CATHERINE ZETA-Jones is a bit of a pushover in "The Terminal," and after her recent turns as profiteering divorcee and a killer, it takes some getting used to.
Even for her.
"I've had a great run of characters," says Zeta-Jones, who won an Oscar for her work as death-row dweller Velma in "Chicago," "But playing a gold digger in 'Intolerable Cruelty' and before that a murderess doesn't lend itself to a lot of vulnerability."
In fact, she's been playing the femme fatale for so long that her smoldering, sultry looks and Lauren Bacall-ish voice are starting to become synonymous with larceny.
A quick check of the record, in fact, shows she's actually never played the kind of woman she plays in "The Terminal" - a woman with a fatal attraction to married men, who loves men more than they love her, who occupies a love triangle's corner of neglect.
Things change for her character, a flight attendant, when she finally falls for a decent guy. Decent but essentially homeless. She doesn't realize the guy (Tom Hanks) spends so much time at the airport because he's stranded there.
"I've been looking for some time for a role that would enable me to show a softer side. To be more of a regular girl. My character, Amelia, has all of the foibles and vulnerabilities that we all have as women."
Catherine Zeta-Jones. Regular gal?
Ironically, the job of turning the ultra-glamorous star into a more accessible woman goes to the same guy who made her a star in the first place - Steven Spielberg, director of "The Terminal."
The Welsh actress was unknown to U.S. audiences when Spielberg spotted her in a TV movie about the Titanic and requested that she audition for a film he was producing - "The Mask of Zorro."
"He was actually channel surfing. It still kind of blows my mind that Steven Spielberg, who runs this gigantic entertainment company [DreamWorks] and makes these brilliant movies, has time to channel surf. I'm still quite flabbergasted by it, really," she said, laughing.
She tested for the role, and though she wasn't Spielberg's first choice, she impressed director Martin Campbell and won over Spielberg in interviews.
"I feel as though I did the hard work I needed to do to get the part, but still, I feel indebted to him in a way because my life history changed from that moment," she said.
Though not technically a debut, her eye-popping star turn in "Mask of Zorro" made Zeta-Jones an instant sensation, and much in demand by other brilliant directors named Stephen - Stephen Frears in "High Fidelity," Stephen Soderbergh in "Traffic" - before landing her Oscar-winning role in "Chicago."
"Chicago," in a way, returned Zeta-Jones to her theatrical roots - she'd been a very young star on London's West End, a celebrity in England as a teenager, long before she was ready for stardom.
"Celebrity came to me quite young and I didn't know how to handle it. I was bitten by it, in some ways. I never had anybody to share the experience with, and that can be tough. One day you're anonymous, and the next day you're on the cover of a national publication."
The problem is magnified tenfold now that she's an international star married to another (Michael Douglas). She's learned to manage her celebrity, to treat it as another job, to balance it with what remains of her private life.
"When you're in the public eye, people expect things from you, and I think it's worse to run from those obligations than to meet them," she said. "I'm also grateful for all the things that have come my way, and I respect the traditions that come with the benefits. I'll stand on the red carpet all night long if you want me to. Just don't follow me back to my garden."
Zeta-Jones has the reputation of being one modern star who treats the job of stardom like an old-fashioned movie star - she has an army of wardrobe and style people in her camp, and she rarely appears in casual dress.
Still, she longs for the days when movie stars could stay out of the tabloids if they wanted.
"My father-in-law [Kirk Douglas] says this all the time - it's different now. In the golden age of Hollywood, the audience was transfixed and transported into a fantasy world, and the stars were part of that fantasy. Today, we know too much about the actors. Who they sleep with, what they've had for breakfast. I think it's taken something away from the movies," she said.
Zeta-Jones can't control the press, but she's done a remarkable job managing her career. First by avoiding the pitfall of the British actress who gets trapped in period and costume dramas.
"I was really adamant about doing an American accent in 'Entrapment,' " said the star. Her next movie, "Ocean's 12," will give her a chance to do comedy again.
"I play an investigator. A European investigator. So I get to fake my own accent. How great is that?"