Ditching her kick-ass reputation, Kate Beckinsale finds drama on screen and off with unexpected new projects and a house full of teenagers.
Kate Beckinsale’s canyon home on the cusp of Brentwood and Santa Monica is always full of people. “We generally have half an army of teenage girls rampaging through our house,” she laughs, tossing cascading locks, flashing a devastating smile as she describes the abode she shares with her husband of nine years, director Len Wiseman, and her 14-year-old daughter, Lily. “Len was initially a bit alarmed. I think teenage girls are a little frightening to dads, but he’s usually in the thick of it. And if he’s not, he’s one of those brilliant people who doesn’t mind when they find him in his man cave and tease him mercilessly. There is nothing nicer than six or seven screeching girls having a great time in your house.”
In addition to the teens, Beckinsale’s mother, British actress Judy Loe, and her stepfather, director Roy Battersby, come and visit for weeks on end. “I miss her!” she says unabashedly. “They have always been very, very present in Lily’s life. And her dad’s parents come out, and everyone has stayed with us. It’s like Paddington Station.” Add Beckinsale’s herd of animals—“three dogs that don’t really count because they are of squirrelish size and an incredible cat called Clive”—and you believe her when she likens their white, airy, high-ceilinged home to a little asylum.
At 40, Beckinsale seems incredibly happy, settled in her life and firmly ensconced in Los Angeles. She moved to Venice from London 12 years ago with her then partner and Lily’s father, actor Michael Sheen. “Lily was two—we could take her anywhere; so Michael and I had the luxury of saying, ‘Let’s do L.A. for a bit.’ And then three months turned into four and then…”
She unexpectedly met her now husband a year later, when she and Sheen were both cast in Underworld (2003). Wiseman was directing; they fell in love on set, and she and Sheen separated. What could have become sorry tabloid fodder was surpassed by the maturity of all three parties involved, who remain good friends to this day. “From the beginning,” Beckinsale explains, “we put Lily first, and then it was kind of easy.” Wiseman and Beckinsale married at the Hotel Bel-Air on May 9, 2004; their first reading was a passage from Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass, and Lily received her own wedding ring.
Beckinsale’s background didn’t necessarily portend a Hollywood outcome. Her parents were successful English actors, yes, but she lost her father, the much-loved television star Richard Beckinsale, when she was only five. His heart attack at 31 gave her, she says, a brutal introduction to mortality. She was also so bright, her future looked academic. When she was six, a school report found she had the reading level of an 11-year-old and an IQ of 152. She didn’t go to drama school, opting for Oxford University instead, where she studied French and Russian literature.
In her first year, however, she was torn from her Dostoyevsky to star in Kenneth Branagh’s film Much Ado About Nothing, and her fate appeared more celluloid English Rose than Susan Sontag. Established as an international name opposite Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett in Pearl Harbor and with John Cusack in the romantic comedy Serendipity (both in 2001), she has since been surprised to find herself defined as an action heroine; Underworld evolved into a four-part franchise with Beckinsale as the rubber-clad vampire warrior Selene. And her subsequent leads in Van Helsing (2004) and Total Recall (2012) have only added to the kick-ass reputation. “It’s an odd trajectory,” she muses. “If you’d asked me when I was at Oxford, ‘Do you think you’ll ever be running up and down holding a machine gun as a bad guy in a big American movie?’ I would have said, ‘God, no!’”
Recently, though, she has chosen roles that will redefine her. She next appears as a hysteric in the 2014 psychological thriller Eliza Graves, an interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether. Starring alongside Michael Caine, Ben Kingsley and Jim Sturgess, it tells the tale of a Harvard medical graduate who accepts a job in a mental institution, unaware it has been overtaken by its occupants. And in The Trials of Cate McCall (also due out next year), Beckinsale plays a lawyer in recovery, taking on the appeal of a woman convicted of committing murder to gain custody of her daughter. “My co-star Anna Anissimova bought me the most amazing wrap present,” she reveals. “I think I must have been saying, ‘I want a Pomeranian dog,’ on set so many times without realizing it, that she got me one! I don’t really approve of people giving animals as presents, but I think she was just trying to put me out of my misery. She’s called Myf—short for Myfanwy—and we are besotted.”
Which brings us back to home and family, clearly where Beckinsale’s priorities lie. “As a parent, you are never off the hook. Never.” She smiles, “It’s a full-time job. I mean, how many times do I call my mother. Stricken with something, going, ‘Help! Help!’ And I’m very old to be doing these things.” She credits her mother with teaching her to value interdependence. “I think it is a hugely underrated quality to have. I’m all for it. And my mother is brilliant at celebrating things. You get on an airplane, you’ve just said goodbye to her, and you open your bag and there is a card in there. And my husband and I have completely taken that over. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten on a flight or gone on a trip and not opened my bag and had a card from Len. He even does it when he goes out for the evening, leaving a card under my pillow. There is something really nice about maintaining a connection and never getting used to being separate in a complacent way.”
She does miss her native London horribly sometimes. “The minute I get back, I want to lick the brickwork and learn the tube map all over again,” she says. “And in a low moment I can be found at Ye Olde King’s Head in Santa Monica weeping over a pack of bourbon biscuits. Or I find myself gripping a Pot Noodle in a nostalgic way. All those things that have been in your mother’s cupboard since the 1970s…” But she has gradually grown to love Los Angeles. “I have fantastic friends here,” she says in earnest. “I thought I was really depressed growing up, but I actually hadn’t seen sunlight in 14 years. And I come out here and I’m in perfectly good spirits.”
Christmas, she says, may well be back in England, but until then, Wiseman continues work on “Sleepy Hollow,” the Fox series he has created, written and directed, and Beckinsale is about to start writing a screenplay of her own with a close friend. “It’s about a very, very dysfunctional set of people,” she explains. “My friend and I went to the same school in London. And I wrote a lot as a child and was constantly winning writing competitions. And my mother asked her over because she wanted to become a writer. And of course she became a writer and I became ridiculous.” Candid, honest and alarmingly funny, Beckinsale remarks that the future looks bright, unless, she laughs, she comes face to face with a local mountain lion. “It’s a very real fear of mine,” she says. “So if you find me half eaten at the bottom of Rustic Canyon, you’ll know the chain of events.”
Written by Lorien Haynes
Photographed by Diego Uchitel