In conversation, Kate Beckinsale is chirpy and fast, with a slight reserve that has made her the ideal company player for the director Whit Stillman. They first teamed up for 1998's Last Days of Disco, in which she made all manner of frosty declarations ("I could never be interested in anyone who worked in advertising"); now, almost two decades later, director and star are back together—along with Chloë Sevigny, who also starred in Last Days—in Love & Friendship (out today), an adaptation of an unfinished Jane Austen novella that nevertheless feels like it sprang straight from Stillman's gray matter. Once again, Beckinsale gets to play a haughty mean girl in the form of the merciless Lady Susan Vernon, a master manipulator and put-down artist.
The film is so funny. It’s like you and Whit picked up right where you left off.
Yeah, it does feel like that. Like there’s not a gap of decades involved. [laughs] Whit went kind of subterranean for a minute. So I’ve been patiently waiting! I’m glad he’s back.
The flat declarative-ness of the Victorian dialogue in the film is actually kind of exactly the way Whit’s dialogue sounds even in his contemporary films.
Exactly. I think the thing about him is that there are very, very few people making movies with that kind of very sophisticated, dry, nuanced humor, which obviously Jane Austen was a master of. It’s such a good fit, the two of them.
Did you read the novella?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I love it when there’s extra reading to do. [Laughs] I fell madly in love with the novella, because it’s even more extreme. Some of the behavior she talks about the way she treats her daughter! It was great to mine it a bit, for pieces.
Did you find your character, Lady Susan Vernon, abominable? Or was her behavior amusingly calculating?
I have to say, when you’re playing the part … I found her rather lovable and understandable. She doesn’t consider herself a terrible person. I didn’t, either. But I was aware that there were certain things that might not have been completely orthodox. You have to really take it in context of the period of time that she was a woman in. Being virtuous and wholesome didn’t get you really far in terms of an education or a career, and other emblems of freedom that I think should have been fought for. And she’s obviously trying to buck the system, in this very charming manner. I think it makes her a bit of a tricky customer, but you can’t help but applaud her for that spirit.
She’s so righteous about her manipulative behavior, which is what I find so enjoyable.
I don’t know that I think that she’s a sociopath, but you can put a sociopath on a lie detector machine and the meter doesn’t flicker. She knows she’s a good person; I think at her base she believes it. It’s rather progressive, actually, for a Jane Austen novel. I think she believes certain freedoms are her absolute right, woman or not. In that sense, I don’t think she’s wrong. She’s just a bit ahead of her time.
You mentioned that Austen and Whit are a natural fit. Did he have to punch up the novella’s dialogue very much?
Well, I will say some of the disparaging stuff she was saying about her daughter in the book, which I actually loved …
What kind of stuff?
There’s just a lot of more of that stuff, really. She thinks her daughter is completely foreign and completely unprepossessing. It’s interesting in the novella, because you do get the sense that this woman is probably worried about being usurped by her daughter, but in no way is she conscious of that. I don’t know, maybe I’m glamorizing it too much. But that’s what I enjoyed about the book. I mean, we could’ve made three movies out of this unfinished novella! But I would say that 85, 90 percent of my dialogue is straight Jane Austen. I don’t think it was changed very much.
Really! It sounds so much like Whit.
I know! That’s why it’s such an amazing fit. I think where he had a little bit of literary license was with Tom Bennett’s character [Sir James Martin], who’s a bit of an idiot. And also the choice to have Chloë [Sevigny’s character Alicia Johnson] be an American, which she was not in the book. Her constant worry about her fate of being sent back to Connecticut, people seemed to really enjoy that part.
Right, that the worst possible fate was to be sent back to Connecticut. I also feel like that was a little bit of an in-joke, since Chloë's from Connecticut.
I know! [laughs] But it was a really nice thing, that the person that [my character] Lady Susan is most comfortable with is an American, because they are both kind of outsiders. It worked really well, I thought.
Was it easy falling back to the same rhythms with Chloë as your confidant, who was also your co-star in Last Days of Disco?
You know, we were always lounging around in Disco. This time, it was hard for us to sit very close to each other. Obviously, we were about five feet wide in these costumes. The nice thing was that my character was a lot less mean to her this time. Love & Friendship, which wasn’t the title of the novella, really does refer to that friendship, I think. That’s the relationship where Lady Susan is the most comfortable, most herself, and most honest. She’s never playing Chloë’s character; she’s playing everyone else.
What’s the key to delivering a punchline in a Whit Stillman movie? It’s a very particular rhythm.
It’s a very fine-boned sense of humor. He gets the off-speed. But the dialogue has always felt very comfortable for me. I remember from Last Days of Disco that he’s not into rehearsal. He does so much of that in terms of casting. He’s very like Scorsese in that respect [Beckinsale starred in 2004’s The Aviator]. Occasionally, he wants the delivery of a line done in a certain way. But on the whole, he wants his actors to turn up and do their thing. I was always aware of him not wanting a lot of acting. Which is interesting, because there are some performances in this movie that feel a lot more broad than I’m used to in his movies. And I like that!
I think the actress who plays Lord Manwaring’s wife [Jenn Murray] is brilliant and pitch-perfect, but it’s a lot more histrionic than what is in a typical Whit Stillman movie. Like I said, it’s absolutely perfect. I like the fact that Whit’s able to do that level so well, too.
I especially like the idiot suitor that Tom Bennett plays. No one does a fool like Whit can.
Absolutely. He really gets them. [laughs]
There’s a much-discussed quarrel your character has with Xavier Samuel’s character. But it’s never shown. Was the scene shot and never used?
No, it wasn’t actually. Before we started shooting, Whit and I had our own epistolary novella going back and forth on email while I was researching. I remember at the time saying, “Oh, I really want to see that.” But he really does like things happening offscreen. He’s very good at trimming the fat off things. We had 27 days to shoot the film; and in fact, we did it in 26. I think the 27th was there in case I didn’t know my lines or something. [Laughs]
Do you think you got to be more of a mean girl in this film or in Last Days?
I think Last Days. She’s pretty lethal. [Laughs] She went around accusing people of having herpes, or whatever it was!
What was the last costume drama you did?
I did a Victorian movie called Stonehearst Asylum a few years ago. I definitely have a corset on pretty regularly, that’s for sure.
What’s worse, corsets or that leather bodysuit you have to wear in the Underworld movies?
They hurt. [Laughs] The thing is, with corsets there’s underwear corsets and another corset on top of that corset. I think what I haven’t done in a while is a literary adaptation, which I enjoy doing and is in my comfort zone.
I saw that you joined Instagram two days ago. I think you’ve figured it out already!
Oh, thank you so much. I’ve been observing it for some time; my daughter’s been on it for awhile. I’ve been stalking her. I just wasn’t sure it was quite for me. But I think … for one, it’s quite nice to be legally on my daughter’s Instagram. [Laughs] Rather than kind of skulking. The other thing is that as an actor who is a public person who has pictures taken of them, and there are narratives being put together of your life that are often not accurate. That’s the upside of social media, being able to say, “This is me.” Like it or hate it, this is actually who you are. That side of social media took a little while to make sense to me. But you know, we’ll see! I may hate it in a day, I don’t know. It’s very early.
Watch Kate Beckinsale and co-star Chloe Sevigny discuss "Love & Friendship" at the Sundance Film Festival: