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An Epic Turn

British actress Kate Beckinsale ventures into new territory in the U.S. World War II blockbuster 'Pearl Harbor.'

May 06, 2001|ELLEN BASKIN | 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.

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