Really, the only abnormal thing about Kate Beckinsale is that she's apt to say whatever's on her mind. What you get during an afternoon with her is a woman who makes free and unforced references to Molière and Mauriac, who jokes about checking into hotels as "Sigourney Beaver," who talks openly about becoming a "fat freak" and packing on 55 pounds while pregnant, and who admits her terror of the face-freezing mystery affliction known as Bell's palsy. She shifts effortlessly from lotus-blossom elegance to an almost clinical strain of raunch. After learning that I used to be a competitive swimmer, she says the following: "I so want to go there. So, do you put that rubber hat on and immediately your eyes roll back in your head? Ha ha ha. I watched a TV show once—they have a lot of programs about deviant sexuality in England, which I love, and I love conjoined twins and I love anything like that—oh, and there was a very overweight man who could only achieve orgasm whilst wearing a Speedo swimming hat. Which has become one of my favorite images." It's telling that when director Lisa Cholodenko was casting last spring's Laurel Canyon, she surveyed not only Beckinsale's backlog of film clips but also a folder full of her frank, nervy interviews. (Cholodenko was intrigued, for instance, by Beckinsale's apparent fondness for a bawdy slang usage of the word knob.)

Clark Gable supposedly said of Ava Gardner that she was one of the guys trapped in the body of a beautiful woman. Kate Beckinsale invites the same description, so it's fortuitous that she plays Gardner in one of this season's Oscar lures: Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays Howard Hughes. Beckinsale gained about 20 pounds—"on my butt and my boobs and my face"—to achieve the proper degree of Ava-va-va-voomishness, and she theorizes that that's when the surgery rumors got rolling (well, around then and what she calls "the intellectual apex of my career: Van Helsing").

"For a while,"she says, "I was having trouble getting a job where you had to be sexy. And now all of a sudden it's 'Oh, well, I'm not sure she's a very good actor anymore because she's just sexxxxy!'" Of course, there are alternative careers. One could enroll in medical school. She has looked into it. "It depends on how it goes in the next few years," she says. "If I'm not doing the kind of work that makes me feel that it's worth it, I'm going to become a doctor. You might find, in four years, that I'm doing my digital rectal examination on you."