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Kate Beckinsale And Brian Cox On Why The Underworld Franchise Was Groundbreaking For Women - Exclusive

Years before Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Harley Quinn, Wonder Woman, and Furiosa were kicking serious butt on screen — before we had movies like "The Old Guard" and "Kate" — there was Selene.

Played by Kate Beckinsale, Selene was a vampire warrior who was tasked by her people to hunt down and kill their enemies, the Lycans (aka werewolves). Beginning with "Underworld" in 2003, Beckinsale led three more films in the series (she made a cameo in the third one, "Underworld: Rise of the Lycans"), finishing her run in 2017 with "Underworld: Blood Wars."

With the possible exception of Milla Jovovich's Alice in the long-running "Resident Evil" franchise — which appeared almost concurrently with the "Underworld" movies — no other consistently released genre film series in the early part of the 21st century was led by a female star. In fact, in an age when male-dominated Hollywood studios simply did not believe (and still have trouble believing) in the box office potential of a woman leading an action franchise, "Underworld" proved them wrong again and again (via The Numbers).

Whether or not the "Underworld" films are successful on their own merits — the movies have never done well with critics (via Rotten Tomatoes) but did score with fans — is one thing. Yet it's quite possible that the films also set a modern example for women taking the action lead. "I'm really glad to have been a part of moving that out of the conversation," Beckinsale told Looper. "I'm glad that that's what that was for."

Underworld proved conventional studio wisdom wrong

Speaking at the Toronto International Film Festival, where she was attending the premiere of her new film "Prisoner's Daughter," Beckinsale explained that the concept of a woman leading a franchise that combined action and horror like "Underworld" wasn't an easy sell when it was first pitched to studio executives.

"I do think that at the time when I made that movie, there was a lot of quite worried conversations about 'It's a female lead. Will anyone go for it?'" she recalled. "I'm aware that those are not conversations that are being had at all in the same way now. It's normal. Young girls are now very used to there being female-led action movies and superhero movies."

Appearing with her at the festival, Beckinsale's co-star in "Prisoner's Daughter," esteemed Scottish actor Brian Cox, chimed in that Beckinsale's central role in the "Underworld" series helped chip away at the film industry clichés about women and their "traditional" roles in movies.

"She was certainly a groundbreaker in that way," said the "Succession" star. "That was key, and that's very important in shifting the parameters of how we deal with women in cinema. That's become so much more sophisticated and so much truer. They're not just adjuncts, which for a long time they were. There were great films and there's great actresses, like Katie Hepburn and what have you, who certainly you would never describe as an adjunct ... The climate was so tough for those women, and [Kate's] helped smash that climate."

"Prisoner's Daughter" premiered last week at the Toronto International Film Festival. The "Underworld" films can be streamed online at Prime Video, Vudu, and other platforms.