Facing up to the past

Kate Beckinsale talks to Janie Lawrence
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The Independent Online
Kate Beckinsale raises her dark eyes and nods through a mouthful of tomato. Yes, she does remember the day her father died. She falls silent and proceeds to prod the carrot on her plate. Quite what she thinks of my question is hard to tell. She was only five years old when he had a fatal heart attack but references to it will probably haunt Kate throughout her career. As if being five were not a tough enough age to deal with the loss of a parent, the fact that the parent is famous brings other dimensions into play. You try to deal with grief internally, but then interviewers ask you to explain those feelings for public consumption.

The star of the popular series, The Lovers and Porridge, Richard Beckinsale is such a permanent fixture in TV Repeatland that for us there's an inescapable and incessant reminder that she is his daughter. For Kate it's a constant - possibly painful - reminder of her loss?

"Anybody who's lost anybody knows that while it does get less painful, in that immediate way, it can still catch you 20 years later. Ever since he died he's been on telly very regularly so I'm very used to it. But sometimes it'll catch me out and I'll think, `Fuck. I'm older now than you were then.'" Which makes the task of finding sense in one's own memories even more difficult. Inevitably, there must be a confused blurring between the personal but hazy recollections of a young child and those impressions gleaned off the box. "I have seen him more on television than I have in life but there are certainly enough memories for me not to feel that it's somebody I didn't know." At 23, Kate bears more then a passing physical resemblance to her dad. Fresh-skinned and full-lipped she is exceedingly pretty in a very natural, freshly scrubbed, sort of way. Her paternal grandfather is Burmese and she's certain it's to those genes she owes her hair. According to her it "sticks out all over the place". But I wouldn't know. In the growing out stage after a short and spiky cut she has it firmly hidden under a floppy velvet hat. "With my mum I often get, `Ooh you're just like your father.' And she finds that my sense of humour is quite similar to his."

Mum, or "Jude" as she calls her, is actress Judy Loe. Despite her famous parents few, bar the extremely uncharitable, would suggest that Kate is carving out a formidable reputation on anything other than her own merits. Although if her most high-profile outings are anything to go by - particularly in Emma and as Flora Poste in Cold Comfort Farm - for the time being at least she seems rather stuck in playing period misses.

"If there were more good original screenplays around I'd be doing them," she claims. "But the majority of the quality work isn't modern unfortunately and a lot of very good scripts happen to be adapted from very good novels.

"And also I've got a posh voice." So it is, but pleasantly breathy rather than braying. The combination of that and her generous use of double negatives has me mentally conjuring up old Hayley Mills films where well-spoken girls anguished over sick animals. That this image suggests itself is no doubt due in part to the fact that she has brought along her poorly kitten to the interview.

Carefully wrapped in Kate's coat, kitty is allocated the chair so we adjourn, Ruby Wax style, to lie on the hotel bed. Stretched out and reaching for the first of several Silk Cuts, every answer is as lucidly sure-footed as it is direct. It is not arrogant; instead, she displays uncanny composure, whether she's discussing her current plans to write a screenplay or pondering the personal consequences of her childhood. The latter is a recurring theme. Not that she isn't chuffed with her stepfather, director Roy Battersby. "I couldn't have knitted a better one," she says. He moved in when she was nine. For a vulnerable child, still grieving and accustomed to her mother's exclusive attention, it could have been tricky for everyone. "Roy knew I was a traumatised little person. He didn't expect this idyllic little girl in plaits who'd be nice to him. I wasn't sure whether I wanted my mum to marry anyone else. [In fact, they have never married.] And I certainly didn't want any brothers. Roy had four sons and one daughter. I wasn't in a boy mood. He's been so brilliant. He wasn't pushy, he let me come to him."

In what was a precarious position even by step-parent standards, Roy played his opening cards extremely astutely.

"There was a big fancy dress party and I was going as Carmen Miranda. On the first meeting I had with him he turned up with this fantastic Carmen Miranda hat. I thought, `Here is a man who understands dressing up.'"

Yet she does concede that perhaps she wasn't the easiest of little girls. When she wasn't outside their Chiswick house attempting to flog the contents of her mother's fruit bowl she was showing off. "I was the sort of child who would stick on a tutu and shout, `Look at me, look at me' and then everybody would and I'd get embarrassed and say, `Don't look.'" She breaks into giggles. "I'm probably still like that actually."

As a teenager, that harmless attention seeking became something far more dangerous. At 15, she simply stopped eating, a reaction she directly attributes to her father's death. "I'm probably four stone heavier now than I was at my thinnest," she says, matter of factly gesturing to her body. Wrapped up in obscuring baggy layers, it's nevertheless obvious there's not a spare ounce as she is. "At my lowest I was about five stone. Had I been older when I had a breakdown I think I would have been an alcoholic."

She refers to it unashamedly as a breakdown. "Anorexia is a breakdown," she insists. "It's just that the mode of it happens to be the most accessible thing for teenage girls to do. It's very prevalent in teenagers because in those years there is the most amazing renaissance of your whole self. Anything that's lurking comes and bites you in the neck. For some kids, if something traumatic happens to them when they're very young they pick something safer to worry about. The worst thing about it is that it takes on a life of its own separate from whatever's caused it. So you're stuck with the symptoms, or mentality, of it even when you have cracked what caused it."

If all this sounds a polished self-analysis, it is. Knowing that she was in trouble, Kate promptly went to her mother and requested Freudian analysis. For a teenager deep in the throes of anorexia it displays both a stunningly mature insight and a high degree of self-preservation.

"I was always able to talk to my mum. I could say anything from, `What's a blow job?' to `Are you sure you still love me ?'. And my family were very respectful of analysis so I'd grown up with it being a good thing rather than a bad. I knew that unless I did face some things I would probably die myself. If it had just been dealt with as a food problem I wouldn't be over it now. If you just treat the symptoms of it you're fucked. It has to be addressed as a whole part of your life."

Has she reached a conclusion as to why she was especially susceptible? "I think there were all kinds of different reasons. Although I know not everybody who gets anorexia has a parent that's died, if you learn as a kid that seemingly fairly healthy people drop dead at 31 it sets you up in a fairly crap way. And there's a certain amount of guilt that flies around."

That she has talked about this at all when the PR has already warned me that it is a no-go area has come as a surprise. She herself worries as to how it will appear. "I don't want people thinking that I'm whingeing on again. But considering I'm one of the only people I know who's been lucky enough to get over it I think it's worth talking about even if it helps only one person."

Certainly she's scoffing down her salad and claims that these days she never weighs herself or has any residual hang-ups from those years. Twice- , sometimes thrice-weekly analysis sessions stretching through four years have left her, she says, with no ground left to cover. She grins, "I think I must be about 45 in analysis terms. Now I can't go back until I'm 50." Not surprisingly during this period, her appearances at school - Godolphin and Latymer in west London - were hit-and-miss affairs. "I stopped being able to function in my life. I was this mad; I'd turn up 20 minutes before the end of the double lesson and go, `Sorry I'm late' and sit down."

She usually worked at home and still managed to secure a place at New College, Oxford to read French and Russian. "The headmistress was very tolerant but there were a few teachers who were very pissed off that I got into Oxford - I don't suppose they could take any credit for it."

She had already decided that she wanted to act but says, rather bizarrely, that she chose university over drama school so that she could mix with mathematicians and geographers. Yet it wasn't long before she was juggling her course and acting jobs. By the end of her first year, while her fellow students headed off to waitress, she was part of the Ken and Em show, playing Hero in Much Ado about Nothing. After spending her third year in Paris she knew that she had to make a choice. "It was getting to the point where I wasn't enjoying either thing enough because both were very high pressure. I was burning out and I knew I had to make a decision."

She has a steely resolve that where work is concerned there are certain things she won't compromise upon. Nudity is out.

Underwear? Out too. The temptation is to think that maybe, despite her protestations, she still has unresolved issues about her body. It's a lazy assumption and rather patronising, particularly as she is one of those rare 23-year-olds who declares herself a feminist and doesn't follow it up with an apologetic "but".

"I remember saying to Helen Mirren, `Do you just do nudes when it's necessary to the plot?' and she said, `It never is.'

"I thought, if she said it's not, then I'm not doing it. If the climate were not such that I was always expected to do it then I would. But I think it's worrying that every script says we think your character would probably have a shower at this point. Well, she'd probably have a shit at this point but you don't want to see that."

She's on a roll. "There seems to be this worrying new wave of feminism which says if you're in charge of your own exploitation then it's OK. Everybody is still being shafted but they think they're being liberated, which is worse."

Thankfully, none of her recent well-received television appearances have required her to get her kit off. As Emma in the TV adaptation of the Jane Austen novel she was firmly buttoned up. A crisp and self possessed portrayal, for Austen purists it captured Emma's motivations in a way that the Hollywood film, with its inordinately long lingering close ups of Gwyneth Paltrow's neck, didn't even attempt. Mention the big-screen extravaganza and, endearingly, Kate doesn't launch into standard actressy diplomatic stuff.

"I didn't like anything about the film," she says. "I thought it was rather cowardly, in the sense that Austen wrote that she was a character nobody would like but herself. In the book, she's not allowed to go anywhere, whereas in the film she was doing archery and having a great life. They also inserted a lot of modern gags into it which is a bit of a cheap shot and shows you don't trust your material. Ours wasn't perfect by any means either. If you're really going to do it you should have blackened teeth and no make up."

In yet another recent period piece she plays the busy-bodying Flora Poste in the entertaining Cold Comfort Farm, based on the Stella Gibbons novel. Already shown on television here, the Americans have been lapping it up at the cinema and it's about to be given a cinema release in Britain.

While this Beckinsale has made her name in worthy enterprises, her half- sister, Samantha, is best known for her role in London's Burning. The two met briefly in early childhood but didn't talk again until Kate was 21. "She got in touch and I was a bit nervous of meeting her because I wanted to get on with her. I thought, `What if she's horrible?' Luckily, she was really nice."

Now that they are both in the some profession, there have been farce- like scenarios of mistaken identity with cabbies. "I don't know how she experiences it but I often get people who are bitterly disappointed. Or the odd fan letter congratulating me on my performance in London's Burning."

Happily paired off with fellow actor Michael Sheen - "Is he the one? I hope he is" - it seems unlikely Beckinsale will ever be troubled by her childhood traumas again. Not that she's complacent. "As soon as you think you've sorted it out, that's when you start falling downstairs a lot."

Indeed, there's an unguarded moment of panic before I leave. "Please don't let it be a `what a tragic life I've led' article. I'm not living on an estate somewhere surrounded by crack addicts, pregnant, with no future. I've been very lucky."

Ah, so she's a classic swan? Still on the outside but paddling furiously underneath. She beams and scoops up the cat. "Yes, I like that."

`Cold Comfort Farm' goes on general release on 25 April

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