If you look just to the past decade, it's easy to think that Kim Cattrall's career sprung to life, fully formed at the moment she stepped into the designer high-heel shoes of her Sex and the City character, Samantha Jones. But cinephiles and longtime fans know her from so many different distinctive and memorable roles—Miss Honeywell in Porky's, Cadet Karen Thompson in Police Academy, Gracie Law in Big Trouble in Little China, and Lieutenant Valeris in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, to name just a few. And fascinatingly, it's precisely all of these different career permutations that give her performance as the title character in Meet Monica Velour such depth and dimensionality: playing a former porn star fighting for custody of her daughter while living down a dubious past, Cattrall effortlessly communicates worldliness and experience while retaining a sense of hope and optimism that another great opportunity is just around the corner.
Boxoffice spoke to Cattrall via telephone recently in conjunction with the release of Meet Monica Velour, which is slowly making its way into theaters nationwide.
What initially appealed to you about Monica, or the project as a whole?
I really liked the script, and I saw a lot of possibilities in playing this character. She also scared me, and that's always been a bit of a barometer for me, whether I want to engage into something—this feeling of not really knowing if it would work or you could pull it off. I've played a lot of very powerful women, empowered women, strong-willed women, and I thought it would be really interesting to play someone who is none of those things, and find out how I could bring someone really extraordinary in the sense of an outcast of society, but how I could understand her and make her human. And I thought all of those levels were in the script—there's light humor, there's goofy teenage humor, Saturday Night Beaver, M*U*F*F instead of M*A*S*H. But it was also very sophisticated, and I felt it was very touching and narcissistic and difficult to ultimately to watch and ugly and real. I mean these kinds of women, where do they go? They're used up; they have an expiration date when their bodies aren't looking so good anymore, so where do they go? And I thought to myself, this is sort of echoed in Hollywood, in a much less obvious fashion. Women are sexualized and marginalized and then outcast... and I thought, that I could understand because that's been happening to me, if I hadn't been so lucky to be involved with Sex and the City, which was an anomaly really. I mean, a woman's show coming out like that on television, women talking about men and sex? Scary. And also, my character was always in her forties, and then I thought this is an amazing gift that I have been given, and now it's coming to an end, so now what happens? Parts are even fewer and far between, and I'm a woman of a certain age, I don't want to go under the knife - what is going to happen to me? What are the choices that I will make?
At that time a lot of stuff was going on in my life and I just thought, I need a time out and I need to reassess, because I don't want to start that marginalization process just yet. And that's when my background and my first love of theatre really kicked in, and the people that I worked with during my earlier years like Peter Hall, were asking me to come to the West End to do plays. I made specifically choices of people's work who I really admire, and also the scripts that they're drawn to, which have really good roles for women, and who are advocates for women. And then this script comes along with a director that has never made film before, and it's a huge leap of faith because not only am I vulnerable as the character just on the inside, but also the physical transformation. And when I met Keith Bearden, I looked at him and said "that's the character of Tobe in twenty years." So we sat down and we talked about the script, and then I said, "look—you've never done this before and I've done this many times, and I want to know that we can work together." So we got a rehearsal room and we talked about her voice and I said, "I have this feeling like she's got a lower register," and he said, "I have a feeling like her shoulders [slump]—you're too regal, so push her shoulders down instead of out, because she's beaten down"—the whole physicality of it and specifics of what does this woman want. Where is she coming from? How can I relate to this woman who's had this kind of experience? And then it came to the bottom line of what the film is about, which is ultimately it's about a woman fighting for the custody of her daughter, her cub. I don't think there is any woman who can't get behind that.
So that was really kind of moment of, okay—I'm on a road here and I can connect the physical with the emotional and the heart and I can make her real. I can make her touching but also a narcissist - I don't want to make her sentimental, I don't want to Hollywood-ize her. I want to play a real person; not a normal person, a real person. She has no qualifications, she has no hope, this is it. But you see in every instant her intelligence at work, and it's not a learned intelligence; it's an instinctual intelligence to survive. This is closer to what I perceive in real life - heightened yes, because it is a movie, it is a story being told, but to me it's much more reality-based than any Hollywood movie. That's why independent films need to exist, because I think they are the true expression of American movies that reflect more of an American life.
How much could you relate to the fact that Monica had periods of her life where she did work, which even if she was proud of it, she may have not wanted to be singularly identified with or by it?
I don't think that she had those judgments. I don't think she had time for those judgments. I mean if you have that awareness you have to have some kind of perspective, which I don't think she ever did; I think things just happened to her. That is what so touching about when Tobe comes into her life. He doesn't see her in the reality that she is, he sees her still as Monica Velour, even though he knows everything about her; he's not blind but he sees that. And in some ways, when she comes out on that stage and does that strip, he is so healthy because he sees a woman who those other kids are heckling her, and all they see is porn—and in porn those are not real images of women. Most porn stars don't have real breasts or washboard stomachs. I mean, that's not how real women look, and this young guy sees her and he sees her as beautiful. So it's interesting, and I think that says a lot not just about those characters in the film, it says a lot about reality, sadly skewed.
Could you relate at all to the idea of having earlier periods in your career that were different than now, and not wanting to be associated with that?
I think like most actresses, I've been sexualized in the roles that I play, but there's a difference between being sexy and being sexualized - a huge difference. And sometimes in my early career I didn't think I had that much choice because I felt very lucky to get the jobs, especially coming up. And I enjoyed the movies I made in my twenties—I'd been trained in the theatre, and I got on the set and I wanted to learn. I loved comedy - Porky's, like it or not, Police Academy, like it or not, Big Trouble in Little China, there are some really funny moments in those movies, and I had a great time. I was supplementing my theatre career at the same time - when I was doing Big Trouble in Little China, I was doing Three Sisters at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, and when I was doing Porky's, I was doing The View From the Bridge at the Lee Strasberg Institute.
But after a while I thought, wow, there are better roles here. I better start to really invest in that. And then through Masquerade and Unforgettable, the John Dahl film, all of these films that I'd done throughout the years, even Bonfire of the Vanities with Brian De Palma, I was feeling "yes!" But to get to that level and stay there is almost an impossible feat. I kept losing it to Annette Bening, I kept losing it to Michelle Pfeiffer, they're already cast, I couldn't even get in the door. And then Sex and the City came, which changed all of that. Suddenly I was in my own way as desirable as those actresses were for certain roles, but I was still considered a television actress, and people thinking that's what you do even though you have a twenty year career playing all different kinds of roles. And then kind of another conundrum happens, and since the end of Sex and the City I'm really making choices that I am happy with—and Meet Monica Velour is one of them.
You mentioned you've done roles that required nudity in the past. This kind of requires a different kind of revealing of your body—did you have any trepidations about that?
What really drove me to a large extent was I thought if I'm going to do this, I have to do it full out, and I have to check my ego out the door. I kept thinking, if Judi Dench, in her seventies, can get into a bathtub for Richard Eyre for Notes On A Scandal, then Kim, you can do this. And it takes guts and it's really scary to age period, but to do it in the public eye sometimes is quite foreboding, and then to exaggerate it—you know, some of the lights are so harsh on me, and I look at them now and think, it's not me, but it is me. It's my body, it's my talent, it's my intelligence that is up there, but it's also my crow's feet and sagging stomach, which I took on. And I'm so proud of what this film is, because on top of all those things, aesthetically and everything else, I really believe this a feminist film. The speech that she says, "This is what women are—deal with it," I haven't heard that in a movie for a really long time. That's Keith Bearden, and he wrote that, and he's a man—and in some ways it takes even more courage for a man to say that than a woman.
How much have you engaged with the audiences from your earlier movies? Big Trouble in Little China is one of my favorites, and Star Trek VI is honestly my favorite of all of the Trek films. Have you ever done conventions or fan events?
No, it's almost impossible. I so enjoyed doing those films; my mother is a huge science fiction buff, so when I did Star Trek VI, it was like "Oh my God." That and a Tetley tea commercial were I think two of the most important things I made for my mother. But I love the fan base, especially of Star Trek, because once you're in a Star Trek movie, you're in the lore. My relationship with Leonard Nimoy was incredibly special—he really took me under his wing, and he is a brilliant man. And working with James Doohan and William Shatner was terrific, and they were very supportive. I mean, in that character they wanted me to be soft and feminine, and I showed up with a Vidal Sassoon haircut and dyed my hair black, shoe-polish black, shaved my eyebrows. I was going out with a guy from Devo at the time and we really kind of came up with this design together, like this Huguenot haircut because she was like this revolutionary. And of course when Leonard and Bill Shatner saw it, they were like, "uh, wait a minute. We want you to look like a young, Hollywood Vulcan. We don't really want you to look like Che Guevara, you know?" But to their credit, they eventually let me do what I wanted to do.
How much at this point has your age, maybe unexpectedly, been an asset? It seems like you're now getting some really interesting roles.
Yeah, but these are rare. When I read this script and I heard that other actresses were being considered - Courtney Love was being considered, Madonna was being considered, there were a lot of different actresses in the mix, so it was wide open, and these were the producers from The Kids Are Alright, so they had their choice. And it was really Keith Bearden's undying faith and my commitment to working with him and making this as realized and as subtle as I could. And there was also [us] never knowing if the film was ever going to come out. We made this in '08, and you just never know with an independent film. That's why they need support, because people have turned to cable TV, and don't really need that independent fix anymore. But that's what is so important—again, this is I believe a true American movie. It's about real people, it's not about Iron Men or fabulous publicists in New York. It's about somebody who is living in America, in trailer parks.
Are you finding a lot of challenging roles, or are you having to find roles and then figure out ways to make them challenging?
Well, I continue to go to the classics. I just did Antony and Cleopatra in my birth city of Liverpool, England, being directed by a woman who played it very famously in the ‘70s, who was an actress that I saw when I was about 10 or 11 at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Those are the people I want to work with. I want to work with Richard Aaron on Private Lives in West End. I want to work with first time directors who are writing scripts like Meet Monica Velour. And I am so incredibly fortunate in so many ways that I have the possibility and the luxury of saying no to things. But the common denominator is of people of like getting together and saying this is what we want to do, instead of just being someone who is brought in as part of an existing equation. And that's exciting, you know—I'm not a producer, I'm an actor, but if my name right now and the quality of the work I've been doing and have done, can attract a really great director or a really good writer to the equation, what better way do you want your career to go?