LOS ANGELES -- The actual amount of time between the original The Mask Of Zorro and this week's sequel The Legend Of Zorro was seven years. In the lives of the characters, it's presented as 10.
For Catherine Zeta-Jones, it's the time that elapses between entire lives.
"I used to bump into Antonio (Banderas) or (director) Martin Campbell and it was always, 'Let's do another one,'" Zeta-Jones says of the movie that turned her from an unknown into a bankable lead. "And it was not just professionally important to me, but personally too. Michael saw me in it, seduced me... hounded me... followed me around the world! And look at me now, two kids later."
Maybe it's the allergy medication that makes Zeta-Jones especially ebullient this day (she claims to be "so wired up I can hardly blink" and apologizes for a husk in her voice that "makes me sound like a cross between Kathleen Turner, Demi Moore and a truck driver"). But she has given a pretty good thumbnail sketch of how one of the most improbable of cross-generational Hollywood couples came to be.
She and Michael Douglas met at the Deauville Film Festival in France where she was promoting Zorro and Douglas had become besotted by the unknown woman he'd seen playing the fiery Elena Montero. A whirlwind courtship followed that led to her marrying a Hollywood star 25 years her senior.
Just how whirlwind it was becomes clear when Zeta-Jones mentions that Michael rented a house in L.A. last year as a midpoint for Zeta-Jones and family while she filmed The Legend Of Zorro in San Luis Potosi, Mexico.
She had to rent in L.A.? The Douglases own several houses, with a principal residence in Bermuda (they recently bought a winter place in Mont Tremblant, Que.). How could they not have a place in Los Angeles?
"I don't like it. And Michael never lived there. He was brought up on the East Coast and only came here sometimes to see his dad (Kirk Douglas).
"But I came from Wales and within a few months I was filming (the mini-series) Titanic in Canada. Then I got Zorro, so I was in Mexico for six months. I came back, bought a house (in L.A.), lived in it for three nights and then went to Scotland to do Entrapment with Sean (Connery). I came back, promoted Zorro, met my husband and sold my house. So I never really lived here either."
So no, it wasn't the same old Catherine Zeta-Jones who returned to Mexico. That Catherine could wander around shopping in the local markets while photogs snapped furiously at her co-stars Banderas and Anthony Hopkins.
"This time, just keeping where I lived private was hard enough. But San Luis Potosi really opened its arms to us. There were restaurants that became my catinas. They'd cook for me, and my driver would pick it up."
In The Legend Of Zorro, Zeta-Jones goes from a real improbable marriage to another onscreen. In it, Don Alejandro de la Vega, a.k.a. Zorro (Banderas) has arrived at a crossroads in his marriage with Elena (Zeta-Jones) -- his commitment to the people of colonial California having reached a fever pitch with the electoral decision of the State to join the U.S. She wants more of him, as much for the sake of their child Joaquin (Adrian Alonso), a mini-Zorro who already exhibits signs of his dad's swashbuckling flair, as for herself.
The couple separates, and with a divorce decree comes a new suitor, a sinister French nobleman played by Rufus Sewell. All this as nefarious plans unfurl all around.
What thrilled her the most was that she had even more swordfighting to do than she did the first time around. Rufus Sewell says she was so jazzed by the fight scenes that she actually broke his nose.
"Is he still talking about it?" she says with mock disgust. "God, enough already. I sent him flowers. I went to his trailer three times to make sure he was okay.
"I'd never fenced until the first Zorro. And I had no time, this time, between finishing Ocean's 12 and going to Mexico where they'd already been shooting for a few weeks. But it kind of came back. I treated it like choreography, like dancing. It was great exercise, I love it."
It was also an emotional reunion she says. "I had a tear in my eye when I saw Antonio in his Zorro getup."
The downside, as before, was the clothing. "Visually, the fashions are absolutely superb. The reality is I have no idea how the hell they got dressed and undressed in that heat. I'm for women's lib -- throw off that bra!
"But to be asked to swordfight in that stuff is unbelievable. In my own life I constantly squeeze myself into uncomfortable stuff, but I don't wear three petticoats!"
Couple is cooking, but Zeta-Jones isn't
So after five years of marriage, what is life like these days for The Douglases? Well, for starters, Catherine Zeta-Jones says she's not allowed in the kitchen.
"Michael's afraid if I'm in there," she says with a laugh. "I nearly burned up the apartment in New York. Michael can't cook either, but he's really good at making dinner reservations.
"I actually did burn a pan, it was smoking and burning, and right next to it was a big old fire extinguisher." Which she ignored. Instead, "I run to the other side of the apartment, get Michael and yell, 'We've got a fire in the kitchen!'
"It was like, 'Honey (she makes gestures of introduction)... Fire extuisher - fire - fire - fire extinguisher.'
"The ironic thing is that in my next movie, Mostly Martha, I'm playing a chef."
What she'd tell young parents: "Learn from my mistakes. I've been, like, crazy overprotective. They're gonna fall, trip, my daughter's gonna cut her chin, my son's going to knock his teeth out. I'm terrified constantly.
"If I'm working, Michael's with me and the kids, and if he's working, I'm with him and the kids." Next stop: Hawaii. "He's doing a movie there, I can't remember the name, with Owen Wilson." (It's called You, Me & Dupree).
Life in Bermuda: "It's just easy. It's removed, and a great place to bring up kids.
"You should see me in the morning, with no hair and makeup, taking my kids to school. I'll be pulling a baseball cap over my face and I'm, like, 'Why am I hiding? Nobody's going to recognize me anyway!'"
Her soccer mom car: A Peugeot.
Her next role: After Mostly Martha, she's cast as Lana Turner opposite Keanu Reeves in Stompanato. "It's a great part," says Zeta-Jones, who is nonetheless worried that "the studio halfway through the movie will turn around and say, 'Y'know, she really doesn't look like her.'
The role has brought her closer to her father-in-law Kirk, who knew Turner. "He's become my research engine, my Google."
Adorable Michael Douglas story: "My normal Welsh accent is so strong that when I'm on the phone with my mother and I go back to it, Michael thinks I'm speaking Welsh, which is a whole other language. He says, 'Y'know that's a beautiful language, you should speak it more often.' I say, 'I'm speaking English for God's sake!'"