It’s safe to say that there’s no one in Hollywood like Kate Beckinsale—an English rose plucked from the damp and loamy soil of ye olde England and now thriving among the succulents on the sun-basted hillsides of Hollywood. Kate Beckinsale is an icon whose every move is watched by millions.
If on a whim she decides to stick googly eyes on her cat (as well as herself) it causes a social media riot. What she appears to be on the surface: a vivacious bombshell with a wicked sense of humor—is only a smidgeon of the story. Her petals cover steel. Versatile and hardworking, she’s a real, bonafide movie star, able to bring the glamor of Ava Gardner for Martin Scorsese in The Aviator as ably as she garners awards for playing a working class mother in the harrowing British drama Farming. Personable and polite, caring and concerned, she’s a star but not a diva. Rather, she’s an extremely private person who has built up an inescapable public persona, and is very aware of the paradox.
At time of writing, Kate Beckinsale has 5.3 million followers on Instagram. This level of audience participation is perhaps our modern day equivalent of the hysteria of the star system of Hollywood’s misty past. In the 1930s, at the height of her fame, Shirley Temple’s Fanclub only had 3.8 million members. Fans used to send thousands of letters a week to the studios demanding their favorite actresses get bigger parts—it was called ‘boosting.’ Studio boss David O. Selznick would have these fan letters scanned in case he had missed any potential stars on his roster.
After a particular hit film in 1928, a young Joan Crawford attempted to personally reply to every one of her thousands of letters. Today, fans and stans alike can tweet, critique, and comment as much as they like without ever licking a stamp. Tangoing with Hollywood dreams in the 21st century, 2022 sees Kate Beckinsale herself regularly reading and responding to her fans—with dazzling wit and alacrity. We discuss this complex form of engagement, some of on her memorable roles, and the weird questions one is asked as a woman is Hollywood, in a meandering conversation one Friday evening in April, as the breezes kicked up and summer commenced its foreplay here in Southern California.
Based on your Instagram, you seem to enjoy every single day of your life, and also enjoy sharing that with everyone.Not every single day…What I should say first, is that my Instagram is largely to amuse my mother who is in England. And I know that when she wakes up in the morning, the first thing she’ll do is see what I’ve been up to. If I find something that’s kind of fun, or funny, or cute, it’s largely aimed at my mum. So the fact that other people enjoy it is good, but that’s what it’s mainly for. One of the things I found surprising and refreshing about Instagram is that this is the first time in my whole career that it’s just me, it’s not written by someone else, it’s not edited by someone else.
Have you noticed that each time you make your funny clapbacks to the trolls, entire ‘news’ articles are generated? I respect that you take the time to even reply at all.
We all scroll through, and go, ‘Oh dear, I really don’t like that outfit,’ and then, if we have any manners, we just continue scrolling. I cannot fathom ever saying something nasty. I can imagine thinking, ‘Well, I don’t really like her or his whatever’—sure, we’re not saints. But just to actually go out of one’s way to write something like that… Somebody did one today, on the post about my daughter’s movie. He said, ‘When I saw the trailer, I thought it looked shit.’ And I’m like, ‘How nice of you to feel that we all need to hear your shitty weird opinion.’
You describe yourself as “genuinely a technophobe.” And yet the impact of these posts and exchanges is surreally impactful. Nonetheless, this digital conquest wasn’t planned, right?
I was very late to the table with social media. I had no interest in Instagram at all. I was also very, very wedded to my Nokia flip phone. I had it for an embarrassingly long time. I bypassed the whole BlackBerry era—I didn’t go near it. But then I did Love and Friendship (2016) and it was a small movie, and I loved that movie, and it needed some help [getting out there]. So I reluctantly got Instagram and went to a company that does some quite fancy people’s Instagrams. They said, ‘We do it all for you.’ But that was just not my vibe. I was never doing any of their suggestions—I’m not going to be doing a planned photoshoot in my kitchen for St. Patrick’s Day.
I was there for a week. I’m just not that person: I’m going to see the cat doing something funny, video it, and then post it. I’m not somebody who’s planning it all out. See, I’m not good at planning, that’s turning out to be the theme today…I’ve not got a calculated social media presence. Family is key to understanding Beckinsale. Brought up in London thespian circles, actor father Richard Beckinsale was the star of popular British TV classics including the beloved BBC prison sitcoms Porridge and Going Straight with Ronnie Barker. Her father’s premature passing clearly still deeply affects Beckinsale today.
Her current Instagram bio quote is poignant: “A fatherless girl thinks all things possible and nothing safe.” Beckinsale’s mother, Judy Loe, now 75 and also an actress, is not just the target audience, but a frequent feature of her feed too, as is her stepfather, television director Roy Battersby, who just celebrated his 86th birthday. Her daughter with actor Michael Sheen, Lily Mo Sheen (who played the young Beckinsale, Selene, in Underworld: Evolution) debuted this month as the daughter of Nic Cage’s character (Nick Cage) in quirky new meta-feature The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. Beckinsale refers back to Lily, 23 to Kate’s ageless 48, with pride throughout our chat: “She took me driving which was slightly hair-raising as she’s a baby and she can drive and I can’t, so it always feels a bit weird.” Beckinsale started her own journey to Hollywood in her late teens when reading French and Russian literature at Oxford was interrupted for her to play the peachy Hero in 1993’s Much Ado About Nothing directed by Kenneth Branagh. Upon the film’s release, there was much ado about something, and that something was Kate.
Do you think that studying like you did at Oxford was useful for acting when you were starting out?I think it really was. I had a very literary approach. And at that time in England—I never really anticipated working outside of Europe—I certainly didn’t think about America ever. It was pre-social media, pre-everything. America was where you went to Disneyland once in your life if you were lucky, and that was kind of it. It just seemed really far away. And so I was mainly doing Shakespeare, or Jane Austen, and various adaptations of things. And to me, that is what acting was.
Those high-cultural parameters were only to apply for a very short while: the wider world was beckoning you away from your comfort zones.
I had been workshopping a play with Patrick Marber, which ended up being Closer with Mark Strong, Stephen Dillane, and various people in London. They asked me, ‘Do you want to do this play, we’re going to put it on at the National.’ I did want to, but I also got offered Last Days of Disco at the same time…And so I had to sit there going, ‘Alright, what’s the scariest one?’ Because I thought that would be good criteria for picking. And because it was American, and it was in New York, and my boyfriend couldn’t visit me because he was doing a play, and my mum couldn’t visit me because she was doing a play, I was like Fuck—I’m so prone to being panicky’—almost agoraphobic—‘better do the more difficult one now, or my career path is going to be ruled by anxiety.’
And Last Days of Disco it was. After conquering her neophyte jitters, now came the hard part—becoming effortlessly American onscreen. To inform her performance as the intellectual Charlotte in Whit Stillman’s clever party scene parable, she went deep undercover in the nightclubs of Manhattan with co-star and nightlife native Chloë Sevigny.
It’s been some time since that role, but describe the attempt to onboard all that American-ness?
I’ve always liked language and liked accents and things like that, and Last Days of Disco was my first part with an American accent. It was a very specific milieu of a very specific type of people, and I didn’t know anything about that. Chloë was sort of ‘of that’ whole type, and she very generously let me follow her around New York. It was a little bit hairy, because I was straight out of Chiswick, but I was in great hands.