"Cougar? I've never heard that expression." Catherine Zeta-Jones looks perplexed—gorgeous, to be sure, but perplexed, nonetheless. "Cougar?" the actress says again in her native Welsh accent, which still sounds surprising, given how many American characters she's played on film. The question was: Is the term "cougar" (referring to an older woman who takes a much younger man as her lover) a compliment or an insult? With another person, that could be a conversation-stopper. But nothing fazes Zeta-Jones, who is chatty and upbeat for this lunch on the patio of the famed Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel. "Is it a compliment? Absolutely—why not?" she says with a throaty laugh. The subject is actually The Rebound, a new romantic comedy scheduled to open before year's end, in which Zeta-Jones plays a divorcée with two young children who unexpectedly finds herself involved with a considerably younger man (played by Justin Bartha, the missing groom in The Hangover).
But it gets Zeta-Jones talking about the way the film mirrors her own life—only backwards.
"I happen to have the reverse in my own relationship," she says, sipping an iced tea, ignoring the glances of other diners, who have spotted the Oscar-winning actress. "When I was dating Michael (Douglas, her husband of nine years), there was this 25-year age gap, and what I heard was that I was just this girl from Zorro who was after his money.
"But the older woman—younger man thing—I don't know if there's a taboo or if it's just a social stigma. I don't think it happens in movies much, unless it's a comedy. I don't know why age matters so much."
It's another day in paradise and the Beverly Hills Hotel is hopping. Guests arrive and depart in flocks, striding the red carpet from the valet-parking stand to the lobby. The peach and aquamarine color scheme with a palm tree motif bespeaks an old-school glamour, from the elaborate chandelier in the lobby to the bellboys dressed in starchy uniforms and chin-strapped pillbox hats to the lavishly landscaped patio where Zeta-Jones is dining. The hotel is a reminder of a bygone era, an old Hollywood still visible in the kind of pictures that play on the Turner Classic Movies channel.
But Zeta-Jones, in a beige silk top and matching skirt, has none of that "Look at me—I'm a star!" quality. Granted, she's a beautiful woman, with her lush figure, lustrous brunette hair and deep brown eyes. But she's not dressed to make a scene or call attention to herself, with one obvious exception: a 10-karat diamond ring with a rock the size of a cashew that was a gift from her husband.
"Jewelry is my one guilty pleasure," she admits. "Fortunately, my husband has fantastic taste."
The waiter approaches the table and Zeta-Jones orders a salad, then sighs: "I've had everything on the menu," she says. "This place is a little bit like home because we stay here whenever we're in Los Angeles." When her salad arrives shortly thereafter, Zeta-Jones takes a bite and observes, "Really, I was brought up on meat and potatoes."
That's the paradox of Catherine Zeta-Jones: She's a movie star who can glam it up when she needs to, but at heart, she's still the small-town girl from a village in Wales. She's an Oscar winner who's just as happy spending her time at home tending to her two children—although home is in Bermuda (where she and Douglas live much of the year).
"She has great style and she knows how to live well, but she never puts on airs," says friend David Foster, the producer who cast her in The Mask of Zorro, her breakthrough film in Hollywood. "She's just very down-to-earth."
Which, she says, is why she and Douglas avoid living in the industry town of Los Angeles, instead dividing their time between homes in Bermuda and Manhattan.
"I wouldn't say I'm shy but I'm not the flamboyant showgirl," Zeta-Jones says. "I love my work. I can turn it on for the red carpet or a photo shoot. But when you live in L.A., you can't go anywhere without being critiqued—on your purse or the fact that you've gained weight or that you've got spots on your face. That's not the life I want. Deciding to live in Bermuda was the healthiest thing we ever did."
For Zeta-Jones, maintaining that distance works because she's already been to the top—a couple of times. She achieved stardom in Great Britain by the time she was 21—then started again from scratch when she came to the United States and hit it big once more in films such as The Mask of Zorro, Entrapment, Traffic and Chicago.
In the process, she survived the ravening attention of the tabloid press, first as a British TV star whose social life was fodder for the Fleet Street reporters, then as the fiancée (and wife) of American movie star Douglas, which made the couple a tabloid target on both sides of the Atlantic. She stood up to it all with uncommon grace, says husband Douglas.
"There's a lot to be said for how early she started working," Douglas observes. "She worked really hard. She's been doing this a long time; she's an old soul. She's got this inner joy, this inner energy, that strong Welsh character that says, 'Get on with it.' "
Stagestruck at an early age in the little town of Swansea, Wales, Zeta-Jones (both Catherine and Zeta were her grandmothers' names; the hyphen came later) was nine when she landed her first role onstage in London's West End. By the time she was 15, she had appeared in West End productions of "Annie," "The Pajama Game" and "Bugsy Malone"—and then found her career mirroring the plot of "42nd Street," a revival in which she'd won a job as understudy, when she replaced the show's star who was taken ill.
It turned Zeta-Jones into an overnight sensation at 15 and even made her a pop star in Great Britain briefly. After playing roles in smaller films and TV productions, she landed another breakthrough role: as the ingenue in "The Darling Buds of May," one of the most popular British TV series of the early '90s.
"I'm glad I got my start in theater, rather than film," Zeta-Jones says. "The fact that I was in theater meant I wasn't so much in the public eye. One thing I do regret is that I missed the camaraderie of the college thing. I miss not having studied the classics in drama. I was self-taught at a young age. But I'm doing the only thing I can do. As a headmaster once said to me, 'You're no brain surgeon.'
"Then the TV series made me known in Britain when I was 19. After the first episode of the TV show, I've never been on a subway again. Once the TV show started, there was that thing of people looking at you." Having achieved stardom in Great Britain, Zeta-Jones decided to tackle American show business—only to find that British fame didn't carry much weight in Hollywood.
"It was like starting over," she says. "It was weird. I was so associated with my TV character that it was hard to break away from it. Then I came here, where I'd go into meetings and they'd ask, 'What have you done?' But when I'd get off the airplane in Britain, I'd be mobbed."
Says Douglas, "It was tough for her after she left England. But when things started rolling for her, she never looked back."
When she hit Hollywood, there were questions and more questions, always beginning with the same one: Could she do an American accent? Which she quickly showed that she could.
"She makes everything look easy," Douglas says. "She can handle dialects and accents to the point that people are surprised to hear her in her real Welsh voice."
(Zeta-Jones laughs when the topic of Douglas and her accent comes up: "My accent is pretty mellow, unless I'm with my family," she says. "When Michael and I were dating, I was talking to my mother one time and Michael said afterward, 'That Welsh language is so beautiful.' And I said, 'We were speaking English!'")
But her talent was obvious enough that she began winning parts. She played a villain in 1996's The Phantom, then grabbed a lead role in a TV miniseries about the sinking of the Titanic, a year before James Cameron's feature film. That performance led directly to her role in The Mask of Zorro (1998), the film that made her a Hollywood star.
David Foster, who produced Zorro, recalls that, as he and director Martin Campbell were going through the casting process for the film, they struggled to find an actress who could hold the screen with co-stars Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas.
"One day we got a call from Steven Spielberg (the film's executive producer), who said, 'Were you watching TV last night?' " Foster says. "He said, 'I was watching this miniseries about the Titanic and there was this actress who was really terrific.' A day later, he sent over tapes of 'Titanic' and she was terrific so we set up a meeting."
She was only one of the actresses in the running for the female lead (Famke Janssen was another). When the contenders were flown to Mexico City to test with Banderas, Foster, who was championing Zeta-Jones for the role, took her to dinner and began coaching her for the screen test.
"I was like a nervous father," Foster recalls, "and she was so cool: 'Honey, relax, I'll be fine.' And then she wiped everybody out with her screen test." The film was a hit, launching Zeta-Jones in ways she'd only dreamed of.
"She played a wealthy Spanish gal and she came off so regal," Foster says. "She was drop-dead gorgeous. And she's a dancer so she moves so smoothly, the way she walks across a set."
Zeta-Jones was convincing enough in the film that, when the film premiered in Spanish-speaking countries, reporters stationed along the red carpet assumed that she was a Spaniard and would fire questions at her in Spanish.
"For all I know, they could have been saying, 'You're a piece of shit' — and I just smiled and said, 'Gracias, gracias'," she says with a husky chuckle. Almost as soon as Zorro finished filming, the buzz started growing about Zeta-Jones who was quickly cast opposite Sean Connery in the thriller Entrapment. When she headed back to Great Britain to start filming, however, she learned just how short the public's memory can be.
"I was back in London in a cab and the driver said, 'Weren't you the girl who used to be on TV?' and I said yes," she says. "It had been several years since the series, and Zorro hadn't come out yet. And he said, 'It didn't work out for you, did it?' I was quite indignant: 'Excuse me but I just finished a feature film with Anthony Hopkins and now I'm about to embark on a big motion picture with Sean Connery!' I didn't tip him, either."
Proving herself is a recurring theme for Zeta-Jones. When she emerged from the British musical theater to try straight acting, there were doubts that she could make the move. Once she'd established herself in Hollywood as both a comic and dramatic actress, there were skeptics who questioned her abilities as a musical performer when it was announced that she would play one of the female leads in the film version of the musical Chicago.
"In England, I'd done so many musical comedies that some snotty casting director made a remark to me about putting me in a straight drama: 'She's a musical-comedy actress,' " Zeta-Jones says. "To have that triple whammy—singing, dancing, acting—is hard. When I went in to that audition, I tried to make myself look as fuddy-duddy as I could so I didn't have that jazz-hands look to me. But it wasn't until I played Scheherazade (in the French film, Scheherazade) that people said, 'Oh, she doesn't just sing and dance—she can act, too.'"
The Mask of Zorro led to her romance with (and eventual marriage to) Michael Douglas, who had followed in the footsteps of his father, Kirk Douglas, as both an actor and a producer. At the point they met in 1998, Douglas was a dual Oscar winner (as best actor in Wall Street and as producer of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) who had struck it rich producing Cuckoo's Nest, The China Syndrome and Romancing the Stone.
Douglas had seen a screening of The Mask of Zorro prior to its release. When he found that both Zorro and his own film, A Perfect Murder, would be screened at the Deauville American Film Festival, he made inquiries about Zeta-Jones.
"When I saw her on a screen, well, nobody since Julie Christie had made such a lasting screen impression," he remembers. "For me, it was totally visceral. I asked whether she was coming to the festival and whether she was alone."
Foster witnessed their first meeting, in a Deauville hotel lobby, where he was standing with Zeta-Jones, who had just flown in from shooting Entrapment in Scotland.
"In walks Michael Douglas, with his golf bag on one shoulder and his eyes go to this gorgeous chick," Foster says. "He was talking to me but he was looking at her. So we invited him to dinner and he not only came but he got himself seated next to her."
By the end of an evening of food and wine, Douglas was giving her the full-court press of charm and star power, at one point telling her with a smile, "I want to father your children."
To which she replied, "I've heard quite a bit about you—and I'm glad to see it's all true," and called it a night.
Says Foster, "He was known as Hollywood's great bachelor swinger. He was known as a guy with many women in his life. And Catherine was very conservative about that sort of thing."
A day or so later, Zeta-Jones went back on location to finish Entrapment. When the actress got to her hotel ("This little family-run hotel on the west coast of Scotland"), a massive bouquet of flowers awaited her from Douglas.
"I have no idea how he got them there—and that quickly," she says. Thus began a courtship that lasted the better part of a year, as Douglas filmed Wonder Boys on the East Coast, while Zeta-Jones starred in a remake of The Haunting.
"I really didn't want to start a relationship that was long distance," she says. "So there were nine months of courting. He thought it was going nowhere—until I called him on his birthday. He'd been married for 20 years before his divorce and had a few relationships since.
"I finally told him, 'I don't want to be one of the girlfriends. I want to be the girlfriend.' He said, 'OK, give me a minute and I'll go make some phone calls so it's just you and me.' Then he went up to the bedroom—and was on the phone for two hours! The ladies were all very gracious about it; I think they were glad he had the decency and courage to call them directly, so they wouldn't read about it in a magazine."
As predicted, Douglas did become the father of Zeta-Jones's children, sooner than expected: Son Dylan, now 9, was born in August 2000, a few months before their wedding. (Daughter Carys was born in 2003.)
"We went to Wales so Michael could ask for my hand in marriage," Zeta-Jones recalls. "My parents were toasting us with teacups and I said, 'Say something, Dad.' Dad said, 'Well, I'm really happy.' And Michael said, 'Good—because we're having a baby!' Which was the first we'd told them. Actually, my dad's a year younger than Michael—it drives him mad when Michael calls him 'Pops.'"
Then there was the matter of Douglas' parents—particularly his father, screen legend Kirk Douglas, now 93. Douglas brought it up casually during a trip to L.A.
"He said, 'Let's swing by the house. I want you to meet Dad,'" she recalls. "Before I knew it, we were swinging into the driveway. And Kirk was so charming. He started flirting with me and ignoring Michael. Finally, Michael said, 'Dad, what am I, chopped liver?' Kirk is an amazing guy: He's had a stroke, a pacemaker, a helicopter crash, both knees replaced—and he's writing his 10th book and doing a one-man show where he talks onstage for an hour and a half. He hasn't lost his love of life."
The pair were married at the Plaza Hotel in New York on Nov. 18, 2000, a wedding attended by an all-star guest list, prompting a media frenzy. And no, Zeta-Jones says, never in her wildest girlish dreams did she imagine having a wedding that would require security guards to keep reporters, photographers and the public at bay.
Indeed, she says, she remembers, years earlier, taking her mother to see Basic Instinct at a local cinema, and the nudges from her mother during the movie's sexier moments, neither of them dreaming that the actor on the screen would one day be part of the family.
Shortly before the wedding, while Zeta-Jones was pregnant with Dylan, she and Douglas appeared in a film together for the only time so far: Traffic, in which they never shared a scene and only shared a trailer on set for a half-day. They hope to finally make a picture together in the near future: a comic action-adventure with a Romancing the Stone vibe, called Racing the Monsoon. But they won't play romantic leads opposite each other.
"The history of married couples playing romantic roles is not great," says Douglas, who will produce the film. "The audience misses the mystery. I'm comfortable playing the villain. I think the audience will enjoy me lurking over her and her male lead."
Adds Zeta-Jones, "He wants me to have a young hunky guy to seduce."
Since the birth of their children (she was hugely pregnant with Carys when she accepted her Oscar for Chicago), she's gotten pickier about roles, averaging one film a year since the turn of the millennium. Like The Rebound, most have been comedies: America's Sweethearts, Intolerable Cruelty, No Reservations. But there was also Chicago, the film of Bob Fosse's Broadway musical that earned her an Academy Award for playing headline-hunting murderess Velma Kelly.
"Despite my roots, I never thought I'd get to do a musical on film—I thought musicals were dead and buried," she says. "Winning the award was like a blur. I had to go back and watch a rerun to see what I said. I remember that I sang a song with Queen Latifah, then had to change before going back to my seat—and getting changed was not easy to do when you're eight months pregnant.
"I was dumbstruck when I won. Afterward, I called up my mother and said, 'I won!' She said, 'I know.' It was 3 a.m. in Wales but they were watching—and drinking. The Welsh can drink!"
After Chicago, she says, "every musical that was going to be revived came across my desk." While Zeta-Jones would welcome the chance to get back on stage for the first time in 20 years, she's not interested in a show that's already part of the musical-comedy canon.
"I don't want to do another revival," she says. "I want something new, fresh, original, something I can put my stamp on. I'm talking to Bartlett Sher (Tony Award—winning director of South Pacific) about a musical based on Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
"I do get a rush when I perform live. When I hosted Saturday Night Live with a live audience, I was terrified. But when it was finished, it was such a rush that I said, 'I want to do it again.' Performing live is such a great adrenaline buzz. I'd like to do a Vegas show and work with dancers again."
Because she's being interviewed for a magazine that celebrates the joy of a good cigar, the subject is raised: "For me, cigars always conjure the image of sophisticated gentlemen, who pride themselves on enjoying a good cigar," she says.
Then she admits, "I've never smoked a cigar. Michael used to smoke them. I remember spending time with him in cigar bars, with dark lighting—those were some of our dates. I didn't realize how expensive they could be. I have a friend who smokes them and you could be smoking something that's the price of a diamond ring! Believe me, he savored them to the last ash."
She also encounters cigars on the golf course: She's an avid golfer who misses no opportunity to get in a round.
"When she's in L.A., she'll call me sometimes and say, 'Let's go play nine holes,' " Foster says. "I remember one time, she parred a hole and she danced around the green like a little kid. She takes it very seriously."
Says Douglas, "I'm the better golfer but she looks better playing. We both have a healthy competitive streak. And she's got a fine cursing vocabulary. She swears well."
As the lunch winds down, the talk returns to The Rebound and to the notion of age. She'll be 40 on Sept. 25, a birthday she shares with Douglas (who will be 65 the same day). A realist, Zeta-Jones recognizes that meaty parts become scarce for women of a certain age.
"I feel much younger than I am," she says. "When you're 10 or 20, 40 looks really old. When I was nearing 30, I thought, 'Wow, I'm going to be 30 in the millennium.' That seemed like a huge milestone.
"Career-wise, I think it will be a huge change; I'm going into a different chapter as an actor. You change; I have two kids so I'm not going to be playing the young ingenues. But I'm not going to play the mother of teenagers either. It's about finding those other roles."
Her parental instincts have tempered her hunger to work: "It used to be, 'What? You want me in Africa? What time?' Now I've got kids in school and that's what my life is about. So I've got to be passionately enthusiastic about a role for it to take me away from them. There aren't many movies made in Bermuda—and I don't know why because it's quite beautiful."
Instead, she's leaning toward producing and even directing. Her production company, Milkwood Films (named after Welsh poet Dylan Thomas's play, "Under Milkwood"), is developing a miniseries for HBO based on Geraldine Brooks's novel, People of the Book.
She has a couple of acting projects in development as well, including a film about the death of gangster Johnny Stompanato, in which she'd play Lana Turner, and a possible 3D rock musical about Caesar and Cleopatra that her friend Steven Soderbergh (who directed her in Traffic and Ocean's Twelve) is putting together: "Only Steven could do that. I'd read the phone book for him, if he asked."
There's also the possibility of television. Zeta-Jones, who has been a commercial spokesperson for T-Mobile and Elizabeth Arden, points to actresses such as Glenn Close, Holly Hunter, Kyra Sedgwik, Mary Louise Parker and Toni Collette—all of whom have found substantial roles starring in their own series on cable TV.
"There used to be such a stigma about movie stars going on TV," she says. "Then Helen Hunt won an Emmy and an Oscar in the same year. A lot of the best writing is on television these days. There was also a taboo about appearing in commercials. But I've been very successful in those. It's all business."
As lunch ends, the conversation turns back to her native Wales and the fact that most Americans, hearing her accent, assume she is English.
"But we're not English," she says emphatically, then smiles. "Except when it comes to the World Cup; Wales never does too well, but England does. When England's in the World Cup, all of a sudden, the whole country is English!"
Marshall Fine is an author and film critic whose work can be found at www.hollywoodandfine.com.