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Welsh beauty living American dream

June 20, 2004


LOS ANGELES -- She works in Hollywood, which means that she should be used to dealing with snakes by now, but by the look on her beautiful face, Catherine Zeta-Jones is still a bit petrified.

You can't blame her because on this day the reptiles aren't carrying cell phones and talking about three-picture deals. It's worse. Five minutes before Zeta-Jones is scheduled to walk out on "The Tonight Show," the Welsh beauty is informed that the other guest that night is none other than crocodile lover himself -- Steve Irwin -- and he has critters with him.

"I'm going to faint," Zeta-Jones, 34, insists. "If there is even one snake in this studio, I just won't be able to get my head around it."

This comes from a woman who isn't afraid of much. She left her native Wales to move to the United States. She has faced the blinding light of the paparazzi, thanks to her marriage to Hollywood legend Michael Douglas. And, almost nine months pregnant with their daughter last year, she waddled out onto the stage at the Oscars, no less, to sing a tune from "Chicago." Incidentally, that film that earned her an Academy Award, which meant more waddling onto that Oscar stage.

Minutes away from shooting the breeze with Jay Leno, Zeta-Jones is turning all girly. "I'm fine with spiders. I don't even mind strange bugs. But snakes? Thank God, I don't live in the jungle."

The next day in a different jungle called Beverly Hills, Zeta-Jones holds court in her suite at the Four Seasons Hotel. She's oblivious to the fact that her hotel currently houses Vin Diesel, Ashley Judd, Kevin Kline, the Wayans clan, her pal Queen Latifah and countless other A-listers.

"My mind is in Spain because Michael is there right now with the kids and I miss them so much," she frets, adding, " I just got off the plane from our house there. I feel like I'm living my movie, 'The Terminal.'"

The movie is the reason that Douglas is on diaper duty.

Zeta-Jones stars for director Steven Spielberg in the story of a man from a fictional Eastern European country named Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), who lands at JFK in New York on some family business. Before he can find his first rude New York cabbie, Hanks' character is informed that there has been a coup in his country. His passport is invalid. He cannot enter American soil. He can't go back to his country, either. He must live in the airport until this is cleared up.

The movie is based on a real-life case where a man was stuck at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris due to the same circumstances. "It's not just about the sheer horror of being stuck in the airport, and we've all been there," Zeta-Jones says. "It's much more a story of 'what if you had no country or no place to call home?' Can you imagine the fear of knowing that you absolutely were lost in the world?"

Zeta-Jones wasn't exactly lost when the offer came in for her to play a flight attendant named Amelia, who runs into Hanks a couple of times and then develops feelings for him.

"From the minute I read the script, it really was a no-brainer," says the star of "Entrapment," "Traffic" and "America's Sweethearts."

"Torture me! Tom Hanks. Steven Spielberg. Please! I loved the ensemble quality to the movie, and the fact that it was a story that really is about opening your heart and meeting new friends. It's about opening your mind to the romance that truly seems like the most ridiculous thing in the world."

That said, Zeta-Jones admits that there was one factor that was a bit tough when it came to this movie, and it wasn't squeezing into those ugly flight attendant uniforms.

"The hard thing is that it's a real hard movie to describe. In fact, I've been working on this for months, so here we go.

"It's a comedy," she begins. "It's touching. Poignant. It's sad. It's happy. It's just so much in one film."

It's also a film about how quick Americans are to shove aside people who don't speak the language. The New York airport is initially filled with rude types who make Viktor's life an even bigger hell. Zeta-Jones knows that feeling because despite her obvious beauty, she insists that life wasn't easy when she arrived here from her hometown of Swansea, Wales, in the '80s. She was a star in Wales who headlined the TV show there called "The Darling Buds of May." All of that meant nothing on American soil.

"The world has just changed so much from when I was a child," she says. "I came to America thinking that people would look me in the eye and say 'good morning.' I was brushed aside, too, when I first got here. It was a case of, 'Why is she here? Where is she from?'"

She was determined to fit in. "We're all immigrants in this country. We're all from someplace else. I didn't care if it took me some time to get used to the culture. I always had the American dream. I needed to leave Wales because I was convinced that things could happen to me here."

And happen they did.

Zeta-Jones laughs when asked about her first memories of touching down in Los Angeles. "We drive on the other side of the road in Wales," she says. "Let's just say I'll never forget my first trip on the freeway in my rental car in Los Angeles. I was absolutely terrified!

"I come from a country where the biggest roads are three lanes -- maximum. In Los Angeles, it's six lanes of people going 100 miles per hour. Honestly, I was behind the wheel, driving on what I considered to be the wrong side of the road. And I was screaming on the top of my lungs, 'Get me out of here!'"

Her drive to succeed as an actress put the brakes on her buying a one-way ticket back to Wales. She broke in with American audiences in the film "Zorro" with Antonio Banderas. In fact, she will soon film the sequel with him. "I'll be pouring myself into another corset," she says.

After countless local productions in Wales, she spent her teen years in London, where she auditioned and got work in musicals. At age 15, she was living in her own flat with her parents' blessing. After a starring role on the West End in "42nd Street," Zeta-Jones left the stage for English TV.

She figures her best move on American soil was meeting film star Michael Douglas, tap dancing in his bathroom on their first date and then falling in love with him.

They are one of Hollywood's reigning power couples, with homes in Majorca, New York and Bermuda, and two children Dylan, 3, and Carys, 1. It sounds like a thrilling life, but Zeta-Jones insists its all quite normal.

Ask her how they keep the romance alive, and she pooh-poohs the idea of having a "date night." "Oh, no! Forget about going out. Michael and I are homebodies," Zeta-Jones says. "We're really not into renting movies. We're happy to just sit on the couch like everybody else out there and watch the news or watch a sporting event."

Then there's the kids. "Michael is such a hands-on, terrific father. It's been that way since both children were born. He's the kind of man who says, 'Honey, you go to the restaurant to meet our friends. I'll meet you there in 30 minutes because Dylan needs a story."

She talks so lovingly about her husband that it's hard to believe the two can't find a decent script to star in together.

"We were in 'Traffic' together, which was wonderful, but we weren't in any scenes together," she says. "Quite honestly, if Michael wasn't my husband, I'd still love to work with Michael Douglas. But it's tricky with real-life couples. You really do have to find the right thing because everyone is watching."

As for other future projects, she mentions that after "Chicago," she would love to sing and dance again on the big screen.

"I'd dying to do another musical. What about 'Brigadoon'? Honestly, I'd love to do anything on a stage. I'd love to do a show in Vegas with drag queens. The tackier the better," she says, joking. "You may laugh, but I'll call you for an interview when I get the job."

Distributed by Big Picture News


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