"We Can't Get a Few Gray Hairs": Catherine Zeta-Jones on Being a Woman in Hollywood

“As good as I am as a talent — as an actress and creative person — I’m much better at finance,” Catherine Zeta-Jones says. The Welsh actress, 49, takes credit for her stagecraft but attributes much of her Oscar- and Tony-winning success to what her father, the owner of a small-town confectionary factory, taught her about brand building, well before it became millennial vernacular.

“My father — who was a wannabe lounge act in Vegas, who has no creative iota in his body — is a really good businessman. He’s the person who guided me, got me looking at myself as a business as opposed to just an actress,” she says. When Zeta-Jones was young, her parents won  100,000 playing bingo — and she remembers her father putting their winnings right back into his sweets company, later inspiring his daughter to invest when she began earning money of her own.

That didn’t take long. Zeta-Jones received her first sizeable paycheck at age 9, for her lead role in the West End production of Annie. “I bought myself a baby grand piano,” she says, of the splurge that wound up being her best investment to date. “From that little piano, I’ve become who I am today. I started to learn how to play. I’m not a great pianist, but I was on it quite a lot. I was doing singing gigs when I was 15 for, like, 100 pounds a night. That piano literally fell apart and had to be put to bed, and I had an official burial of the piano.” The gigs multiplied and evolved, leading to career highlights like The Mask of Zorro, Traffic, and Chicago.

Her latest role has Zeta-Jones portraying a cold-blooded pageant coach in Facebook Watch’s dark comedy Queen America. With Miss America scrapping its swimsuit competition earlier this year, the show comes at a time in our culture when pageantry has been put on trial. (See also, Jennifer Aniston’s Netflix film Dumplin.) Still, Zeta-Jones refuses to turn her nose up at the pageant universe. “I did dance competitions from the age of 4. I know this world,” she says. “I know the whole idea of gaining a type of exposure.” Exposure meant everything to Zeta-Jones, when she was a in teen tap-dancing competitions and hoping to be discovered.

What’s uncomfortable about pageants, she says, is not that they’re more image-obsessed than any other corner of society. It’s that they’re exactly as image-obsessed, an unappetizing reality these coiffed microcosms force us to confront. “We could mention so many people who have done jack shit, but their Facebook and Instagram numbers are huge because of exposure. It’s not necessarily the exposure that I want my daughter to do,” she says of her 15-year-old, Carys, with husband Michael Douglas (the couple also has an 18-year-old son, Dylan). “But that’s the world we live in. It’s all about being pretty, and that’s shocking. And so, these 10 episodes delve into the pain that creates.”

Over Queen America’s Season 1 arc, you’ll go from gleefully hating Zeta-Jones’ alpha-bitch character to empathizing with her, she says. “I think I’ve done my best work I’ve done in a long time.” Did Facebook Watch, the tech giant’s relatively new streaming platform, factor into her interest in the gig? “I had no idea what is was,” she admits. “I still don’t.” But she calls her current role one of her most challenging to date, and “basically nobody else has given me the opportunity to do that.”

Scroll down for more on Zeta-Jones’ financial philosophy and the advice Sean Connery gave her that she’ll never forget.

On her dad’s money smarts… “My father looked at [performance] as a business person. He didn’t look at it and say, ‘Oh darling, it’s a wonderful career.’ No, he looks at the numbers. He told me to do that, and it was extremely beneficial.”

On the best tough-love career advice she received… “When I was a showgirl in Britain, and I was a toast of the West End stage, which is the Broadway of Britain, Trevor Nunn and Andrew Lloyd Webber told me, ‘You’ve gotta take off your mascara and be a real actress now.’ And I did. Otherwise I’d be still tap dancing.”

On taking on a challenging role…  “On the outside it looks very frivolous and very light, but it’s much deeper and darker, and that’s what’s exciting to me. Otherwise, what? I’m going to play another mother? No, I don’t need to do that.”

On betting on Facebook’s new streaming platform…  “I have a Facebook account, but beyond that I didn’t know anything about it. What I do know is that we can reach people that are way bigger than one would think. For me, it really wasn’t about the outreach, though. It was about playing a role that I could delve into and go deeper.”

On learning to invest… “I always invest. For example, I did a campaign for 10 years with Elizabeth Arden, and I took a lesser salary and instead became a shareholder in the company. We made Elizabeth Arden from your granny’s kind of facial thing into a really huge company bought by Revlon. So I took a cut and said I’ll be a shareholder. That way, when I worked, I had more advantages from the product than I would if you just paid me to put lipstick on.”

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On being a woman in Hollywood… “This business is tough, specifically tough for women. We can’t get a few gray hairs. Nothing has changed. We can pretend it has, but no, it has not. With social media now, it’s all about fixing it and making it look prettier and making it look better. Queen America addresses all that.”

On business advice from Sean Connery that rings true today… “He said that you are the person who drives your future. Don’t listen to anybody else. Well, whatever anyone says, take it and listen to it, but then ultimately just do what you think.”

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