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From the Archive: Love and Friendship with Kate Beckinsale

Nothing Concrete text
21 Apr 2021
21 min listen

In this week’s archive edition we travel back quite a way in our archive, in this case to the 19th Century and meet the manipulative Lady Susan played by Kate Beckinsale in Whit Stillman’s film Love & Friendship.

From the Archive sees us dig into our extensive contemporary and classical music and cinema podcast archive as we rediscover interviews and discussions with artists, with our long-standing producer and presenter, Ben Eshmade. 

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Ben Eshmade: Hello, and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. I'm Ben Eshmade and on this week's archive edition, we travelled back quite a way in our archive, in this case to the 19th century and meet the manipulative Lady Susan, played by Kate Beckinsale in Whit Stillman's film, Love and Friendship.

Kate Beckinsale: She's very bright. She's very smart, yet she's got no possible way of really having like a great education, a great career. What kind of saves her is the fact that you do on some even subliminal level empathise with the situation that she's in and that she's really boxing clever within a system.

BE: Alongside Kate Beckinsale's determined and accomplished Lady Susan, the excellent ensemble cast also includes Xavier Samuel as Reginald DeCourcy, the man Lady Susan is determined, even obsessed, to marry. Chloe Sevigny is her American friend Alicia Johnson, Stephen Fry, as Mr. Johnson, Morfydd Clark as Frederica Vernon, her daughter, and not forgetting an incredible bamboozled Tom Bennett as Sir James Martin.

Clip from Love & Friendship:

Lady Susan: It's just that if you will not pay attention to me, then perhaps you will to a larger imperative, the law of the universe. An offer as splendid as Sir James's is not likely to come around again. He has offered you the one thing he has of value to give his income.

Frederica: I can see Sir James is a kind man, if it weren't a matter of marriage, I'm sure I could like him. But marriage is for one's whole life.

Lady Susan: Not in my experience.

BE: Actors Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale reunite having worked together previously, on Whit Stillman's 1998 film The Last Days of Disco, inspired by New York's famous Studio 54, which is something we discuss. So I spoke to Kate Beckinsale...

BE: In the film, you played Lady Susan who attempts and generally succeeds in controlling everyone around her. She's a real one off.

KB: Cheers. And I love that. Those don't come around every five minutes. So I was, I was delighted to read her. My education and English Literature sort of stopped at A Level because I did French, German and Russian A Level. I don't think I'm in the minority, however, I think a lot of people haven't heard of this particular one. And I was delighted to read it. I read the script and I was thinking I thought this isn't really Jane Austen, this is Whit Stillman writing something in the style of Jane Austen. I remember when I did Emma there was a sort of vogue after that of people writing sequels to Jane Austen, you know, in the style of... I thought it was one of those, you know. I really, really didn't think how much dialogue comes out of my mouth in this movie 85 to 90% of it is straight from the novella, which is amazing, really. And so, yeah, I thought it was very racy and very sort of acid for what I was expecting.

It's interesting that I was thinking as well, when I was in the other room, I was thinking, from a British point of view, we drown in period dramas, you know, even Downtown [sic] Abbey, you know, we are used to that world. This manages to have a certain amount of freshness and kind of vivacity or whatever. This sounds like that was there from the script onwards.

KB: It really was is there from the novella, that's what's amazing is it's, I suppose I understand why Jane Austen, aged 19, put it in a drawer and felt the world wasn't ready for it. But we are now, you know, and that's what's really, that's what's really nice. When I started my career in England, we really were only making period dramas. And one of the reasons I ended up in this kind of bizarre situation of becoming very associated to doing action movies and firing machine guns was because I thought, Oh, I need to do something else. You know, other than that, so it is a funny thing to find that one of the most refreshing choices I've made, that thing that sort of surprised people is getting back to the thing I started out doing in the first place.

BE: Yeah, no, that's quite interesting, isn't it? Because you rebelled against it? And now you're sort of is this maybe the first step on a path to hopefully some more interesting material that you can you can play?

KB: You know, obviously, one has always rather craved interesting material, it just really, you know, I think the point is, you're not always choosing from every single option available. And I think, I think for me, I want to be able to do as many different types of things as possible, partly just in terms of my own learning process. And, you know, I wasn't somebody who went to drama school, I went to Oxford. So for me, doing action movies was actually, it was so terrifying, and so not ever had been in my plan. And it was very physically interesting for me as an actress to do that, you know, I, I really benefited enormously from all that training. I think, you know, whatever you do at drama school, where you have to pretend to be an animal for a year and things like that. I didn't do that. So it sort of fell under the umbrella of that, the different thing I suppose from from drama school is that that doesn't lodge in the public consciousness quite so much as doing movies where you're jumping off buildings and things. I think I was so secure in my persona as this sort of the academic person that it felt like everybody was in on the joke really, of how ludicrous it is to be in this action movie, which of course they're not and so I did find a few years ago, I suddenly found it rather oppressive. That, not that I don't like my career, I don't like those movies, it's just odd to be mostly associated with a thing that's the biggest stretch for you and the thing that sort of is the furthest from your sensibility. It's such a coup, I think, to be able to do things that are outside your immediate sensibilities, especially as an actor, but it's pretty strange to find that, that comes to define you in a way that I found that very uncomfortable, and so while I wouldn't, I wouldn't change the fact that I've had the opportunity to do those kinds of movies, I would change that that's the sum total of my thing, because, you know, obviously, there is a sum total for everybody there is it's just that when it isn't yours. It's a funny feeling.


Clip from Love & Friendship:

Man: Lady Susan, Lady Susan!

Lady Susan: How dare you address me, sir!

Man: Lady Susan...

Lady Susan: She's gone, sir. I will have you whipped.

Alicia: Outrageous. Have you never met him?

Lady Susan: No, I know him well, I would never speak to a stranger like that.

BE: There's a really nice thing here, though, in the sense that you're going back to working with Whit Stillman, who was very important early on and you worked with before. So you're kind of like from what you're talking about, you're sort of reestablishing the past, you're connecting the two together.

KB: Yeah. And I think I don't know it, it feels a bit peculiar to me that things can feel that they get expunged, you know, when they're not in you as a person at all. The interesting thing is, is that I was so terrified of doing Last Days of Disco with Whit, it was the first time I'd ever gone really spent much time in America. And I had to be that I didn't know my boyfriend was busy. My mom wasn't, you know, I couldn't take anyone even to come out and visit. So is this kind of frightening Odyssey for me going Oh, God, I don't know anyone. I'm playing this character that I'm not really very familiar with these people, I don't really know. And I was really, really anxious about it. And so Whit plucked me out of Chiswick and threw me in to New York, and then plucked me out of America and threw me back basically to Chiswick which is quite funny that he's, he's been the one he sort of politely ignored all the machine gunplay that's gone on in between and just said, I remember who you are from the last time and now I'm ready to do another movie. Are you free?


Clip from Last Days of Disco:

Charlotte: I am so so sorry. I should never have said that. I have some sort of sick compulsion to say everything that occurs to me.

Alice: I just wanna let you know, as soon as I can find any rooming situation, I'm moving out. I can't take it anymore.

Charlotte: That's not possible. You're not serious.

Alice: Just let me know when you're ready to go.

KB: I was pretty lucky early on, I'd already worked by them with Kenneth Brannagh. And John Schlesinger, I done pretty, I'd done quite a few.... I had some luck by that point. But Whit, as I said, Whit was one of my very first Americans, and he is different he is, you know, at that point, he was making a movie about a very, very specific social milieu in which he was immensely familiar, and sort of kind of the expert and king of so... And I really wasn't familiar with it. So there was a different vibe on that movie than there was on this one. Because obviously, I was a lot more familiar with Jane Austen and British things than I was with that. Having said that, his method, his technique is very similar in that he doesn't really like rehearsal. In fact, he didn't really have any, he I think is, is very, very waited on casting. So he takes a great deal of time to find, you know, the perfect people for him, and then just sort of want them to do their thing. And, you know, I was baffled by that. Being me in Last Days of Disco - huh? hang on! But he's somebody who spends a long, long time writing, he's very specific. And yet, his other great strength is he's very in the moment and will change things. And you'll find that you've got a new scene in the morning, which is, you know, exhilarating, and also can be terrifying, especially when you're playing Lady Susan who talks a lot in it, and you haven't got very long schedule to, to drag it out. So those are the things that I think he's very, very particular about, obviously, because he's a writer / director, he spends - the gestation process, you know, period on this movie was kind of staggeringly long. I heard him at one Q&A we were doing so he first thought of it in 1999, which is like, well, that's a very long pregnancy for a movie. I mean, I know they can take a minute, but I think that's when the germ of it was a long time ago. And he said, you know, I was far too young to play a widow with a 16 year old then so obviously, that's why it's taken so long, which I'm sure is not true, but kind of a funny thing to say. But the fact that he does take such painstakingly long time, and care and has got patience to really wait until it's the right moment. And then also can be that person who suddenly comes up with a brand new seeing the day of that's quite unusual.

BE: Especially for a period drama.

KB: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And also because he's so unbelievably intelligent, and he's a huge Jane Austen fan. And if anyone's going to write a scene in the style of Jane Austen, I would like it to be Whit.

Clip from Love & Friendship:

Sir James: I must say you look surprised. You were astonished. See me? No, not. That's how it looked.

Lady Susan: Yes, I was astonished and I still am

Sir James: An impressive establishment you have here. My congratulations. Immaculate.

Lady Susan: Mr DeCourcey is Mrs Vernon's brother.

Sir James: Very good.

Lady Susan: It's her husband, Charles Vernon who has Churchill.

Sir James: Churchill. That's how you say it all together like that? Churchill. Oh, well, that explains a lot. You see, I'd heard church and hill but couldn't find either. All I could see was this big house.

BE: Well I wanted to talk about the dialogue because Shakespearean is probably the wrong way of describing it. But I mean, it's very loaded. It's very powerful dialogue very, very funny. The wit the sarcasm, the biting wit, it's just incredible.

KB: I think what I find so amazing is that like for as I said, my character mainly is straight Jane Austen. And the thing that's extraordinary about that is that this is an epistolary novel. So the fact that the letters sound so much like speech, you know, and, and given that they are fairly floral and verbose, you know that I think that's extraordinary. Really. I love the dialogue I loved I love that there's so much in everything that's very loaded. No, there was almost no, I don't know that i said the lines until I was on set. You know we didn't, we did one table read, which I think Whit found very depressing. Until Tom Bennett appeared on Skype and then he and then he cheered up a bit. But he hates that. Yes, he hates that sort of thing. He doesn't like rehearsals. He doesn't... he likes doing it. He doesn't like all the other stuff. So I don't know but so yeah, that seems looking back kind of incredible that that was how it went. But it but that's that's how Whit rolls.

BE: Yeah. I want to talk about Tom Bennett. I mean, that first thing he comes when he comes in and chats to you, it's

KB: Well, yeah, I mean, he's he's so funny. And the thing about him was, you know, we had all this rehearsal he turned up at this read through which he wasn't even there, he was on Skype doing some some other thing. With this complete performance. It was complete, you know, you knew this person, you knew this absolute... You can see in every mannerism he has, he also manages to be so stupid and endearing. I think it's a really difficult part. And they also think, you know, given as I said, this is an epistolary novel, there are no letters from his character. So his voice really is Whit. But I think Whit's done an amazing job of making that, yes, that is the sort of broader humour of the movie, but it's not jarring. It doesn't feel kind of tacked on and Tom as well. Whit's done an amazing job of that. So I love those bits. Amazing.

BE: Let's talk about a couple of the other major themes or major characters, obviously, the the relationship between Lady Susan and her daughter, Frederica, is at the heart of it. I don't know how to summarise it. I mean, does she not care about her?

KB: I think she really does. I think the thing is, she's very practical. I think that during that period of time, if you've got a daughter, who, as far as you can see does not seem remarkable. She's not ostentatiously talented. She's not, you know, whatever. And also seems to have this notion that she's not going to have to get married, to secure her future. That seems very dangerous at that period of time. I, you know, I think she's very concerned that her daughter's... she thinks her daughter's stupid, you know, which, which is such a harsh and terrible thing to say about your daughter, but I can sort of understand it, given that Lady Susan lives in this kind of daily drama of being this immensely bright woman who really does have to secure her future by finding her husband of some type and sees her daughter being kind of idealistic. And it's just like, absolutely can't happen. So there is a love and concern. It's just, it's coming through this kind of practical, that the fact that she's settled by the end of the movie, she's settled that her daughter actually got a little bit more sneakiness to her than she thought, rather than makes her feel good. Yeah.

BE: Okay, we've talked we've done love so let's let's move to friendship, obviously, again, there's obviously the connection with last days of disco. You're, you're working again with with Chloe, who luckily happens to be an American in exile.

KB: Yeah, I think that was nice gesture, she's not in the novella. And I think, you know, I've seen this this movie screened in a few places, and it's, I love the fact that Americans are so ready to laugh at being sent up in a movie, you know, because I mean that everything that is said about Americans is brutally insulting. And there's there's some of the biggest laughs it gets in America, which is actually very nice. I like that. I like the fact that I think it was a great choice on Whit's part because it makes Alicia sort of an outsider. In the same way as Lady Susan is because she's sort of ahead of her time and, and that there's a kind of modern... she can be a bit more modern and racy, and you sort of buy that so quickly because she's American. And I love that she's always been threatened with the worst fate anyone could have - god you're going back to Connecticut. It's very funny to me.

BE: And I think Whit was very obsessed with the fact that he managed to get Stephen Fry into the film.

KB: Yes he was. That happened to be the day I was off camera in flagrante. So I wasn't there. That was my one day off. They had one day I guess. Stephen was hosting the BAFTAs, going somewhere else and they had this one precious day. That was Friday 13th that they called Stephen Fry-day. They had to really galvanise themselves to kind of get every single thing they needed from him that day and Stephen is another person who, you know, Whit is a Jane Austen obsessive but Stephen also is I think, I think Whit really enjoyed having, you know, another really sort of intellectual, obsessive around.

Alicia: Alas, I fear this is our last meeting, at least while Mr. Johnson is in life. His business at Hartford has become extensive. If I continue to see you he vows to settle in Connecticut forever.

Lady Susan: You could be scalped! I always suspected that the great word "Respectable" would one day divide us. Your husband I abhor but we must yield to necessity. Our affection cannot be impaired by it and, in happier times, when your situation is as independent as mine, we will unite again -- for

 this I shall impatiently wait.

 Alicia: I also.

Lady Susan: May Mr. Johnson's next gouty attack end more favourably!

BE: It's a cliche to talk about dresses in regards to a period film.

KB: Right.

BE: But I was reading which I found quite interesting, the fact that the costumes have to change from the beginning of her being a widow through to her sort of, you know, coming to attract her husband for a better phrase.

KB: Yes, there's a sort of mauve period where she's crossing over that goes on a bit. But yes, I when I first spoke to Whit about costumes on the phone, it was interesting because he said I really don't want it. It's not Sense and Sensibility, it's not Pride and Prejudice. It's not, it's a different kind of movie, and I don't want it to have Empire waists and I don't want that, I want it to have, we are able to use a kind of French fashion of that period, which is a little bit sexier and racier. And I that was a really good choice because it isn't, it isn't the same sort of a movie it's not a romance in that sense. And so yeah, he said he wants to start out kind of full on veil and black and then we sort of as I said we can move into mauve and then by the end of it, it's like red I'm ready! It's interesting because Whit is very much master of the sort of nuanced comedy intelligent, smart comedy that kind of creeps up on you and it's character based and that makes you die laughing because this characters, you know, myopic about themselves in one way or whatever. But what I what I think is cool in this is that he's also proved himself to be incredibly good with a kind of very broad comedy and the two things coexist in this movie in a way that really works well. The only downside being that there are so many things that are funny in it that having been to so many screenings, sometimes people are still busy laughing at one thing and they slightly miss the next thing because they kind of come in so fast - they got really peppered in there. So it's definitely something that you can stand watching a couple of times because you probably do miss things!

BE: Again sort of going back to the beginning, for a better phrase, pantomime maybe even as we were in England, you know, she is a villain. She's the character that dominates the film. But I think at the end, you start to wonder as you walk away from the cinema, how much of a villain was she and how all the other people's agendas, maybe they weren't as clear and morally upright as they think they were.

KB: Yeah, I mean, I think you cannot take it out of the context of this, you know, cultural and social situation. That's just really crap for women. You know, I mean, she's very bright, she's very smart. She's, she's charming. She's a thinking person she's cultured, yet she's got no possible way of really having like a great education, a great career, financial independence, she has to marry somebody like, that just does seem so preposterous. And then you see this kind of the spirit of this woman. So I think what kind of saves her is the fact that you do on some even subliminal level empathise with the situation that she's in and that she's really boxing clever within a system. And if you really look at it in terms of villains, you're not really hurting anyone. Whit said something very interesting in terms of casting in that the person, the only person she really destroys, in any way is Lady Manwaring, whose husband, she obviously has an affair with him who ends up leaving. And Whit said it was a real challenge for him to find an actress who is capable of being terribly kind of histrionic and upset, but also annoying enough that as an audience, you don't mind that her life is destroyed. You kind of like oh, God to shut up, you know, you can see. And I thought that was really interesting, because if she were too sympathetic, I think it would be harder but she's sort of she's cast through Lady Susan's perspective. As an audience, you experienced Lady Manwaring as being this kind of oh do stop going on about your marriage. That's one of my favourite lines in the movie is Chloe saying, you know, just going on and on about this marriage. It's been over for weeks, which really isn't a long time considering getting over being being separated but I think that was a really genius move on Whit's part and on Jenn Murray's part.

Clip from Love & Friendship:

Lady Susan: How ungentlemanly! Shocking! I can’t believe it.

Alicia: Yes, very shocking.

Lady Susan: A gentleman, entrusted with correspondence marked "private," reads it regardless -- and then, because of some confidential remarks, the obloquy is mine! But who has acted badly in this affair? Only you and I stand innocent of

 reading other people’s correspondence!

Alicia: Unluckily Lady Manwaring also wormed out of her husband's servant that Manwaring visited you in private.

Lady Susan: Oh. Facts are horrid things!

BE: Thanks to Kate Beckinsale for speaking to me back in 2016 about this very delightful and refreshing film. I'm Ben Eshmade, thanks for listening to this archive edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. It's here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts with weekly episodes of archive finds such as this and themed series. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you can leave us a review to help us get the word out.

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