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04.07.11

Kim Cattrall Strips Down

Forget Samantha Jones. As a broken-down porn star in Meet Monica Velour, the Sex and the City icon inhabits a world far from Fifth Avenue. Gina Piccalo on the star's gutsy turn from Manolos to meth.

Before Kim Cattrall was synonymous with the fashion-fabulous, sexual omnivore she played on Sex and the City, she was just another fortyish actress struggling for relevance after aging out of the 1980s-era bombshell roles that had launched her.

“You work a lot because you’re pretty and it looks great on film,” she mused this week during a morning chat in her publicist’s stylish West Hollywood office, inadvertently conjuring her years in films such as Mannequin, Porky’s, and Police Academy. “And you hit middle age and half the scripts are disappearing from your grasp. And suddenly you’re the mom or you have one or two scenes in the movie.”

But, if you’re Cattrall, you narrowly escape that humiliating purgatory and land a role that nullifies those exploitative sex romps, transforming you into a feminist icon whose struggles reflect those of her generation. Yet now, it’s seven years since Sex and the City bowed on HBO, earning Cattrall five Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe. After two critically drubbed (but financially successful) movies and syndication on TBS, Cattrall says she is still asking herself, “Where do you go from there?”

The answer, for Cattrall anyway, is the title role in first-time writer-director Keith Bearden’s indie debut Meet Monica Velour, opening today in New York and Los Angeles. Here, Cattrall casts off every remnant of glamour and determinedly mines her ugly side. She plays a meth-snorting, biker-snogging, aging 1970s porn star whose rock-bottom lifestyle is interrupted by an oddball teenage fan (Dustin Ingram) when he makes a pilgrimage to her trailer park.

Produced by Gary Gilbert and Jordan Horowitz, the team behind the Oscar-nominated The Kids Are All Right and critical hit Garden State, the film drew interest from Courtney Love and Madonna, among others. Yet Bearden was set on Cattrall from the moment they met. He’d never seen an episode of Sex and the City, which appealed to her. “He had no preconceived ideas of me and the character Samantha,” she said. And Bearden himself liked Cattrall’s implicit trust in him and her unwavering commitment to looking her worst on screen. He also couldn’t help drawing nuanced parallels between her career and Monica’s.

“Kim had a tiny bit of a Monica in her,” Bearden said in a call from New York. “She was a young woman from a working-class background. She wanted to be a performer and an actor. And because she’s traditionally good-looking, people have put sex on her. And that’s a tiny bit of what had happened to Monica.”

Bearden and Cattrall rehearsed exhaustively before filming. She learned to slouch, which, for this trained dancer, took some effort and weeks of chiropractic correction afterward. Cattrall also spent time with Bearden’s husky-voiced friend so she could copy the rhythm and tenor of that woman’s speech. “I had to learn a whole new physicality,” she said.

Naturally, they hit what Cattrall described as a few “Larry Flynt-like” strip joints together, an experience she described only as “really, really fascinating.”

“Once the strippers learned that it was Kim Cattrall in the strip club, they were on her like bees to a hive [asking] ‘Do you want to have a three-way? Do you want a lap dance?’… and Kim was so sweet saying, ‘No that’s very sweet of you. Thank you very much. You can give my director friend a lap dance.’”

“She was hilarious,” said Bearden, recalling the movie star in the strip clubs. “She was very, very nice and proper. Once the strippers learned that it was Kim Cattrall in the strip club, they were on her like bees to a hive [asking] ‘Do you want to have a three-way? Do you want a lap dance?’… and Kim was so sweet saying, ‘No that’s very sweet of you. Thank you very much. You can give my director friend a lap dance.’”

In the film, Cattrall carries an extra 20 pounds and does everything to accentuate her age. “We have to make you look like a woman going to seed,” Bearden told her. And that he does. We see Cattrall in a cheap bra and panties with bad hair and mottled skin, grabbing at her sizable belly fat. We see her as a slobbering drunk and later hunched over a toilet with her finger down her throat.

All that effort resulted in a portrayal that will no doubt stand out in Cattrall’s 35-year career. She has clearly been underrated for years.

Still, Cattrall is looking for her next act. Samantha Jones still anchors her fame. She has capitalized on the character, publishing two hot-selling books on desire and sexuality, one of which inspired an HBO documentary. More recently, Cattrall has depicted a Samantha-like character in campaigns for Olay, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter and, outside the U.S., Nissan.

“I’ve been marginalized in some ways, too,” she confessed as our conversation ended.

Last year, she turned up as a sexy British aide to Pierce Brosnan’s nefarious prime minister in Roman Polanski’s critically lauded political thriller The Ghost Writer. But critics often singled out her performance as slightly off.

Lately, the theater seems to promise Cattrall the most legitimacy as an actor. She played Cleopatra in a Liverpool production of Antony and Cleopatra last fall. Her well-regarded West End performance as the newlywed divorcee Amanda in Noel Coward’s comedy of manners, Private Lives, heads to Toronto and then Broadway this fall.

Though that 1930s glamour puss is more aligned with the stable of lovelies in Cattrall’s repertoire, she suggested Monica Velour elevated something for her as an actor. She recalled that just before filming began, Bearden told Cattrall, “I’m going to set you free.”

“And I thought, ‘Yeah, right. You sound like Jonathan Livingston Seagull,'” Cattrall quipped. “But he did.”

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Gina Piccalo is a senior writer at The Daily Beast. She spent a decade at the Los Angeles Times covering Hollywood and is also a former contributing writer for Los Angeles Magazine. Her work has appeared in Elle, More and Emmy. She can be found at ginapiccalo.com.