Kim Cattrall is one of America’s most renowned actresses. She has won Golden Globe Awards, starred in Hollywood blockbusters and been a regular on stage in plays in virtually all of America’s leading theatres. Bearing all this in mind, along with the fact that she was born in Liverpool and started training in London, it is almost a little surprising that she is only now making her West End debut, in Brian Clark’s Whose Life Is It Anyway? at the Comedy theatre. Tom Bowtell caught up with her for a chat and tried to see how long he could go without mentioning Sex And The City…
I think I should point out immediately that Kim Cattrall isn’t Samantha Jones from Sex And The City. She (unsurprisingly) shares the dulcet tones and elegant looks of Samantha and they are both successful, empowered, friendly and refreshingly honest women; but there are differences. Where Samantha might guffaw with laughter, Kim is more likely to chuckle; where Samantha might leap in without thinking, Kim tends to be rather more considered. There is also no documentary evidence of Samantha from Sex And The City ever appearing in adverts for Tetley Tea…
"This is the realisation of a dream."
Kim Cattrall is obviously excited about appearing in Whose Life Is It Anyway?, Peter Hall’s revival of Brian Clark’s drama about the individual’s right to choose to live or die. She unabashedly describes her imminent West End debut as “the realisation of a dream.” This isn’t mere hyperbole; Cattrall was born in Liverpool in 1956 and points out that “I first wanted to be an actress after seeing a play – not a movie, and the first professional play I ever saw was The Importance Of Being Earnest in the West End, and I just fell in love.”
Anyone expecting Cattrall to ease herself into the West End scene by playing on her status as a global sex symbol has underestimated her. Superficially at least, the part of Claire Harrison, a successful sculptor who is left paralysed after an accident, has very little in common with her most famous screen roles. While Cattrall admits that this contrast was part of the role’s appeal, she also points out that it is a part that experiences in her personal life have, in some way, prepared her for. “I have a lot of first hand knowledge of disability – unfortunately. Christopher Reeve was a very dear friend of mine and my best friend in high school suffered a massive stroke about eight years ago. I was there when she was in intensive care and I had to go through the whole experience of doctors coming up to myself and my family and asking what we’re going to do if she doesn’t wake up. So this has been part of my life for a while.”
Having been through such painful experiences with close friends, does Cattrall feel that there will be something cathartic about playing this role? “I don’t know if it will be. Of course these loved ones of mine are in my head and in my heart, but they’re not on stage with me, because this is Claire’s story.” The play, originally performed in the late 70s, has been updated in parts to refer to the relevant events such as the story of Christopher Reeve. “We mention Chris in the play, which is wonderful; these things are brought into it because they’re part of life now. Because I’ve been living with this, it didn’t feel as foreign as I think it would have if I hadn’t had those amazing people in my life.”
"I started lying in bed and practising not having any feeling from the shoulder down"
As well as drawing on her unhappy experiences of living through the trauma of paralysis with her friends, Cattrall has also prepared for this role by imposing physical restraints upon herself. “Physically it was a real challenge because I’m very active. A month ago I started lying in bed and practising not having any feeling from the shoulder down. With my arms and legs limp it became almost like a meditation for me.”
It is also clearly important to Cattrall that her performance doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of her character’s situation. “Mentally, my friend who had the stroke specifically, exhibited a tremendous amount of frustration, which you don’t really see in disabled people – because we don’t want to see it – we don’t want to see them angry, we don’t want to see them upset, we want to see them coping! Society doesn’t want to see it going wrong – that’s too frightening. With my friend I realised that there’s a tremendous loss there and someone who has only been hospital for five months is only just beginning to deal with that, so we went deeper, which I think was a courageous thing for the production to do.”
While Cattrall admits that it is refreshing to be playing a role which has so many differences to the part of Samantha Jones, she has also recognised many similarities between the two women: “Claire Harrison and Samantha Jones are both very courageous women. Very much individuals. They both have a good sense of humour and a zest for life. It’s just that one of them can express it in ways that the other can’t… I really do believe this; I did a documentary where an expert states that sex is in the brain. It’s not in the genitals. It’s expressed through the genitals, but it’s based in the brain. Claire is a very sexual woman still, but she doesn’t know how to express it.”
Does Claire Harrison ever find ways to express these feelings? Cattrall pauses. “She makes a decision that she doesn’t want to go on and one of the reasons for that is that she’s an artist, and she’s a sculptor, which is – I would imagine – a very sensual thing to do, and she’s sculpting bodies and now there’s no way that she can do that and her work was the most important part of her life. She doesn’t have any children, she has a relationship that she’s broken off, she’s told her parents what she wants to do. She’s very much alone and she doesn’t want to continue her life as part of a very complex computer. But she still has thoughts of wanting to be held and loved and nourished sexually and that’s a huge thing to lose in your life.”
While she is best known for her screen appearances (and for playing you know who in you know what in particular) Cattrall’s career is firmly rooted in the theatre. Having trained for a year at LAMDA in London, she then went on to become one of the youngest ever graduates from the American Academy Of Dramatic Arts and from there went on to make her professional debut in The Rocky Horror Show. Cattrall has played a host of stage roles of the last 20 years, starring opposite Sir Ian McKellen in a high-profile production of Chekhov’s Wild Honey, playing Masha in Three Sisters and taking the title role in Miss Julie.
"The roles for women in theatre are also much better than they are in film"
When I ask her about her love of theatre, Kim positively bubbles with enthusiasm: “Theatre is alive. The script – especially if you’re doing classical theatre – has usually had hundreds of years to mature. The roles for women in theatre are also much better than they are in film – they’re such great roles for me to play in theatre in my forties! That’s why I’ve set up a production company, because if the roles aren’t there I’m going to have to go out and create them! Theatre is immediate, it’s alive, you’re there with the audience, it can’t be done again and again and again and again, it’s organic.”
A glance at Cattrall’s stage credits seems to suggest that the sort of theatre roles she plays are rather more reserved than some of her more eye-catching appearances on screen. Has she made a conscious decision to cultivate a different stage persona who dabbles in the smouldering sexual undercurrents of Chekhov rather than the glorious abandon of Samantha Jones? “No I haven’t!” She laughs at the idea. “Journalists have often asked me that before but I can honestly look back at my résumé and say ‘here I was paying the rent, and here that was an amazing Michael Frayn translation or David translation which I just couldn’t miss’, and that’s what life is – you follow where your heart leads you – at least I do”.
Cattrall admits that her love of the theatre and determination to follow her artistic instincts has sometimes baffled those keen to establish her as one of Hollywood’s leading ladies: “I would often confound managers and agents by telling them that I was going to go and do a play in Chicago for three months and they say ‘what do you mean you’re going to Chicago? You’re going to get paid $400 dollars a week and you’re not going to be available for any of these movie roles and Michelle Pfeiffer’s going to take them all!’ And I would say ‘I just can’t help it’”.
"Whatever happens, we'll all survive!"
Cattrall is impressively pragmatic about the possibility that some cynical souls who, knowing nothing of her theatrical background, merely know her as ‘that rampant one off Sex And The Wotsit’ and may assume that there is something gimmicky about her West End appearance: “You know I don’t even think about it – I have too many other things on my mind. I have a play to do and a character to play and it’s very exciting. Listen – you can’t please everybody. People will get what they’re going to get from it. Hopefully they’ll be entertained, and be touched by the story that we’re trying to tell, but that’s where my involvement ends. Hey – at least they’ll be talking about it! Whatever happens, we’ll all survive, you know – I get out of the bed every night and there are lot of people who don’t, so it’s all in perspective, believe me.”
Having hardly mentioned Samantha from Sex And The City at all up until this point (well, only about seventeen times), I suddenly let myself down and ask Kim about her intriguing diffidence in taking the role of Samantha, which she only accepted at the fourth time of asking. “You know, I’d just turned 40 and when you sign on to a TV series you sign on for six years and I had just done another TV series when I was playing a very lonely and sad character and thought ‘oh God, if I’m going to have to play this for the next six years I’m going to go insane!’ I also wasn’t sure I could play this sexual adventuress at that point in my life – I’d turned 40 and I was thinking, Wow, I don’t know if I can do this.” So what changed? “In the end it took Darren Star quite a number of lunches to convince me that it was going to be a hell of a lot of fun – which it was.”
In hindsight, Cattrall’s fears that she wouldn’t be able to play a “sexual adventuress” in her 40s proved ill-founded. In a delicious twist of fate, just as she was sashaying onto our screens as the ravishingly ravenous Samantha in her professional life, she was also undergoing something of a sexual metamorphosis in her personal life. The discoveries she made during her early 40s formed the basis of her book Satisfaction: The Art of the Female Orgasm. Cattrall admits that there was an element in which this personal sexual revolution added an edge of authenticity to her performance as Samantha? “I think it’s impossible to expect people not to merge personalities and storylines, especially when you’re playing the character for six years, so there were things in my life that inspired storylines and things in Samantha’s life which people associated with me, but the book was about my personal sexual history as Kim – something I thought other women could identify with.” Cattrall also wrote the book in an effort to “separate myself from Samantha’s libido” although, she adds saucily, “the two are more on an even keel now…”
"I'm certainly not a prude…"
The sexual liberation and empowerment that Kim Cattrall has enjoyed both on and off the screen over the last few years contrasts rather starkly with the rather more traditional nature of the roles she played in some of her early films such as Porky’s, something she warmly welcomes. “In Porky’s I was the objectified person and in Sex And The City, the men were objectified. I never thought I’d see that in my life time, and it was actually very refreshing! I mean I’m not a prude certainly – my God no! – but there was definitely something of ‘hey – this feels good – the guys are a little bit nervous about possibly showing their bum!’” Cattrall also rather revels in the fact that “the men on the show were so much vainer than the women. They would go to the gym for weeks before the show, whereas most of the women were like ‘yeah, I’ve got a little something here and a little something there but hey, they’ll light it nicely’ but the men were all frickin’ fanatics!”
Despite the downsides of playing a woman instantly recognised for her elephantine libido, Cattrall nevertheless confesses that she misses Samantha, who she last played when Sex And The City finished filming in February 2004. “Yeah, I do miss her. I don’t miss the hours, but I miss her and I also miss a lot of the people involved in the show, but since doing the show I’ve been so busy that I’ve not really had time to mope – and if I get too nostalgic, there’s always DVDs!”
Throughout the interview I have been listening hard to Cattrall’s voice in an effort to determine if there is evidence of any accent apart from her cultured metropolitan twang. Sadly, there was not a single tell-tale scouse syllable to be heard. There are some aspects of her character, however, which betray her English heritage, her adverts for Tetley Tea being one of them: “Oh, I definitely did them because of my English roots – although they were quite well paid too! My mum only drinks Tetley Tea and I think she was more excited by the Tetley adverts than anything else I’ve done in my life!”
Cattrall is clearly revelling at being back in the UK, particularly at a time when the Get Into London Theatre initiative is in full swing; she is an ardent fan of the initiative: “I support it absolutely! Obviously we don’t want to play to empty houses, but theatre is a community activity, at its best it’s like watching a great boxing match – who’s going to win? Telling these stories about life and humanity and it feeds your soul. To me going to theatre is like having a good meal – you feel so satiated afterward. I crave it and people should get out there and experience and join in this wonderful thing.”