First making an impression on international audiences with her role as the sweet, virginal Hero in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing (1993), pale-skinned, fine-boned British actress Kate Beckinsale has since stepped beyond period pieces to prove that she is anything but a fragile English rose.
The daughter of a BBC casting director and famed television actor Richard Beckinsale (known for roles on Porridge and Rising Damp), Beckinsale was born July 26, 1973. After her father’s death from a heart attack in 1979, the actress was raised by her mother. By her own account, Beckinsale’s childhood and adolescence were fairly troubled, marked by struggles with anorexia. She decided to follow in her father’s acting footsteps while still a teenager and in 1991, had her major television debut in Once Against the Wind, a World War II drama in which she played Judy Davis’ daughter. The same year, Beckinsale enrolled at Oxford, to study French and Russian Literature, and pursued her education until committing herself full-time to acting.
In 1993, while still a student at Oxford, Beckinsale was cast in Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing. Her supporting role was a memorable one, winning the actress a limited amount of recognition amongst American audiences, but it was not until 1995, when she starred in John Schlesinger’s adaptation of Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm, that her wattage began to increase, at least in art houses everywhere. The film, which was initially made for BBC television, proved to be a modest hit, bringing in respectable box office and glowing reviews. Beckinsale followed the film’s success with another two years later, starring as an altruistic con artist in the quirky romantic comedy Shooting Fish. The film was an unqualified hit in its native country, becoming the third-highest grossing film in England for 1997. The same year, Beckinsale further increased her visibility with the title role in A&E’s Emma.
She next graced American movie screens in Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco (1998). She received good reviews for her portrayal of a cool and catty WASP college graduate (for which she assumed an American accent), although the movie itself met with a deeply mixed reaction. The following year, Beckinsale, in addition to giving birth to a daughter (fathered by longtime boyfriend Michael Sheen), starred in her first big-budget Hollywood feature. Playing opposite Claire Danes in Brokedown Palace, the actress portrayed an American girl who, while on vacation with best friend Danes in Thailand, gets caught with heroin and is sentenced to 33 years in a Thai prison.
That mid-budgeted film, however, was nothing compared to her next major Hollywood production. After essaying roles in a television production of Alice Through the Looking Glass (1999) and the Merchant/Ivory production of Henry James’ The Golden Bowl (2000), Beckinsale was plucked from relative obscurity by director Michael Bay for his lavish World War II epic, Pearl Harbor (2001). Boasting a record-setting, nine-digit price tag and one of the most aggressive marketing campaigns ever waged on the American public, the film featured the actress as Evelyn, a plucky nurse torn between the affections of two soldiers.
Though a brief foray into Laurel Canyon found Beckinsale essaying the low-key role of a Harvard graduate gone astray after a taste of the wild side of life, she once again shifted into high gear for the big-budget vampire versus werewolf battle royal Underworld in 2003. Sporting the sort of gothic vinyl duds that had fanboys crooning, Beckinsale raised arms against a brutal breed of lycanthropes and few could argue that she didn’t look good doing it. So good, in fact, that not only a sequel but a prequel followed.
That same year, Beckinsale and Underworld director Len Wiseman wedded. Soon thereafter the starlet was once again doing battle with the undead (opposite X-Men’s Hugh Jackman) in the action horror adventure Van Helsing. At the end of 2004, Beckinsale turned in a solid performance as Ava Gardner in Martin Scorsese’s multiple Oscar-winning Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator. While she would be out of theaters in 2005, Beckinsale returned in two very different projects the following year. In addition to starring in another Underworld, Beckinsale portrayed Adam Sandler’s wife in the comedy Click.