- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 17, 2004

Catherine Zeta-Jones feels a kind of kinship to the main character in Steven Spielberg’s “The Terminal,” a lighthearted saga about an Eastern European stranded in a New York airport because of visa problems.

“I was a complete alien to this country, overwhelmed by the size of it,” says the smokily-accented actress and cell phone hawker, 34, who grew up in a Welsh fishing village.

“I’ve always felt, and I still do, that America has very big open arms. It works for it, and it works against it,” she says.

“Soon, I realized I was just like everyone else. I’ve always felt that was the most appealing thing about America. A lot of countries are so deep into the class structure, but here you can be from any class and still reach the heights.”

And reach the heights she has: an Oscar for her song-and-dance triumph in “Chicago” (2002), and a dream Hollywood marriage to Michael Douglas, with whom she has two children.

Although, at this moment — she’s on the phone from Los Angeles — there’s something very unglamorous happening to Miss Zeta-Jones.

“So that’s what’s been digging into my side all day,” she says, reporting she’s just found the “biggest dry-cleaning ticket” stapled to her top.

That’s nothing: “I’ve walked out with price tags still on my back,” she says.

Such is the side of herself she’s been hoping to reveal to audiences. “I’ve been looking for that regular-girl role for a while,” she says.

“I’m much more klutzy and insecure than I let on.”

Miss Zeta-Jones’ American breakthrough came in 1998 as the swashbuckling Elena in “The Mask of Zorro,” followed by an equally physical workout in “Entrapment.”

Even in “Traffic,” her first prestige performance as a drug lord’s wife, her character took on a dark, violent tone.

In “The Terminal,” she plays a slightly wifty, lovelorn international flight attendant who starts to fall for Tom Hanks’ hapless Slavic visitor, Viktor Navorski.

Mr. Spielberg “wanted to see me in a vulnerable role,” she says. “I was flattered that he was even considering me for any role.”

Her first day on the Palmdale, Calif., set: “Terrified.”

Mr. Spielberg “came into my makeup trailer and said, ‘Someone told me that you’re really nervous, and that’s just nuts.’

“He’s the sweetest, nicest guy you’ll ever meet,” she says, adding, “I thought this was a surprising choice for Steven.”

“The Terminal” follows 2002’s “Catch Me If You Can,” the first sign of returning lightheartedness in Mr. Spielberg, who, beginning with “Schindler’s List,” hewed to big and solemn themes — slavery (“Amistad”), D-Day (“Saving Private Ryan”) and brave-new-world morality (“A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” “Minority Report”).

“It’s always something that he wanted to do, and it came to fruition with Tom [Hanks] attached,” Miss Zeta-Jones says of the “Terminal” project.

True to form, Mr. Spielberg spared no expense in the construction of a faux-airport terminal designed to look like New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, complete with escalators, a giant schedule display board and a bevy of retail stores.

“It was like ‘The Truman Show,’” she says of the set, referring to the fantasy movie in which Jim Carrey is trapped unwittingly in a make-believe world.

“I was shocked by its size and attention to detail.”

Of course, as a world famous actress with transnational roots, Miss Zeta-Jones is herself a quasi-citizen of airports. And the hyper-aware, post-September 11 security atmosphere at airports provides the subtext of “The Terminal.”

“You basically have to disrobe now,” Miss Zeta-Jones quips.

If the movie gently suggests the new measures are excessive and unwelcomingly paranoid, she won’t say so.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

“I don’t care. As long as we’re safe.”

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