The British actress Kate Beckinsale is no stranger to the novels of Jane Austen. She starred in the 1996 television movie “Emma,” based on the Austen book of the same name.
But even diehard Austen fans might be unfamiliar with “Lady Susan,” an obscure novella that is the source material for Beckinsale’s new movie, “Love & Friendship.” The film is adapted by the writer-director Whit Stillman, who directed Beckinsale in “The Last Days of Disco” almost 20 years ago. Like that film, this one also co-stars Chloe Sevigny.
In the movie, Beckinsale plays Lady Susan Vernon, a widowed woman scheming to find herself a new mate — and some money— as she peddles off her daughter to a blithering fool. The story may be set in the 18th Century, but Lady Susan behaves very much like a 21st Century woman — albeit, one strapped into a corset.
Beckinsale stopped by The Frame recently to talk about the role, working with Whit Stillman, and why she's finally getting roles she truly loves.
What's the story behind "Lady Susan," the book that "Love & Friendship" was based on?
She apparently wrote it when she was around 20. It definitely feels a lot more extreme in terms of a central character and her behavior than some of the better known works. It was put in a drawer and she forgot about it. Then, I think about 40 or 50 years after she died, her nephew published it and he gave it the title, "Lady Susan." I think Whit Stillman, the director, felt he didn't have to be super loyal to the title because it was not chosen by Jane Austen. He lifted a title from another unpublished novella.
I think it's fair to call Lady Susan ballsy. Are there other adjectives that come to mind?
I like to think of her like a broad in the sense of Barbara Stanwyck or Bette Davis. She's at the height of all her powers. What I like about her, and what's redeeming, is that she's pioneering the bucking of the system and the social situation that women were in at that period of time.
She is a sexual suffragette.
Absolutely right. Given that the social norm was that for a woman — who generally was denied further education and career opportunities to be financially independent — the [concern] was really, Who she's going to marry? Who's going to keep her from the poorhouse? Lady Susan's gone through one husband and he's died, so now she's in a situation where she has to find another one. What's different about her is that, though she could find some old rich man fairly easily, she's not prepared for that to be her only sexual partner. Her sexual freedom, her financial freedom — she's going for all of those, which most women didn't.
When you read books like "Emma" and "Sense and Sensibility," do you see little hints of Lady Susan? Do you think Jane Austen was in some way scared of what Lady Susan's character represented, given that she seemed like a 21st Century heroine living in the 18th Century?
I think the point is that Jane Austen was writing during a period of profound social change. I like the fact that she talked about Emma as being an unlikable character. But I don't find her an unlikable character, certainly from the perspective of our period of time. Austen wasn't shy of a well-rounded character with flaws and faults. As a woman from that period of time herself, Jane Austen, who's clearly a genius and who's very bright and smart and obviously dealing herself with some frustration about the constraints that are put on her — I've always seen Lady Susan as being her furor against that and then thinking, Oh, that's a bit much. Maybe we shouldn't publish it.
Whit Stillman is precise about words and how he wants those words spoken, and yet he's also in some ways a painter who is constantly improvising and changing the colors in a scene. What is it like as an actor to have a director who writes very dialogue-heavy screenplays and yet, I suspect, on some days might want to do something different than you had originally planned?
I think that's something I had forgotten, actually, because my character in "The Last Days of Disco" was fairly verbose and then obviously this one was 20 times more. I was pestering Whit, before we started shooting, for final shooting drafts because we only had 27 days to shoot the movie. I wanted to make sure I had learned everything before I turned up. He was extremely coy about that and, what I had forgotten, was that he likes to be very in the moment and will — often the night before — decide he wants a scene to be completely changed around. I would sit in the makeup trailer dreading seeing him come in and think, Oh no, what's he going to change?
The thing is he has such supreme confidence in your ability to reshuffle your brain, and actually spit the dialogue out, that you just do it. For example, there's a character in the movie played by Tom Bennett, who's very funny and responsible for the broadest comedy in the movie. The part on the page was funny, but very minor and not very well drawn. Then, once the actor showed up, he was so brilliant with this complete performance that Whit got very inspired and even wrote a few extra scenes for him.
How do you find the key to a character like this? Whit gives you a story and you know Jane Austen and her world. What are the keys for you to play this character in a period film?
The thing about Whit is that he doesn't like rehearsal very much at all, so you don't have any of that. He likes to cast things very precisely so that he knows what to expect, what your particular rhythms and cadences are. For me, I do a lot of academic type work on the script or the novella. I went to Oxford. That's how I know [the way] to work on things is doing a little thesis and root myself on it. I spend a lot of time just reading around the period and what the situation was like for a woman from that period of time. The costumes do really help actually because they're incredibly restrictive, and it's interesting just knowing that no one is able to get themselves dressed independently.
They needed to be laced into their corset right?
Yeah! So every morning when I'm getting ready to go to work I've got a woman coming in carrying all of these things and putting my corset on me. There's not really much comfortable alone time.
After playing this character, do you appreciate more what modern women have? Or does it make you wish that maybe things were better then? How does it change your perspective of how modern people live?
I think it seems so unbearably horrible for women in that period. Just to know that Jane Austen couldn't publish under her own name is horrible. That's an outrageous thought now. The only thing I do miss is — since this is an epistolary novella — the anticipation of letter writing and the fullness of letter writing. That's been lost. Everything now is more immediate. Texting is fun and funny, but there's something about waiting desperately for a letter. I think it's a shame we've lost that.
When you're thinking about a movie that you want to make, how does your criteria evolve? And are the things that are important to you harder and harder to find?
It's one of those things where sometimes a well-drawn character and a wonderful director comes around and sometimes it doesn't. I don't think that that has been restrictive to the latter part of my career. There were huge times in my early career where there just wasn't anything that interesting. Now it's probably become better for younger actress than it was when I started out. I remember thinking, Oh God, I can't wait till I'm in my mid-30s because that's when all the actresses get to do something good. But, like I said, this is probably one of my favorite parts that I've ever had and this is the oldest I've ever been. It's not really translating into, Oh no, I'm a terrible dried-up old tortoise and nobody wants me. I'm sure it's coming, but it hasn't happened yet.
At a certain point, do you go out and seek material to develop on your own? Is it important that you find projects either as a screenwriter or as a producer?
I didn't think about it too much when I had a very small child. I found the juggle of that and being an actor enough. I've always been a huge reader, so in terms of that stuff, the sheer volume that I'm able to read seems like a waste if I'm not also casting my mind around for an interesting project. So in the last couple of years, yes, I have been more looking at that. I'm in the middle of doing a screenplay with another writer at the moment. And that's nice because as an actor you are very much a cog in the machine. It's a director's medium, obviously, and it's quite nice to be involved from a grassroots level in terms of a character in a story and the look of something.