The Aviator (2004) – Q&A with Kate Beckinsale

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Kate Beckinsale is Ava Gardner


Was it scary when you realised you were cast as an actress who was called the most beautiful woman in the world?

Yeah, it gives you a bit of a lump in the throat. It was so exciting, my agent called and said Martin Scorsese is in town tomorrow, he’s meeting a few people and he’d like to see you for Ava Gardner. You go…Oh that’s great! Then the panic sets in. It’s not just that she’s described as the most beautiful woman in the world; she is in every page of the script as well. I thought…I hope I’m not having an ugly day tomorrow. Then after a while I just had to let go of worrying about that. I think she was gorgeous but more importantly she had this incredible spirit and I think that made her even more gorgeous; that she was this truck driver in a goddess’s body. I think that was what was so appealing. I tried to concentrate on that and not get too nervous about the beauty thing.

Why did Scorsese think of you as Ava Gardner?

I didn’t ever ask him…Why me? In case he said exactly! He was very much about the spirit and I have a kind of truck driver’s mouth myself. From what I can gather there is probably a combination of feminine and strength that he liked. I just showed up delighted to be there and did the job. We had a great time, it was such a lovely project to be a part of.

What had you known about Ava Gardner?

Initially not that much. I had had my Jeanne Moreau obsession and my Audrey Hepburn obsession, which I think is compulsory for all teenage girls to go through that rite of passage. I also had my little bit of a Bette Davis one. I had seen a couple of Ava Gardner movies but actually not that many. So once when I started researching was when I got into them. She is a bit more enigmatic than say Katharine Hepburn or Bette Davis. But once I started reading about her I felt wow it’s a pity that there isn’t a whole movie about her. I did my little doctorate in Ava Gardner and she is fascinating. From her relationships to her interests…she definitely liked to live in the eye of the storm.

Where did you get the research material?

Marty sent me a lot of books. I loved that because I have this geeky academic background so it was just up my street. It would have been lovely to have met the real person and obviously that was not possible. So I used secondary sources…watching her movies obsessively, there was one in particular I concentrated on for the voice and the accent which was Mogambo. I now know that off by heart. I ended up loving it by a process of attrition because I watched it so many times. It was terrific for studying her…that vulnerable, feisty thing.

What were the physical things about her that you noticed?

The way she carried herself. Obviously she was incredibly voluptuous but she carried it very athletically. The centre of her gravity is very grounded. She was not the Marilyn Monroe, kind of kittenish sexy. The way she carried herself seemed very modern. I think it is interesting how sexuality has changed over the years. She didn’t have to play up anything that was weak. It seems very progressive. There was a wonderful dignity about her. The hard thing is to get an idea of how someone is in life based on their films. I’m sure her facial expressions were much more exaggerated in films. So I didn’t want her to appear to be playing a part. I thought it was important that Ava Gardner was entirely present and earthy; that wonderful female presence that wasn’t couched in anything.

Did you see any news reels or other footage of her?

The vaguest bit but it was mainly her signing autographs, which was still a public appearance. The books were incredibly helpful. She wrote one herself which was the only book that said they didn’t have a sexual relationship. As a show of solidarity I felt I had to go with her story.

What about the costumes?

It is a great silhouette. The hard thing is that these days the people who wear those kind of outfits are grandmothers. So there is that slight somebody’s auntie feeling when you put it on. The fabric is very thick, they were strangers to lyrca which has obviously revolutionized my life! The costumes are beautiful as a piece of art. I was standing six feet tall in the hat and the shoes. And there were these huge shoulders; everything is so padded and tailored. These days it seems that everybody wants to look as thin as possible. It was very much not that then – it was a robust, ship in full sail quality that was actually quite nice to do.

Could you see that fashion returning?

I think a version of it, involving lyrca and more forgiving fabrics. In the costume fittings pretty much everything we tried was an original in black or black taffeta. But Sandy has gone for these amazing tones – all of my costumes were these startling colours so that I definitely felt I had full plumage on.

You mentioned how much everyone had during filming?

It doesn’t feel like work when everyone is passionately involved and excited to be there. And it just feels like you really are having the lucky privilege of creating something that hasn’t happened before. I was exhilarated by the work.

Did you have a look into the life of Howard Hughes as research?

I did a little bit. I knew Leo would do an amazing job. You could tell from the audition- he was so immersed in it. As far as I was concerned Leo was Howard Hughes.

Since making the movie do you know more about Hughes?

Oh definitely. Howard Hughes in a sentence before would have been someone who was totally obsessive about something. That was all I knew really – he went crazy and washed his hands a lot and was independently wealthy. I had no idea how much of an impact he had on the film industry and that the planes we are on now were his idea really. For one man to have had such an influence on so many different areas in such a grand scale – no wonder he washed his hands! I know they are using it as a tag line for the movie, but I do believe that he had this kind of imagination without limits and definitely this breadth of scope for what was possible. That transcended other people’s ideas of what was possible. There is also a downside to that – if someone has no limits in a positive way it is quite likely that there are going to be some demons that are equally without limits. It is rather a poetic journey to watch someone [who] trod that line. That’s why the movie does very well.

Can you understand why someone might develop a compulsive disorder?

Yes particularly if you are directing and producing movies and into flying aeroplanes there is a control issue. I know from my own tiny control issue that I would much prefer to have my pilot’s licence – so that when I get on a plane if anything goes wrong I might be able to try and save it. The things he was interested in were difficult to control but possible so that you could keep chasing the dream.

What do you see in Leo that makes him so special?

I was living in Paris with a boyfriend from university and we were both acting and wanting to be actors when I saw WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE? I came out and said…I really, really hope that was a real boy because if it is an actor then we are all in trouble. He is incredibly intelligent. It’s tempting to think that because he is so young that the talent fairy has dropped some fairy dust on him while he’s on his skateboard and that he’s lucky. It’s nothing like that. He’s the most disciplined, hard working, mature actor. He’s just amazingly responsible and very smart. I think he is attracted to projects in which he can achieve total immersion. It’s stunning to watch somebody get to do that. And he is charming, I really like him as a person.

What about working with pop stars like Gwen Stefani?

I was totally excited to meet Gwen Stefani and so was my daughter. It’s the first time that she has actually been impressed by anybody that I have worked with. Pop stars are actually quite cool. And Gwen was very sweet to Lily, she’s a lovely girl and I think she looks absolutely perfect.

What was it like being directed by Martin Scorsese?

All of those guys who come under the umbrella of being an auteur your expectation is that it’s going to be extremely dogmatic. The person is going to have a definite idea of what they want and you had better do it and they might shout at you. But it has never ever been like that. The best directors make you feel like you thought of everything by yourself. Marty is the most dignified, elegant person with a wonderful sense of humour and incredibly gentle. Once I got over the first day when he looked so like Martin Scorsese that it slightly freaks you out, he is just interested in you. You feel it’s great and I’m sure he gets what he wanted in the first place. We had wonderful ideas. I loved shooting the scene when Leo and I have a big fight. That was a great day. Marty can think on his feet like nobody else – I just loved it.

It was thought of as a golden age of Hollywood, do you agree?

I think so. With the talkies it was new and exciting. There was a pioneering quality. Now we are a little more jaded and our expectations are higher; it’s harder to be groundbreaking. Also there was a hedonism at that time that was very intoxicating. Now everyone is so used to everything being exposed. Back then I don’t think they wanted their stars to be exposed. People had a desire for celestial type of gods and goddesses. They were all on Mount Olympus being really well lit – unless there was a really major scandal – and it was cruise along with the studio system. You could have three divorces and they didn’t make a big deal out of it. Now you come out of McDonalds with a piece of toilet paper stuck to your shoe and it’s world news. So it does lose a bit of the mystique and glamour. Now it’s a different sort of enjoyment – the road accident enjoyment – rather than, Oh! I wish I were that person.

After doing this what would you think of someone playing you in a movie?

I don’t know if I have blazed enough of a trail for that. God what a terrifying thought!

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