When Catherine Zeta-Jones was a young girl, growing up as the daughter of a candy-factory owner and a seamstress in the seaside town of Swansea, Wales, she would stare at pictures of Elizabeth Taylor. She was initially entranced by Taylor’s tenuous connection to Wales, through her infamous and tumultuous relationship with the Welsh actor Richard Burton, but Zeta-Jones seems to have absorbed much more from watching Taylor than how to wear diamonds or enter into a power couple (though Zeta-Jones has done both, to spectacular effect). What Zeta-Jones shares with the late Taylor, as I found out while interviewing her one recent sunny afternoon over Zoom, while she lounged in her upstate New York home, is the regal bearing and honeyed, gravelly timbre of a classic movie star. At fifty-one, she has a theatrically languid way of moving and speaking, as if she is constantly about to stretch out on a chaise for a cocktail or a catnap. She doesn’t really seem to live in the same world, or the same era, as the rest of us.
Zeta-Jones’s story is a show-biz tale as old as time: girl from nowhere studies tap dancing, vaults to the stage (in her case, it was to London’s West End, where she started performing in musicals at the age of nine), gets a part in a big show as a second understudy, fills in for the lead on a lucky day, and, boom, a star is born. By the time she was eighteen, Zeta-Jones was starring in David Merrick’s dance spectacular “42nd Street” in London. But, as she told me, she was not content just to high-kick her way to a paycheck. She had dreams of being on film. She started out in television, in 1991, in the British comedy “The Darling Buds of May,” starring as the eldest daughter of a rural farming family. The show turned the young Zeta-Jones, a striking brunette, into a tabloid sensation, and while her film career had begun to take off in Europe, she left for Los Angeles to escape a media that she felt was more interested in her personal life than her acting chops. After a few rocky years of fruitless meet-and-greets, Zeta-Jones landed her first big American role, in Martin Campbell’s “The Mask of Zorro,” in which she played a feisty, fencing vigilante’s daughter in a muslin corset. In the years to come, Zeta-Jones excelled at playing beguiling and resourceful women—a nimble, undercover thief in “Entrapment,” a stiletto-wearing cartel boss in “Traffic,” a double-crossing screwball heroine in “Intolerable Cruelty,” a glamorous and petty bitch in “High Fidelity.”
Still, it was her return to her first love—musicals—that became the highlight of her career. As Velma Kelly in Rob Marshall’s “Chicago” (2002), a role for which she won an Oscar, Zeta-Jones was brilliantly precise; a vaudevillian vamp with a snarled lip and a flair for melodrama. “Chicago” showed another side of Zeta-Jones, the one that loves a shuffle-ball change as much as a ball gown, and she is still chasing that high. She won a Tony, in 2010, for the Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” but Zeta-Jones told me that her biggest dream is to originate a role on the stage. That way, she told me, nobody can ever compare her to what came before. (“When I’m dead, they can say, ‘Oh, I saw Catherine Zeta-Jones in the original,’ ” she told me. “ And I’ll be in my coffin going, ‘Yeah!’ ”) In April, Zeta-Jones will play a recurring role in several episodes of the Fox medical drama “Prodigal Son,” alongside her fellow Welsh actor Michael Sheen. When I told her that a promo still of her appearance, in which she is drilling into a patient’s brain, had become something of a meme of late, she laughed, saying, “If Catherine Zeta-Jones can do it, you, too, can give a lobotomy!” Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
You started out on TV, but before “Prodigal Son” you hadn’t done a show in a while.
Well, I played Olivia de Havilland in “Feud.”
Right. How did you prepare to do that?
I read a lot about her. Not that I needed to know a lot, because my biggest source was my father-in-law [Kirk Douglas], who knew her very well. She has a very special way of speaking, a very breathy, very rather British way.
Yeah, it’s a shock, because you played her so lovingly, but she was so litigious afterward. She tried to take her defamation case all the way to the Supreme Court.
We have to admire women like her, who literally changed Hollywood in how women stood, and stood for contracts, being under the whole doctrine of the studio system. She was monumentally forward in her thinking, in her actions. And I love the fact that, at a hundred and one years old, she ain’t lost it. When I was hired to play that role, I presumed that the estate and the company would have done their due diligence in name and likeness and I.P., which is a very, very important commodity in our business. Anyone who protects their name and likeness I wholeheartedly support, because, as actors, it’s all we have.
Did you ever meet her?
Oh, I can’t say that I met her, but when I won my Oscar, [in 2003,] it was the seventy-fifth year, and they had all the past living winners onstage, and there she was in her glory.
Let’s go back. I know you started acting at a very young age.
“Annie” was my first show on the West End, when I was nine. Then I did “Bugsy Malone” onstage, with Micky Dolenz directing. I was in musicals. It was really hard for me back then to get into straight acting. It’s like, “Oh, she’s a hoofer. She’s a dancer. She’s a singer.” I was like, like, O.K., put me in a box. I eventually opened that box.
The same thing happened with getting into television. They said, “Well, she’s really a stage actress. She’s only done stage. She hasn’t done TV.” And then getting into film, it was like, “Well, she’s really a TV actress.” So now I’m in film. So O.K., am I allowed to do a bit of everything now, like I’ve always wanted to do?
Were your parents very supportive at the beginning? How did they know to put you in show business?
I was very excitable and kind of, I don’t know, performy, as a child. I wasn’t shy. As I got older, I got shy. But when I was young I was fearless. At the end of my garden, there was a church and a cathedral. And in the back there was a hall where a dancing teacher called Hazel Johnson used to teach tap dancing and modern. At four years old, my mother bought me tap shoes. I put them on, she tied them up, and that was it. My mom took me down to the end of the garden, opened the fence, walked into the chair hall and said, “Can you take her?” And Hazel goes, “She’s too young. She needs to be at least six.” The next year, she took me, and then she was my dancing teacher all my life.
You were from an artsy place, Swansea, in Wales.
Where I come from is this little pimple on the world map, it’s where Dylan Thomas was born.
The government put money into the arts. The theatre was lovely and restored, so there were lots of amateur dramatics. And as Thomas said, “We are a musical nation.” And when you think about my home town, in a radius of thirteen miles, you’ve got Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins, Rhys Ifans, me, Stanley Baker, Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Michael Sheen. Tony Hopkins directed me when I was very young, in a play. And then I did “Zorro” with him, and he was at my wedding.
I used to have cutouts of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. It all felt so far removed from my world and so aspirational. But Richard Burton was from Pontrhydyfen! He was up the street, so it can happen! My home town is literally the end of the station from London. From there you have to get a bus, if you want to go any farther west, you have to go get a bus or get the ferry to Ireland.
So how does a girl from the end of the train line get a role on the West End?
For “Annie,” when they were casting, they did a stunt. Like, “We’re going all around the country!” It was publicity, I know now, for the show itself, but they did find regional kids who were not from show-biz families or stage schools in London. They’d hold these cattle-market calls; every kid in the world would go. I was one of those kids. I went and I got cast as July. And then the same thing with “Bugsy Malone.” I travelled up to London and stood in line for five hours for an audition.
When you were in “Annie,” at nine, did your parents accompany you?
No, the show had chaperones and nannies. And we used to have school in the theatre and tutors. But I could only work for three months, because of the child laws. And then when I did “Bugsy Malone,” I was thirteen. So I could do six months, three shows a week.
So you’re thirteen and living more or less without your parents in London?
Yeah, it was what I wanted to do. As much as I love my country—and nobody loves my country as much as me, you know how patriotic I am—I knew I couldn’t do what I needed to do there. And my parents said that to my headmaster when I left school, at fifteen, to go and do a touring production to get my Equity card. I kept saying, “I’ll come back to school, I promise. But if I can get my Equity card, it’s like the golden ticket in ‘Willy Wonka.’ ”
What was the production that got you your card?
“Pajama Game.” I was in the chorus. I did “42nd Street” after that. I was a chorus girl, and I was second understudy in the West End. And then I got on. The girl, I believe, was on holiday, and I was thrown on. David Merrick, the Broadway god, happened to be watching that show—he used to go around the world watching his shows to see if they were up to scratch. So I got cast in the lead role, and I played it for two years.