role call

Kate Beckinsale Answers Every Question We Have About Serendipity

And Instagram humor, John Cusack’s lack of skating skills, and the unlikely male Serendipity fans who still approach her today. Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Miramax

There’s a version of New York City that exists only in the film Serendipity: inherently and inescapably romantic, oddly spacious, plagued by near-constant divine intervention, embarrassingly white. It’s a New York City where two adult strangers can fight good-naturedly over a pair of cashmere gloves at Bloomingdale’s, then end up ice-skating around the park, sharing massive desserts, and playing with the elevators at the Waldorf-Astoria — sexless activities imbued here with an erotic tension. This lightly insane version of New York City was never going to win over critics, but it became an even harder pill to swallow when, a month after 9/11, Serendipity hit theaters. (Editors had to hastily remove shots of the World Trade Center first.) The Guardian called the result a “custom-built, machine-tooled chick flick.” Variety excoriated its “schmaltz contrivance and manipulation.”

Years later, though, as the memories of Real New York Pre-9/11 have blurred and most intelligent people have stopped using the phrase “chick flick,” Serendipity has developed a new life as a sweet little Christmas rom-com, a harmless bit of nostalgia for a city that never really was. I’ve been known to slot it into my holiday viewing, and will certainly be placing it on my “comfort food” quarantine film schedule, almost entirely because of Kate Beckinsale’s guileless, gentle performance as Sara, a young British woman who is both a clinical psychologist and obsessed with the concept of fate.

Sara is an improbable character, but Beckinsale is effervescent and charming enough to make her believable (character traits she tells me she fought for explicitly after reading the script). Beckinsale effortlessly sells you on the notion that an educated young woman would place her hands in the fate of a series of hotel elevators, and that John Cusack is preferable as a romantic interest to John Corbett’s aggressively sensual, world-famous lute player. Bolstered by what is likely the most late-’90s soundtrack of all time and a sense of subtle comic timing, Beckinsale also mounts a convincing argument that she should have been cast in more comedies — romantic or otherwise — instead of being typecast in a series of what she calls “boy movies.” On her Instagram these days, Beckinsale makes a similar case for herself as something of a bawdy wit, posting dry text exchanges about poor photoshopping with her mother and videos of an extended standoff with her cat. I reached out to her to talk about her penchant for comedy, John Cusack’s lack of skating skills, and the unlikely male Serendipity fans who still approach her today.

How are you holding up?
It’s a bit of a weird time, no? I’m in L.A. at the moment. Hiding a bit.

I do love what’s happening on your Instagram in quarantine. Your feed in general is really funny. Which I didn’t realize before following you recently! Do you get that a lot?
[Laughs.] That was one of the reasons I did it. I found, to my surprise, that doing a couple of movies in which I’m holding a machine gun definitely affected people’s perception of me. A lot of people craft a persona, and I didn’t. It sort of crafted itself, and it was completely inaccurate. It’s lovely to talk to you and everything, but my only experience in putting my personality into the world was via somebody like you. But I had a complete fear of social media, until embarrassingly recently, and didn’t go anywhere near it. And then I had a movie coming out, Love and Friendship, which I really liked, and they wanted me to start having Instagram. I was afraid [social media] would be a horribly oppressive sea of bullying. But that hasn’t been the case.

It’s sort of the only area in which there’s a lens through which my slightly weird personality comes through. If people are going to loathe me for something that’s not accurate and isn’t true, that’s infuriating. But I’m perfectly cool with people not liking seeing my mother waving a dildo. Being a sort of snotty English person who doesn’t smile is not who I am.

Is that what you think people believed about you?
I think that there was a period of that. Not with Serendipity. But there was a time where I did four or five films, with a wider audience, with characters that were sort of emotionless and humorless. I think people are quite ready to believe a posh English girl might be like that in real life. I forgive them for that; it’s a trope for a reason. It just happens to not be the case in my situation. It was an odd period of time. The whole reason I did the Underworld movies was because people were like, “Oh, she’s so soft and English and fragile,” and I thought, “Oh, I’m going to have to widen my range a bit.” And then it pigeon-holed me into this murdering, leaping-off-building types. Which is also a stretch. I did have quite a long period where I was like, “This is mad!” I anticipated being fired every day on Underworld, because it was such a reach for me. So to become defined by it was weird.

Do you want to do more comedies?
Yes, I’ve always wanted to. I think being an incredibly unattractive child for a key period of time and having four brothers means you have to have a sense of humor, or nobody’s going to give you any dinner. I’ve done more comedies in the last few years and I’d like to do more. It’s my favorite thing. My dad was a very well-respected comic actor in England. I think initially I didn’t want to be on his territory. But in America, he’s not known at all. I’ve been a late bloomer in a lot of things. So I guess we’ll see what happens.

Let’s talk about Serendipity, which has always been a comfort-food movie of mine. It’s so of its time: the soundtrack, the clothes, the hair. When was the last time you saw it?
Gosh, I haven’t seen it in a long time. I don’t like watching my own movies. It makes me cringe. Not because I don’t like the movie — it’s like hearing your voice on a voice message. You just kind of go, “Oh, no, is that really what I sound like?” I remember there was a brief moment when I tried to make Lily watch my slightly more palatable movies, and she wasn’t at all interested. I think it was about 15 minutes in when she said, “Alright, I’m off, bye.”

How’d you get cast?
I was doing Pearl Harbor, and that was a gigantic shock to the system, because I’d just had a baby. I was living in New York at the time and I had to put myself on tape for this movie. I’m very, very parochially English — I had not heard of Michael Bay, I had no idea what I was getting into. I thought I was making a period piece about Pearl Harbor. [Laughs.] It was a massive shock, because it was very much not that. And then the two movies overlapped. And I still to this day don’t know how I functioned, because I had a 1-year-old who still hadn’t slept through the night once, Pearl Harbor was a six-month intense sort of boot-camp situation, and the last month I was flying back and forth between New York and L.A. doing both at the same time with this baby, as a single mom. I hadn’t seen her dad in about eight months. He was off doing other things.

I didn’t know I needed a nanny. This is how insane I was. And then suddenly I called my friend Kate, who was actually a hostess in an Italian restaurant in New York and a dancer, and I said, “Can you come and help me?” She was like, “I’ve never taken care of a child in my life,” and I was like, “Nor have I! Can you help me?” So we just did that, and it was extraordinary.

What made you want to do Serendipity?
As is often the case, there was a sort of central problem with the female character not necessarily being totally believable. So we had a lot of meetings about it. I didn’t want this character to be this kind of wispy fool, even though she was so interested in fate. You can be like that without being this sort of ghastly supernatural person. And then suddenly there we were in August in New York, in scarves and overcoats, sweating to death and pretending to be ice-skating on what was actually linoleum, because it was too hot for ice. I remember being incredibly hot all of the time. A classic Christmas movie, and we’re all pouring sweat.

Wow, you really can’t tell that you’re sweating!
I think that might be the most impressive thing. It was one of those Augusts in New York where you break down and go, “This was hell.” I felt sorry for the guy dressed as Santa.

You seem like a very graceful skater even on linoleum, while John, I’m sorry to say, seems quite bad.
I skated actually, as a kid. And I’ve got a puerile sense of humor, so one of my favorite thing is going ice skating with boys who can’t skate. It’s always funny. And he had a bit more trouble, yeah. It wasn’t ice, so it was hard. He has to be forgiven for that. My daughter is a proper ice skater who can do spins and jumps; I was never that good, but I do like to go back and show off a bit.

Did anything change about your character, specifically, after those initial meetings?
My main thing was you had a bit of an issue: She’s a therapist. You don’t want her to be a bad, embarrassing therapist, but she’s also obsessed with the notion of serendipity and fate. So trying to marry those two things without making her a character who seems completely implausible. You can be a kind of whimsical, positive, open person who’s also intelligent. There was a possibility of her being really irritating and kind of going on about fate. There was a fine line for me.

Was there anything where you were like, “Absolutely not”?
No, I don’t think so. But there were some lines that were very wafty. And I thought, “You can’t ask people to believe this is a functioning therapist in San Francisco saying any of this.” And those things were cut. And the director [Peter Chelsom] and everyone was pretty deferential about being like, “We are men. So do guide us on this. If you’re going to say it’s not feasible for an intelligent woman to say something like this, we’ll defer to you.”

Do you personally believe in fate and destiny?
I go in and out of it. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. There have been periods of my life where there have been so many interesting coincidences about a particular person, where it feels like they were meant to be in my life in some way. Paying attention to some of those coincidences is kind of fun, and feels like magic. But at the same time I do think people make their decisions. I don’t think it’s all predestined. We get in there and we can fuck things up.

What’s an examples of a coincidence like that?
For me, lots of it has revolved around my dad, who died when I was 5. He was extremely beloved in England, and every kind of major historical moment in my life, his show would be on the television. The morning I gave birth to my daughter, I turned on the TV and just happened to see my dad’s show. There have been so many of those coincidence that it has felt like a special thing, like a wave from wherever he is.

Wow. Do you believe in the idea of a soulmate or soulmates?
I’m not sure. I like the idea of it. I wouldn’t say it’s happened to me. But I think there are, yeah. And I don’t even just mean romantically. I think you can find those in friendships and all sorts of different ways. I don’t think there’s just one. I think it would be a terrible set of odds if it were just one, given how many people there are in the world. We’d all be really lost.

What do you remember about meeting John?
I actually met John [in a meeting for] High Fidelity. I was enormously pregnant. And more enormously pregnant than most. I got a call and they said, “John really wants you to be in this movie,” and I said, “There is a problem. I am the size of a fucking beluga whale.” And they were like, “It’s fine! Lots of people work when they’re pregnant.” And I was like, “I guarantee you, you’re not going to want me in the movie. I can barely fit through a door or sit in a normal seat.” So I went, and of course, that was the case. I think they thought I’d be sort of neatly pregnant, where I could stand behind a lamp, but I was Jabba the Hutt. They were kind about it, but I think he was keen to work together, and that was nice, and this was the next film that came out as soon as the baby was out of me.

Did he say why he wanted to work with you?
I don’t know! I think at that point, I’d not done Underworld. And both [High Fidelity and Serendipity] were the kind of movies that were sort of funny and offbeat and romantic. I don’t know what he’d seen of mine to make him think I’d be a good fit, but he did. And we got on really well.

Have you kept in touch at all?
I haven’t. It’s been about a thousand years since we did that movie, but I haven’t run into him because I think he sort of hides in Malibu. He’s a bit mysterious. But I have run into Molly [Shannon] a lot. She’s one of my favorite people to ever exist.

You’re still friends?
Oh, yeah. She came to my birthday, we had a big birthday dinner the year before. I love her. We went out and did karaoke recently and did quite a lot of songs from Annie. Which really closed the circle in terms of everything I hoped for in our relationship. When I first met Molly, we both had babies and we were both shooting two movies at the same time. She was doing The Grinch. Whenever I complained about being tired, she’d show me a photo of the head she had on.

On your Instagram last year, you posted a video about trying to reenact the elevator scene from Serendipity. When and why and how?
I was in Toronto, where some of the film was shot, and it was a really in-and-out trip. I’m very often a bit behind in terms of airports and things, so we were bustling out of there. And I got to the lift and I said, “I’ve got a funny feeling. Did I shoot an interior here?” And I looked it up and it was. So we grabbed a porter, who was such a sport, and we said, “Do you mind saying these lines that John Cusack is saying?” And he was like, “Sure.” We were really rushing. It was horrid lighting. We did one take. But it was really fun.

Back to the idea of plausibility — as actors, how did you balance the sort of insane whimsy of the film and actual reality?
If you’re making a movie dependent on chance and whimsy, it does have to feel grounded, or you’re just making something silly. There is a slight silliness in it, because there’s a silliness to falling in love, which is really important. But it has to feel real, even the broader character’s like Molly, or John Corbett, who is one of my favorite people ever. I literally couldn’t look at him without laughing, ever. I just worshiped him. Even though his character was quite extreme, it was specific — he played this insane instrument and had a full character who was very weird.

I did notice in the scene where he’s on stage performing, you’re clapping with such a straight face — I was truly impressed you could keep it together.
[Laughs.] It was very difficult with him.

He proposes to you in this absurd way that has you opening like, 500 boxes to get to a tiny box. How many times did you have to open all of those boxes?
A lot of times. I remember thinking I’d never be proposed to ever in my life, so I may as well make the best of this. But I have been, actually several times.

Your character is often called “insane” for the way she follows her heart. What’s the craziest or most whimsical thing you’ve done in the name of love?
I mean, I moved to L.A. without even knowing anyone. I don’t know if that’s whimsical or stupid. That was a long time ago. I’ve done the sort of, flying to very far-flung places to see someone for a day. Things like that. Which, in the current climate, seems extraordinary that anyone ever did that.

There’s a line in Serendipity where Jeremy Piven says, “British women don’t age well.” As a British woman, how did you feel about that line?
I wasn’t happy about that! My mother is 1,000 years old but looks about 40, with no interventions whatsoever. She doesn’t even get facials. As the raw face of British aging, I think my mother’s doing all too well. I’m partly Asian, so I think I’ve got a bit of a leg up there. But my mom is entirely British!

You appear to be aging backward.
I think it’s because I’m happier. I honestly think that being happier in your life and relationships, it does show up on your face and in your spirit. If your spirit is beautiful and wagging its tail, I think it tends to distract people from how many crow’s feet you have. Which I’ve always had, since I was in high school, so I’m not even bothered.

What do you attribute the happiness to, now versus then?
I don’t think I was very happy in my relationship. I was deeply in love with my daughter, and it was wonderful having a little baby, but it was quite hard. I found being a single parent running around the world, encountering quite intense personalities, and navigating the business as a young woman, quite a lot. And I wasn’t really prepared. One of the things I found most striking about the industry is that I’d come from a very academic high school and went on to Oxford, where all you were encouraged to do is to argue and defend your opinions. And then I got to this business, and it took me awhile to realize that being a young woman, having an opinion and defending it was an extremely contentious thing to do. Because I’d been raised the opposite way, it hadn’t occurred to me that your agenda had any bearing on what you could or couldn’t say. Not even shooting, but just in terms of saying, “This isn’t really working.” That was really stressful to me. I had to learn a really different language about having an opinion palatably. I found that really shocking, and I still do; it’s not completely gone away.

You posted about an experience like that with Harvey Weinstein, at the premiere of Serendipity. Was that one of your first run-ins like that?
I was never sexually attacked by Harvey. There was never a sexual component. But there was really extreme bullying. And that’s not just Harvey. I have eight or nine anecdotes I could have said about Harvey, and countless I could have said about other people. I did find the reaction to [that post] shocking, because I thought, Okay, great, Harvey has been [called out] for the terrible things he’d done, but there was a pervasive comfort level with the degree of bullying that is still very alive and well. And isn’t prosecutable, or a crime. And there isn’t really any recourse. What do you do, call your agent and say, “This person shouted at me”? It wouldn’t go then or now. And I do think it’s incredibly oppressive and worth addressing. It wasn’t like I was like, Oh, he’s in jail, now I’ll say my thing. It was very much another conversation I wanted to have, that hasn’t been touched at this point. I do think it’s much more likely to happen to females, still, and that’s why I did that.

But no, it wasn’t the first and it was part of [many] I had to navigate. Somebody hauling out their penis — you have a bit more of a plan of what to do. But somebody sort of psychologically torturing you or bullying you, there’s still no real plan there. You’re still expected to suck it up. And I don’t think anyone should — men, women, anyone. I think because of having been exposed to it so much, I was genuinely very shocked at the enormous reaction there was, which I think speaks to a sad situation.

I was really sad to read the post, but especially when you said you were “punished” for pushing back on him. In what way do you think you were punished?
I think there are a lot of women in this industry who said no to all sorts of things — and I don’t just mean sexually — and suddenly found that the cover of the magazine they were going to do fell apart, or the movie that they were going to do fell away. There was backlash. Just like with any bully. It only takes one phone call to go, “Don’t hire her.”

Do you think your career would have gone differently if you hadn’t stood up to him?
Yeah, I do. If somebody has a vindictive agenda or feels you’ve overstepped by saying no, it’s just one or two phone calls to cause you real trouble. It’s not a huge effort. I haven’t worked with a lot of women — it’s so often just me — but when I have worked with a woman, very often beforehand, I’ve been told she’s “very difficult.” And I’ve literally never worked with any woman ever I’ve considered to be difficult. You hear that about people and you go work with them, and you don’t have that experience. It’s a very damaging word.

I’ve worked with many men who literally refuse to come out of trailers because they’re watching a sports game, but I’ve never, ever, worked with a woman who’s done that. And I’ve never heard a man described as difficult.

In the post you mention how the film came out right after 9/11 and how odd that was, to do the premiere then —
9/11 was unbelievably horrible. And it was a really weird time to release a film. Everyone was terrified to go to the movie theater. It didn’t do great business when it came out; I don’t think any movie did at the time. In a way I wish they did wait on releasing it, because over the decades, it’s become a very beloved film that people do really like. It was a bad time.
We shot the movie and they had to scramble to remove the Twin Towers. It was very odd.

Did you pay attention to the reviews? Did they matter to you?
I generally wasn’t a big review reader. But I don’t think people were as in love with the movie at the time as they are now. I think it was a real slow burn. It was a bit sad. It’s a really sweet movie. But the context of when it came out — I don’t think people were really ready for that sort of escapism. We were possibly at our most cynical when it came out, and it’s a very uncynical movie. I think that’s why it’s crept up on people as a funny little favorite that they’ve discovered for themselves.

What do people say to you now when they approach you about Serendipity?
I’ve done so many of what I’d broadly and badly call “boys’ movies,” action movies and such — but if a man comes up to me and says I love a movie, it’s always Serendipity. Every single time. I find that really cool. When you’re making something that’s a whimsical rom-com, you think it’ll skew more toward female audiences. And it absolutely doesn’t. And I think that’s partly because John is such a great romantic lead — he’s not cheesy, he’s a real dude, he’s interesting and cool. But I know when a man comes up to me they’re going to talk about Serendipity. They always do.

From a very young age, I was really obsessed with Grease, like everybody was. I learned all the dances, and I can still do them. And one night, I was at a hotel, washing my hands in the bathroom, and this very nice woman came out of the stalls and said, “Oh, are you Kate?” And she said, “I’m Jeff Conaway’s girlfriend.” He’d passed away. And she said, “I want to let you know Serendipity is his absolute favorite movie. We watch it on Christmas every year.” My 7-year-old self fell apart. I think it’s the best thing anyone has ever said to me. And again — very serendipitous. Very on-brand.

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Beckinsale holds machine guns in, among other films, the Underworld series. Before Serendipity and Underworld, Beckinsale appeared in several adaptations, including Much Ado About Nothing, The Flanders Panel, Cold Comfort Farm, Haunted, and Emma, before starring in Whit Stillman’s Last Days of Disco, Jonathan Kaplan’s Brokedown Palace, and Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor. Along with the many Underworld sequels, Beckinsale also appeared in Van Helsing and 2012’s Total Recall. Beckinsale appeared in Absolutely Anything alongside Simon Pegg and will appear in the upcoming El Tonto with Charlie Day. She also received acclaim for her “howlingly funny” role in Stillman’s Love & Friendship, for which she was nominated for several critics’ awards. Beckinsale’s dad, Richard, was a British comic actor who died at age 31. Beckinsale’s daughter with ex Michael Sheen is 21 years old. Shannon plays Beckinsale’s best friend in Serendipity; she is tricked into accompanying Beckinsale’s character to New York to chase Cusack. In an early scene, Beckinsale’s character tells Cusack’s character that if they enter opposite elevators but pick the same floor, they’re meant to be together. The film opened at No. 2 at the U.S. box office, earning $13.3 million in its opening weekend, behind Training Day. Roger Ebert gave Beckinsale a backhanded compliment at the time: “Sara is played by Kate Beckinsale, who is a good actress, but not good enough to play this dumb.” Kenickie!
Kate Beckinsale Answers All Our Questions About Serendipity