Kim Cattrall is as demure in person as she is wild on screen, at least as the gal who is still her best-known character: the sexiest beast from Sex and the City, Samantha. I find her sitting on a dining room’s pretty curved banquette, like an indoor cabana designed for Marie Antoinette, which is rather fitting as the actress has a gracious, almost regal air.
There are no profanities, indeed nothing coarse or vulgar about her at all, which is, frankly, a tiny bit of a disappointment. She can be funny, in a wry, sometimes sly way, but there is also the occasional atmosphere around her of self-contained melancholia.
She talks with refreshing honesty about what are often taboo subjects, particularly for American stars (she was born in Liverpool, grew up in Canada and counts herself as a New Yorker; her career, at any rate, was all-American up to 2004, when the Sex and the City TV series ended its six-year run). Age, the menopause, sexual arousal, failure, loneliness: she’s happy to talk about the lot. She believes, for instance, that ‘sex starts in the brain — that’s where it all begins and everything else is after that. It starts right here,’ she taps her head. ‘ “Yes” or “No” is within three seconds of eye contact, even before that.’
From time to time I get the impression that she’s exhausted from the gruelling business of playing one of Tennessee Williams’ most challenging ‘beautiful monsters’, Sweet Bird of Youth’s Alexandra Del Lago, a washed-up, ageing movie star. The character finds herself holed up in a hotel room on the Gulf Coast under an absurd false name, Princess Kosmonopolis, with a failed young actor turned gigolo, Chance Wayne.
I applaud Cattrall for the various stands she has made latterly in her career. For example, she said she wouldn’t do the first Sex and the City film, in 2008, unless her salary was significantly raised — and why not? Her character was arguably more iconic than Carrie Bradshaw and has been considered a factor in changing the way older actresses can be convincingly portrayed as sexually active and alluring characters, conducting their lives on their own terms.
It’s good for a woman to control and organise her own destiny and not be passive… ‘Or a victim,’ she adds. ‘It wasn’t just for the money. I feel that to be in any situation where I’m not valued, not just monetarily, where I have contributed… well, I don’t think that’s a place I would be happy working.’ After prolonged negotiations — the film came out four years after the TV series ended — Cattrall was reportedly paid $6 million to appear; $9 million less than Sarah Jessica Parker (who also produced it) but triple what the other two actresses, who declined to join in with Cattrall’s demands, were paid.
I read that she’d met Gloria Steinem, the legendary, glamorous American feminist, and they had hit it off. Has Gloria become a chum? ‘Sadly, I move around too much to make new chums easily, but when I see her at events in New York she’s always incredibly friendly. The first time I met her, I was just so taken aback that she knew who I was. She was so warm and lovely — those are the moments when I think I don’t really know how great my life is.’ That you don’t have a clue how you are perceived by people or whom you are perceived by? ‘You put it much more eloquently than I can, with a bread roll stuffed in my mouth.’ She’s laughing now. I say that I can’t tell her how many gorgeous, talented people I’ve eaten (I mean to say eaten with, while interviewing) and she ripostes, quick as a flash, ‘Well, bon appetit!’
For those who care, Cattrall eats daintily but with an appetite. The aforementioned bread (carbs!), and salmon followed by a small steak over a square of pommes dauphinoise. Her hands look strong, red polish on short nails, and when she becomes animated, her left eyebrow follows suit, arching and doing a little dance. She is slim and toned and lovely in a natural way; the small lines on her face rather add to her allure. I ask her if she’s vain. ‘I don’t think I’m vain… but I do like to be lit well,’ she says with a knowing smile.
In 2005, she produced her first film, a documentary called Sexual Intelligence (since SATC, she has become something of a sexpert). Three years earlier she had published Satisfaction: The Art of the Female Orgasm, a book she wrote with her third husband, the jazz bassist Mark Levinson (the relationship ended two years later). ‘What I wanted to do was to create a forum to talk about sexuality in a very honest way. I think there is no age limit on sexuality. Recently, a friend’s mother went into a seniors facility [an American euphemism for an old people’s home] and sometimes even the seniors are not in the same bed the next morning — and I think that’s great! I mean, why not?’ Sexiness, she says, is confidence: ‘Someone who has a strong sense of self. You may not like the person but there’s something about acknowledging someone who is so authentic in that way.’
Her co-star Seth Numrich, at 26, 30 years her junior (‘Hello lovely,’ she greets him, rather maternally), joins us. I had seen the play the previous evening and thought Cattrall was every bit as beautiful and as monstrous as the creator of her role intended. Her expressive face is mesmerisingly eloquent in her vulnerability, her addictions, her savage humour, and her desire — finally — to be a better person than she is. Numrich is also terrific as the lost boy who had such dreams for greatness and a life with his girl, and still, poignantly, Willy Loman-like, cannot bear showing the world how far he has fallen. But, as the two agree, the play itself is tricky: unresolved, lurching into melodrama (even if enjoyably so).
Numrich seems unpretentious and boyish in a tartan shirt and baseball cap, and has a seemly modesty. With both their roles, you can see how courageous their business can sometimes be, particularly for the actress who must, nightly, be having to face some of her worst fears. As Kevin Spacey, the artistic director of The Old Vic, who embarked on a long wooing campaign before Cattrall would agree to do the part, has said: ‘The fact that she was able to face and deal with those very issues [image and ageing, failure, desire, loneliness] was another indication that she was brave.’ Richard Eyre, who directed her in Private Lives in 2010, advised her against appearing in Sweet Bird of Youth for those same reasons.
Cattrall had a tough, impoverished start, as well as a chequered family background going back a generation, with a bigamist grandfather who abandoned his wife and their three children to penury. When her father took the family from Liverpool to what was supposed to be a better life in Canada, they crisscrossed the country, driving in one car harnessed to another car in which they lived.
She says: ‘I feel that, in some ways, I wanted to be an actress to make my life better. I wanted to understand pain and the human condition, which is full of pain and regret and sadness — and some happiness, if you’re lucky. Now it’s the time of my life when I’ve been cast as someone over the hill and who’s on the other side of being celebrated and courted. The other side, as she [the Princess] says, where it’s like going to the Moon.’
Her co-star was born and brought up in Minnesota in what he describes as ‘a very supporting, loving, liberal household’. At 12, he had his first professional role in Summer and Smoke (also by Tennessee Williams), then, at 15, he was the youngest student accepted by Julliard’s drama department. In 2010, he made his Broadway debut, in a supporting role to Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice — ‘getting my feet wet,’ as he puts it —before landing the lead of Albert, the young farm boy, in Marianne Elliott’s production of War Horse on Broadway. It was Elliott who championed Numrich to make his London debut opposite Cattrall. Because he wasn’t well-known here? ‘Because I’m not very well-known anywhere,’ he says with a shy smile.
He would have only been 17 when the last episode of SATC aired. Was he a fan? ‘You know what? I’m making an admission now that I never made to Kim, which is,’ he turns to her, ‘that I have never seen a full episode of Sex and the City.’ Is Kim OK with that? ‘Well, I am holding hot tea in my hand,’ she says, poker-faced.
Back to Cattrall’s theatrical ambitions. ‘I’d like to do Lady M and Much Ado and eventually Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ I say it must have been worth doing all those crap films in her youth (the likes of Porky’s and Police Academy) to get to this wonderful second act in theatre. She almost spits out her steak but laughs: ‘I’m so lucky that I survived to do it!’ She initially turned down the part of Samantha, worrying, in self-directed ageism, that she was too old to play the part. But she’s glad that she was finally convinced. ‘Oh God, yes. I wouldn’t be talking to you if I hadn’t. I’d like to think I would be but I probably wouldn’t.’
The films she has done since hitting her forties, apart from the SATC duo, have tended to be low-budget, but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t been asked. ‘People have seen me on the stage here and wanted me for different projects, but I just haven’t been available because I’m following my heart and I’m following the beckoning calls of people like Kevin Spacey, Marianne Elliott and Richard Eyre.’ It was Peter Hall who led the way to her British theatre career, the year after SATC finished, by casting her as the quadriplegic who wants to die in the mordantly funny play Whose Life is it Anyway?
‘There are parts [for older women in Hollywood] but they’re really hard to get,’ Cattrall continues. ‘And a lot of them have always gone to Michelle Pfeiffer, who is a brilliant actress, and I get that. But it doesn’t matter if I were the first on the list… if I were Sigourney Weaver, who does get the parts, I would still want to say yes to a great play by a great playwright with a great director in a great theatre with a great cast.’ After Sweet Bird, she is off to Toronto to shoot a TV remake of the 2005-2007 BBC comedy drama Sensitive Skin, about a woman going through a midlife crisis, which originally starred Joanna Lumley. Cattrall will also produce it.
If there is a leitmotif that runs through her interviews, it is loneliness. ‘Yes, I do get lonely and sometimes it makes me very sad,’ she says. ‘It was difficult when I was very young because I was so separated from my family. When I was at school or acting in a play, I felt very much part of something and then it would always change and I would be by myself.’ She has been married three times. Firstly to Larry Davis, which was annulled after two years in 1979. Her second marriage, from 1982 to 1989, was to Andre J Lyson, with whom she lived in Frankfurt where she learned to speak German. She says she doesn’t think she’ll marry again. Is there a Mr Right out there? ‘I don’t know but I’m very good at being alone. I have been a lot in my life.’
Does she like herself? ‘I have a very healthy dose of self-loathing. But I think we all have a past of being whatever our story was, of feeling not good enough. It can propel you to work harder and do more, but it can also be a tremendous trap and you can’t see beyond it.’
It’s time for the actors to have a rest before another evening of fading youth and fading glory, the chasing of lost dreams. I wonder why people are so amazed that Cattrall happily talks about the menopause, when it is such an obvious fact of life. ‘I think most women don’t want to be thought of as ageing because it not only makes them feel bad, it also broadcasts something about the point of life that they are at. I’m not shamefaced about it because it’s a reality. But then I come from Liverpool and we like to make fun of things. We don’t take everything that seriously. My humour comes from there. And my survival instinct.’