An Epic Turn

Ellen Baskin is a regular contributor to Calendar

From her 1993 film debut in "Much Ado About Nothing" through to the just-released "The Golden Bowl," British actress Kate Beckinsale has amassed a diverse list of credits, a stack of good reviews--and a much lower profile than many of her contemporaries on either side of the Atlantic. Well, that's about to be blown out of the water.

In her newest, and by far highest profile role, Beckinsale stars as the female lead and apex of a love triangle involving Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett in "Pearl Harbor," the World War II saga due to explode onto the screen on May 25 with nearly as much firepower as was used on that historic day of infamy.

This blockbuster approach to filmmaking won't come as a surprise to anyone familiar with "Armageddon" (1998) and "The Rock" (1996), two earlier collaborations between the "Pearl Harbor" team of director Michael Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer. But Beckinsale, accustomed to lower-budget, more arty projects, initially had no idea she'd signed on for such a "gigantic big deal."

"To me, it was just the same as with every other movie I've really wanted to do," she claims during a recent interview in Santa Monica. "I read a fabulous script and was dying to play the part. I keep telling people this, and they look at me like I'm mad. But when everyone said to me, 'This is Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer,' I really didn't know that meant something about the kind of movie it was going to be."

The actress found out just what she had signed up for when she arrived on location in Hawaii last year for the "Pearl Harbor" shoot. The combined budgets of every other movie she has made could fit comfortably into "Pearl Harbor's" $135-million price tag, a good deal of which went into re-creating the surprise Japanese attack on Dec. 7, 1941, which forced the U.S. entry into World War II. Beckinsale was admittedly a bit overwhelmed both physically and emotionally when it came to filming the bombing and its aftermath, which called for her character, nurse Evelyn Stewart, to lead those tending to the wounded. This was a long way, after all, from the cerebral posturing of the tea-and-china set in "Golden Bowl," which is based on Henry James' early-20th century novel of manners.

"Every time there was going to be a stunt or an explosion, there would first be a terrifying safety meeting," she recalls. "That was enough to get us all completely worked up. Even now, if someone yelled out, 'Fire in the hold!' I'd hit the floor."

What struck Beckinsale most about "Pearl Harbor," however, wasn't the pyrotechnics but, yes, the script. "It's so unusual these days to read a script that has those old-fashioned values to it," she explains. "Not morals, but movie values."

"It's a big, sweeping epic. Evelyn is a young Navy nurse stationed at Pearl Harbor whose boyfriend [Affleck] has volunteered to fight for the British. She's young and innocent and brave and wise, in that old-fashioned kind of way. You just never get the chance to do that."

The film was also an education for Beckinsale. Growing up in England, which was itself the victim of much wartime bombing, Beckinsale learned a lot in school about World War II, but the emphasis tended to be on the Nazi offensive in Europe, and she didn't know much about what happened at Pearl Harbor.

"I certainly knew about it being a part of the war, and I had a sense of where it was," she says. "At that time Britain was in total war crisis, but America really wasn't. Everything was happening elsewhere, and people in America--even those in Pearl Harbor--were just going along with their lives. And then the war began, in such a shocking way."

Beckinsale, 27, is slim enough to hold her own against any of Hollywood's lithe beauties, but is in no apparent danger of being blown off her feet by a rainy wind. She is often photographed in glamour mode, but for the interview she's casually dressed. She arrives shortly after putting her 2-year-old daughter, Lily, to sleep, with Lily's dad--Beckinsale's boyfriend, actor Michael Sheen--on baby-sitter duty.

Her hair is pulled back in a ponytail and Beckinsale's quintessentially British porcelain skin and delicate features are accented only by a trace of face powder and lip gloss.

"Pearl Harbor" may be Beckinsale's first big action movie, but she's not the first member of what might be called the Brit Pack to cross into the genre--witness Jude Law in "Enemy at the Gates'; Rachel Weisz in "The Mummy Returns" and "Enemy at the Gates'; Australian Health Ledger in "A Knight's Tale" and the upcoming "Four Feathers," which stars Ledger and also features her boyfriend Sheen.

Beckinsale insists there was no strategic planning at a pub one night to take some of the best action roles away from American actors.

"Maybe we're just cheaper," she suggests wryly.

It's certainly a risk for Disney to cast a relatively little known actress in one of the summer's most eagerly awaited--and certainly most hyped--films. Of the three leads--and Bay and Bruckheimer emphasize that Affleck, Hartnett and Beckinsale play equally important roles--only Affleck is a known quantity and it's still unclear whether he has the box-office clout of established stars such as Tom Cruise or Mel Gibson.

According to Bruckheimer, though, the studio voiced no concern about the film's casting. "It didn't matter to them," asserts the producer. "We wanted to make it fresh and interesting," keeping the focus on the unfolding events rather than any larger-than-life personality. "[Disney] felt that the script was so good that it would be the star."

As to "Pearl Harbor's" female lead, "I told Michael early on that we were going to hire an English girl, even before we met Kate," says Bruckheimer. "Kate's a wonderful actress, and she's got a real period look. The American girls we tested just looked too contemporary."

Harkening back to another film epic about another war, he adds, "Look at what happened on 'Gone With the Wind,' how many American girls they [the filmmakers] saw and who they ended up with'--England's Vivien Leigh.

Beckinsale has lived most of her life in London, and both of her parents were actors. Her father, Richard, starred in two still-revered British sitcoms--'Rising Damp" and "Porridge'--before his death at age 31 in 1979, when Kate was just 5. Her mother, Judy Loe, eventually remarried theater director Roy Battersby.

Beckinsale attended Oxford University for three years in the early 1990s, where she studied acting while majoring in French and Russian literature. She made several films and made-for-television movies during term breaks and ultimately left Oxford to pursue an acting career. Her first starring role was in the 1995 period satire "Cold Comfort Farm," produced for British TV but distributed theatrically in the United States.

Having survived the six-month "Pearl Harbor" shoot, Beckinsale now finds herself about to do battle with the media juggernaut accompanying the film's release, embarking on an all-hands-on-deck press junket in Hawaii, followed by the lavish premiere estimated to cost more than $5 million.

Then she'll barely have a chance to catch her breath before it's time to do it all again, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale, for "Serendipity," a romantic comedy in which she co-stars with John Cusack. (This assumes, of course, that there's no actors' strike during the summer, which could prevent stars from publicizing their films.)

In the Miramax release, set to open in August, Beckinsale plays Sara Thomas, who believes that signs and destiny chart ones course through life. Sara meets Jonathan Trager (Cusack) in New York when they both try to buy the same pair of gloves at Bloomingdale's.

The two spend the evening together, but before things can go very far, fate intervenes and they are separated. Years pass, they're each due to marry someone else, but the memory of that long-ago encounter has always lingered. Relying on a series of hunches and twists of fate, each sets out to see if they can find the other again.

So does Beckinsale believe in predestination? "I'm not sure, but I do know that when I met Michael, it turned out we had almost met a number of times before then, and we also both happened to be living in Paris at the same time on streets that were next to each other. For whatever reason, though, we weren't ready for each other yet."

"Serendipity" is Beckinsale's first major American release in which she speaks in her native accent. The film was not originally written for an English character, but director Peter Chelsom ('The Mighty," 'Town & Country"), who is also British, was eager to make the change once Beckinsale took the role.

"Kate was the very first person we saw and I just loved her," recalls Chelsom. "Then we thought we'd lost her to 'Pearl Harbor,' but our film was put back a few times, and luckily we were able to get her again," he reports. "Kate is very rare, I think, because she can be very properly British, but she's also incredibly down to earth and very funny."

"It's the first time I've played 'English' for ages," Beckinsale points out. "Right before I got pregnant I'd done 'Brokedown Palace' [1999] and 'The Last Days of Disco' [1998]. My first film after I had the baby was 'The Golden Bowl,"' the Merchant Ivory production that opened in Los Angeles the end of last month and is due mid-May in theaters nationwide.

Of her skill at employing a variety of American accents, Beckinsale observes, "I studied languages, so I've always been familiar with accents." She recalls with amusement that "my agent had a phone call not long ago from someone asking, 'Do you represent the British Kate Beckinsale or the American Kate Beckinsale?"'

Neither incarnation has another film project lined up at the moment, but it appears likely that Beckinsale's next role could be that of a major star.

And if fame is going to beckon, she's glad it's happening later rather than sooner. "In my very early 20s I just wouldn't have been able to have handled it. If you're 19 years old and floating around all that on your own--I would have gone insane. And I think I knew it at the time."

Beckinsale isn't in any rush to become an A-list star. "I'm just glad I didn't get into 'Pearl Harbor' with that in mind," she says. "It's not like I thought, 'Oh, it's time to do a great big movie and move up a couple of notches.' If that happens as a byproduct of having done a film that I'm really happy to have done, then great, and if it doesn't, I'm still happy to have done the movie."

Beckinsale is also pleased that, more often than not, she's able to walk around unrecognized--so far at least. "I just have to change my hair, and people don't know who I am, unless I'm going somewhere where I'm supposed to be 'Kate Beckinsale.' Normally I can disappear."

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