Kim’s Next Act
Screen star Kim Cattrall hits the stage by Johanna Schneller
Photography Sante D’orazio
It’s a sentence no one ever expected to hear from Kim Cattrall. At a photo shoot on the way west side of Manhattan, in a happening industrial building whose terrace offers views of the High Line Park to one side and the glinting Hudson River to the other, the typical ant colony of light-metre wielders, clothes smoothers and food servers are running around in the typical frenzy. Cattrall is their still centre. Sitting regally in a makeup chair, she is somehow engaging in thoughtful, candid conversation while a manicurist paints her toenails dark red, a hairdresser aims a hot blow-dryer at her blond tresses and a reporter holds a tape recorder in her face. She’d announced that she’ll be starring in a six-week run of the NoÃ«l Coward play Private Lives in Toronto in September (on its way to Broadway), and now she’s reminiscing about her successful 2010 stint with it in London’s West End, opposite the hunky British actor Matthew Macfadyen (the equally hunky Canadian actor Paul Gross replaces him here).
“It was perfect,” Cattrall says, “because every night I got to fall in love with him on stage. And then I got to go home and relax and read and be with my cat.”
Meow! That image is nothing like Cattrall’s public persona, which is much more catting around than cat fancier. Through six seasons of Sex and the City and two follow-up films, her Samantha Jones was the randiest, naked-est and most outspoken member of the quartet. Her recent roles include a purring political aide in The Ghost Writer, directed by Roman Polanski; a briskly efficient adultress (opposite Macfadyen) in the PBS series Any Human Heart; and
an aging porn star in the indie film
Meet Monica Velour. She’s divorced three husbands, dated several high-profile men (including Pierre Trudeau and Bernard-Henri Lévy) and written two books about sex: Sexual Intelligence, for whose cover she posed
naked, and Satisfaction: The Art of the Female Orgasm.
She certainly knows how to work it. Posing in a beaded black gown and sexy tuxedo dress, she offers photographer Sante D’Orazio angle after angle, while he contorts himself into deep knee bends and half-splits, murmuring, “Yes, yes, yes” like a serious Austin Powers. But when his close-ups get too close, she politely holds up her hand to indicate “enough.” And when he asks her to lunge and twist, she firmly demurs: “I can’t move like that,” she says. “I wish I could but I can’t.” She’s equally clear in directing her manicurist (“Let’s look at that colour in The New York Times again”), an assistant (“Can I have room-temperature water instead of cold?”) and especially her hairdresser. “It needs more texture here,” she says, pointing to the crown of her head. A few minutes later, crown untouched, she tries again. “What I don’t need is here [the sides]. I need here. But not teased looking.” Finally, a third time – smack in the middle of an anecdote – she stops everything and turns just enough in her chair to meet the hairdresser’s eye. “I don’t want to do my hair,” she says quietly. “I want you to do my hair.” It’s all very congenial but decidedly no-nonsense.
“At this point in our lives,” Cattrall says, “we women know our hair. And our skin. And our good side.” Her voice is soft, musical, without any of Samantha Jones’s edge. She talks in ideas, thinks her answers through and is not afraid to challenge assumptions. “What do you think?” she’ll ask, and if she doesn’t agree, she’ll tell you why. She isn’t a diva – just a strong woman who knows her job and wants to get on with it.
At 55, Cattrall is finally getting on with something she’s longed for her whole life: a theatre career. “If you look at my resumé, it’s like two different actors,” she says. “I’ve always done film work to pay for my theatre work. Now I’m coming full circle.” She finished high school at 16; at 18, when she graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, she was offered a choice: a contract with the film director Otto Preminger (later bought out by Universal) or a season at England’s National Theatre. Thinking pragmatically, Cattrall chose the contract and spent the
’70s doing TV guest spots (Quincy, M.E.; Columbo; The Incredible Hulk) and the ’80s, mainstream movies (Porky’s, Mannequin, Star Trek VI). “I look at Michelle Pfeiffer’s career and I think, â€˜Wow, I would like to be in Dangerous Liaisons. That would be a great part,’” Cattrall says. “But I couldn’t get those roles. I didn’t have an agent on that level. I was never sent the scripts. I was left with, not scraps, but a different kind of populist movie.”
Then S&TC brought worldwide
fame and lifetime financial security.
But she always kept a toe in theatre, including productions of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge and Chekhov’s Three Sisters. In 2005, during a successful revival of Whose Life Is It Anyway? in the West End for acclaimed director Sir Peter Hall, she mused to him that she should have chosen the theatre long ago. “He said, â€˜It doesn’t matter. You’re here now.
Do it now,’ ” Cattrall says. “So I don’t feel this is a second act. I feel it’s the act I always wanted.”
there’s no significant other in this act at the moment, but that doesn’t worry Cattrall. Much. She’s been single for two years “and I’ve really enjoyed it,” she says. “I’ve become sort of a workaholic. I was in Detroit for six weeks, in London for nine months. That would be really hard on a relationship.” Without the guilt, she can concentrate on the work. “But when a job’s over, I think, â€˜Oh, my life again,’ ” she says. “It’s so quiet. I’m ready now to start that other part of life. To bring it together.”
She’s dating – in April, for example, she attended a high-profile party on the arm of Klaus Biesenbach, the director of MoMA PS1. But it’s tricky. “Especially at this age because it’s so hard to meet people,” Cattrall says. “I’m getting out there. Asking friends, â€˜Do you know anybody?’ It’s terrifying.” She laughs wryly. “It’s like being a teenager. I think every time you start a new intimacy, you’re 14 again. There’s that can’t-eat-can’t-sleep feeling. So I kind of meet people and hope, but you never know what’s in store. It’s exciting for me because in my work I know. But in life, I’ve just got to let go.”
Cattrall wants to let go of something else, too – any drama around her age. While doing Private Lives in London, every interviewer reminded her that Macfadyen was 35 and she was 53. “But it was never an issue,” she says. For Meet Monica Velour, Cattrall gained 20 pounds and endured a heckler character at a strip club who called her grandma. It was a risky role to take, she says, because “some people in this age-rage society are not going to accept it. It might close doors that were open before, in the sense of â€˜still looking beautiful.’ Because Monica doesn’t look like the other women, who have fake boobs and washboard stomachs. Does she look horrendous? No. They look like aliens. She looks like a woman who’s 20 pounds overweight. Welcome to the world. But Hollywood isn’t interested in the world. If you’re 20 pounds overweight there, they put you in jackets that hide it. Or black.” She rolls her eyes. “You wear black for the rest of your life.”
Instead, Cattrall thinks we should laugh about getting older. “We need to get over it and accept it and provide a place where women can get older,” she says. “Look at the ridiculous lengths we’re going to. I mean, let it go. Age already. I think there’s a unity in going through menopause. You can be 50 and fabulous. Why do you have to crawl under a rock? I don’t want to become the poster girl for 50-plus. But you know what’s amazing? When you turn 50, you wake up the next
day and you go, â€˜What was I so screwed up about? It’s just another day.’ You think a big ping is going to happen. More of a change happened when you were 21 and you could drink.” She shakes her head. “I’m happy in my life,” she says. “I feel good about aging. I’m going to fight it and then I’m going to say, â€˜That’s it.’ ”
That’s another reason she’s so happy doing theatre – there are more roles for women of her experience. One of Cattrall’s costars in Whose Life was Dame Janet Suzman, the legendary South African-born actress who dominated the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1970s. (Suzman played Rosalind in the first Shakespearean play Cattrall ever saw, As You Like It, in 1968. Cattrall still has the playbill.) At the end of rehearsals, Cattrall remarked to Hall, “Leaving here is like leaving the womb. I don’t know if I’m ready.” From the back of the room, Suzman yelled out, “I’ve never seen anyone more ready.”
They became friends and, a few years later, did a six-week run of Antony and Cleopatra in Liverpool – Cattrall starred, and Suzman, who had performed a definitive Cleopatra with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1973, directed. Their goal was to make Cleopatra “an autonomous queen, with power and wit and intellect and sensuality and insight,” Cattrall says. “It was the first production where the queen was signing documents. Usually, she’s on a chaise lounge being objectified. And for the dying scene, Janet said, â€˜Not a tear.’ And we did not. It was the hardest, most challenging thing I’ve ever done, but I owned it opening night.” She gives a little shiver of pleasure. “I want to do it again. Six weeks is not enough. I need to do it again.”
In between Whose Life and A&C, Cattrall did Private Lives with another renowned director, Richard Eyer. Performing Coward’s repartee was “like the best tennis match you ever had,” Cattrall says, snapping her fingers – “one-liner, one-liner, one-liner. And I wanted to win.” She laughs again, then continues. “Coward is always seen as very effete. But Richard put butch in it. When Matthew said, â€˜Women should be struck regularly like gongs,’ you could see that he could give her a whack. But my Amanda would give him a whack right back.”
She never had so much fun. She gets to the theatre
at 6 p.m., performs her warm-up and stretches, does her own makeup. She has a wig person come in “because I’m shite with wigs,” and then she waits backstage, listening to the audience file in. “It’s a real high,” Cattrall says. Taking it to Broadway is “a dream,” and trying it out in Toronto, “in Canada, my home country – that means a lot to me.”
So does putting her distinctive stamp on classic roles. “Every role, especially on stage, calls on all your powers to make it individually yours,” Cattrall says. “My Cleo is not Janet’s Cleo, my Amanda is not Maggie Smith’s or any of the other great actresses that I stand in the shadow of. Some people didn’t like my Cleopatra because I wasn’t weepy. Some people don’t like Monica Velour because I don’t cry enough. But I’m not interested in sentimentality. I’ve had enough of it. That’s not a road I’m interested in going down. I find it manipulative. That doesn’t mean that in the moment you can’t be moved. But there’s so much more than tears.”
Cattrall’s life has come a long way from small-town Courtenay, Vancouver Island, where her parents – Gladys, a secretary, and Dennis, a construction engineer – moved from England when she was three months old. She grew up poor in a house her father built himself, with crazy wiring – an electrician who came to upgrade it once asked Cattrall, “How has this house not burned down?” – and no furnace. Cattrall would dress in front of a space heater every winter morning, and it took hours for the red flush to leave her legs. “A bit of a freak,” she was always curious, always wanting “literally, to taste things,” she says. At her hometown SuperValu, she and her sister were each allowed one item per trip, and Cattrall always picked hers from the exotic food section.
Her friends wanted nothing more than to go to Canucks games, but she longed “to find my tribe, people who were interested in theatre and conversation,” she says.
After years of living a peripatetic, Ikea-bookshelf-filled life, Cattrall now owns a beach house on Long Island and an art deco apartment in Manhattan – the latter was a present to herself when S&TC ended. “I wanted to provide a home for myself, not wait for a relationship to do it,” she says. Funnily enough, it looks almost exactly like the set for Amanda’s apartment in Private Lives: the silvery-grey living room is hung with bold modern art; the bedroom is mature and feminine. Her study-guest room is the only masculine one, all earth tones, with a mural of misbehaving monkeys sketched by its artist during visits to the Museum of Natural History. Cattrall loves monkeys: “They’re mischievous and curious and unexpected and sometimes scary.”
Other than sleep, which she craves, and food, which she loves (“I have to exercise a lot because I eat a lot”), Cattrall is realizing that as she gets older, she needs less to be happy. “I don’t need things. I like things. I like men to buy me things.” She grins. “But I can also buy myself things. I take an immense amount of pride that I can provide for my family in any way that they would want me to.” Another gift she’s finding with age: “There is an acceptance. Even if you don’t get to confidence, you get to acceptance.”
She maintains a healthy anger about women’s second-class status, though, calling it “disgusting” that women have yet to attain equal pay. “Maybe we’re so into multitasking in this male world, so exhausted, that we just don’t have any time to fight anymore,” she says. She currently mentors four young actresses in New York, offering advice and support, recommending books to read and plays to see. “I want to put that pebble in the water and let it ripple,” she says.
And then she wants to go home to her cats. “One cat,” Cattrall corrects me firmly. “If it becomes two, that’s a danger sign. I’ll let you know.”