-liners?
I know, it’s quite intimidating. Cate Blanchett plays Katherine Hepburn in the movie and we’re both like, ‘what the fuck are we doing, it’s like lining yourself up to be shot’.
At least you get a roll in the hay with Di Caprio, I suppose.
Ha! It was more flirty really, we didn’t do anything dirty.
Now, Laurel Canyon – I didn’t really get the ending.
I know, neither did I. It sort of petered out.
Was it hard to snog Frances McDormand?
No, I’m not squeamish about kissing a woman. I’ve never had a full-on dyke experience in my life and I’m not dying for one at all, but I’m sure I snogged a girl at school or something. I do find that with men, you go, “could you snog your best friend for a bet?” and they think it’s disgusting, but I could – my best friend’s very attractive. I wouldn’t particularly want to rip her clothes off, but, you know, for fifty quid I could.
Tell you what, you give her a call while I go to the cashpoint
She’s in New York. And anyway, she might not want to snog me.
What about having Christian Bale go down on you at the start?
Now that was more embarrassing. I’d never done any sex scenes before that and I know Christian, I worked with him when I was 17 – we did the worst film in the whole world ever made, it’s called the Prince of Jutland. If it was a complete stranger, it would be easier, but when it’s someone you’ve gone to lunch with and there’s his head in between your legs… I wore five pairs of knickers is what I did.
Only Frances McDormand flashed her breasts, yet you were supposed to be the one having the sexual awakening. Nudity clause, was it?
No, they didn’t ask me to get my baps out. They let me keep the bra on, which obviously I was quite glad about.
I’ve got to ask – what’s this about you peeing into a thermos flask?
Oh God! This is the thing. I’ve done nothing – I haven’t fucked anybody, I haven’t done any drugs, and I’m still talking about peeing in someone’s tea literally fifteen years ago!
That was about some nude scene wasn’t it?
Well, it was this horrid director who made me do a nude scene, but that wasn’t it – he was really horrible and abusive doing it, and I’m like 17 years old, standing their naked and sobbing. It did make me feel a tiny bit better.
Did he drink it?
Oh yes. But you can only do that once. You can also only run off with the director once. Otherwise you become someone who pees into your tea and fucks directors. And that’s your life story.
What was the director’s name?
I’m not telling you! But pee’s supposed to actually be quite good for you. It’s quite a tonic, I’ve heard. He’s going to live to 200 now, you watch.
Are you and Kate Winslet best friends or bitter rivals? Your names always appear together. You know, two English Kates who made it “over there”.
Do you know, I’ve never met her once. People think just because we’re English and we’re called Kate we automatically live on the same street, but it’s not true. Mind you, we both have daughters too, and we both have sex with directors. See? There’s a whole new angle for you.
When’s the next exclusive party you’re going to?
I consciously avoid all that stuff. Not as any kind of statement. I just absolutely could not be less interested.
What’s wrong with a party?
I don’t really drink, I’ve never taken drugs in my life and I’ve already got a boyfriend, so I think what’s the point of going to a party? What are you going to do?
You’re not teetotal are you?
No, drinking just doesn’t make me feel all that well. I find wine very depressing. I get into a kind of Chekhovian despair the next day, like “oh I must sit in my house and cry”. And I’m not a fan of vomit, either. If you were bleeding copiously I would actually help you, but if you were vomiting you wouldn’t ever see me, I’d be long gone. Yuck. I vomit probably once every 7 years.
Surely as a mum you’ve been wading through baby vomit for years?
True, Lila’s the only one I’ll deal with it for. But you’ll have to put me in a flotation tank and give me a cigarette afterwards though.
Can you smoke in a flotation tank?
I’ve no idea. I’d have a funny turn if I went in one of those. I could end up thinking life has lost all its meaning again and, oh no, I’m an atom, I might as well just give up. I don’t want to listen to the inner voices. It takes all my wherewithal to get them to shut up if you want the truth. Now, I want to ask you a question.
Do you find talking to American actors and English actors different? Do American actors talk more earnestly about themselves, take themselves more seriously?
Sometimes. Quite often they’ll come to interviews with a suit of armour, it’s like they send a representative of themselves. You, on the other hand, are just a normal girl from Chiswick.
I am! But just wait till I get outside, I’ll peel my skin off and turn into a bastard.