One day, when this writer looks back at some of the highlights of his career, surely up there will be the following interview with Kate Beckinsale. It’s truly a rare experience for any writer to sit down with an actress of her stature for a quiet interview outside the craziness of studio junkets, but it couldn’t come at a more opportune time as the British actress has returned to her roots with two strong dramatic roles.
After Beckinsale starred in big movies like Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor and the two “Underworld” movies, few remembered her classically-trained roots doing Shakespeare in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing and co-starring in indies like Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco. This year, she’s returned to basics, first starring in David Gordon Green’s indie drama Snow Angels, then later this month, in Rod (The Contender) Lurie’s new movie Nothing But the Truth. In that look at journalism, our Constitutional rights and how the post-9/11 government has used the threat of terrorism to get around those rights in trying to get information, Beckinsale plays Rachel Armstrong, a political correspondent who breaks a story about the identity of a CIA analyst, played by Vera Farmiga, and gets thrown into jail when she refuses to reveal her source. It features a great ensemble cast including Matt Dillon, Alan Alda and David Schwimmer, all doing some of their best work, but it’s still clearly Beckinsale’s show.
Last year, we talked to Josh Hartnett about playing a reporter and father in Lurie’s previous film Resurrecting the Champ (which you can read here) so it seemed apropos to talk to the star of the filmmaker’s latest foray into journalistic ethics. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Beckinsale always exudes the charm, poise and eloquence that comes with being a star.
ComingSoon.net: It seems like this movie came together pretty quickly. I know Rod was finishing up “Resurrecting the Champ” last year and this was already on his plate. Did you join very quickly after reading his script and just say, “Great, let’s do it”?
Kate Beckinsale: Yeah, it was pretty straightforward. It was one of those that he had been trying to think of whom to cast. Then I think my agent showed him “Snow Angels” which had not come out yet. He saw that, sent me the script, I read it and said, “Ooh, I like it.” He came to my house and met me, and then the next day, it was a done deal, so it was pretty quick.
CS: I think that his last movie was at Sundance the same year as “Snow Angels” so I wondered if you two had first met there.
Beckinsale: No, I didn’t get to go. I was actually sick, so I missed Sundance, which I was really bummed about, then “Snow Angels” didn’t actually come out for another year and a half after Sundance, there was a big delay.
CS: What was the first meeting with Rod like? Did you just read the whole script and was it very clear what your character needed? What did he tell you about the character and what he wanted from her?
Beckinsale: He was at great pains to say, “This is not Judy Miller, this is not Judy Miller” a lot, and I was like, “Okay, it’s fine, I believe you.” But that was I think his big concern, and yet then he did want me to meet with her and have lunch with her, which I did.
CS: Really? That’s kind of surprising, because I didn’t even realize she was aware or involved with this movie.
Beckinsale: I think she was really gun-shy actually. It was right before we came to Memphis, we stopped here and I had a very guarded lunch with her. I think she was worried she was going to be vilified and painted as the Wicked Witch, and it’s really not about her actually. For me, it was much more a question of, as part of my general research, I read a lot of books by journalists and political stuff and talked to various court people and all that. I actually wanted to have a perspective on what it was like for middle class academic females to go to jail. That was really much more what I was interested in, not so much “did you?” or “didn’t you?” and talk about “Scooter” Libby, it wasn’t really what I was there for. So that was really fascinating to meet her.
CS: She obviously didn’t have such an extreme case as your character in terms of how long she was imprisoned.
Beckinsale: No, exactly. It was a whole different set of circumstances, but just literally, there’s not that many times you can run into somebody who is a middle class educated person who then finds themselves in jail, which I’m sure she was not expecting. That was an important one, because obviously the prisoners I talked to, we shot in a functioning prison for I think four or five weeks, so there were a lot of female prisoners there I talked to but they were really in for different kinds of crimes to be honest. I think a lot of them kind of expected that they would end up in jail.
CS: Was your experience in prison for the movie at all similar to what she went through?
Beckinsale: Yeah, it sounded like her prison was a little bit more up-market I think. We were really in the state prison in Memphis, and it was quite frightening, because you walk in and the warden, any time you put your hand anywhere, has to give you hand sanitizer, sort of panicking that you were going to get Hepatitis just from standing there. That was something I hadn’t really anticipated, so I don’t think she in the same sort of situation. She was telling me she was responsible for adding to the library, and my character didn’t have a lot of library time. (laughs)
CS: When you were reading the script, was there something specifically that made you decide you definitely wanted to be in this?
Beckinsale: I’m attracted to playing things that I find difficult, just because it’s a journey that is much more interesting. I had a problem with the script initially because as a mother, I really had a hard time with leaving the son for that long. Maybe that’s because essentially I’m unheroic and a human being, but for me and with my own background and my own child, it would be inconceivable for me to spend a year away from my child. It just wouldn’t happen. Obviously, for me, it was much less to do with “I want to stand up for my principles” than (paraphrased to avoid spoilers) protecting the person. When I first read the script, it seemed just a little bit more dispassionate than that, and that was one of the things I really wanted to bring out, a female mother’s perspective, because I think being a mother and being a father are very different things. Rod would say, “Well the thing is she’s leaving her son with his father.” “Yeah, okay, but a father would say that, though.” Yeah, so we were definitely… and he was great. That was one of the things I really like about a writer/director, they actually seem to be a lot less precious about, “You have to say absolutely everything exactly as I’ve written it.” I’ve had real luck with that so he was really interested in bringing that. I had been assiduously studying the role of a mother for the last decade, so at least I was able to use some of that.
CS: What about playing a reporter? As an actress, you probably face reporters all the time, and I can’t imagine that’s your favorite part of doing what you do. After you answer, I want to tell you what Josh Hartnett said when I asked him about it.
Beckinsale: Oh yeah, because he was the same in a Rod Lurie movie! It was actually really funny, because we’re slightly sort of under the “us and them” thing with actors and reporters. It’s a little like enemy lines, so I wanted to go and find out how it’s all very different from my career and everything, so I went and shadowed some girls at the L.A. Times and it was amazingly similar I found. The fact that you have this vocation and you live, eat, sleep and breathe your job, it’s very similar, and a lot of their friends were journalists in the same way a lot of our friends are actors and filmmakers and stuff. They have to have a bag packed at a moment’s notice to go off and do their thing. There are many things we actually had in common. My list of “here are all the reasons that we are different” was quite short and it was quite a nice in to go, “I kind of get it more than I thought I would get it.”
CS: What about the drive to get a scoop or story? That’s something very specific to being a reporter like in the movie, how Rachel gets a big story but has to decide whether it’s worth ruining someone’s life in order to move up the ladder of her career. Can you understand that motivation?
Beckinsale: I think the thing that my character comforts herself with is that bottom line, if there are no whistle-blowers who’s reporting on them, you have to have that. It’s a question of a commitment to people being empowered by knowledge rather than being manipulated and in the dark. Obviously, you can get into some grey areas, but I think that it’s also for personal reason. It’s not always “I must show the truth,” it’s also “I’d like to have my story on the front page” and that was another thing that felt really familiar. My husband and I were watching “All the President’s Men” just as a research thing, thinking, “I want to watch a good movie about journalism.” My husband, who’s a director, was like “Wow, it’s a pitch meeting… it’s like going to the studio and pitching.” It was very similar, so again, it was another reason why I felt I had more in common.
CS: “All the President’s Men” and “Good Night, And Good Luck” are two strong precursors to this movie about the importance of journalism. Between this and “Resurrecting the Champ,” Rod probably just needs a third one to have a triptych on the subject.
Beckinsale: Right, exactly and that’s what’s nice having Rod as well, because Rod was a journalist for 13 years, so he does actually know what he’s talking about. Of course, he couldn’t resist being in the movie, as you see at the beginning with her editor. I sat in on that meeting in the L.A. Times and where we shot was really similar, though it was a little a bit smaller.
CS: When I talked to Josh last year, he mentioned feeling like he was playing for the opposing team, but he also felt that journalism was going more in the way of entertainment. Do you feel that it’s similar in the world of political reporting?
Beckinsale: I think the immediacy of information has sort of affected everybody in the same way. You’ve really got to kind of get your story out, not only on the front page by the time things go to press, but there’s also the internet now to deal with, which really seems to have cranked everything up even more.
CS: Do you ever see this as a political movie or did you see it from the point of view of a journalist and mother?
Beckinsale: I think now that the movie is finished, I can watch it and see that there’s elements of it being a political movie, but I don’t think you can play it as a political movie. I think you have to play a human being at first so I definitely came it from that point of view.
CS: When you were shooting the movie in Memphis, did Rod want to shoot the movie in any specific order? There’s obviously three very distinct parts: the courtroom scenes, the jail scenes and the journalistic dialogue scenes.
Beckinsale: I don’t think he was able to. Number one, we were shooting Memphis for Washington. It did end up being reasonably in order because once we were in the prison, we stayed in the prison, so we got most of the beginning stuff done and then we just went to jail for a few weeks.
CS: What ended up being the toughest scene to shoot? There are a lot of tough scenes for different reasons, and I’d think the fighting in prison was fairly minor compared to some of the things you’ve done in other movies.
Beckinsale: That was the one that Rod was really worried about because Rod has never shot a fight sequence before, so it was the first time ever in my career where I’ve had somebody be so solicitous of like, “Do you want a stunt double?” I’m thinking, “My God, I’ve been dangled off cliffs.”
CS: He watched “Snow Angels” but he didn’t watch all the other movies?
Beckinsale: (laughs) I know, it’s so crazy. They were like, “No, it’s really okay” “Well, are you sure? Do you want to have a mattress?” and I was like, “No, it’s really fine. It’s okay.”
CS: I’m not sure we’ve ever seen you lose a fight that badly either.
Beckinsale: I know! That was a first.
CS: When you play a character like this, you can’t really be judgmental about her decisions, but since you have to confront Matt and Vera’s characters, are you ever able to see and understand their side of things and why they do what they do?
Beckinsale: I think it’s harder with Matt Dillon. I think for me, my character definitely felt that he was personally out to get her, so I think all her scenes with him have a crackle of it just isn’t him doing his job; he’s kind of enjoying it. In the beginning, he’s just patronizing and everything she doesn’t like, so I think it feels very personal. I think the thing with Vera is that they both are working mothers, trying to do their job, and I think there is an element of slight guilt, but also, you know what? As far as my character sees them, Vera’s character is taking her own risk by doing what she’s doing and that’s part of the job she’s signed up for, too.
CS: I was just thinking that as a journalist having that kind of information, she must know that at some point, it’s going to cause a lot of trouble.
Beckinsale: Yeah, exactly. I had to kind of channel that… people complain about paparazzi and they go, “Well, you put yourself out there.” I always here the paparazzi say that, it’s their defense that you kind of ask for trouble. I had to have my character sort of think that way about Vera’s character.
CS: Alan Alda was at the Sundance premiere of Rod’s other movie and he had this great analogy about journalism; he really seems to have a really good handle on what that job entails.
Beckinsale: He really does.
CS: I think that was even before this movie was in development, too. Can you talk about working with him?
Beckinsale: I was very starstruck by him, because not only was I fan of him, but we worked in the same movie before–we worked on “The Aviator” but we didn’t have any scenes together, so it was actually nice to get a second fling at that. I had just read all of his books before working with him, so I felt like I sort of semi-owned him, which I think is how everyone feels after they read his books, because he’s so accessible and you fall in love with him so much, intellectually and just personally, he’s such a nice man. I was really excited to meet him, and he was great. He’s exactly what you would think. He’s incredibly articulate and well-prepared and generous and fantastic, a great experience.
CS: Does he ad-lib a lot? You mentioned that Rod isn’t very precious about the script but it seems like some of the things Alan threw out there were very much ad-libbed spur of the moment things.
Beckinsale: Oh, I don’t think he did actually very much. No, I really don’t think he did. I think he and Rod have a very close working relationship where Alan can say “maybe I can do this here or maybe I can do that there” but then you get all the pages. It wasn’t so much off the cuff. Alan likes to have everything learned before he shows up.
CS: I was thinking of one example where you get angry and throw things off his desk and he says “I’m going to have to say I did this.”
Beckinsale: (smiling) That was ad-libbed (laughs)… that was the only one.
CS: What would you like people to get out of the movie, besides it being a really interesting subject and it having a great script and performances? Do you think about that kind of stuff when you make a movie, that you’d like people to get something out of it, maybe just coming out of it thinking a certain way?
Beckinsale: I tend to not really think that way. For me, the best experiences I have in the cinema are if I’ve seen a movie and started speaking to somebody I hadn’t been speaking to in a while, you know what I mean? Completely unrelated and not necessarily makes sense to anybody else but I like movies that ask questions, I like movies that people sit there and go, “Oh, would I have done that and is that right? Should you blow the whistle on somebody if they are a mother?” All that kind of stuff. I actually think that’s one of the whole points of making movies, to raise those kinds of questions.
CS: When you started your career, you were doing more dramatic roles coming from a theater background and you kind of got turned into an action star, so was it a conscious thing to try and go back and do more dramatic roles again?
Beckinsale: As I said, I think from the very beginning I’ve always wanted to do things that scare me, that make me feel nervous, and certainly the whole action thing, as you say, from the background that I had which was much more classical and academic, that was really terrifying to me. I’d certainly never done anything that required me to jump off a bridge and all that stuff, and I didn’t know if anyone would ever take me seriously (or myself). I feel like they don’t scare me as much now, so there probably won’t be as many of them.
CS: Well, the thing about the “Underworld” movies–and I just talked with Bill Nighy about this a few months ago–is that they mix the action and the supernatural with this almost Shakespearean type of storytelling and dialogue.
Beckinsale: I mean, that was the first one I ever did, and that was absolutely terrifying. I think the first shot I did where I had to run along with guns and all that, I physically shook from head to toe afterwards, I was absolutely terrified, just because I felt like somebody was going to come out and go, “Kate Beckinsale from the Godolphin and Latymer School for Girls, you have no business being here.” (laughs) But it was a very high melodrama story with all these guns and stuff, so it was actually easing in reasonably smoothly. At least I didn’t have to play a robot or anything.
CS: And you had lots of really dramatic scenes in that, too.
Beckinsale: Yeah, and that was why it was really great working with Bill, because he’s such a brilliant actor and his characterization was so odd and great, but it’s still proper acting. It’s still the same thing. It’s not like I prepare any differently for a movie, it’s just slightly less preparation than you can physically do, less research that you can do for a movie like “Underworld.”
CS: You can’t run down the street shooting people as research.
Beckinsale: No, probably not, but it’s not like a completely different thing where you just kind of dial one in. It hits on a different emotional level I guess.
CS: I know Len’s been involved in the upcoming prequel as a producer, so have you dropped by the set or been interested at all in what they’re doing?
Beckinsale: They shot it in New Zealand so I didn’t go but in fact, all the husbands I’ve ever had in my life were in New Zealand because Michael Sheen, who’s the lead in it, he’s my daughter’s dad, so the boys were off doing that, but no, I didn’t go.
CS: And you didn’t have any curiosity about what was going on there?
Beckinsale: Oh, I did, but it was kind of a long way to go to drop by, and plus, I feel like all I had in my house was that trailer playing and the dailies. I feel like I’ve seen it.
CS: You also shot a movie based on the graphic novel “Whiteout” which was at Comic-Con, not even this year, but last? Any idea what’s happening with that?
Beckinsale: Yeah, that was ages ago. I think it’s coming out next year, and they seem pretty excited about it. I haven’t seen it yet. It’s just become ready to see so I guess when I go back to L.A., I’ll have a look.
CS: Have they been adding a lot of the snow via CG, and that’s what’s been taking so long?
Beckinsale: No, we were in Manitoba, which was minus 47, just the most ridiculous cold weather you’ve come across in your life, but they have to add the little breaths and all the inside stuff.
CS: You also have “Winged Creatures” which is another heavy drama coming out sometime soon. I’ve talked to some of the other actors in it over the last year, and I’m a fan of Rowan Woods’ last movie “Little Fish.” What was that experience like?
Beckinsale: That was a really schizophrenic experience for me, because I had signed on to do “Winged Creatures” and I was playing a white trash waitress with a young baby suffering from post-traumatic stress. I gained 20 pounds and dyed my hair blonde, and so I signed onto that, and then I was doing “Whiteout” as well, but that I had to start and shoot two weeks on “Whiteout” and then they stopped production, I went and shot my three weeks on “Winged Creatures” and then I had to go back to “Whiteout.” So it was just this really weird period of time playing this very vulnerable trailer mom and then playing this federal marshall, so it was weird. It was very intense because it was a very short period of time. Most of my scenes were with Guy Pearce predominantly. I didn’t work with Jennifer (Hudson), but I had one scene with Dakota (Fanning), so it was pretty intense.
CS: A lot of these movies were shot last year or earlier, but have you generally been keeping busy with things since finishing up this movie?
Beckinsale: Yeah, I went from movie to movie to movie last year, and this one I finished just before Christmas last year, and then I did “Everybody’s Fine” at the beginning of the year. I haven’t found anything I really love love loved and because I worked so much last year, I feel like it’s okay to hang with my kid a little bit.
CS: Do you feel like you’ve gotten the action stuff out of your system? There’s obviously been a lot of gossip about you playing Catwoman or Barbarella lately. The Catwoman thing is pretty funny because basically any actress with long dark hair has been rumored to play the part.
Beckinsale: Right, right, right… exactly. Well, it used to be that everyone used to ask about Wonder Woman and now everyone asks about Catwoman.
CS: Would that interest you, getting involved in a franchise or a more high-profile action movie?
Beckinsale: I don’t have a kind of snobbery about that, I have to say. I do find just in terms of maybe as you say my background, I feel more at home on a smaller dramatic movie, just because it serves the actor better, it does, but no, I’m not adverse to it at all. I just don’t want to do a silly one. I’d rather wait for a good one.
CS: Has Len talked to you at all about doing another “Underworld” later?
Beckinsale: I think they’re still going, I think they probably will. I’m not sure I will. I feel like I’ve played that character enough times that I don’t think I’d be excited to play the same character again. It’s a weird experience. I mean I’ve never done that before, play the same character in two movies, and after two, I thought it was like, “Alright, I feel like I’m kind of done with that.”
CS: Maybe someone can hire you to play Ava Gardner like you did in “The Aviator,” since it may be interesting to have another movie about that time period with you playing the same character.
Beckinsale: I know, that would be interesting.
CS: The only real time I’ve seen that was when Michael Keaton played the same character in “Jackie Brown” and “Out of Sight.”
Beckinsale: Oh, yeah, yeah, that’s right! That is a good idea. You should float that more. (laughs)
Nothing But the Truth opens in New York and L.A. on December 19 and then expands into other cities on January 9.