It’s safe to say that filmmaker Whit Stillman knows his wheelhouse.
The director behind such sharp comedies of manners like “Metropolitan” and “Damsels in Distress” has always been compelled by period pieces that shine a light on the often hilarious — and frequently rotten — behavior of his characters, so his decision to adapt Jane Austen’s early novella “Lady Susan” into a very Stillman-esque feature film was a natural enough one.
Yet Stillman, who has only made five films over the course of a quarter-century, struggled to get his take on the material, eventually known as “Love & Friendship,” turned into a film for many years, cycling through financiers and producers until finally landing on an appropriate fit (to wit, a pact with Amazon and Roadside Attractions, who provided the film with a very robust theatrical release, in addition to copious streaming options). But despite some outside push and pull, Stillman was set on his leading lady for close to two decades: Kate Beckinsale, whose turn in the film has been garnering awards buzz since the feature hit Sundance back in January. For Beckinsale, the role was worth the (very long, even in Hollywood years) wait.
In the Regency period-set film, Beckinsale plays Lady Susan Vernon, a cunning widow who is alternately derided as being the biggest flirt in the whole of England and praised for her unique ability to manipulate people (especially men) to do her bidding. She’s funny and smart and witty, but she’s also a very different kind of heroine, one that’s hard to root for as she happily stomps through her social circle with only her best interests at heart. With Beckinsale in the role, however, Lady Susan’s worst traits — all of which are on full display during the course of the film, which she sees her trying to snag a new suitor amongst an alternately aghast and intrigued group of friends and relatives — are rendered amusing and unique.
It’s no wonder Stillman knew he wanted Beckinsale to play the role way back in the early nineties.
On Tuesday evening, Beckinsale and Stillman stopped by a special screening event for the film, held at New York City’s Crosby Street Hotel, to talk about the long road to “Love & Friendship.”
“One of the advantages of not having financing and struggling for financing is that you have a really long casting process,” Stillman told the crowd.
But that process always seemed to revert back to Beckinsale.
“In the case of Kate, there’s a sort of history with Jane Austen and Kate [already],” he continued. “It was off ‘Cold Comfort Farm,’ which is derived from Jane Austen’s ‘Emma,’ but in the latter day time, that I saw her and started thinking, while I was writing ‘Last Days of Disco,’ that [the character of] Charlotte should be Kate Beckinsale. And then, when I found the ‘Lady Susan’ novella, one of the things that made me think this could be a movie is that, ‘Well, Kate could play that part really well.’ Unfortunately, at that point, Kate was still like 26 or 27.”
Thinking that the project would take wing far sooner than it did, Stillman conceded that he had “to have someone else like Kate, but I knew Kate could play that.”
“He was waiting for me to age,” Beckinsale laughed.
The film reunites not only Beckinsale and Stillman, but also fellow actress Chloe Sevigny, who starred alongside Beckinsale in Stillman’s 1998 “The Last Days of Disco” and recently toplined the filmmaker’s episodic outing “The Cosmopolitans.” For the trio, the opportunity to come back together was a well worth the wait — and Beckinsale believes it only made the work all the better.
“A million years later, when everyone’s really old and everything, you get back and it’s now, ‘We’re in Britain, we’re doing Jane Austen,'” she laughed. “I was a literature student at Oxford, so it’s much more my comfort zone. It would have been better if we had done it the other way around! It’s so amazing to get the chance to come back and work with someone when you have all that life in between.”
“Love & Friendship” is currently available on home video and streaming platforms.