Kate Beckinsale can barely remember the last time she appeared on television.
“The last time I did a TV series I was getting my A-level results,” she says, racking her brain to recall the few TV roles she’s done. “And I remember I did Emma on ITV a long time ago [it was in 1996 when Beckinsale – now 45 – was 23 years old]. But no, nothing like this. I mean look at me.”
She’s referring to her costume for new drama The Widow, written by Harry and Jack Williams, the sibling duo behind The Missing, Liar and Baptiste. It consists of jeans and a dirty singlet. Her hair is pulled back in a ponytail and her face is smeared with sweat and dust. “Not exactly high glamour,” says the woman who usually appears in the press as the acme of Hollywood style.
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In The Widow, Beckinsale plays Georgia Wells, a woman who believes her aid-worker husband died in a plane crash in the Congo three years previously. Living as a virtual recluse in northern Wales, one day she gashes her leg on a rock and goes to the doctor in town. In the surgery waiting room, the TV is showing a news bulletin with footage of riots in Kinshasa. And there Georgia sees – or thinks she sees – a glimpse of her supposedly dead husband.
That leads her on a journey to Africa and takes her into the shady world of coltan mining (coltan being a highly lucrative component in mobile phones and electric car batteries) and child exploitation. As ever with the Williams brothers, no one is quite who they seem to be, and stories set in seemingly disparate worlds – a blind man in Rotterdam, a Congolese child soldier – are slowly pulled together. It’s a thriller laden with hooks, but sustained with the promise that, come the ending, all will become clear.
When Beckinsale was initially asked to play the lead, there was no ending. “I was sent three scripts but I didn’t know how the story ended, so it was a little bit of a gamble,” she says, sitting in a bungalow that’s being used for filming just outside Cape Town. “I was a little bit nervous of that. I thought, ‘Hang on… what if I end up not liking it?’ In fact, it was terrifying.
“But I am a big fan of the boys, as I call them,” she continues, referring to the Williams brothers. “When I met them, I could tell that it was bad form to say, ‘Please tell me what happens in the end.’ In a way it makes sense not to know: Georgia starts out not really knowing what she’s doing or where she’s going, and I was in the same position.”
Why would movie star Kate Beckinsale want to put herself in that position? “The industry has changed a lot recently in that you can explore a character in a much more complete way over eight hours than one and a half. That’s why a lot of actors are getting really seduced by television.”
Beckinsale isn’t the first actress to have twigged that television, as opposed to feature films, is the growth area right now. She also says that the Williams brothers involved her in the creative process. “Harry and Jack are very collaborative, and so from early on they wanted to hear my thoughts and my notes. I think they also wanted to hear a woman’s perspective because they’re voicing this woman who’s got an incredibly complicated emotional journey.”
But there was also her own life to consider – she was adamant that she wouldn’t take a long, exacting job several thousand miles from home in LA until her daughter Lily had flown the nest.
“When I was younger I got a bit blindsided by suddenly finding myself pregnant [in 1999, aged 26] and having to be a mum. I’ve been saying for years, ‘When my daughter goes to college, then I’m going to be able to go off and do jobs that are far away.’ ”
It was lucky that, just as her daughter left home for college last year, the call came. “They said, ‘Do you want to go to South Africa for six months and do The Widow?’ It felt like, ‘OK, it came around a little bit sooner than I was anticipating… it’s a bit of a leap of faith and I’m a bit scared and I don’t really want to but… OK.”
And while she is the first to recognise that acting is never as tough a job as manual labour, it has been a demanding shoot. In one of her Instagram posts she’s lowering herself down a snowy mountain in Wales , with the caption: “Setting off for a bathroom break shooting #thewidow in Wales…”
This post, and the accompanying video clip of Beckinsale in a beanie reversing awkwardly down a rock face, captures her rather well: she combines old-school Hollywood glamour with moments of endearingly self-effacing loopiness. In The Widow, her character often finds herself surrounded by French people. Georgia is supposed to look confused – she doesn’t speak French. Whereas Beckinsale does speak French, very well in fact; she read Russian and French at Oxford.
“There hasn’t been a huge call for the Russian on this one…” she says with a heavy dose of irony. “I’ve been in a lot of scenes with two or three people who are French. I’m not supposed to speak French in the scene, which is tricky, because I do. We’re sitting here gassing away in French, and then we go into a scene and I have to go, ‘Duh?’ It’s annoying because I’m ignorant about so many things, but not that.”
She mentions that one of the main reasons she was drawn to The Widow was the central plot device – the idea that Georgia thinks she sees her husband on the news. “I like that – everyone who’s lost someone does have that moment of going, ‘Hang on, I think I saw them on the Tube.’ It’s a very common part of grieving. I think that’s what everyone around her thinks is happening at first.”
Beckinsale knows all about families and grief. Her father, Richard Beckinsale, most famous for his role in Porridge, died of a heart attack in 1979 aged 31. Kate was five at the time. She followed in his footsteps, and her career blossomed with appearances in movies like Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado about Nothing and Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco but, after a stint as an action hero in the Underworld series, she has reverted to independent films, and now back to TV.
Her love life has been similarly unpredictable – she dated and had daughter Lily with actor Michael Sheen but they never married. She did marry Len Wiseman, her director on Underworld, and they were together for 12 years before divorcing in 2016. Since then Beckinsale has been linked with comedians Jack Whitehall and Pete Davidson.
“I’ve never had a plan, but not having a plan has meant that I’ve had this quite schizophrenic career where I could do various low-budget things and then I’ll suddenly do an action thing, and then I’ll do something like The Widow. So, it’s interesting: now that my daughter is a bit older, I want to find out what my sensibility is.”
The Widow was released on Amazon Prime in the US on Friday 1st March. It will begin in the UK at 9pm on Monday 8th April on ITV, and will air two episodes weekly on Monday and Tuesday nights