Dressed in black, pregnant and beautiful radiant, Catherine Zeta-Jones admits that there are some parallels to be drawn between the dark world of the musical Chicago, and our fascination with celebrity, about which she is all-familiar
In Chicago, based on the classic Bob Fosse musical set at the height of prohibition in the late twenties, casts Zeta-Jones as the tough and infamous murderess Velma Kelly who, along with Renee Zellweger’s Roxie Hart (who killed her boyfriend in a jealous rage) strive for fame at any costs including scandal and lies. An often pervasive and subversive look at the nature of celebrity, Comparing celebrityism in the 1920s to today, the actress believes that it never really went away between then and now. “There are just more outlets for it now”, says the 33-year old actress in a New York hotel room. “It’s really become so intense, but I think the desire to know everything about people, all their ins and outs, has been highlighted because there are so many different outlets for it now. I think what’s so contemporary about this film on the fascination of celebrityism, is that there’s something grotesque about it, that people can be famous for doing the worst thing. I mean, we’re hungry for it and THAT’S what’s fascinating about it.” Zeta-Jones laughingly says that at least the public isn’t fascinated by her because of a double murder that she committed. She finds it more bizarre and becomes annoyed “that a photographer can take a photo of my kid in the park and you turn round and sort of give them the finger, then they wrote about you for weeks.” Since her marriage to Michael Douglas, Catherine has been the object of media fascination, so no wonder she could relate to the celebrity-themed facets of Chicago. She admits that on more than one occasion, when being hounded by the paparazzi, she has given them “more than just the finger, but the parallels are, that the smallest thing can be blown up into a veritable media frenzy, and those are the similarities.
While Velma has been closely identified with the likes of Chita Rivera and Bebe Neuwirth, the challenge for the beautiful Welsh actress was to make the role her own. “I’d never seen anyone else do it, which was probably a good thing,” Zeta-Jones explains. “I realised after reading the script that my characterisation to be instantaneous ask soon as that spotlight is on her. Because I don’t have a lot of scenes where I can backtrack and delve into the mind of Velma Kelly. In my song and just have to nail it in my song and dance, as well as nuances in the character.” The actress admits that this was a character she was born to play. “I just love her because she’s so bitter, twisted, and so tongue-in-cheek.” Having seen the final film, and being so overly critical of herself, she admits to being very happy with Chicago “and my work and happy that I was a part of this experience.” Her favourite song is the classic All that Jazz, “because I have such a heart relationship with that number as I’ve been singing it all my life. To be up there doing it for real was extraordinary.”
Being in a movie musical fulfils a lifelong fantasy for the actress, who is no stranger to musical comedy. She sang and danced her way to local stardom before she was ten years-old, as a part of a Catholic congregation’s performing troupe and later starred on stage in ‘Annie’, ‘Bugsy Malone’, and ‘The Pyjama Game’. At 15, Catherine had the lead in the British revival of 42nd Street. She was originally cast as the second understudy for the lead role in the musical but when the star and first understudy became sick the night the play’s producer was in the audience, she was given the lead for the rest of the musical’s production. Over a decade later, Zeta-Jones proves that she has what it takes to belt out the toe-tapping songs attributed to Velma Kelly. “I was brought up in South Wales where there was only one cinema and the world of videos. So I would go to the video store and rent videos, and so for me, they epitomised Hollywood glamour, my great escape, Fred and Ginger, all that world was fascinating to me and still is. I craved to be a part of that family.” The little girl from Swansea in West Glamorgan may have been far removed from the Hollywood glamour with which she is now ensconced, but growing up, Catherine recalls, she wanted to escape that tiny Welsh milieu. “I knew I wanted to be on the stage and wanted to perform,” she says. She never thought of going into movies and “never thought they would ever be a part of my life. I wanted to get to London as soon as possible and start auditioning for the theatre.” Zeta-Jones admits that she was – and still is – fiercely ambitious, “not as ruthless as Velma, but I knew it was going to be something that was a part of my life. My parents were not stage parents but they supported me considerably throughout that time. I never wanted to do anything else.”
Her Hollywood career has flourished, ranging from the sexy Elena in her Hollywood breakout film, The Mask of Zorro, through to the diverse likes of Entrapment, The Haunting, High Fidelity and Traffic. Add to her professional career her much publicised marriage to Michael Douglas, and Zeta-Jones has emerged as one of Hollywood’s major players. The actress seems genuinely surprised by her success, “though I know it wouldn’t be through the lack of hard work. I’ve always thought that life takes you in different directions and things don’t necessarily happen the way that you dream about them happening. I guess I’m lucky to be able to do what I love, but it seems that the harder I work, the luckier I get. It’s something that I SO wanted to do, that I’ve been pursuing it all my life.” Zeta-Jones adds that she had to make sacrifices along the way, “like leaving home at 15 and fending for myself, then getting a TV series followed by a period of having no work coming my way. Then coming to LA and wondering what the hell am I doing joining the big old line of pretty girls wanting to become actresses.” Through it all, Catherine now enjoys the life she has made for herself. “I enjoy the business and I enjoy being around this environment; I can’t think of doing anything else.”
Expecting her second child, Zeta-Jones has learned to become even more protective during her second pregnancy. “I was at a screening the other night and as I came out, a guy who wanted my autograph, jumped out of me carrying one of those wooden clipboards with a metal clip and almost jabbed me in the stomach. That really scared me and if I wasn’t pregnant I would have decked him one,” she says, laughingly. It is incidents such as that which explain the need for Zeta-Jones and her family to live in Bermuda. “My son’s going to go to school there, it’s very private and I can go in and out to my doctor without being photographed about what I’m wearing.” The actress plans to take a short break following the birth of her child, but scoffs at the idea of being away from work for too long a period of time. “What would I do if I ended up taking, say, three years off? There are just so many parks you can keep on taking your baby to. Obviously I’m going to start getting back into shape and start something as soon as I can.” Possibly with husband Michael “that we’re looking at doing together. It’s been a long struggle to find something that we can do where we’re not necessarily a couple but can have still have on-screen chemistry without it necessarily being a gimmick or some sick, personalised love story that you want put on celluloid as if people didn’t know enough about you.”
Before then, of course, Zeta-Jones “has to deal with this baby stuff first”, she says, pointing to her pregnant stomach, and hopes that Chicago marks the revival of the musical movie “but not until I’m 60, please.”