`Zorro' Star Rose From `Titanic'

Posted: July 24, 1998

LOS ANGELES — Catherine Zeta-Jones is not naturally the fairy tale-believing sort. The 28-year-old Welsh actress is, rather, a pragmatic, wised-up kind of person with an earthy sense of humor and a tough hide forged by some of the crummier experiences that can happen in show business.

But Zeta-Jones is currently living out several Hollywood fantasies - the unexpected big break from a powerful player, successfully reinventing herself far away from an unhappy previous life - that usually only come true in the movies.

``My faith has been restored in those stories you always read about, the ones that make you whisper, `Gosh, I wish that could happen to me,' '' she says with a lush British accent. ``It was really exciting when it actually did happen.''

The exciting event wasn't being cast in the wrong ``Titanic'' - the TV miniseries version, not James Cameron's record-breaking feature film - but being spotted on that show one night by Steven Spielberg. History's most successful filmmaker was preparing to produce ``The Mask of Zorro,'' a big-budget-version adventure about the venerable action hero of colonial California, and he needed a leading lady. Zeta-Jones not only looked like an ideally beautiful Spanish noblewoman, she exhibited the strong personality and physical prowess the role of Elena de la Vega required. Within days of that broadcast, Zeta-Jones was taking a meeting on the set of ``The Lost World.''

``It was just me, Steven and the dinosaurs,'' she gushes. ``Oh, I'm sorry. I just really like stories like this! It's something I can tell my grandkids.''

``Mask of Zorro'' was already cast with Zeta-Jones' fellow Welshman, Anthony Hopkins, as Elena's aristocratic father and original Zorro, and Antonio Banderas as the young bandit who's trained to replace him as the black-clad freedom fighter. At the time, director Martin Campbell wanted Izabella Scorupco, the female lead of his James Bond movie, ``GoldenEye,'' for Elena, but then Spielberg insisted that look at the TV ``Titanic.''

``I thought Catherine was very good in that production,'' Campbell says. ``But her hair was done back in a bun and all that, and when she came into the office it was, `Wow!'

``Not only was she a knockout, but she gave the best reading of any of the actresses we tested. Then we had her test with Banderas, and it was all over.''

Zeta-Jones soon found herself in Mexico, done up in elaborate, corseted gowns, fencing like crazy and trading touchingly dramatic lines with the Oscar-winning Hopkins.

Pretty heady stuff for an actress whose biggest American feature role to that point had been as a kinky, secondary villainess in the misfired superhero romp ``The Phantom.'' Like many dreams come true, though, this one required a lot of hard work. The mostly desert locations in Mexico were broiling hot, the clothes were heavy and, in her case, full of constricting cinches, and the action stuff, from a suggestively over-the-top flamenco/tango to a climactic battle royal, was enormously demanding.

Fortunately, Zeta-Jones is also a trained dancer, well-versed in performing painful physical acts with the utmost apparent grace.

``It was worth suffering for it,'' she says. ``They were great costumes. And the thing with corsets is, they don't actually make your waist smaller, they change the whole proportion of your body. Without the corset, it just doesn't look the same, and you'd better have that severe shaping. But it was hard, especially during the dancing when I had to back-bend and touch the floor, and everything I was wearing really dug in.''

So it must have been a relief when all that stuff flew off during a sword fight with the masked Banderas that turned into a saber-slashing striptease, right? Don't you believe it.

``It was all done with wires,'' Zeta-Jones explains. ``There were many different outfits for different stages of the fight: one with a cut in the shoulder, one with a cut in the leg one where it falls apart. But it was one of those things that, during rehearsals, we'd reach the point where they'd go, `And this is where it all falls off,''' but no one would ever explain to me how they were going to do it.

``Martin would say, `Don't worry. It will be so quick, no one will see anything.' . . . People have freeze-frame [on their video machines)], people have slow-play. In the end, the fact that Elena had extremely long hair was really, really great.''

Good sport, this Zeta-Jones. Especially considering that she abandoned a thriving career in Britain to start from scratch in America primarily because she was sick of being appreciated only for her looks.

Despite high-profile roles in London stage productions of ``42nd Street,'' ``Street Scenes'' and even a Hopkins-directed adaptation of Dylan Thomas' ``Under Milk Wood,'' Zeta-Jones was almost exclusively known for a sexy character she played in a popular TV comedy, ``The Darling Buds of May.''

``It was making me into this tabloid sweetie and just nominally an actress,'' Zeta-Jones says. ``Not only did I never want that, I never wanted to be a star.

``I just wanted to be on the stage,'' she says, ``want to do an actor's work.''

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