The surprising off-screen Catherine McCormack
Although certainly as pretty in person as she is on screen, had Catherine McCormack not been standing with a Warner Bros. publicist, I think I might have walked right past her.
A willowy, bespectacled gal with soft, unassuming features and a modified shag hairstyle, she looks nothing like the curvy, radiant beauty who married Mel Gibson, then quickly met a horrible fate in "Braveheart."
But when she smiles, I recognize the razzle she mines for her first starring role as a 16th Century Venice prostitute and poet in "Dangerous Beauty," the romanticized biography of a courtesan who influenced Venetian politics and rebuffed the Inquisition.
In San Francisco last month to relax for a few days after a globetrotting publicity tour for the film, she said she's more than happy to not be recognized at this point.
"I'm so glad this is the last day of these thing," she sighed. "I get so tired of listening to my own voice."
And, I offered, answering the same questions over and over again.
She took a sip of her coffee and gave a large nod. Wanting to avoid any topics that might send her into interview auto-pilot, I asked what question she is the most sick of hearing.
"In my entire career? 'What's it like to kiss Mel Gibson?'," she huffed jokingly, rolling her eyes.
In "Dangerous Beauty" she stars opposite Rufus Sewell (also being seen now in "Dark City"), so I teasingly said, "What's it like to kiss Rufus Sewell?"
She laughed (which came as a relief because it was a bit of a stupid question) and said "Oh, they're all fantastic."
"I read something Rufus said the other day in a magazine which was very amusing. He said 'I was terrified when it came to kissing Catherine McCormack. Not because I was kissing her, but because she had kissed Mel Gibson!'"
He had nothing to worry about. "He's a grand kisser," McCormack said coyly. "And he's dead sexy."
With the small talk out of the way, we settled into an enveloping leather couch in the lounge of the city's Prescott Hotel and talk about Veronica Franco, the period prostitute she plays in the film and how much of the movie's slightly fantastic story is true.
"Well, it's highly romanticized," she admits immediately. "But a lot of the events are true. She was a famous courtesan, a famous poetess, and she did stand up to the inquisition.
"The events with Henry III happened (Veronica seduced the king of France to win his military favor). Obviously the way it happened...," she trails off knowingly then sums up, "Liberties were taken."
Marshall Herskovitz, the film's director, was in San Francisco the same day and defended the changes as a way to make an accessible story from a somewhat academic biography called "The Honest Courtesan."
"We were really remarkably faithful to the facts of her life. We were not faithful to the texture of the time," he said.
Venice was the pinnacle of 1500's civilization, Herskovitz explained, "But when we look at the details of their lives, we are struck by the fact that the didn't bathe, their clothes were filthy, they had skin diseases, they wore a half-inch of makeup, and their furniture was ugly and uncomfortable."
Part of his job as a filmmaker, he stated, is to help a modern audience see Venice as the people of the time did, "so there is a sense in which the film is intentionally glamorized or beautified or even abstracted from real life because I wanted to give an experience to an audience."
Herskovitz said casting McCormack was one of the keys to that experience.
"I met with over 120 actresses for the part of Veronica, and it was very difficult to find someone who had all the qualities this woman had. But that's what we saw in Cath," he said. "We did a screen test, showed it to the studio, and no one ever looked back."
McCormack, now 26, got her first acting role 10 years ago in a small English stage production of a play called "Mother."
"I played the mother, who was about 60 years old. It took place in 1916 Russia and with all these Lenin, Stalinist, Trotskyist ideas I had to put across in this monologue...it was well out of my reach," she laughed.
Nevertheless she caught the acting bug and attended drama school in London. With a little luck and a good agent, she was cast her in first film, the low-budget Australian horror-drama "Loaded," just before graduation.
She made another low-budget film the next year before being cast in "Braveheart," which garnered her so much attention that she has been inundated with film offers ever since. So why is "Dangerous Beauty" her first project in the three years since holding her own opposite Mel Gibson three years ago?
"I read very few scripts I'm passionate about," she said. "Maybe one in every twenty or thirty."
Three projects caught her eye last year, so she certainly won't be disappearing again after "Dangerous Beauty." In May she will be seen in "Land Girls," a World War II drama about wives who went to work on British farms while the men were away at war. Then at Christmas she will star opposite Meryl Streep and Billy Crudup in "Dancing at Lughnasa," an Irish family drama set in the 1930s and based on a Tony-winning play.