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'I owe it all to Zorro'
(Filed: 21/10/2005)

Catherine Zeta-Jones talks to John Hiscock about wealth, happiness - and the new film in which she returns to her breakthrough role

The weekend Catherine Zeta-Jones arrived in Los Angeles for the première of her new film The Legend Of Zorro, a local television station was re-running an episode of The Darling Buds Of May.

Catherine Zeta-Jones
 
Catherine Zeta-Jones:
'I wouldn't change a thing'

Although her role as the dewy-eyed, innocent-but-sexual Mariette in the 1990s series made her a national obsession in Britain, she did not bother to tune in for a nostalgic look at herself. After all, it was not a particularly challenging role, it had the by-product of making her a prime target for paparazzi, and she has come a long way since then. Just how far, even she finds hard to believe.

After arriving in Hollywood in the mid-1990s as, she recalls, "a dumb little Welsh girl", she struggled to make herself known in several small roles. Then in 1998 she was cast as the feisty, swashbuckling swordswoman Elena in The Mask of Zorro and she cut an instant swathe through Hollywood. Suddenly, everybody knew who she was.

Now she has returned to the role that made her a star; but what a difference seven years makes. During that time she has met and married Hollywood heavyweight Michael Douglas, won an Oscar, had two children and has become one of the most photographed actresses in the world. Her statuesque figure and stately beauty have led to her being hailed as a throwback to the stars of Hollywood's golden age and Esquire magazine described her as "the most beautiful woman on the planet".

In The Legend of Zorro, she again teams up with her co-star Antonio Banderas and director Martin Campbell. The new film is set several years after the end of the previous adventure, when Zorro and Elena are married with a 10-year-old son. With the territory of California seeking to become the 31st state of the union, Zorro must battle members of a mysterious organisation who are determined to prevent it. Torn between his duty and his desire for a more normal life, he has to choose between his mask and Elena, who kicks him out and begins a dalliance with the French aristocrat Armand (Rufus Sewell).

Zeta-Jones filmed it in Mexico straight after finishing Ocean's 12. "It was like revisiting an old friend," she says. "When I walked on to the set and saw Antonio in his Zorro outfit it brought tears to my eyes. Oh my God, it was déjà vu! A lot of the original cast were back, too, and it was great. I just love my character.

"The first film holds a special place in my heart because it was my breakout movie, and then I met my husband while I was at the Deauville Film Festival promoting it. In the meantime Antonio's baby was born and I became a mother and now seven years later we get to do it all again."

When we meet in LA, Catherine Zeta-Jones, 36, is wearing a tight, low-cut black dress, her raven hair hanging down over her shoulders. Away from the screen she still speaks in a lilting Welsh accent and, as always in her interviews, she is friendly and outgoing.

The Legend of Zorro
With Antonio Banderas in The Legend of Zorro
More pictures

Once driven by her fierce desire to "make it" in Hollywood, her focus has now changed from her career to her family and she has not worked for the past year in order to concentrate on being a mother to Dylan, five, and Carys, two.

"I took a year out because I'm never going to get this time back with my children and it's a pivotal time in their lives," she says. "I love my job, but movies are now a bonus in my life, not an absolute necessity. My husband thought I would go bananas without going to work but you'd be surprised how quickly I adapted to not having anybody telling me what time I had to get up or be on the set."

She and Douglas, who is 25 years her senior, ensure that when one of them is working the other is free to be with the children, who spend most of their time in Bermuda, where Dylan is at school.

"They're really good kids and I'm really proud of them. They kind of get what we do but they're surprisingly unaffected and nonchalant about the whole thing, which is healthy for them. We are as hands-on as much as we possibly can be. We camp in the garden; we have a little fishing boat and we stay out overnight and camp with Dylan. We're just a normal family. They are not Hollywood brats by any stretch of the imagination. We just try to keep them as grounded as possible.

"Michael is wonderful. He really enjoys family life the second time around and he now has time to enjoy those moments he missed before when he was doing Fatal Attraction or Wall Street or whatever it was."

She agrees that when it comes to raising children, a family fortune makes a difference. "I'm very conservative with my money and I like to invest it because when you earn it you take care of it," she says. "But it means my children will have a much different life than I ever had growing up, that's for sure."

One huge difference it makes is in the number of homes they have. As well as Bermuda, Douglas and Zeta-Jones have homes in Mallorca and New York, and they've just bought a property near a ski resort in Canada.

"Like people collect art, we collect homes," she says, matter-of-factly. "A bit of art, too, but predominantly homes. We love architecture and we love the difference between New York and Bermuda and the beauty of Canada and Spain. It's like a passion. We don't swan around in Rolls-Royces - actually we swan around in a Peugeot - so we buy homes."

Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones
 
Her husband Michael Douglas
'is wonderful'

So how do they maintain two careers, four homes and a family? "We have people who we trust around us, that's the most important thing," she says. "I don't surround myself with sycophants or yes people. I have a really great team and a lot of them are my family and I think that's important."

One of three children of working-class parents in Mumbles, Wales, Zeta-Jones knew from an early age she wanted to be an actress and dancer. When other children were out playing she was in front of a mirror at ballet class, and when she was 12 she was starring in the stage production of Annie. She went on to headline the West End production of 42nd Street at the age of 15 and then in 1991 she landed the role of Mariette in The Darling Buds of May.

To her annoyance, it made her a target for photographers and gossip columnists who dutifully chronicled her romances with boyfriends such as John Leslie, Mick Hucknall, Paul McGann, Angus MacFadyen and Jon Peters. "I felt hunted," she recalls.

After playing a surfer's girlfriend in the British film Blue Juice and with her engagement to MacFadyen over, she decided to try her luck in Hollywood.

She appeared in the little-seen film The Phantom and then Steven Spielberg saw her in the television mini-series Titanic and recommended her for the leading female role opposite Antonio Banderas in The Mask of Zorro. While she was awaiting the film's release she landed the co-starring role with Sean Connery in Entrapment. She played the wife of a drug lord in the Oscar-winning Traffic and went on to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as murderess Velma Kelly in the film version of the Broadway hit Chicago.

She has retained her links with Spielberg, who directed her with Tom Hanks in The Terminal and is the executive producer of The Legend Of Zorro.

She is delighted that fellow actor Daniel Craig has also made it to the big-time, with his casting as James Bond. "Daniel and I worked together years ago on The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and he's a fine actor and I'm thrilled for him," she says. "James Bond has a licence to kill and Daniel has that kind of intensity. I think he's a great choice."

After spending Christmas in Bermuda she will be going back to work, playing a top chef who uses food as a means to express her roller-coaster life in a remake of the German romantic comedy Mostly Martha. "The first thing I have to do is learn how to cook," she says. "That's a major problem right now."

But Catherine Zeta-Jones's problems are few and far between and she readily acknowledges how fortunate she is.

"I wouldn't change a thing," she says. "I've learned so much from the films I've done, people I've met, experiences I've had and the journeys I've taken that I feel blessed. If it all ended tomorrow, I'd say, 'Goodnight and thank you. I've been very happy.' "

  • 'The Legend of Zorro' opens next Friday.