Getting Over Samantha

Photo: Kate Orne/Icon International

Kim Cattrall is sitting in a booth in the Algonquin Hotel explaining what it is like to do theater, serious theater, when one is best known as Samantha Jones, the unabashedly horny, bon mot–spitting publicist of Sex and the City. “I was in a show in London, Whose Life Is It Anyway?” Cattrall recalls. “I was dressed in a hospital gown, and I had on whiteface makeup, and when I first come on I’m in a bed, on a trolley, paralyzed. And when I come downstage, someone whistled. Like a catcall.”

Sex and the City ended its run on HBO seven years ago, but between the ever-present reruns and the two films, the four brunching, dating, Cosmo-sipping and shoe-shopping girlfriends remain almost as omnipresent as they were then, their influence apparent in everything from the bawdy twentysomething heroines of 2 Broke Girls and Whitney to the waxing habits of various Kardashians and Housewives. Of the four actresses, none is quite as closely associated with her character as Cattrall. Samantha was the most outlandish one, less realistic and therefore more memorable, the pure all-gobbling power-girl spirit of the city. “I think there’s enough about Samantha that is very positive, so I enjoy the association of that,” Cattrall explains, in a voice that is much calmer and more melodic than the one she uses on TV. “But she had a very public life, and I have a very private life.”

This week, she arrives on Broadway as Amanda in a staging of Noël Coward’s Private Lives, a part that has previously been played by such grand scenery-chewers as Tallulah Bankhead and Maggie Smith. Cattrall, after all, is a real actress, not a reality-show concoction. When I mention Samantha, she says, “I always thought I was in some Restoration comedy when I was doing her.” Private Lives is a well-reviewed transfer from London by way of Toronto, overseen by Richard Eyre, the former director of the Royal National Theatre.

The play is about a divorced couple, Amanda and Elyot (played by the Canadian actor Paul Gross, best known for the TV series Slings & Arrows and as the Mountie in Due South), who bump into each other on their respective honeymoons and steal off together after realizing they are still madly and destructively in love. Private Lives is sometimes dismissed as a fantastically witty trifle, but when staged properly it can also be seen as an exploration not only of the reason-reducing power of love but the dangerous pull of sex. Amanda and Elyot cannot keep their hands off each other, and their lives are forfeited to this impulse. Amanda is certainly no Samantha, but she does seem—like a lot of the women Cattrall has played—extremely concerned with sex, as a matter of both passion and strength.

Still, when I mention to her that Amanda and Samantha have some things in common, Cattrall, who is sipping on a Campari and soda, with a leopard print scarf draped over her lap to ward off the cold and a pair of matching leopard-print pumps on her feet, replies skeptically, “Oh, tell me what those are?” She has, to her mind, spent the years since SATC choosing parts that are unlike Sam, doing a handful of movies, like Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer; turning down Vanessa Williams’s part in Ugly Betty (“I felt like I’d played that New York bombshell powerhouse”); and, mostly, appearing in theater, including Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. She says of her decision to avoid brassy parts, “It was scary, really scary. Because to step outside of what you’re known for is frightening. That takes patience and a bit of a tough skin. People say, ‘I just want you to do that.’ But I would like to do this, too.”

The audience, it seems, wants to meet her partway. At an early preview of the show in New York, when Amanda’s new husband Victor’s age was mentioned— he’s 34—a rustling of cougar frisson went through the crowd. When Elyot chastises Amanda, saying “It doesn’t suit women to be promiscuous,” and she immediately volleys with “It doesn’t suit men for women to be promiscuous,” the line gets the biggest applause of the evening. At least no one at this performance screamed out “I love you, Sam!” as the lights came up for the second act, as a fan did in Toronto.

That’s got to be a little frustrating, because Cattrall reveals, as we speak, that she is at heart a very sleek, well-groomed theater geek. She’s reading John Lithgow’s Drama and Antonia Fraser’s memoir of her marriage to Harold Pinter. She references Glenda Jackson, Judi Dench, Trevor Nunn, Tom Stoppard, Mark Rylance, Sir Ralph Richardson, and Sir John Gielgud. “I can’t believe we’re in this room,” she says, gesturing around the Algonquin, where Coward himself used to trade quips with Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley. She’s extremely eager to discuss the play in detail.

One thing she doesn’t know is whether there’s a third SatC film on the horizon. (“If it happens, it happens. If it happens, it’s a lot of fun,” she says.) It’s been suggested that the franchise’s moment has passed, its shameless luxury-lifestyle ethosfar less on point today than it was when it went on the air back during the late-Clinton prosperity of 1998. “It was okay to be a consumer then and buy $400 shoes,” Cattrall says. “Suddenly it is not so hip anymore. Certainly I understand that. But we were talking about a set of women that Candace Bushnell was talking about. I mean, Kim Kardashian is getting married and then divorced, making $17 million out of it—I mean, come on, this exists.”

If the film were to happen, Cattrall would be approaching 60. She looks great (at one moment in Private Lives, she perches on a balcony railing, giving the audience a view of her rear, and it’s a nice view) and pleasingly un-Botoxed (her forehead scrunches when she emotes). But that’s a fraught age for any actress, especially one whose best-known role was defined by sexual appetites, and who won the devotion of so many fans and the compliments of all those copycats because of said appetites. (Cattrall kept working that angle in the early aughts, too, co-writing a book called Satisfaction: The Art of the Female Orgasm in 2002 with her husband, the audio guru Mark Levinson. They split up after the book came out.)

Ask her, though, and she seems blithe about how all of this will play out. “At 41 I really felt that I couldn’t do [the part of Samantha]. Now 40 is the new 35 or something—not even 35, younger,” she says. “When I turned 50, I sort of thought, Oh, shit, here it is, but I didn’t feel any different. It is like so anti-climactic. I get tired sometimes. But I did before, too.”

After we wrap things up at the Algonquin—Cattrall has just flown into New York, a day before the show goes into rehearsal, and she needs to go buy groceries—the maître d’, a young woman, runs up to me. “Why didn’t you tell me you were interviewing Kim Cattrall?” she asks, dazzled. “I never get flustered by celebrities. But I didn’t know it would be Samantha.”

Private Lives
By Noël Coward.
Music Box Theatre.
In previews for a November 17 opening.

Photos: 20th Century Fox/PhotoFest (Porky’s, Mannequin); Paramount Picture/PhotoFest (Star Trek VI); PhotoFest (Sex and the City); New Line Cinema/PhotoFest (Sex and the City 2)

Getting Over Samantha