As a curvaceous vampire huntress in the `Underworld’ films, she was the best friend black latex ever had. She captivated Howard Hughes in “The Aviator,” terrified audiences in “Vacancy,” added valiant romantic interest to “Pearl Harbor” and traded quips with Adam Sandler in “Click.”
Oxford-educated Kate Beckinsale, born to two longtime British TV actors, has established herself as one of the most versatile leading ladies of her generation. Filmmakers from action maestro Michael Bay to Martin Scorsese have recognized that her beauty accompanies an ability to convey volumes of psychological and emotional information in tiny nuances of gesture and inflections of speech. Rescued from the obscurity of anonymous starlets, she has found true international popularity of a kind enjoyed only rarely by English stars.
Beckinsale, who began her film career in emotionally challenging independent films before her exuberant, gutsy and enjoyable work in “Underworld” and its sequel proved her bankable, returns to her roots in her current film, “Snow Angels.” Playing a waitress in an economically depressed Rust Belt town, saddled with a clinging ex (Sam Rockwell) and a 4-year-old she is ill-equipped to raise, Beckinsale spent weeks as a character in traumatic emotional pain.
That’s exactly the kind of role she’s been waiting to play for years, she said.
Since the 1999 birth of her daughter Lily, whose father is actor Michael Sheen (“The Queen”), she had felt reluctant to take on such demanding, serious roles.
“Early on I didn’t have a nanny and I felt totally in charge of my child,” she said in a recent phone interview. “Motherhood, especially single motherhood, is the most selfless thing you can do. And being an actor is about the most selfish thing you can do. Because it can occupy so much of your emotional space. You do have to kind of keep your concentration and obsess and occupy your mind with whatever your character’s going through. So it’s hard to marry the two.”
With Lily growing up, “I had reached the point in my life I felt ready to make a really big emotional journey with a character. My single-motherhood days were over.” While shooting “Underworld” in 2002, Beckinsale and Sheen, who starred as her nemesis, ended their relationship. Beckinsale and the film’s director, Len Wiseman, married in 2004.
“I felt I had a little bit more room to be kind of selfish enough to go there,” she said.
The script of “Snow Angels,” based on a novel by Stewart O’Nan, “was really beautiful” in its alternating passages of despair and hopefulness, she said. “And it had been a while since I read a script that came my way that was like that. Not that I’d been necessarily averse to doing it, it just hadn’t come up.”
Beckinsale looked forward to playing a downscale character whose life is “a treadmill of drudgery and difficulty,” she said. After years of working on studio films, she was eager for the raw honesty of not-much-money and not-much-time independent filmmaking.
“If you set out from the get-go to be a movie star, I don’t think you’d have a very good time. I feel I kind of became a movie star by accident. I’m still slightly in denial about that. In smaller movies the priority is in the script and the story and the characters, and that’s the ideal thing for an actor. Sometimes it’s very difficult to get those kind of movies made because they’re not going to make $50 million in a weekend. They’re not going to make a ton of money back. Sometimes it really helps to have made some of those movies that do make a ton of money in order to get these smaller ones financed.”
Adding to the appeal was the participation of director David Gordon Green, a rising star among Southern regional filmmakers, and costar Rockwell (“Charlie’s Angels”).
The actors share tempestuous scenes as a divorced couple teetering on the brink of violence.
Green “loves to improvise, so I think by the end of the movie we had got to a point where we would start the tape and no one knew where it was going to go. And that was really thrilling. You trust the other actors so much and you trust the kind of emotional landscape you’ve plotted out. I wasn’t sure at the end of some of the scenes whether Sam and I were going to kill each other. It was an amazing moment and you really did feel genuine panic. Which was brilliant. As an actor, that’s exactly what you want, to feel dangerous while you’re doing it.”
In one painful scene, Beckinsale proved beyond question her willingness to walk the walk. The film, shot in wintry Halifax, Nova Scotia, required her to perform a long trek through snowbound, rough woods in bare feet.
“Let me tell you, those scenes of me barefoot on the snow were real, and there were no foot doubles involved. My toes were blue for an eternity. But some of the most exciting moments in my whole career were in some of those scenes. It’s really what you hope for every time you do a job.”