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Issue Date: June 13, 2004

Catherine Zeta Jones
has arrived, but don't make a big deal about it

By Dana Kennedy

After Catherine Zeta-Jones started dating Michael Douglas in 1998, her future husband warned her about the media frenzy that would follow. Zeta-Jones, then 29 and fresh off her first Hollywood hit, "The Mask of Zorro," didn't bat an eye. Although virtually unknown in America until then, Zeta-Jones had been a huge star in England because of her role as a voluptuous country girl in a TV series, "The Darling Buds of May." The show was a phenomenon in the early '90s, and Zeta-Jones became a staple of the British tabloids. "Literally, with one hour of television my life completely changed," she says. "I couldn't go anywhere."

Cover: Catherine Zeta-Jones
"The biggest misconception of me is that I'm some die-hard, ambitious, do-anything-to-get-anything kind of person."

So she began to "build a barrier" around herself, which, no doubt, came in handy after she met Douglas. "When Michael told me what was going to happen, I said, 'It's fine,' " she recalls. "I told him, 'You should go in the archives and see what was written about me.' And when everything erupted, it was water off a duck's back."

That Zeta-Jones, now 34, can handle anything life hands her seems an integral part of her personality. Whatever her deepest emotions, she keeps them in check. She became a star after a string of dragon-lady roles in "Entrapment," "Traffic" and "America's Sweethearts" before she was handed the 2002 best supporting actress Oscar for Chicago.

If her public image has been tainted by a whiff of overweening ambition, she can thank her slightly gauche 2000 wedding at the Plaza Hotel; pocketing a reported $800,000 from Britain's OK! magazine for pictures of her and Douglas' newborn son; and her puzzling decision to act as a T-Mobile spokeswoman at the peak of her career. The Hollywood A-list considers doing commercials tacky and crass. If stars make them at all, it's overseas, where the American public can't see them.

Yet once you meet Zeta-Jones, the "get more" image you may have of her disappears. The first clue that she may not be an opportunistic trophy wife comes at the start of our interview, which takes place at a Manhattan restaurant on the Hudson River. Someone's late, and there's a delay. But the tardy diva in this case is not the star; it's the writer. Does she mind being kept waiting? Not at all, it turns out. She settles down in a booth as if she has all the time in the world.

It turns out Zeta-Jones, while confident, is not as steely as she might seem. She had a bad case of butterflies, for example, when she arrived for her first day of filming on "The Terminal," the Steven Spielberg movie opening next weekend. In a departure from her strong-woman parts, Zeta-Jones plays a flighty flight attendant named Amelia. She falls in love with Tom Hanks' character, Viktor Navorski, a visitor from a fictional country in Eastern Europe stranded indefinitely at Kennedy Airport when his homeland erupts in a bloody coup. "I was really nervous going into it," Zeta-Jones says. "I get starstruck like anyone else." But it was such a comfortable environment. "I was only there for three weeks, but I told Steven to write something else for me -- I didn't want to go home."

Spielberg helped launch Zeta-Jones' film career after he saw her in the 1996 TV version of "Titanic" and recommended her to the director of "Zorro." Of all the characters Zeta-Jones has played, he says, Amelia probably is the most like her: "Catherine was the most raw and open I've ever seen her. She let all her insecurities show." The director cites a scene in "Terminal" where Amelia learns her boyfriend is not leaving his wife and tearfully confides in Navorski simply because he has lent her his handkerchief. "The audience is going to want to wrap her up in their arms, not because she's the gorgeous Catherine Zeta-Jones, but because of how sweetly fragile she becomes when her life is in shambles."

Zeta-Jones has yet to be described as "sweetly fragile" offscreen, but she says people would be surprised to learn she can be insecure. "The biggest misconception of me is that I'm some die-hard, ambitious, do-anything-to-get-anything kind of person," she says. "I'm not. I'm very shy socially. Michael and I are homebodies, but I have a work ethic."

Zeta-Jones began dancing lessons at age 4 in Mumbles, a fishing village outside Swansea, Wales. "We had lots of arts and amateur dramatics in my hometown," she says. She put on shows with her teacher and her dentist. "'Waiting for Guffman' was my life." As part of a dance group, she routinely took 3 1/2-hour bus rides to London for auditions, and began winning roles at 10 in musicals like "Annie" and "Bugsy Malone." At 15, she quit school with her parents' blessing and moved into a London flat with a tutor. "My parents said, 'No drugs, don't go crazy, keep a level head or you'll be carted back,' " she says.

She kept her end of the bargain and the following year found herself in the West End headlining "42nd Street." After two years of eight shows a week, Zeta-Jones hung up her shoes for a career in TV. Two years later she abandoned that just as abruptly for fear of being pigeonholed as "the girlfriend." She gave herself six months to make it in Hollywood. "It was really humbling," she says. First, she had to learn to drive and negotiate the L.A. freeways. Second, she had to adapt to knocking on doors where no one recognized her. "I went from being one of the most photographed people in Britain to walking into Warner Bros. and them saying, 'Well, what have you done?' "

While it's clear Zeta-Jones had more than the necessary backbone to conquer Hollywood, she says it's her treasured family life that really brings up her insecurities. "There's something else people don't know about me," she says, as if no one will believe her. "I'm an anxious person. My husband calls me 'Dame Doom.' I will find the worst-case scenario for everything -- especially now with my kids and the jungle gyms. I need to be sedated before I take them to the park." She also doesn't like to fly alone. "If I told you everything I was scared of, you'd think I need therapy." (In case you're wondering, she has never had any.)

In the past few months, she says, she's become more like her mother: "I hear myself say something like 'You dirty pig' [to her son, in Welsh]. That's just what my mother said to me!"

Zeta-Jones (it's Zee-ta, not Zay-ta) is extremely proud of her roots and stays close to her family, who frequently visits. She and Douglas, 59, have homes in Majorca and New York, but their principal residence is Bermuda, where they live with their kids, Dylan, 3, and Carys, 1. She describes an idyllic life there: golf, sailing and just walking on the beach. She feels at home in the British colony, where pubs have pictures of the queen on the walls.

She has a bit of anxiety about one day losing Douglas, who at this moment is playing Mr. Mom back in Bermuda. But she's surprisingly unflappable about the rumored clause in their prenuptial agreement calling for her to be awarded money if Douglas (who has a history of infidelity) ever cheats. Zeta-Jones won't comment but doesn't seem annoyed by the question either. "Anybody in my position or Michael's who doesn't sign [a prenup] is dumb," she says. "I'd want my daughter to sign one." And she makes it clear, as she does several times during a conversation that stretches past the scheduled hour, that she had a career and a bank account before joining the "Douglas dynasty," as she refers to her husband and his screen-legend dad, Kirk.

And just like that you're reminded of that streak of independence you saw before. Zeta-Jones has one more day of business before flying back home and says she always tries to catch a Broadway show when she's in town. Usually, she finds herself wishing she were onstage. "Even without my husband," she says, "I'd have an amazing lifestyle."

Photograph by Andrew Eccles for USA WEEKEND
Make-up: Dick Page/Jed Root; hair: Max Pinnell/Bumble & Bumble; manicurist: Deborah Lippmann/Lippmann Collection

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