Catherine Zeta-Jones Brings Candor, Humor, Insight to Four Arts Patrons

catherine zeta-jone

The queue at Society of the Four Arts stretched around the block yesterday as 3 p.m. approached, with countless prospective guests hoping to score a seat to hear one of Hollywood’s most glamorous leading ladies of the past quarter-century. The lucky few who arrived early enough to find open seats—along with the Four Arts members who received priority seating—were treated to a candid, revealing and humorous discussion with Catherine Zeta-Jones, who kicked off the Four Arts’ 2020 O’Keeffe Speaker Series.

Zeta-Jones, an immigrant from Wales who would go on to achieve worldwide fame in projects like “The Mask of Zorro,” “Traffic,” “Chicago” and “Ocean’s Twelve,” has been a show business fixture long before she was a household name in America. As she shared with the Four Arts audience, the theatre supplanted much of her formal schooling: She made her stage debut at 9 in a West End production of “Annie”; her star turn came at 17, when she was cast as a lead in “42nd Street.”

But the priorities of the wife of fellow-thespian Michael Douglas have changed from her workaday upbringing, and she’s become more selective about her roles. Sporting an elegant aquamarine two-piece, she discussed this and more with the Four Arts Audience and the afternoon’s interviewer, renowned features writer Vanessa Grigoriadis.

Boca magazine was there; here are some of the highlights.

On her New Year’s resolutions: See more theatre before it’s the last week and I’m rushing like a crazy person, read more books, and to turn off the news for a while … to read and see something uplifting or inspiring. I’m a bit of a news junkie—I inherited it from my husband. We both, unanimously, are going to turn off the tube and open a book more [often].

On upcoming projects: I’m fascinated with women who are strong and defiant, and ahead of their time in a way. I’ve come to a point in my career now where I’ve had the opportunity to play some terrific roles, from a druglord’s wife in “Traffic,” who takes over the business in the end and has a turn in character, to “Chicago”—my dream role of singing and dancing in a medium that’s on celluloid, that’s there forever.

For this year, I have two projects I’m producing with the desire to act in. There’s one who is a movie star, and one who is literally the American first lady of journalism, Dorothy Thompson.

Lana Turner is the first one. My father-in-law [Kirk Douglas] remembers her very well. She was part of the murder of her then-husband, who was a kind of gigolo, and low-key Mafioso. He was murdered in the home by their daughter, Cheryl Crane, and it was the murder of the century. Lana Turner went from coming to the end of what was an illustrious career, to being part of this murder trial and then coming out with a movie that’s art imitating life.

And Dorothy Thompson was the foremost journalist of her time, in Europe, in the ‘30s. And she was an amazing character, an amazing woman, an amazing life. I want to take a slice of her life, and show this journalist, who was the chief correspondent for what was going on pre-Nazi Germany, and was able to see the National Socialist Party and its ruler on the rise, and the craziness surrounding this mesmerizing dictator.

Even though I never met Lana Turner, I feel I know her, because I sit endlessly with my amazing 103-year-old father-in-law. I’m just like a little girl: “Tell me more, tell me more!” I’m just so happy to have him to fulfill my childhood dreams.

On Kirk Douglas today: He is just inspirational. His wife is 100. She lied about it for years, and Michael had to say, “Ann, there’s Wikipedia. We can find out your age.”

[Kirk was] a man from Amsterdam, New York, a Russian Jew, who was born Issur Danielovitch, and changed his name to Kirk Douglas, had a helicopter crash, had a stroke, wrote 12 books … really found his faith and embraced his Judaism after his crash, and was strong, angry, passionate, ambitious, [with] a libido the size of Amsterdam, New York. And now he’s a wise, fabulous grandfather to our children, a wonderful father to Michael and his brother and stepbrother. He’s at peace with himself, and it’s as if every day is a bonus.

On her entry into Hollywood: I had a small role in a project called “The Phantom,” and it gave me a three-month visa. I always had a dream of coming to America. My career was going well in Britain, but I felt I was becoming tabloid fodder … and it all started to get a little blurred for me—the craft that I’d worked so hard for, and my love and my passion. So I had this three months’ visa, so I went on a plane. I don’t know what I was thinking. I rented a small apartment, and I learned to drive on the other side of the road.

Then I was cast in a television version of “Titanic.” Ironically enough, Steven Spielberg, on a Sunday night, was watching CBS, and saw me in it, and asked me to audition for “Zorro.” I said, “Can I audition, like, right now? My visa is up in four days.” I went to meet him, and met the director, and I screen-tested with Antonio Banderas, and I got the role.

I still to this day love what I do—I love every minute of it. I love the people I meet. I would have been doing it anyway in a different capacity. But I remember feeling this wonderful sense of gratefulness that I had a chance.

On the time she lost her fearlessness: I run a dance foundation for young dancers, and I say to them, “never lose your fearlessness.” I remember a specific time when I lost it. It was after I had a few successes. I beat myself up about perfection, like a lot of women… When I was younger, everything was a blessing. All of a sudden, I was getting more fame, and I lost my fearlessness. It was a whole chapter of my career, trying to regain my fearlessness, and it wasn’t until I got the opportunity to do “Chicago” that I was OK. Musical theatre was a huge part of my life, so when I did that, it was another coming of age for me. It was a very special film. I was brought up in the theatre, so it was like going back to my people. It was like a crescendo.

On putting family first: I took a step back from my career. … Financially, I was secure enough to not have to be a working actor, which a lot of my friends were. For many, many years I was like that. I had nothing else. I sacrificed even childhood friendships. I left school at 15 to go to the theatre in London. Only through my own kids can I understand what I sacrificed through my ambition. I feel like I was self-educated. I never went to college. I had to wake up and be onstage; I was very disciplined. I was always front and center; I couldn’t hide behind somebody else. And I wasn’t pushed—nobody in my family came from show business. And I saw my own children grow to the ages when I was working, at 9, at 14.

I wanted to be there for them, and not schlep them around to movie sets. I wanted them to have a curriculum, a friend base, a schedule. I took a step back, and I wouldn’t have changed that for the world. Now, in my career, I yearn for that role again, to bring that passion back. It’s not a secret; I turn 50 this year. So you’re coming to a different chapter. I really believe I have so much more to do now. I have time now to really find out what I really want to do.

I’ve worked with some amazing people. I’ve done four pictures with Steven Soderbergh. I’ve worked with Clooney and the Coen Brothers to Brad Pitt to Banderas to Tom Hanks. For me, it’s always been the better they are, the nicer they are. I want to go back to the theatre. I have time to really enjoy, be dangerous, play a real woman with warts and all. I don’t have to worry about the beautiful ingénue, the love interest, that’s gone. Now I can really start to work.