I once called Kate Beckinsale the star that never was.
Which was rather cruel, considering she’s one of the most fun-loving, self-aware and unassuming actresses I’ve ever interviewed.
And she’s Burmese, if you please. But more about that later.
At the time, Beckinsale had appeared in a number of promising films that failed to live up to their expectations, not the least of which was Pearl Harbor, which was supposed to do for her what Titanic did for another young English actress.
But then after she found her forte as an action hero in the vampire series Underworld, her surprising performance in last year’s romance drama Love & Friendship afforded her the best reviews of her entire career.
And for that role, the 43-year-old star bagged a Best British/Irish actress of the year gong at the London Critics’ Circle Film Awards recently.
As Tennessee Williams put it, there is a God after all!
So what makes the English actress so special?
It’s her candour.
She once worked with a director who was so “cruel and horrible”, she peed in his Thermos because he had made her stand naked for a scene that was eventually cut from the movie. Since then, Beckinsale has a no-nudity clause in her contract.
After the shocking death of her father – the much-loved British sitcom actor Richard Beckinsale when she was only six years old – her mother fell in love again, and the family suddenly became six, with a stepfather, two stepbrothers and a sister.
“My mother met my stepfather, who is a wonderful, intellectual, brilliant man, when I was about nine. He had four sons and a daughter. Two of the boys lived with us a lot of the time. At the time I didn’t like boys at all. I preferred a horse or a dog. We roughed each other up a little bit, but we’re very close now,” she recalls.
Beckinsale met, and subsequently fell in love with, British actor Michael Sheen when they both starred in the theatre play The Seagull.
But even after she became pregnant with his child, Sheen wasn’t keen on the idea of marriage. When once asked why she never married Sheen, her candid response was, “Because he never asked me.” They continue co-parenting Lily, their 17-year-old daughter.
Thirteen years ago, Beckinsale found her soulmate in Len Wiseman, her Underworld director. After a long courtship, they were married in an elaborate wedding in Bel Air in 2005. But that union came to a surprising end when they separated in 2015 and were granted a divorce a year later with neither party requesting spousal support.
She once called that marriage “the best thing I’ve ever done. I just feel very lucky that I met somebody who is very similar to me in many ways; he’s made me a slightly more evolved person. And it’s just been bliss.”
So it’s no wonder at her Underworld: Blood Wars press conference she’s somewhat sullen and subdued.
No point in asking questions about her divorce but she’s quite forthcoming about her daughter.
Does your daughter accompany you when you’re filming away from home? (They live in Los Angeles.)
She’s at a kind of crucial moment where she’s in her senior year of high school, so she can’t really take time out and come. But luckily they invented Skype and Facetime for us, so that is good.
Has she inherited her parents’ genes?
Yeah, she’s very interested in being an actress.
Did you encourage her?
Not at all, but unfortunately, we have failed. Michael and I have definitely accepted our failure in not producing a nice doctor or something.
Are you two close?
Yes we are. Because I had her relatively young, I’m starting to realise the advantages of that. I actually think it’s harder being a parent of a teenager than a baby. I wouldn’t have said that at the time.
Obviously, at every stage you think that you’re in is the hardest period possible but, little kids have little problems and bigger kids have bigger problems and you spend much of your time in terror, when they’re like driving and things like that. That’s really scary.
I’m quite jealous of my friends whose kids aren’t doing that, but it does free up a little bit of your time; a lot of my career has been through the filter of what stage Lily’s at and where I can be and where would it be appropriate to bring her or not and all that.
What advice do you give her about boyfriends?
I think she’d probably start vomiting if I started talking to her about boyfriends.
She’s at that age where my advice might be the last she’d seek, but she’s a really good girl.
I’m really lucky. She’s a great, bright, intelligent, interesting, feisty girl, and I’ll be very sorry when she’s not always in my house, but hopefully she’ll come back.
Tell us about your Burmese background?
I have a maternal grandfather who is Burmese. I only wish I had inherited from him the ability to really tan. But like my father, I have very English genes on that score.
He devoted a lot of time to tracing the family history. When I was very young, he found out that a Burmese relative of his was a princess, so I was so excited to go to school and say I was actually a princess. Later, I learned there were a lot of princesses in Burma, and it wasn’t particularly special.
You are fluent in Russian and French. Where did that proficiency come from?
It came out of my interest in theatre. I thought how wonderful it would be to act in different languages. So, I studied Russian and French at the university.
My first acting job in the theatre was as Nina in The Seagull, and the director was Georgian and didn’t speak any English.
It’s great to be able to read Chekhov in the original because it’s very different.
I also made a movie in French when I was living in Paris for a year. I find speaking a different language fantastic. I wish I had the opportunity to do it more.
When not working what is your day like?
I’ve been writing a lot; so that’s mainly what I’ve been doing. I do have to exercise or I go mad, so, I either go to the gym and do a bunch of circuit training or I do yoga or I go on a hike.
My day’s a bit skewed because a lot of my closest friends and family are in England. So, it’s usually just when I’m getting ready to go to bed they all wake up so I can end up with late nights.
Do you like to cook?
There’s not a lot of cooking going on – maybe in the next phase of my life. I am not the best cook. I’m quite good at heating things up, but that’s about as far as I get, and occasionally I can suddenly bake something really good but that doesn’t happen very often either.
Have you ever aggressively pursued a role?
One time I wrote a letter to John Schlesinger and poked it under his door. It was for Cold Comfort Farm, but you can’t do that too many times unless you want to be known as someone who pokes letters under people’s doors.