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Kate Beckinsale Reunites with Director Whit Stillman in 'Love & Friendship' – A New Jane Austen Adaptation With a Naughty Twist

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Kate Beckinsale in Love & Friendship. Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

The first time Kate Beckinsale worked with the director Whit Stillman she had to do an American accent.

“You can imagine coming from England and not having been to America at all,” the actress said, recalling her role opposite Chloe Sevigny in The Last Days of Disco (1998). “I felt like this foreigner who had to learn about places like Connecticut and all of that.”

This time around Beckinsale is on her own turf, and she's as confident as ever as the fetching widow Lady Susan Vernon, AKA “the most accomplished flirt in all of England.” Based on Jane Austen's unfinished epistolary novella Lady Susan, Stillman's new film Love & Friendship centers upon the protagonist's quest to secure a husband for herself as well as for her teenage daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) – an activity she pursues with skilled manipulation and irresistible coquetry as well as a tremendous dose of comedic flair.

“She's an intelligent, charismatic woman with a healthy sexual appetite, and she would be doing just fine in 2016,” Beckinsale said of her character. “She'd have an extremely high powered job, she would have a few lovers, and she'd be making her own money. The trouble is, she's in this societal constraint where it's impossible to have that kind of lifestyle. She's someone who very much wants to have her cake and eat it too – and she does, which is super unusual for a woman, especially for this period of literature.”

Through the film Love & Friendship and the book Lady Susan are rife with the clever dialogue, social commentary, and colorful characters expected of an Austen work (Tom Bennett is brilliant as Sir James Martin), the book is atypical of the author not only because of its rather immoral female lead but because of the earlier era in which it takes place – the 1790s. Austen is thought to have penned the book during the same decade, though it wasn't published until 1871, a half century after her death. One hundred and fifty years later, audiences still find the content shocking.

“We had a screening last night, and people were gasping in shock,” Beckinsale said about the opening night screening at the SF International Film Festival on April 21. “We're in 2016, we've got internet porn, and you're gasping at a Jane Austen heroine? It was an amazing thing.”

While Austen wrote several early drafts of her novels in the epistolary format (Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility), Lady Susan never developed beyond the 41 letters that comprise it. To create his screenplay, Stillman conceptualized the correspondence as a deck of cards, shuffling them together into a cinematic narrative. He invented new characters to round out the dialogue and reworked certain events while pulling out and polishing off nuggets of Austen's comedic brilliance.

“The idea was to break it down to a very long script, very respectful of the source material, and then don't look at the source material, just exist in the world of the script and our plan for the film,” explained Stillman, who got the idea for Love & Friendship sometime around 2004, while doing research on another Austen project. He considered it “a whimsical idea,” and took his time writing it.

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Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

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Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

“One of the great things when writing, is having the luxury of time,” he explained. “Rather than agonizing over whether what you've done is good or not you can put it aside, do another project, come back two years later. When you get some distance from the material you immediately know if it's not strong enough.”

While Stillman's screenplay simmered, Beckinsale, who started her career in films like Emma and Much Ado About Nothing got caught up in the action and thriller genres, attracting a cult following with her role as a vampire warrior in the Underworld movies. “I didn't go to drama school and I didn't get the magic secret that everybody must know and I don't know, so my big thing that I wanted to do was to be able to do as many different kinds of roles as possible,” she explained.

But while Beckinsale worked on diversifying her acting portfolio, she found that movies like Underworld had a lot more weight than other projects, tipping the balance on how she was perceived as an actress. “The clue is if you've got an action figure and people dress up like you for Halloween. It freights things a bit, and I didn't see that coming.”

Thrilled to be reunited with Stillman as well as the period drama genre, Beckinsale said she appreciate's the director's “relish for a diabolical female,” adding that “it's a real pleasure to work with somebody who gets such a bang out of that.”

“[Lady Susan] is a hundred percent self serving and self justifying and she's not insecure at all,” she said. “There's something quite nice about playing and seeing a female who isn't plagued by any sort of self doubt whatsoever.”

Love & Friendship is now playing in theaters.