Shrewd Awakening

Photo: Danielle Levitt

In a screening room at the Museum of Television and Radio that’s as antiseptic as a college lecture hall, a capacity audience has gathered to hear Kim Cattrall preach, among other things, the gospel of the vulva. In her new HBO documentary, Sexual Intelligence, a series of symbolic images flows across the screen: a seed pod, a seashell, a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe. Then Cattrall’s voice intones in narration, “Still, there’s nothing quite as complex and fascinating as the real thing”—at which point a very large, very close-up, very au naturel photo appears of, well, the real thing.

The crowd, split roughly between Cattrall’s friends, Sex and the City fans, HBO employees, and random Canadians (Cattrall was raised in Canada, and the event was organized by the consulate), reacts in involuntary disgust. A few seats away from Cattrall, two young twentysomething women can be heard loudly squealing, Ewwwwwww!!

Two days later, as Cattrall and I sit at Soho House discussing the film, she’s still unnerved by their reaction. “I think it’s an absolutely beautiful photograph,” she says, her eyes widening. “And they were women! That’s their body! Can you imagine looking at your body and saying Ew?

For many people, the answer is, apparently, yes. And such squeamishness should not be totally unfamiliar to Cattrall. For seven years, in her role as the vampy Samantha Jones on Sex and the City, she spent most of her time talking about, joking about, and convincingly simulating sex. The one thing Cattrall wasn’t doing, until recently, was enjoying sex. Then she learned how. Now she wants to teach you.

In person, Cattrall seems to have little in common with Samantha. She wears a demure white top, speaks in a soft voice, and doesn’t once—not once—growl or lick her lips at the busboy. But, of course, it’s not that easy to shed the Samantha mystique. I’m no SATC fanatic, but I exaggerate only slightly when I say that, as far as New York icons go, eating with Kim Cattrall at Soho House feels like going to Ellis Island to have lunch with the Statue of Liberty.

The Statue slips on a pair of stylish glasses in order to read the menu, still worrying aloud about the screening. “That was my audience,” she says of the fans and their vulvas. “And they were speaking to me about something they probably haven’t looked at, and certainly haven’t embraced.” It’s almost two years since Sex and the City went off the air, but for its fanatical followers, that may seem like a lifetime. The show was a pop phenomenon that not only released catchphrases like pollen but seeded a whole lifestyle—and an accompanying debate, with Samantha in particular alternately celebrated as a self-confident libertine or decried as a skanktacular slut.

After the finale in 2004, Cattrall was widely blamed for scuttling a proposed Sex and the City film through some combination (depending on which papers you believed) of artistic objections, salary demands, and animus toward her co-stars. The last rumors seem to be borne out when she says she’s in contact with “crew members. Cast members, not so much. But that’s not terribly unusual. When we weren’t filming, we never hung out.”

To the distress of many fans, the show concluded with all the women happily paired off—in Samantha’s case with a young waiter turned actor, a character so improbably mature, devoted, and unaffected by sudden fame that he seemed about as plausible as a hunky unicorn. When I ask if the show’s ending bothered her, she pauses, then says emphatically, “Yes. It did.” The resolution, she adds, “needed to happen, I guess. But I like to think that shortly after Samantha was okay with it”—by which she means blissful monogamy—“she wasn’t okay with it. And she’d be back to her old ways.”

In fact, though Cattrall initially expressed regrets at the show’s demise, she now seems to regard it as liberating. And she’s turned Samantha’s lingering aura of carnal proficiency into a pulpit from which to spread the sexual good news. Even before the series ended, she made a series of startling confessions, including the fact that she had never had an orgasm. (“Two entire decades of bad sex. Two. Entire. Decades,” she told the New York Times.) In her 2002 book Satisfaction: The Art of the Female Orgasm, Cattrall chronicled her sexual awakening at the hands of then-husband Mark Levinson (her third marriage—the two are now separated). Her new book and film take more of a catchall primer approach to sex’s “sources and inspirations.” Her next project: a guide to help teenage girls deal with their sexuality.

Depending on one’s perspective, this crusade may appear either daring, anodyne, discomfiting, or vaguely cornball—kind of like discovering the benefits of flossing your teeth late in life and then wanting to shout it to the whole world. Sure enough, her film is both studded with good advice from experts and sweetened with cringingly earnest segments in which Cattrall frolics in the ocean like a horny mermaid. Fans of Samantha will no doubt find Cattrall’s approach a good deal more earth-goddessy than anything that brassy narcissist would have endorsed (although there was that one episode in which she offered Consumer Reports–like advice to fellow vibrator shoppers). And though Cattrall describes her new role as a chance to distance herself from Samantha—“For me, it was a desire to define myself more clearly beyond an iconic character,” she writes in the book’s foreword, a sentiment she reiterates to me—there are obvious perils in playing a sexual conquistador, then remaking yourself as a sexual evangelist in real life.

Cattrall, though, sees this transition as an evolution rather than a sellout. And there’s something perversely charming, even shrewd, about her response to iconic fame. Prior to Sex and the City, Cattrall (and, for that matter, Sarah Jessica Parker) was a working actress but hardly a superstar. She was best known for roles as a lusty gym teacher (in Porky’s), a trophy wife (in The Bonfire of the Vanities), and a mannequin (in Mannequin). Now she is, and likely forever will be, Samantha Jones.

Having lunch with Kim Cattrall at Soho House feels like going to Ellis Island with the Statue of Liberty.

Most actors might bristle in that position—try to demonstrate their range or write a book called I Am Not Spock. But for every actor who reinvents himself, dozens (Scott Baio, George Wendt, everyone on Seinfeld) orbit that character forever, never reaching escape velocity.

Cattrall, however, sees no need to escape Samantha. “I only see a need for that if what I have done doesn’t feel right or useful. But I don’t feel that way about Samantha,” she says. If she’s to be cast as an icon, then she’ll shine her beacon as the Statue of Sexual Liberty. (Give me your randy, your frustrated, your nonorgasmic … ) And if, as a side benefit, this allows Samantha Jones to live on, then all the better. In fact, Samantha now seems to exist in Cattrall’s life like a popular friend who’s passed away but whom she can still channel from time to time. At the screening, she said of her winks and saucy double entendres in the film, “I’m not playing Samantha, but there’s a little bit of Samantha in there.” Later, to me, she clarifies. “Everyone wanted to push us in the direction of just me being Samantha. You know, doing my thing.” Then she corrects herself. “Or her thing.” Then she continues. “But I want to make it our thing.”

Shrewd Awakening