The full 30-minute Q&A with 'Dangerous Beauty' star 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.
SPLICED: So how do you like traveling on Warner Bros.' dime?
Catherine McCormack: You know, it's great!
S: Where all have you been? Are you early in the tour or late in the tour?
CM: This is the last port of call. It's great. You just sign away everything. You make sure you eat more than you normally would and you start ordering up strange things and I've had massages all over the place.
S: Oh, of course, of course!
CM: Well, it's free!
S: The only thing they're not buying you is clothes...
CM: Even clothes!
S: There's a dress I've seen at Macy's I'd like to wear for an interview...
CM: (laughs) It's great. I have got free clothes, free food. It's been two weeks of semi-bliss. But I'm so glad this is the last day of these things. I get so tired of listening to my own voice.
S: I'm sure you did a big tour for "Braveheart" too, right?
CM: I did, although...
S: You weren't the center of attention.
CM: I sat behind (Mel Gibson) waving. No, you're right. I did a four day press junket in L.A. and that was my first taste of it all. But this time I have better questions to answer. It's not just "so how is it playing the love inerest?"
S: There you go. The old "Is Mel Gibson a good kisser?"
S:I'm sure you have practiced answers now. What have you been asked the most?
CM: In my entire career? "What's it like to kiss Mel Gibson?" (laughs)
S:Now I feel like an idiot for bringing it up. And is Rufus Sewell a good kisser?
CM: They're all fantastic. I read something Rufus said the other day which was very amusing in a magazine. 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!"
S: I can't figure out what it is about that guy that is appealing. Why is he sexy? Because, you know, he's almost a little cross-eyed, and his eyes are a little buggy and strange -- yet there is something about him.
CM: Definitely. He's a huge sex symbol in England. In America I've been reading all these things about Rufus, I mean like "Sex symbol Rufus Sewell" And he is! He's got something. He's interesting looking.
S: Have you been reading anything like that about you yet?
CM: I haven't picked up anything like that about me.
S: Nothing in People magazine?
S: Well, wait until the movie come out, I guess. I suppose we should talk about the movie, shouldn't we? Did you read the biography of Veronica Franco to prepare for the role?
CM: Yes. I read it. When I got the part, they kept pushing (the filming) back and back and back, so I ended up having the part about six months in advance of doing it. So I had about six months to kill. It was not very theatrical -- dry kind of reading. It was interesting because of the woman, but it was kind of just fact, fact, fact.
S: Was there much to draw from there in terms of personality and whatnot, since it was so dry?
CM: There wasn't a huge amount...I can't really remember anything from the book now.
S: So that was just research and you had to create a character.
CM: Sure. Well, people didn't know of her, apart from in Italy. And the script gives you everything you're supposed to play. I find it interesting reading about that time in history, and I think it's important to do. But I don't know quite what it lends to your performance, apart from your own knowledge. Unless it's someone everyone knows and there's loads of material on them...
S: Then there's loads of pressure to get it right, too.
CM: Sure. Exactly.
S: Was there a lot of creative license in terms of the story? Because there's that little paragraph on the screen at the beginning of the film that doesn't say "based on a true story," it says "this story is true," so how much did it vary?
CM: It's highly romanticized. She did apparently have two or three great loves in her life, and they kind of all became an amalgamation of the one.
S: Sure, because selling a hooker who had been in love three times wouldn't be as easy to sell.
CM: Right. But a lot of the events are true. The events with Henry III (Veronica sleeps with the king of France) happened, but obviously the way it happened...
CM: And he did fund this fleet of ships to fight the Turks. And she was a famous courtesan, a famous poetess, and she did open her home at the end of her life to the victims of the Inquisition.
S: Did she really stand up to the inquisition?
CM: She really did, she really did. Again, liberties were taken. It was made more Hollywood. There weren't people who started standing up (to defend her) -- yeah, right. But she stood up to them and got off. But they weren't burning a lot of people then. It was kind of like the Inquisition never had that firm a hold in Venice. I think like two people were burned at the stake. A lot of people were denounced as witches and thrown in jail. But she was let off because of her great powers of articulation, wit and skill (she says with a wink).
S: I was really surprised I was able to sit through an entire inquisition scene in a movie without once thinking of "Monty Python."
CM: (laughs) Really!
S: You said the biography was pretty dry. What kinds of things did you add to the character? What did you bring to her to give her the appeal? Because it's a very appealing character, but you gotta admit "isn't it wonderful to be a hooker" is a pretty hard sell.
CM: Right (uneasy laugh). (says she thinks it's more what director saw in her that made him think she was right for the part...) I know that in the dialogue there was just a kind of mischief and fun. Maybe that's not there anymore (laughs).
S: Oh, no, no. You definitely brought that out.
CM: Well, that was there, and, I don't know. You just flesh it out yourself, by kind of being yourself and trying to imagine what it would be like then. You're given these great costumes, there are great sets...
S: You gotta love the costumes.
CM: Well, you gotta love them for like, an hour. Then you can't breathe for the rest of the day.
S: One of the things I actually thought was kind of funny about the movie was the shot of her portrait, where she has an entirely different figure than you have.
S: I'm looking at the portrait thinking, "I don't remember her having a belly like that!"
CM: (laughs again). That's very true. I didn't actually pose myself. It does look a bit like a different head has been painted on to the body. It must have been my body double.
S: I found it kind of interesting how the movie, um, not glorifies, but makes the sex trade look kind of appealing. But I suppose you couldn't make it look horrible or the heroine couldn't have been as upbeat as she was.
CM: Oh, I think you could have made it look more horrible. You could have.....but that's a choice a director makes. I think he wanted the first two thirds to be very glamorous and not to use the reality factor (like the fact that 16th C. Venetians wore half an inch of make-up). And at the end, the plague seems to have been summed up with a chap falling over. But I guess to tell the story, Marshall didn't want to go into the gritty detail -- (almost whispering) which I would have preferred. But I guess that's just where I come from and the films and the films I've kind of been brought up with...
S: Because the films you've done before have been a lot more gritty.
CM: A lot more dirty, really. When I left drama school for "Loaded," which was kind of a low budget Anna Campion film...
S: How did you get started in your film career? "Loaded" was your first movie. You said that was right out of school? Was it a casting call? Had someone seen you?
CM: When I was at drama school, my agent in England, who wasn't my agent at the time, came to see me in a couple of plays -- one in Oxford and one in London -- and then he took me on and sent me for this job to meet Anna Campion. I was leaving in two or three weeks from drama school, so I met to meet her and did a reading. I got called back, and back again. Then about a week before leaving drama school, she offered me the part. It worked out perfectly!
S: And you were working a lot last year. You've got "Dancing in Lughnasa" and "Land Girls" that are coming out here (in the US) in just the next four of five months. Are you working right now or are you taking a break from three films back to back?
CM: Well, there was like three months off in between, so I got some holiday. But I'm supposed to be starting something in April, just a British low-budget thing again, called "This Year's Love" about the relationships of three men and three women over the course of three years. It's along the lines of "Short Cuts." it's a comedy, which is good. I'll get to play a comedic character, which will be fun.
S: This is a sidetrack form this movie, but I'm a huge World War II buff, so I wanted to know about "Land Girls."
CM: Well, it's about the women who went to work on the land (when the farmers went off to war), called the Women's Land Army, formed by a woman called Lady Dennem. I think it was formed in the First World War, but then there was obviously no need for it after the war ended. Them men came back and took up their positions on the land again. But it was when the men went to fight in the war, and it's about these women from all walks of life who came together from the towns and from the country to work on the farms.
S: Do you live in London now?
S: Do you get over to the states much? I mean, I guess not. You haven't done any films shot here, have you?
CM: No, none here. But I'm staying (in San Francisco) for a few days!
S: You're staying about three blocks from some really great shopping...
CM: Well, I've just come from New York, so I should stay away from it here. I've done my damage.
S: Spent your salary from the film already?
CM: There you go. Exactly. All in one fateful weekend!
S: Well, there's great restraints and great night life.
CM: I think I might go to Sausalito.
S: You grew up in Hampshire, correct?
CM: Yes. I went to Catholic girls school from 5 to 16. We had one male teacher, and being the one male in an entire female school sort of set pulses racing. Every year he was inundated with Valentines cards.
S: Lots of unrequited crushes.
CM: Well, a couple of them might have been requited! But mine wasn't. Little Catherine in the back row. "Mr. Clarke, could you help me with my drawings?" (Laughs). Never worked, that one.
S: How did you get interested in acting?
CM: Well, there were the school plays and whatnot, of course. When I was sixteen, I joined this theatery kind of company, which was, well it was not. It was formed for this one play, but it was disbanded afterwards. I don't think anybody wanted to keep in touch. It was a tragedy.
Actually the first thing I played was a play called "The Mother," and I played the Mother, who was about 60 years old. It was about 1916 in Russia and I was learning communist ways....it was well out of my reach (laughs). Playing a woman with 60 years experience, and all the Lenin, Stalinist, Trotskyist ideas I had to put across in this long monologue...it was just ridiculous. At the time I felt like breaking out into song.
S: But you got the bug...
CM: I did get the bug! But when I went to college was when I latched on to theater studies. I became a huge fan of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. I went to a lot of plays, and I thought "ahh!"
S: Have you done any theater since school?
CM: No. I'd like to do some theater.
S: Why do film actors with roots in theater seem to always like to go back? It seems to me like theater is, while maybe more challenging, a lot more monotonous since you're doing the same thing night after night?
CM: Theater is rewarding. And I guess, I came from that. Why I want to get back to what I was originally doing is because there's a continuity to theater performance. In film -- I've got more of a handle on it now -- but in the first film I did I was like "We haven't done any of the first forty pages and yet we're shooting something right near the end." And you know what journey your character has been on, but suddenly you have to bring that out of nowhere. You're cousin has died and you have to be balling your eyes out...
S: And you've had nothing building up to it.
CM: Right. And that becomes a technique that you get used to, and it becomes instinctive to be able to live in that moment. But I just think... I haven't ever done it for a six month run, so I don't know how bored I would be, doing it for that long.
S: Sure, because in school it was like two or three weekends.
CM: Sure. But I think, like you say, in film perfomance you get those moments where you can just do it once and capture the moment, but in theater it's continuous process and it's not going to be chopped out later and it's not going to be shot out of chronological order. But that fact that in film you can do your best acting and it may not make it on to the screen.
And the director has these ideas about how he wants your performance to look because of the way he's structuring the film, and you see it on the screen and it's like "oh, my god. I didn't think my poerformance was that at all." It's difficult to build an idea of it in film, but you still have some idea by the end what you think you've done. Then when you see it up there it could be better or worse than what you think you did, and they can do that. They can manipulate performances to make them better or worse in film. And in a way, theater is to own your own performance. It's something I think is very fulfilling.
And, of course, there are more great plays. I read very few film scripts I'm very passionate about, where I think "I'd love to be in that." Maybe one in every twenty or thirty.
S: A lot of screen writers just crank them out like Stephen King novels. Every couple of weeks they finish another one. In film it's not like there's eight or ten performances of "Casablanca" going on around the world at any one time. Whereas "Romeo & Juliet" there probably is.
S: And the crappy plays tend to disappear a lot easier since there's no permanent record of their performance.
CM: And the masterpieces are played everywhere.
S: Are you a film buff or is your involvement in movies just an acting thing?
CM: No, I'm a film buff.
S: What do have on video? If you had two hours to kill, just sitting at home, what would you put in the VCR?
CM: Well, one of my favorite films of all time is "My Life As a Dog," which I think is fantastic. And some of those Capra movies -- "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Harvey." What else do I have in my collection? I'm a fan of Woody Allen.
S: Have you seen "Deconstructing Harry"?
CM: Yeah. It's fantastic! Brilliant!
S: What surprised me about that one is that I've never seen anybody swear so much in a Woody Allen movie.
CM: Oh, yeah! That's right.
S: I was trying to figure out if he did that on purpose as some kind of commentary on casual cursing in society, or if he just sort of fell in the Quentin Tarantino riptide.
CM: Yeah. It was like every other word.
S: So if he called you with a role...
CM: I'd have to think about it -- for a few milliseconds.