DIVA TALK: A Chat with "Chicago" Film's Velma Kelly, Catherine Zeta-Jones

DIVA TALK: A Chat with "Chicago" Film's Velma Kelly, Catherine Zeta-Jones Hello, diva lovers! Well, as you're reading this, I should be on my way to Washington, D.C. to catch Alice Ripley's take on Emma, the English hat designer, in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Tell Me On a Sunday.

Ripley began performances this past Tuesday in the Kennedy Center production of the one-woman song cycle, which runs through Jan. 12, 2003. I'll have my thoughts for you on that show in an upcoming column . . . Last weekend, I attended the New York press junket for the upcoming Miramax film "Chicago," which hits the top markets in the U.S. Dec. 27, before rolling out across the country in January. It was the first such junket I've attended, and I thought I'd give a little description of what the experience was like. The day was held at New York's Essex House with two sessions scheduled, one for 9 AM (the one I attended) and the other for 11 AM. I arrived at the hotel and was directed to the third floor, where I was greeted by Miramax press people who assigned me to one of the rooms where the interviews would be held. There was a small roundtable in the room — in place of the usual hotel bed — with six other journalists, including writers from the Toronto Star, HX Magazine and one of my Playbill On-Line colleagues, Ernio Hernandez. The interviews began about 9:30 AM with Rob Marshall, who joined us at our table. We all introduced ourselves to the choreographer/director, and then began asking questions. Every 20 minutes or so, one interviewee would depart and another would be led in to the room. Marshall was followed by John C. Reilly, the film's Amos Hart, and the remainder of the morning included chats with Queen Latifah, Richard Gere, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renée Zellweger and screenwriter Bill Condon. What follows is the interview with Zeta-Jones, who offers a thrilling performance in the Miramax film. I've also been enjoying the soundtrack to the film, which I received earlier this week and is due in stores next month.

Question: How did you become involved with the film?
Catherine Zeta-Jones: I know Marty Richards, who's actually related to my husband [Michael Douglas] through marriage, somehow, and I knew that he'd always been trying to get Chicago on film somehow, and about four years ago, we were at our house at a Christmas party, and I was singing by the piano, full of Christmas spirit, and I'm surprised he even mentioned it to me at that point. [Laughs.] And he said, you know, "God, I didn't know you could sing." And he said, "Well, you know about my connection with Chicago" — and I said, "Of course" — "and that we're trying to make it into a movie, and, you know, you'd be great..." Like everybody else, I'd heard so much — "Oh, there gonna make a movie of Chicago, everyone was involved." I went, "Well, if it ever comes to fruition, you've got to give me a shot, gotta give me a call and meet the director, whoever it's gonna be." A few years later, [Miramax's] Harvey [Weinstein] said, "Look, I think we've found somebody to put this to life, who's completely figured it out." So, he introduced me to Rob [Marshall], who had seen me — I did an English National opera called, a Kurt Weill opera called Street Scene years ago. At an award show, I did this duet number, singing and dancing, and I had a tape of it. So, I went to meet Rob, and he told me his vision. And I went, "Oh my God, this is amazing." I had never read the script, but I knew the songs — "All That Jazz" and "Razzle Dazzle." I said, "I've got to be in it, and I want to play Velma." I had know idea, but I knew that Velma sings "All That Jazz." He said, "Well, you know, it really is Roxie's story." He gave me the script, and I went through it, and I said, "Well, if you want me, I'm on board." I didn't have to think twice, but I never believed it. I said, "You know what, I'm not going to set my heart on this." When I'm shooting the first frame — this thing has been on and off and on and off, it's been like a light switch. So, I just said until I'm up there rehearsing and doing my first day of shooting, that's when I'm gonna get — that's when I know it's real.

Q: Did you have anybody, a movie or theatre musical icon in the back of your head — somebody you were going to emulate?
Zeta-Jones: No, not really. What I did know after reading the script was that I didn't have a lot of backstory, like audience-wise, to explain Velma Kelly. So I knew that the majority of my characterization was going to come through little looks and nuances and through song and dance. And, that was a little daunting at first . . . [but] I had to nail this character. There's no time to go into her backstory or backflash. So that was one of the biggest challenges just to nail her — her flamboyance, her desperation to keep her celebrity-dom, her success, and then the rise and fall of Velma in a way. How Roxie takes over, but, how, even though she can't stand her, she'll eat it, just to get back on top somehow. It was just a great character to play. I didn't have any — I guess the bob is a Louise Brooks bob, that is what it's known for, and I always wanted to have that. I went on the internet and downloaded and printed out some photographs of this, and I wanted that sharpness to her. So that was the only thing I guess, Louise Brooks.

Q: What do you make of that sentiment that Marty expressed to you at the piano — that "God, I didn't know you could sing" because it really is kind of an overwhelming sentiment that's coming out of the film — not only with you but with the rest of the cast as well?
Zeta-Jones: Well, I think it's just a general reaction, a normal reaction. Unless people see you do things, who's to know? I did musical theatre. When I was a teenager, I hung up my dance shoes, thinking I would never ever ever have to call upon that. What a waste of all my tap dancing! [Laughs.] I had to work so hard to convince people that I could act because I was a musical comedy actress. Try going to the BBC and telling them — "What have you done?" "Well, The Pajama Game, and I've done 42nd Street. I was in the chorus and then I played Peggy, which is the lead, and The King and I." [Laughs.] Okay, and now you want to audition for the Royal Shakespeare Company? No, I don't think so. So, I made a real cut off of it all and just pursued a different thing. When I was trying to convince people I could do an American accent, to broaden my scope as a British actress of what I can actually do on film. And, there was a handful of people who crossed over, but then, how many British actresses can be in an American movie? Not many. And that was the beauty of me doing "Zorro" first because people thought I was Spanish. I put on a Spanish accent. So, when I came around to do "Entrapment," I said, "I have to play this American. This is going to be my meal ticket to get into this market." It wasn't such a big shock because as far as everyone was concerned, I was Spanish. I went to the Oscars the first year, and the whole line was speaking to me in Spanish! . . . How do you tell the Latin nation that the girl that they picked can't actually speak Spanish? [Laughs.] So, I think it's just one of those things that I think everyone proved themselves brilliantly if they had to prove anything in it. It just looks so easy, too. It's not like you're sitting at the cinema going, "Uch, these guys are working it, babe. They're really trying to do this." It just looks like effortless, and I think that was our main aim. That's why we did all those rehearsals, and wanted to come out as if this has been going on for years. Q: Chita Rivera's in one scene. Did she have any advice for you, since she played the role originally?
Zeta-Jones: The biggest relief that I had was when I first met Rob Marshall, and he said, "You know, Chita has given her blessing. She wants you." And I said, "Really?" I wonder — she saw me in "Zorro," I guess, or something or "Entrapment" or "Traffic"; it doesn't really go to Velma Kelly straight up, but I think Chita had seen me in theatre in London years ago because she was doing Kiss of the Spider Woman in a theatre across the street. You know how matinees you go and see what's going on over there, and they come over and see what's going on, and I think she must have seen me and just remembered me and said to Rob, "It has to be Catherine to play Velma" — even before I even met Rob, when he was — after his fantastic story where he went to speak to Harvey Weinstein about Rent — "Ooh, Rent good, Chicago better for me right now" — that's a fascinating story.

Q: Can you talk a bit about working with Rob?
Zeta-Jones: I have never, even in the finished product and even through all my work with him in rehearsals and just feeling like I'm part of his family, I'm from his world, I know him. I just know him. I'd say to Michael all the way through shooting, "I really can't believe this guy. He's so well prepared, it's scary." We were doing "Cell Block." You saw the lighting in "Cell Block." It's not like you're in a supermarket. It's not bright. He's like, "Suzie, what is that hanging off the back of your leg?" There were like 60 girls onstage. And, Suzie, "What Rob?" "Something's catching the light. Is it a piece of cotton?" It was a piece of string. He's looking at everybody. "Cathy, can you just take one step to the left? Okay. You're not in shot for this, but just make that you're one step to the left!" [Laughs.] He just sees everything. He's so prepared. And then when I saw the movie for the first time all finished at the L.A. premiere, you could see that's a well-thought out film. There were no surprises. We had like two days over schedule. I mean, just bang-bang-bang. It was just awesome. He has a huge career ahead of him. It's just a pleasure to work with somebody with such enthusiasm, just like your coach, rooting for you. And that's why you let him off when he says it's three o'clock in the morning and you can't hardly breathe and you can't feel your toes and your legs and your knee-caps are swollen and he's like, "Honey, one just for me, just for me." Okay, I love you, okay — he works so hard, and you just want it to be good for him.

Q: Did you get to work with Kander and Ebb at all?
Zeta-Jones: Yeah, just a day. They came up for a day; they came up for the readthrough, which was terrifying . . . And then they took us into the piano room and gave us some tips. I wish they could be nominated for Best Song for every song. You know what I mean? It didn't happen on "Cabaret," the same reason why it can't happen on "Chicago," it's because they all come from the stage. I just want to see 'em up there. They're just great. Yeah, we had a lot of fun.

Q: There is the one new song, "I Move On," that plays over the credits. When did you record that?
Zeta-Jones: I recorded that two weeks ago. I recorded mine in New York and Renée did hers in Budapest or something like that. And then they put it all together and stuck it on the end there. And that was great. It's a great song. It's so Kander and Ebb . . . That could be nominated.

Q: Do you think you've done the musical justice, for the movie musical genre and personally?
Zeta-Jones: I think so, I think we have. It's a conceited thing to say because there have been so many Velmas that have preceded me and so many Roxies and so many Billy Flynns to say, "Oh we're the best." I'm not saying that, but I think that if there was ever a way of putting this [show] onto film it's been done, and in a great way. I hope that everyone who's ever had anything to do with it will feel like it's part of them, too. That, at last, this is up there forever. My dad think it's going to be like "The Wizard of Oz," they're gonna play it every Christmas. [Laughs.] "Dad, we kill people all the time. What are they going to put it on at three o'clock Christmas Day?" "Oh yeah, I see this. Your children are going to be watching this every Christmas day." "Okay, let's wait and see." [Laughs.]

Q: What's up for you next?
Zeta-Jones: Well, I'm having my baby in April, and I'm producing some stuff which I'll be working on, tweaking, whilst I'm waiting for this one . . . I have a script that I developed now, and I had Terry George, who wrote "In the Name of the Father," write it . . . My husband and I are always looking for something that we could possibly do together. It's just hard when you're married — people don't want to see you together [Laughs.] Enough of you on Page Six. But we did in "Traffic" but I think that worked because we had different storylines. There is something that has some conflict — like a Bogie, Katharine Hepburn kind of thing — and people like to see us doing "The War of the Roses." [Laughs.] We're looking for something like that that would be a lot of fun that we could work together. He just worked with his dad for the first time, which was an extraordinary experience.

Q: Would you ever consider coming to Broadway?
Zeta-Jones: I'd love to, yeah.

Q: Would you like to do a musical or a play?
Zeta-Jones: Both, really. Someone said to me, "If you had a choice, what would be your next — a film of equal importance and quality but one would be a musical and one would be a film. Would you pick the musical?" I said, "Well, I've done it, you know, not that I never want to revisit it. I've done it right now, and I'd like to do something, maybe straight theatre on Broadway and then come back with a musical. I wanna play Mama Rose. I'm just growing towards that. I'm hoping that the revival's gonna be coming around again, so I can play it. [Laughs.]

Q: How dark do you think Chicago is in the end?
Zeta-Jones: I think it is dark. I mean, like the scene with the Hunyak. I think how people perceive stardom and celebrity is portrayed in a dark way. When you think of that scene with the Hunyak, and they're like animals applauding, and she's the innocent one of everybody. There's moments like that that I just find chilling, and then there's a wonderful innocence about it as well, a tongue-in-cheek. These girls killed, slugged — I got two at the same time. There's something innocent about it because of the time and obviously because of the music involved and the tongue-in-cheek aspect of it. It lightens it up, so I think, in a way, there's a nice equilibrium. It balances itself out, but I think that's the beauty of it. It's life goes on, but nothing stays, like Roxie says in the song. You can do this, you can do that, but isn't it great, it's great nowadays, it's fantastic, but it doesn't stay. On to the next. I think it works beautifully. I'm very proud to be part of it, I must say, very proud. I think I speak for everybody . . . I did a TV interview with Matt Lauer yesterday, and he said, "What was the best thing? What was the worst thing?" For me, I was so nervous at the L.A. premiere, not that I could sit in the theatre and change anything. It's like I can go back. It's all there. I can't change it. It was like having your baby go to school for the first day. It's been so personal, like with us in Toronto, six weeks rehearsing, six months shooting, back and forth, freezing your butt off, trying to keep your legs warm. It was just such a world, and now people are seeing it and commenting on it. It was the most bizarre feeling for me. It's like we wanted to keep it all for ourselves, just keep playing with it, fiddling with it, recording a few more songs for it. It's out there now, so I hope everyone enjoys it.

Q: Are you sorry about "Class" being cut?
Zeta-Jones: Yes, I was absolutely in tears — no I wasn't. I was really upset, but I always look at the broader strokes of the film, and the beauty of what Rob had done so flawlessly in getting the transitions from drama to song or music. When "Class" was in the middle, it just jumped out because it wasn't through Roxie's eyes, really. It wasn't that fantasy aspect — it was me and Queenie just sitting there, and it broke it up. That's why I love DVD, because the whole world can see it . . . and it was so good. It wasn't that it was just bad. It just didn't work, it slowed down this ride, and for me, I look at the broader things. REMINDERS

Betty Buckley in Concert:

Dec. 20 at the Sunoco Performance Theater in Harrisburg, PA
May 31, 2003 at Benaroya Hall in Seattle, WA

Liz Callaway in Concert:

Jan. 4-6, 2003 The Songs of Frank Loesser at the 92nd Street Y in New York, NY
Feb. 14-15 Stephen Schwartz and Friends at the Edison Theatre at Washington University in St. Louis, MO
Feb. 3 at the Wintergarden in the NYC World Financial Center in New York, NY
May 16 Broadway Showstoppers in Philadelphia, PA

Barbara Cook in Concert:

Dec. 20 at the Robert Ferst Center for the Arts at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, GA
Jan. 31, 2003 at the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts in Long Island, NY
Feb. 14-16 at the Byham Theater in Pittsburgh, PA

Linda Eder in Concert:

Dec. 20 and 21 with the Atlanta Symphony at the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta, GA
Jan. 3 and 4, 2003 with the Baltimore Symphony in Baltimore, MD
Jan. 25 at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, CT
Jan. 30 at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza in Thousand Oaks, CA
Feb. 1 at the Vilar Center for the Arts in Beaver Creek, CO
Feb. 14 at the Proctor's Theatre in Albany, NY

Patti LuPone in Concert

Jan. 8-12, 2003 at the Mohegan Sun Cabaret in Uncasville, CT March 27 at the East County Performing Arts Center in Cajon, CA ("Matters of the Heart")
March 28-29 at the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert, CA ("Matters of the Heart")
March 30 at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, NV ("Matters of the Heart")
April 5 at the State Theater in New Brunswick, NJ ("Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda")

Maureen McGovern in Concert

Jan. 30-Feb. 2 at Orchestra Hall with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in Detroit , MI
Feb. 7-9 at the San Diego Museum of Art in San Diego, CA
Feb. 14-16 at the Marcus Center with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Milwaukee, WI
March 4-15 at Feinstein's at the Regency in New York City
April 12-13 at Center Stage—Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael, CA
April 14-19 at Founder's Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, CA
May 30 - 31 at the Palmer Events Center with the Austin Symphony Orchestra in Austin, TX
June 7 at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, MN

Well, that’s all for now. Happy diva-watching!