‘A lot of guys my age are terrified of me’

Liz Hoggard:

It’s a little unnerving interviewing a sex goddess. For six glorious screen years, we cheered on Kim Cattrall, aka Samantha Jones, in ‘Sex and the City’ (SATC). She was the poster girl for mature beauty, a heroine to women and gay men alike. She empowered us all. But in person, at 48, with a diet and exercise regime to shame many younger women, Cattrall exists as a rebuke. “Why don’t you look like that?” men ask.

And she hasn’t let the grass grow under her feet since ‘Sex and the City’ finished. She’s written and produced a new TV series about the history of sex for Channel 4 and HBO, made the indie film ‘Ice Princess’, become the face of Tetley Tea (in tribute to her English roots) and is about to star in Peter Hall’s West End production of ‘Whose Life Is It Anyway’? Meanwhile, the British tabloids are full of stories about her new toyboy, Canadian chef Alan Wyse, 27.

A slender blonde woman who looks oddly familiar, meets me. She’s not young, but there’s something compelling about her. She looks like the heroine of a Bergman film. Someone who has lived and lost and lived a bit more.

With only one day in the UK to acclimatise before rehearsals, Cattrall says she is having the time of her life. “Even though I’m still not sleeping, I just feel so invigorated. It’s funny that a play about a woman wanting the right to die should have infused me with so much life.” She’s not fazed by grubby south London either. “Kris Kristofferson once said to me, ‘Honey, it’s not about sunglasses and limousines’,” she says drolly. What’s it like working with Hall? ‘He’s been so wonderful and encouraging. I feel completely protected by this security net. My experiences in film and theatre in the States have been much more rigorous, much more “You’re not doing it right!”, and here there’s an environment of “Let’s try this”.’

Brian Clarke’s 1976 play, ‘Whose Life Is It Anyway?’, the story of a male artist, Ken Harrison, who is paralysed after a car accident, was a West End hit with Tom Conti. In 1979, Clarke rewrote it for a female protagonist — Claire Harrison — played by Mary Tyler Moore on Broadway. It’s a well-crafted play with a great central role for a woman, but even though Clarke has updated it with references to Christopher Reeve and Diane Pretty, you wonder if it can transcend its 1970s idiom. The key, you sense, will be Cattrall.

“I started practising lying in bed at night physically not being able to move from my shoulders down,” she says. “I found it very difficult to begin with because I’m a very physical woman, but the amazing thing is I really do feel like an inanimate object.” In 2002, the case of Miss B, a 43-year-old woman who won a landmark right to die, brought home the reality of being single and paralysed: if we don’t have children, do we really want to live on as a burden to our friends? While no one is expecting Cattrall to reprise Samantha, she will bring an added poignancy to the role. Does she relate to the character? “Claire is a sculptor and most artists are rebels. She’s very courageous and strong. Art is an expression of who you are.”

Cattrall famously turned down the role of ‘Sex and the City’s’ Samantha Jones thrice. She’d read Candace Bushnell’s book and worried that the series would be another attempt to pathologise single women. When she did accept, it capsized her engagement to ‘Murder One’ actor Daniel Benzali, who couldn’t cope with her playing such a sexy character. Later, her third marriage collapsed through pressure of work. Having given so much of her life to SATC, how does it feel to let go?

“Someone said to me, ‘Are you frightened that you’ll be stereotyped playing this one thing for the rest of your life?’ But this ‘one thing’ is such a positive, vibrant outlook on life. It could be a lot worse! For me to play a femme fatale in my 40’s... I thought that those days were done, that I’d be playing wives and mothers.” Interestingly, she never watched the series. “I know what the experience was and that’s enough. When you meet people who’ve seen you do outrageous things, they’re not relating to you, but to what they’ve seen.”

She’s endearingly open about her own bumpy love life. At 19 she married Canadian writer Larry Davis; then German architect Andreas Lyson in the 1980s; and finally Mark Levinson, ‘a musician and techno-nerd type of guy’ whom she divorced last year. She is rumoured to have dated former Canadian premier Pierre Trudeau. Bill Clinton is an admirer. Yet she claims she has spent much of her life single.

When she got together with Levinson, it seemed her prince had come. They met in a jazz club (later immortalised in an episode of SATC ) and he had no idea who she was. A week later she moved in with him. Together they wrote a book for couples about sexual intimacy, ‘Satisfaction: The Art of the Female Orgasm’, and embarked on a book tour. A year later they separated. In fact, Cattrall’s reason for writing ‘Satisfaction’ was sound. Publishers were throwing millions at her to do ‘Samantha’s Sex Tips’, but she wanted to use her new-found power to do something to demystify sex for women — to acknowledge that she had found fulfilment tricky until her forties.

Cattrall plays the Park Avenue princess on screen, but her background is blue-collar. She was born in Liverpool in 1956 (as plain Clare Woodgate), one of four siblings, to a housewife and a construction worker. The family emigrated to Canada before she was one. When her grandmother fell ill she came back to England for a year, aged 11, taking drama classes at Lamda, then returned to Canada. At 16 she left home for New York to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Cattrall was signed up for a five-year film contract with Otto Preminger. In fact, she proved anything but an overnight success. Minor roles included a sexually voracious gym teacher in ‘Porky’s’, a sexy cadet in ‘Police Academy’ and a sexy plastic model in ‘Mannequin’ (you get the picture). Even her “serious” role as Tom Hanks’ wife in ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ involved dieting to a size four in two weeks.

‘Sex and the City’ made — and bruised — her. By series two, cracks had begun to appear. One of the crueller rumours was that Cattrall had accidentally let slip in a script meeting that actress Cynthia Nixon, who plays Miranda, had suffered a miscarriage. Reportedly the other three never forgave her, excluding her from lunches and holidays thereafter. Last year, when all the cast were nominated for Emmys, Cattrall pointedly sat apart.

“I’m human. I make mistakes. I sometimes lead with my heart instead of my head. I would never go and hurt someone, I would never be abusive. But do I stick up for myself? Yes, I tell the truth. The rest of it I can’t control. And it’s hard, because as an actor — well, as anybody — you want to be liked. The people who are there for me are still there for me,” she says.

She met boyfriend Alan Wyse in a restaurant in Toronto. A chef sounds like a great idea for a woman who spent years starving (the oldest woman on SATC by 10 years, Cattrall carried all the nude scenes). So, are younger men the answer? “I found a lot of guys my age and older were absolutely terrified of me,” she says. “Younger men weren’t. They’re full of ‘Let’s go!’ The perception is that I’m going to be something in the bedroom that they can’t compete with — but that’s their loss. Only the brave need apply,” she jokes.

She is upfront about being childless. “A lot of women my age and younger think: ‘I don’t even want to have a family’. Because once you have a child, that becomes your life, and while that’s the way it should be, I sort of have a love affair with my work.”