What is? "The realisation that I'm the oldest person in the room." There are three of us in this tiny office: Cattrall, 56; director Marianne Elliott, 46; and me, aged, well, somewhere in between. "I used to be the youngest person in the fucking room!" she says. Even when Cattrall swears, she has the sexiest voice: langorously seductive, with sultry eyes that make her look as if she's waking from a catnap.
We're talking about the existential trauma of ageing which – along with death and cross-generational sex – is tackled in Sweet Bird of Youth, Tennessee Williams's 1959 play. Elliott, the award-winning director of War Horse, is reviving it for London's Old Vic with Cattrall in the starring role. For both women, the play has personal resonances. "I used to love getting older," says Elliott. "Not now! I'm scared of losing validity. I keep thinking, 'Why is this not being articulated?'"
Cattrall nods. She will play Alexandra del Lago, fading movie star, driven to blackmailing her gigolo-masseur for sex. "In some ways it's easier to play her," she says, "because I'm not a fucked-up, sex- and drug-addicted alcoholic who's self-hating and self-loathing." Dropping her voice an octave, she adds: "Although I do have my moments."
At the start of the play, Alexandra sees an unforgiving closeup of herself at the premiere of her comeback movie. Traumatised, she flees Hollywood with her masseur lover, Chance Wayne. They arrive in Saint Cloud, the racially segregated Florida town where, years before, Chance met his childhood sweetheart, Heavenly (Williams's weakness for symbolic names was never gaudier than here). Chance seeks redemption from his failed career by reviving his relationship with Heavenly, daughter of racist local kingpin Boss Finley.
As Elliott says: "It's kind of a fucked-up love story. In this culture, we're quite used to seeing older men with younger women. But to see, in a sexual situation, an older woman and a younger man feels very raw."
Elliott argues Williams mined his life for the character of Alexandra: the gay playwright was addicted to drugs and alcohol, and paid for sex. "When you know how tortured he was, it explains how tortured his characters are. He was very much a misfit, isolated – and many of his characters reflect that."
While in New York directing the Broadway transfer of War Horse, Elliott discussed the play with Cattrall, whom she had met the previous year while the actor was rehearsing for Janet Suzman's Liverpool Playhouse production of Antony and Cleopatra. She also cast Seth Numrich, a War Horse veteran, as Chance Wayne. "We really wanted to work together, and this seemed the perfect play. Kim and I started talking about getting older being a woman. But then we got scared of what it brought up and started looking around for another play to work on together. I think we were scared of it for all the right reasons."
"After our misgivings," replies Cattrall, " you emailed me and said 'Nothing's as good as this'. You were right."In the 1970s, the Liverpool-born, Canada-raised Cattrall became one of the last contracted Hollywood stars. She was signed up by Universal Studios at the age of 19 for seven years and any attempts to return to theatre were denied her. "I wasn't learning anything but things were taken from me. They really screwed with me for a long time."
She recalls her agent taking her shopping and picking sexy outfits for an audition: "It was a humiliating experience. I got the part and was glad of it, but it was a really terrible role in retrospect. It robbed me of my identity." It gave her others: the hotsy-totsy PE teacher in the Porky's franchise, Steve Guttenberg's love interest in Police Academy. "I don't have a relationship with Hollywood now," she says. "You can't if you're over 40. It's a place where you go to make a lot of money and get out."
Like Alexandra, Cattrall saw her career suffer as her youth faded: "Younger actresses were coming up and I was relegated to playing wives and crazy aunts." Worse still, I suggest, Cattrall internalised the prevailing ageism when she worried whether, at the age of 41, she still had what it took to play maneater and staunch friend in her most famous role, Samantha Jones in Sex and the City. "I didn't think anybody would believe I could be that kind of woman." But we certainly did. "Check," laughs Cattrall.
After Sweet Bird of Youth, she will fly to Canada to star in a new version of Sensitive Skin, the 2005 BBC comedy drama series that featured Joanna Lumley as an ageing beauty in her late 50s whose marriage disintegrates. Playing Alexandra del Lago, she says, is good preparation.
As for Elliott, she will return to the National this summer to direct a musical by Tori Amos, which she and the American singer-songwriter have been working on for four years. Called The Light Princess, it's an adaptation of a fairytale about a princess unaffected by gravity. "So she's floating. In the second half, she finds gravity – so she'll be floating in water. So that'll be easy to do," she jokes.
"Talk about a challenge," says Cattrall. "I'm just taking on ageing. You're taking on gravity."
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image: © Jay Brooks