Kate Beckinsale on "The Aviator" and Playing Ava Gardner

Kate Beckinsale stars in The Aviator as Ava Gardner
Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner in "The Aviator". © Miramax Films
Kate Beckinsale ("Laurel Canyon," "Underworld") portrays legendary actress Ava Gardner in Martin Scorsese's epic film, "The Aviator." Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes and Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, "The Aviator" focuses on a very specific period in Hughes' incredible life and touches briefly on his lasting friendship with Gardner and other screen beauties.

In this interview, Kate Beckinsale discusses her research, playing Ava Gardner in "The Aviator," and working with Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio:


What attracted you to the role?
To Ava Gardner? It was the whole project altogether. I didn’t hear about Ava Gardner without Marty and Leo already being attached to it. But she had a very unique spirit and I really found that appealing. It was a broad quality to her that I think these days we tend to no longer have. She was a very feisty, fiery, warm, deeply feminine, tough person, from what I can gather. I just thought that was a lot of interesting qualities all in one.

What do you think attracted Ava Gardner to Howard Hughes?
I did a lot of research and, in fact, it could become a little confusing because there’s so much material available to read about it, and so many different reports. I mean, everybody seems to say that they were romantically involved, except for her. In her autobiography she categorically denies that, so as a show of actress solidarity, I had to kind of go with her story.

I think, from what I can gather, he was extremely fun. He had a broadness of vision and a scope for business and for life and for despair, but also for things that were fun. I think that she really enjoyed the fact that these grand gestures would happen and it was kind of…it was wild, and she had a wildness.

She was attracted to matadors; she was attracted to bull fighting. She lived very much in the heart of that passionate place, and I think that’s what she responded to.

What are the traps and joys of playing a real person?
It’s always unnerving because I think there will be, inevitably, and there are of course, a certain percentage of people who will be just offended by the fact that you’ve been cast at all, and you don’t evoke her in their heart as maybe somebody else might. I think that would happen with anybody. One of the things about all this Internet battling about what a disaster all of us were cast, is that nobody ever seems to be able to settle on one person who unanimously is the choice.

I think it’s just that thing of if it’s a really person, you do feel there’s a right way to play it. And normally with an artistic endeavor, the way to play a part is a more organic thing that comes out as you’re going along. You’re the authority on the character’s emotional life. When it’s a real person, there is actually a blueprint that you're trying to hit without being able to actually speak to the person if they’ve passed away. So that does make it different. And I think once you’ve done all the research and you immerse yourself in all of that, at some point you do have to actually approach it in the same way as you approach anything else, in a sort of open-hearted creative actress playing a part.

Did you watch a lot of Ava Gardner movies? What was the hook to finding her?
Kind of everything. I’m always very attracted to people’s vocal patterns and she had a deeper voice than I had . That was a challenge to pull that off without sounding like you’re doing a funny voice, particularly [because] she has an American accent but it was an American accent that began South and then was put through various types of voice coaching to end up with a rather unique movie star accent that doesn’t really come from anywhere. So, obviously, there was stuff like that. And Marty was very categorical about the fact that he didn’t want us in prosthetic chins and fake eyeballs and God knows what. He didn’t want a “Saturday Night Live” skit of Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner. The most important thing really to capture was the spirit, and that’s what we were all aiming to do.

Is research a perk of your job and can you do too much research?
I think you can, definitely. I think it’s something that what was quite nice about this was that I didn’t have all that much notice, so there was really no danger of working on it for a year and getting to the point where I was completely constipated to be able to do anything. So it was actually a really good experience on this, but I do enjoy it. I’ve got kind of an academic-y literary background, so when I can go and buy new pens and lots of notebooks and sit in a library for a while, I’m usually quite happy.


What did you learn about celebrity digging into this?
I’ve learned a bit about celebrity myself, which, I think what was interesting about going back into those times is that I think the nature of celebrity has changed a lot over the years, and there are certain elements that are the same. I think we’re less oppressed by the studio system and stuff than they were, but I think we’re in a much more confessional era. We’re in the era of Jerry Springer and Oprah Winfrey and psychoanalysis and taking photographs of stars' underwear hanging out of the back of their pants. It’s a very different kind of interest, I think, now. I think there was a mystique to a movie star in the ‘40s and ‘30s and ‘50s that nowadays it’s more of a culture of exposure. And that can’t help but make you, as a celebrity figure, much more earthbound than they seemed.

What was Martin Scorsese’s specific direction for playing this part?
It wasn’t really so much… I thought with this sort of legendary director like Marty, you sort of imagine a megaphone and a lot of shouting about definite stuff. What was so amazing to work with him was that he creates this collaborative environment where you definitely feel that you, him and Marty and Leo, you’re all making a very organic creative moment in that exact moment and everyone’s opinion is stirred into the pot at the same time.

And what he does that’s so clever is he creates those conditions where everybody really can kind of bring out the best part of what they’re good at. I don’t remember really anything specific. I don’t remember one kind of major pearl of wisdom, but I do remember this incredible environment he creates that is unique.

What was your audition like?
Well, I’d been asked to not show up in UGG boots and a denim miniskirt and pony tail. They definitely wanted me to come with a slightly period vibe. I mean, I had really a day or so’s notice, so it wasn’t like I had to get my prosthetic chin fitted and turn up. I think I just wore a pair of pants and a jacket, but I had wavier hair and red lipstick and the whole thing.

Do you have an affinity for that era?
I think the thing is most British actresses, certainly when I started out, really mainly the films that we made in Britain were period pieces of some sort. So whether you were in a Jane Austen or a Shakespearean movie or ‘40s or whatever, you’re very used to having to adapt to that kind of thing. So I never see it as necessarily a big jump. I know I guess I’ve been known for doing that in “Pearl Harbor,” but no, I don’t have a secret ‘40s swinging obsession.

What do you think about the wardrobe and the Hollywood glamour of that era compared to now?
It’s very different. One of the things that was so great was that Sandy [Powell], the costume designer, was so attentive to detail and really just down to the panty hose and the underwear and the girdle and the pointy bra and every single thing that could possibly be authentic.

And I do find that it makes you stand differently. I think the female body is definitely served up in a different way in the 1940s, which definitely helps. It may be a different kind of sexuality. There’s much less skin on show, that’s for sure. It was weird for me because it does make you - it gives you a kind of powerful, strong, sexy feeling, and yet also our blueprint for women who wear those kind of clothes is women in their ‘70s and ‘80s now. So there was a funny mixture between feelings of rather exhausting glamour and sort of fat, older women. I had to gain some weight for it as well. In the costumes, I felt great.


Is there any ego attached to doing a small role in a big movie?
Ego, in terms of does it make you feel bad that you're doing a small role? I don't think that really translates in terms of… I’ve been very lucky with the American actors I’ve worked with. I haven’t really come across that kind of ego thing too badly. But I think in England, we have such a culture of theater and you are part of a company of actors.

Truly, I haven’t played such a supporting role for a long time. It was quite an odd sensation to come in two months in where all the dramas have already happened and the affairs have been had and something’s gone wrong. You don’t know anything about it, and you’re turning up kind of as the new girl. It doesn’t get me more nervous. It certainly gave me a lot more respect for people who do that on every single movie because it’s like the famous thing of somebody’s got one line saying, “Hello” [and] they’re at home going, “Hello, hello, hello.” I think supporting cast members have an incredibly important part to play. Your work is very much to support what the story is and what the lead character is doing. I had a great time doing it. I wouldn’t have minded being there a few extra weeks because I love Martin and Leo so much, but I’d be fine being a PA. They were all set up.

How was working with Leonardo DiCaprio?
I’ve always been a huge fan of his.

I remember when I was living in Paris and seeing “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and coming out with my boyfriend at the time, I was about 18 myself, and going, “Oh my God, I hope that that’s a real boy and not an actor because if that’s an actor, we’re all screwed.” That really raised the bar for everybody in a terrifying way.

I was already a big fan of his but he is not just some kid on a skateboard that the talent fairy dropped fairy dust on. This is somebody who is more in control of his talent, and more responsible with his talent, and just a master of his craft than almost everyone I’ve ever worked with. He’s absolutely blossoming with every moment and just being around him is a real treat as another actor to kind of go through that. On top of which, he’s a terrific, nice man and we had a lot of fun.

…It was a slow start because we started with the mad scenes first and obviously he was very contained and I was in a whole different place. But once we started hurling ash trays at each other and stuff, we really had a really nice time. He’s got a great sense of humor as well.

Have you come to terms with the last few years of fame and personal changes?
I think it’s an odd sensation, becoming suddenly more well known, and I’d never done films in the past like “Underworld” and “Van Helsing.” I’ve always been notoriously un-athletic. That was really a departure from the usual kind of thing that I’d done to see if I liked it, and to see if I could do it, because I like to keep myself tested. It’s a slightly odd sensation to become suddenly famous for that departure because it’s weird to feel that the image that’s out there of you is not quite your taste.

So that’s why it was very nice to do this movie which felt kind of like a return to the sort of thing that I grew up to be. But yeah, it’s been a big year. I mean, getting married, I suddenly moved to the other side of the world and all sorts of stuff. I’m actually the age my father was when he died so I think there’s an element of re-evaluation of everything for me at the moment. I’m kind of keeping my mind open to all possibilities.

Is there any truth to the statements you want to go back to school to be a doctor?
I don't know if I’ll become a doctor. I think in the spirit of that re-evaluation of everything, I definitely have been thinking about possibly exploring other things. In terms of my acting career, I’ve always wanted to change it up as much as possible and go from different genre to different genre.

I think that there’s, sometimes if you’re not absolutely lucky enough to work with the Scorseses of this world constantly over and over again, I think if you’re halfway intelligent, it can be a little bit frustrating that there’s whole pockets of your year where your brain isn’t really activated as much as you might like it to be. I’m very much like my six-year-old in that respect that I’ll start behaving badly in my house, and having to eat more candy and stuff if I don’t keep my brain ticking.


Do you want to quit acting?
I think it’s something about what I just recently said is that I think I’m having a moment of evaluation at the moment. I’ve suddenly become incredibly happy in my personal life and I do struggle a little bit with the scrutiny side of being famous. And if I’m not able to do the kind of projects that are really super close to my heart, then it’s quite a tough trade. I think you can handle some of that, “Oh dear, here’s another photograph of me with my knickers hanging out,” if what you’re actually working on is really feeding you in a creative way.

And if it isn’t quite and you're not getting that opportunity as much, then I think 31 is a good age to kind of go, “Hmm, what are my options?” And it may well be that I end up continuing to act. I may go do theater, I may write, I may go back to school. I’m not entirely sure what it is. I’m not doing any medical training right at the second. That possibly is jumping the gun a little bit, but I’m definitely keeping my mind open.

How is “Underworld 2” going?
Good. I’ve done one day on it. My husband’s [working with the] stuntmen at the moment up in Vancouver. I think it’s going very well.

Will the costumes chain in the sequel?
Well, it’s [direct] continuity so I’m afraid I’m back in the rubber suit. There’s some chainmail armor and all sorts of stuff, but I’m not going to wear that.

Does your husband [“Underworld” director Len Wiseman] get jealous when other men direct you?
He’s only had to deal with, since he’s been my fiancé, really deal with Marty so I guess he’s lucky.

Not really. He’s very supportive actually, very good. I tend to not go home with the other ones and marry them, so I think that helps.