Kate Beckinsale in Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship (Bernard Walsh/Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions)
Whit Stillman made a name for himself with 1990’s Metropolitan, which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay and an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature. His next two films were 1994’s Barcelona and 1998’s The Last Days of Disco. These films have sometimes been referred to as his 1990s Comedy of Manners Trilogy. If Jane Austen had been alive today, she might have written those movies. The sense and sensibilities of Stillman and Austen seem to mirror each other – a writing kinship that bridges a century or so apart. It only seems fitting that Stillman’s latest film, Love & Friendship, is based on Austen’s unfinished work, “Lady Susan.”
In Love & Friendship, widow Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) has come to Churchill, the estate of her in-laws, to hide out until gossip of her private life dies down. While there, she decides to find a husband for herself and for her daughter, Frederica, played by Morfydd Clark. Chloë Sevigny, who starred with Beckinsale in Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco, plays Lady Susan’s friend and confidante Alicia Johnson, with Stephen Fry as her husband, the “very Respectable” Mr. Johnson. The waters are troubled by the arrival at Churchill of the handsome, eligible Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) and Sir James Martin. Scene stealer Tom Bennett, who plays Martin, provides much of the film’s comedic relief with his awkward, yet earnest portrayal of the bumbling man.
Not only is Beckinsale reuniting with Stillman and Sevigny, but she’s also reuniting of sorts with Austen after having portrayed Emma in the 1996 British TV movie. Beckinsale was happy to come back full circle in her career with Love & Friendship and unleash her sharp tongue once again.
“That’s my very favorite thing actually. I was very comfortable since that’s sort of my zone. That was how I started out, and then people got used to seeing me with a machine gun or something. It was nice to come back to how I started acting,” she tells. “I really am attracted to those characters that people don’t write that often: Women who you don’t necessarily want to go on holiday with for two weeks, but you’re kind of fascinated watching. Emma’s meddlesome, and [Cold Comfort Farms’] Flora is a busybody. Lady Jane is sort of ruthless. You sort of want to cheer them on rather than hang out with them. Whit’s very good about writing those sort of women.”
Every Whit Stillman movie has a certain cadence where the acting is very understated. Though Beckinsale portrays a larger-than-life character, she was happy to not give a larger-than-life performance.
“Whit’s very allergic to acting with a capital ‘A.’ I am as well, so that’s lucky. Even in the broader parts of the movie, which usually feature Tom Bennett, Whit arrived at such a complete character that everything feels very natural and real,” shares Beckinsale. “Whit’s very dignified and acutely aware of nuance. He can be quite brutal with his direction sometimes. He’s not shy about saying, ‘I really don’t like that.’ He says it so eloquently though, and he’s always right. We talked and emailed so much leading up to it that I think we were on the same page by the time we started shooting.”
As I mentioned earlier, Stillman has been compared to Austen before. This comparison is backed up by the fact that Beckinsale thought Stillman was trying to do his best Austen impression with the script.
“There was a time when people were sequels to Emma – when writing in Jane’s style was a fad. When I read the script, I thought that’s what Whit had done. It was kind of atypical of a literary heroine. I kept thinking, ‘when is she going to get punished? When is she going to die?’ Instead, she sort of gets everything she wants. I was really thrilled about that. I read the novella afterwards, and she’s even more extreme with her daughter than we are in the movie.”
Speaking of her daughter, let’s just say that Beckinsale’s Lady Susan won’t be winning any Mother of the Year awards. In the movie and in real life, Beckinsale is the mother to a teenage girl. Unlike the movie, however, she loves her role as mother and talked about the balance of raising a teenager.
“It’s a very important period to separate and individuate, while at the same time feeling that you’re safe. Your role as a parent becomes more hands off. You don’t want to insert yourself into their experiences all the time. At the same time, you can’t detach and not be there like Lady Susan. It’s a balance, and who knows if any of us are getting it right? I’m definitely not like Lady Susan, so I got that right,” she says. “I don’t think she’s interested in being a parent. She’s not a natural mother, and her daughter is nothing more than an inconvenience. If she were transported to the present day, I don’t think Lady Susan would be rushing to have a child. She’s got a fairly narcissistic streak, which makes her entertaining, but not necessarily a good parent. As a woman, I think she’s very much a product of the time she is in, especially as an entertaining woman. In that time, women weren’t supposed to get much education or have a fulfilling career. Your whole life depends on having a husband. It seems to me that Jane Austen expressed some of her frustration with that through this larger-than-life character.”
When you talk to actors about a movie shoot, usually the most difficult aspects involved are the dialogue, hair or make-up. On the set of Love & Friendship, the costumes were the most difficult part surprisingly.
“The thing I was concerned about the most was I knew we only had 27 days to shoot the movie, which is not much when there’s so much talking and the person doing most of the talking is me. Before we started shooting, I kept harassing Whit for a locked-in shooting draft [of the script]. He was a bit coy about it, and I realized that he liked to sometimes change the script from day to day. That was a bit more challenging. When you have a big speech that gets moved around, it’s a bit like a mental agility test. There were very early calls because we were shooting up in Dublin in February and March. We only had a certain amount of hours to shoot in the daylight. Makeup was only like 30 seconds, and hair was a bit longer than that. Getting dressed took the longest amount of time. It was really cold, so we all had on flannel underwear and long leggings under out wardrobe. You were sort of being wheeled out of the trailer like Hannibal Lecter.”
Love & Friendship is in select theaters May 13.