Could we ever have had Samantha Jones if we hadn’t first had Cleopatra? Kim Cattrall is in the perfect position to decide.
Having embodied Sex And The City’s great sexual adventuress on the small screen from 1998-2004 (plus the movie spin-offs in 2008 and 2010), Kim is now in Chichester to star as the Queen of the Nile in Shakespeare’s great masterpiece Antony and Cleopatra (September 7-29).
Obviously, it’s all rather more sophisticated than shifting back through the centuries from a modern sex bomb to an ancient one, but Kim is happy to concede the parallels.
Clearly, we are talking about two great icons of power.
“I think the similarities are that they are both very adaptable people – very adaptable to their situation,” Kim says. “They have lived their life through their self-knowledge, and I think that makes for a strong character.
“But obviously Sam is not a goddess! She appreciates her power, but she is not a political animal. Also she is not on the world stage. Her world is a much smaller world, but what both women have is a huge amount of instinct and self-knowledge – and they are very accepting of that.
“Cleopatra is one of the best roles ever written for a woman. She is very powerful woman. Everything is on her terms, even her death – or at least she wants everything on her terms. Antony is not always on her terms, and that’s why there is conflict between them. She needs him to rule.
“In Cleopatra, you have got everything; you have got the yin and the yang. Usually in a part you have one or the other, but in Cleopatra you have got it both in spades, and she goes places as a Queen that you don’t usually go as a woman. Usually you are the sweet, innocent girl with the vow of chastity or you are the whore, but with Cleopatra you get everything. Shakespeare has given her character an extraordinary inner life – an explosive inner life. She has got the most explosive inner dynamic.”
But Kim resists the temptation to regard Cleopatra as somehow manipulative: “I would say that it is survival tactics. Antony is not making good decisions. She has got her dynasty, her crown, her throne. My instincts are not that she is being manipulative for manipulation sake. She has got her country that she has got to think of; she is a goddess; she is a highly-trained politician and she can read things in the winds. She is from the east; she listens to the signs; she feels things.”
Scroll forward a couple of thousand years, and we have Sam operating on similar instinct: “Sam feels that she gets to choose what happens in her romantic situation. I think that even in our society for a woman to feel that way is something quite new. But in Cleopatra’s time she got what she wanted because she was the Queen!
“But I think both of them are examples of women that are very strong and have that self-knowledge of what they are and who they are. Having played those kinds of women, it is something that I enjoy. I have had very strong women in my life. My mother. My aunt. Even now Janet Suzman, my director (in Antony and Cleopatra).”
And it’s that strength which made people sit up and listen when Sex And The City hit the screens, teaming Kim up with Sarah Jessica Parker, Kristin Davis and Cynthia Nixon for a series which took us through the lives – sex lives in particular – of four very different women.
“It presented a woman’s point of view. Through the four characters, you got the total woman. If you put them together, you had the whole thing. There is the young naïve part of us that is quite childlike (Charlotte). There is the part that armours up to life in a man’s world (Miranda). There is the part that is adventurous and daring and brave like Sam. And there is also the part that is constantly thinking ‘Am I doing the right thing?’, always questioning, always doubting (Carrie).
“They were archetypes, and I think people understood that. But what was interesting about the character of Sam was that she was a new archetype. After many years of diseases and death, we felt that we needed to get more in touch again with that side of sexuality that is not just dangerous, but is also fresh and exciting.”
Which brings us back to Cleopatra again.
“We still need the Romans and the Egyptians and the Greeks. We all still need gods and goddesses. And these goddesses were incredibly powerful. I think in our own minds, we still need those archetypes. They just come to us now in the form of entertainment!”
Strangely, but famously, Kim turned down the part in Sex And The City several times initially.
“The series was offered to me in my 40s, and I myself thought that was not really where I wanted to be. I wanted to explore different things. I had played femmes fatales, and to say yes was asking a lot of questions at that point in my life, like whether I really wanted to be in four places when perhaps I should be settling down a bit. But I had a terrific time doing it.”
A great chance to contribute to changing people’s attitudes towards women, Kim says.
But why did she change her mind about doing it in the first place?
“I met with the creator of the series, Darren Star. The pilot was maybe 30 pages. We didn’t have the other scripts. And you were saying yes to five years, possibly six, on the basis of 30 pages. The pilot was like a rough sketch. It wasn’t worked out. The writers didn’t know who they were writing for. But Darren said to me ‘We are going to take this character to places that are really exciting… I just had a wonderful time.”
Now, though, the pleasures are rather more classical – and in the country of her birth.
“I am really excited about this production (of Antony and Cleopatra). There are some really wonderful actors in it. We did it two years ago in Liverpool. We opened in around October until November, and I think it has grown in our imaginations since then. And now the new members of the company that have joined us are extremely quick. For the rest of us, it is fuelled by what we have done before.”
The original production had a very special resonance for Kim. It was in Liverpool that she was born and spent the first three months of her life before the family emigrated to the Canadian city of Courtenay in British Columbia.
“But I did come back in my early teenage years, when I was 11 or 12. We lived there for a while and I went to school and I went to the theatre. It was an important part of my upbringing.
“I feel more than a bit Liverpudlian. I am very proud of my roots, and with it being City of Culture in 08, it transformed so many areas. There is a real feeling of transformation and growth there now, and for me to come home to it two years ago, it was really exciting to see how it had evolved. Friends of mine came up from London who would have never have dreamt of going to Liverpool, and they loved it.”
Antony and Cleopatra is at Chichester Festival Theatre from September 7-29. Tickets on 01243 781312.