Catherine Zeta-Jones is telling me about The One That Got Away. It still haunts her, even after all these years. If only the timing had been right. And no, we’re not talking about a man, but a role: the role she was born to play. ‘I had the chops to be a female Bond,’ explains the Oscar-winning star of Chicago. ‘For many years I was Bond material. Actually, I used to dream of being a female spy when I was a kid – if I didn’t make it as an actress. Then, later, I had big aspirations, and this was before there was even a female Doctor Who.’
Why the past tense? There’s a well-publicised 007 vacancy, and Zeta-Jones is on a professional roll. Netflix has just premiered Tim Burton’s live action Addams Family series, Wednesday – in which she plays Morticia Addams – and in December she stars in the long-awaited Disney+ TV spin-off to the hit Nicolas Cage movies – National Treasure: Edge of History.
Barbara Broccoli might be reading this, I say, and barking out to her assistant: ‘Get me Catherine on the phone!’ So if she gets the call? ‘Oh, it would absolutely be a yes. No question.’
Deadpanning is just one form of humour that doesn’t usually translate over Zoom. People rarely translate over Zoom. But Zeta-Jones is different. From the second the 53-year-old is beamed into my LA home from her Paris hotel suite – all in black, flashes of gold and silver rings on her hands – it’s like we’re in the same room. Only there are none of the usual interviewer/interviewee barriers in place and there’s none of the awkwardness.
She’s enthusiastic in her responses, and constantly moving, waving around long champagne-tipped nails as she speaks, threading them through her trademark dark hair, and leaning so close into her screen as she laughs that I get treated to massive close-ups of that cartoonishly seductive mouth.
Maybe the clue is in the Zoom name that appears when it’s time to ‘admit’ the Swansea-born star: ‘Cath Jones’. It’s not easy to square that name with the vaudevillian vamp from Chicago, the catsuit-wearing thief from Entrapment, the sultry shrink from Side Effects or the ruthless cartel boss from Traffic. She is always described as ‘Hollywood royalty’, thanks to her 21-year marriage to Michael Douglas, yes, but also her lofty, Golden Age-like allure. But to meet, ‘Cath Jones’ is as accessible as A-listers get.
Before I can get a question in, Zeta-Jones is telling me about her mum, who is in the room next door ‘reading her Catherine Cookson’, and how much time she has been spending in France, Spain and the UK over the past few months; the ‘gravitational pull’ she’s feeling towards Europe at this point in her life.
She had only just left the UK, she says, and was on a plane when her son told her that Queen Elizabeth had died. Zeta-Jones slumps her shoulders. ‘I was really, really upset. I’m a massive royalist. In our family we’ll dress up on royal occasions. My son will wear a top hat and tails and we’ll have scones – and…’ She breaks off. ‘Anyway, it felt like the closing of a wonderful chapter of British history. And people say, “Oh, the monarchy is so old-fashioned. Do we really need that?” Yes! We do!’
Perking up a little, Zeta-Jones tells me how ‘impeccable I thought Her Majesty’s send-off was, and I’m convinced that the Royal family will be just as strong going forward. Honestly, I’m in no doubt that it will be more than OK.’ She’s met King Charles III and the Queen. ‘I had a wonderful lunch with Camilla and Lady Astor in New York years ago, before they were even married, and I loved her. What you see is what you get with Camilla.’
The quantity of experiences Zeta-Jones casually references in conversation can be confusing given she still looks like she’s in her early 40s. Then you remember that the daughter of a sweet factory owner and a seamstress from Mumbles started her career aged nine, when she was cast in the West End musical Annie. By 15, she had dropped out of school to act full time. By 18 she was playing the lead in another West End production, this time 42nd Street, and by 22 Zeta-Jones had landed the game-changing role of ’50s-style pin-up Mariette in The Darling Buds of May. Shortly afterwards she fled Britain – where the paparazzi were poised to capture any missteps – for Hollywood, where no one knew or cared who she was.
Remembering the frenzy of those early ’90s Darling Buds years, Zeta-Jones muses, ‘When I used to go to the cinema [as a child] to watch a film, there was this distance between you and the actors on the screen. I didn’t know who they were sleeping with. I didn’t know how they fell out of a nightclub, if they’d crashed their car under the influence or had some crazy rant on social media.’ She twiddles an engraved statement silver ring on her right hand. ‘I do think the magic of the movies has been dented by celebrity.’
If there’s ‘just one thing’ she and her husband hope to have instilled in their children, Dylan, 22, and Carys, 19, Zeta-Jones goes on, ‘it’s that celebridom is not the same thing as acting, being a musician, having a craft. But they know that you don’t have to do much to be a celebrity. In fact, bad behaviour makes it 10 times easier.’
The week we meet Kanye West has followed up his original ‘crazy rant on social media’ with another ugly utterance, and the papers are filled with think pieces about the alarming rise of antisemitism in the US. Douglas has Jewish roots (his father, Kirk Douglas, was born Issur Danielovitch), and the couple have raised both of their children in the Jewish faith. When used to spread hate in the way West has been doing, celebrity can also be terrifyingly powerful, can’t it? ‘It’s very dangerous,’ she murmurs. ‘Extremely dangerous. And I’m all for freedom of speech, especially now, when democracy is as vulnerable as it ever has been, but social media has turned the X-ray light on every deep, dark anger lurking, and we had someone in power [in America] who ranted so much that people thought, “Well, if he can do it, so can I.” So it’s a very scary time.’
Dylan and Carys may not be interested in celebrity, but they are keen to act, Zeta-Jones says. ‘And even though they’re both Brown University graduates, there’s no way I want to dissuade them because acting has been the most amazing thing in my life. It does bring out the masochist in me, though,’ she admits with a throaty laugh. ‘You think I’m really bad? Just wait until I do my next thing.’
Reactions to her ‘next thing’ – Wednesday – are unlikely to be useful self-torture material. Filmed in Romania during the pandemic, the eight-episode series is a deliciously macabre treat for every parent and child looking for family viewing after Only Murders in the Building. Jenna Ortega is perfectly cast as 13-year-old Wednesday, who joins her parents’ alma mater,
Nevermore Academy, and begins to unravel the mystery that engulfed them a quarter of a century before. Zeta-Jones’s Morticia is a breathy-voiced, heaving-bosomed comedic triumph and Luis Guzmán makes a wonderfully love-struck Gomez.
‘When I heard that Tim [Burton] wanted to speak to me, I told my agent, “Whatever it is, just let me know when he wants me to start.” Because at this point in my career all I want to do is hang out with good, interesting people and have fun.’ Zeta-Jones gives a little snort, aware how obvious this sounds. But she’s been a grafter for decades now, and in her early years that meant a lot of teeth gritting and ‘sucking it up’.
After moving to the US, where she had to start from scratch, Zeta-Jones felt like she was in the lap of the gods. Not that she was insecure about her professional ability, she explains. ‘I hope this doesn’t sound conceited, but I’ve never had imposter syndrome when it comes to acting because I’ve never done anything else in my life.’
No, amazingly it was her looks Zeta-Jones questioned.
‘I mean I still don’t… I never thought that I was…’ Beautiful? ‘With [1998 film] The Mask of Zorro, I just remember calling my mum from a payphone after the audition. There were five actresses there that I won’t name but are still very big now, and I said to my mum: “Well if this is a beauty contest, I’m telling you, I haven’t got the part. I’ve seen the others in hair and make-up – and I haven’t got it.”’
She was wrong, and her role as a fencing vigilante’s daughter changed everything – even attracting the attention of her husband-to-be, who says he was instantly ‘smitten’ when he saw her on screen. She and Douglas married in a lavish ceremony at New York’s Plaza Hotel two years later, but although Zeta-Jones was living the dream, the pace was unsustainable.
She was pregnant with her son when she filmed Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 drama Traffic, and spent her honeymoon promoting the film. ‘Then before I knew it, I was in rehearsals for Chicago, and pregnant with my daughter when I won my Oscar. Michael and I were based in our apartment in Manhattan at the time, so it became a bit of a frenzy.’
It was when Carys was born that she decided to take a break. ‘I had a two-and-a-half-year-old and a newborn and I just felt very satisfied with life.’ She smiles. ‘Like I couldn’t do any more of the craziness that one needs to be involved in to sustain that kind of profile. I just wanted to be with my babies, so we moved to Bermuda [where Douglas’s mother was from] and brought them up there.’
Did she miss working as a full-time mum? ‘No. Not at all,’ she flings back. ‘Listen, I was born to pop out babies. I had my daughter in an hour and a half. And I remember telling my doctor, “OK, I think I can push now,” and him saying, “Oh, it’s going to be a while yet,” and me insisting, “No. I really do think I can push.”’ She laughs. ‘I wouldn’t change that period of my life for anything in the world.’
An outsider would never have noticed the short break that meant so much to her. Throughout the rest of her 30s Zeta-Jones worked relentlessly, starring in blockbusters such as Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal (2004), Ocean’s Twelve (also 2004), The Legend of Zorro (2005), and The Rebound (2009). But when her then 65-year-old husband was diagnosed with stage IV throat cancer in 2010, she again stepped out of the spotlight – this time completely.
While Douglas was undergoing months of chemotherapy and radiation, Zeta-Jones was fighting her own battle. Unbeknown to anyone but her close friends and relatives, she had for years been suffering from bipolar II disorder, which can involve stretches of excessive energy and extreme depression.
Although she decided to reveal her condition when she sought medical help in 2011, and was praised by mental-health charities for doing so, the actor has rarely spoken about it since, aside to tell The Telegraph back in 2013 that ‘I never wanted to be as open about it as I was. I have a British stiff-upper-lip mentality – it wasn’t something I wanted to shout from the rooftops.’
She’s not about to say any more on the subject to me today, but when Zeta-Jones harks back to her state of mind a decade ago, I get a sense of the various pressures she faced at that time of her life. ‘In my 40s I was not…’ I get the feeling she wants to say ‘happy’ but then given how much she and her family have been through, perhaps decides the adjective is too simplistic.
‘I wasted so much time then,’ she starts again, ‘trying to please everyone else. Checking that everyone else was OK, but not myself.’ Then there was the maternal guilt, she goes on. ‘With your kids, it doesn’t matter how much time you’re with them – there is always that guilt when you’re away. I’d have it even when my husband was with them. I’d get the call, “She’s crying for you tonight,”’ She groans at the tug she feels, just at the memory. ‘And that’s whatever job you’re in. But you know what I hate?’ She narrows her eyes. ‘The word “juggling”. Like, “How do you juggle work and kids?”’ Because nobody ever asks men that? ‘Yeah! And if you really want to know, I’ve got a nanny who helps and a husband who doesn’t have to go off and do a 9-5 job, so I happen to be very lucky… but emotionally it was still hard.’
It was also in her 40s, back in 2013, that she and Douglas split briefly, before reconciling. ‘It’s impossible for there not to be ups and downs if you live with the same person and wake up with them every day,’ she says about their marriage. ‘I’ve been waking up to Mike for nearly 25 years. I love being married but it’s a crazy thing when you really think about it. Will you marry me? Sure! But then you think about the Chanel purse you spent a fortune on, and actually I don’t really like it any more – I’ll put it up for resale.’
Douglas should be honoured to be compared to a Chanel bag – one she’s never tired of, to boot. And although Zeta-Jones has her own ‘woman cave’ in their Westchester County home – complete with ‘my collection of female portraiture’ – ‘we still spend a hell of a lot of time together!’ she insists.
‘We’ll walk around a golf course together for four hours at a time. We have a lot of serious similarities too. We were born on the same day, 25 years apart. We’re just very good with one another, we respect each other, and I never really feel that he’s 25 years older than me. I remember people saying, “When you’re 50, he’s going to be 75.” Well,’ she drawls, ‘that’s just maths.’
Zeta-Jones is just as sanguine about the number beside her own name now: what she smilingly calls ‘this golden age’. ‘Because what’s so great about your 50s is that I feel more certain than ever about what I don’t want to do – yet still unafraid to try new things. And whether I fail or succeed, that’s OK.’
The physical niggles can’t be ignored, she concedes. Although having grown up ‘in a dancer’s world where anorexia was rife, where we spent hours looking at ourselves in the mirror, analysing not a jawline or our skin tone but our physiques’, any concerns she has now are mostly fitness- and strength-based. ‘I’ve got quite a few dancing injuries: my hip and my knee. But in your 50s it’s about staying active. I wake up at 5am every single day, no matter what time I go to bed, and I swim and walk a lot.’
Does Zeta-Jones think that some of the noxious effects of Instagram – which she does enjoy ‘although I’m happy it didn’t exist when I was growing up’ – have been offset by the body positivity movement? ‘I think that body dysmorphia has always been there. And we talk a lot about young women, this quest for perfection and tweaking and the use of Photoshop and filters and all that stuff, but what about my age group?
I know people who wouldn’t even think about showing a photograph of themselves unless it had six filters on it. But no, I don’t have a problem with it [Photoshop]. Because I’m from that world and I know all about the choreography and the orchestration behind the scenes.’
Not that she’s immune to the odd pang of vanity, she adds. ‘Hey, do I sometimes say “s—t” when I look in the mirror? Yes. Because I’m 53 years old. But doesn’t every woman? And anyway I used to do that in my 20s.’
There is, however, one part of her body that will always be a source of pleasure and pride, one she’s trying unsuccessfully – and acrobatically – to show me across a Zoom screen from 5,000 miles away as we near the final minute of our interview. ‘My feet are actually the prettiest dancer’s feet you’ve ever seen in your life. Of all my features, they are the ones I’m happiest with. And I’m only telling you that because it’s true.’ Which seems like as good a time as any to click on ‘End conversation with Cath Jones’.
Wednesday is streaming on Netflix now; National Treasure: Edge of History comes to Disney+ next month