June 04, 2001 12:00 PM

Never mind the Yank accent, the bombs bursting in air or the sight of gore-soaked extras limping through the smoke. For Kate Beckinsale, one of the biggest acting challenges in the making of Pearl Harbor came when she returned to her trailer—and her 2-year-old daughter Lily. “When we had bloody days,” she says, “we just pretended that Mommy had been painting with her hands.”

There’s nothing make-believe about Beckinsale’s potential for Hollywood stardom. After eight years of small-budget, critically acclaimed films—including the 1995 BBC production Cold Comfort Farm and this year’s Merchant-Ivory offering The Golden Bowl—the 27-year-old Brit has hit the big time with a bang in the $140 million epic Harbor. “Kate would get up in the morning and look outside her trailer and couldn’t believe what was going on,” says producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who cast her as a nurse who captures the hearts of two Army pilots (Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett). “She was running from real explosions. I’m sure she’s never done that before.”

Not that Beckinsale is any fragile English rose. She has admitted she once urinated into the thermos of a director who browbeat her into doing a nude scene in one of her early films. While starring in a BBC adaptation of Emma in 1997, she caused a flap by publicly declaring Gwyneth Paltrow‘s take on the role in the 1996 Hollywood version “cowardly” for being too likable. Then there’s her penchant for language that is, shall we say, not exactly the Queen’s English. “Her sense of humor is quite crude,” says Glynis Murray, producer of 1997’s Shooting Fish, “more so than you’d imagine from someone so sweet and pretty.”

She has also coped with more heartache than many. Kate was 5 when her father, Richard Beckinsale, a star of the popular English sitcoms Rising Damp and Porridge, died of a heart attack in his sleep at 31. “It stayed with me, the incredible shock and huge loss,” she says. “I started expecting bad things to happen, that friends will leave, that loved ones will die. It kept building until I had a nervous breakdown when I was a teenager.”

That breakdown took the form of anorexia. Around age 15, Beckinsale withered to only about 70 pounds. “You don’t believe your eyes for an amazingly long time,” says her stepfather, Roy Battersby, 65, a TV director who moved in with Kate’s mother, actress-turned-casting director Judy Loe, now 54, a few years after Richard Beckinsale’s death. When he and Loe realized Kate had become “concentration-camp thin,” he says, they agreed to Kate’s unconventional idea for treatment—Freudian psychoanalysis, which lasted several years. “It opened my eyes to things, not to be afraid of facing these fears,” explains Beckinsale, who says she fully recovered from the anorexia. “I at least understood what they were and where they had come from.”

After high school Beckinsale headed to Oxford to major in Russian and French literature. But in her freshman year she won an audition for Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film Much Ado About Nothing, and after two more years of study she dropped out to focus on acting. One early role was in a touring play with Welsh actor Michael Sheen, 32, who became her boyfriend and eventually Lily’s father. “He is as intense as I am, and we did a lot of yelling in the beginning,” says Beckinsale, who was 20 when they met. “Our honeymoon period has come later.”

The actual honeymoon is still pending. “We got surprised with the baby and simply haven’t gotten around to the marriage thing,” says Beckinsale, who enlisted her mother to help care for Lily on the Pearl Harbor set. Certainly her career won’t be slowing down anytime soon (next up: the romantic comedy Serendipity with John Cusack). But Beckinsale has neither time nor inclination to ponder the impact of fame. “I spend most of my time when I’m not working up to my ears in a sandbox with Lily,” she says, “and she doesn’t care about who I am. I’m not a big star on Barney or Teletubbies.”

Samantha Miller

Tim Ryan in Honolulu, Caris Davis and Eileen Finan in London and Michael Fleeman in Los Angeles

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