Fans of Sex and the City are used to hearing Kim Cattrall speak frankly, but Sensitive Skin, the new series premiering on HBO Canada on July 20, still may pull them up straight. In place of jokes about oral sex and bad lovers are rueful quips about hormone-replacement therapy and achey breasts. Adapted from a 2005 BBC Two series starring Joanna Lumley, the HBO version stars Cattrall as Davina Jackson, a one-time model in the grip of a midlife crisis. Cattrall is also an executive producer. We spoke with her by phone.
You shot Sensitive Skin in Toronto over the winter. But where do you live these days?
Where I work is where I live, it seems. I'm between New York and London, and since Sensitive Skin – which has been in my life now for three years – I guess I live in both of those places. I certainly pay taxes in both of those places.
That jet-setting life seems to echo Davina – at least the life she had 30 years before the show takes place. There are other elements that seem to echo your life.
I don't think a lot of people know who I am. They assume they know who I am. Most people think I'm Samantha Jones – which I don't see in Davina for a millisecond. I see somebody who is not embracing and going forward. She's very trepidatious and fear-based and vulnerable, and I don't consider myself that way. I've never been in a 30-year relationship, I don't have any children, I don't have a sister like that, I don't live in Toronto, I never put my ambitions on hold. This is a woman who's stuck, who's in a midlife crisis. I'm having my own midlife crisis, but it's not Davina's, it's completely different.
What is the key to Davina for you?
I think the common thread is to be seen: To be seen clearly.
Do you mean the desire to be seen for who you are?
Yes. Not for who people think you are, or want you to be. Because she has these labels, as all women do: being somebody's daughter, somebody's sister, somebody's wife, somebody's mother. And then who are you? I've also been somebody's fantasy, somebody's nightmare [laughs] – in a much more public way. It's to be authentically yourself, and what you want, and trying to figure that out.
You seem much more in touch with who you really are than Davina is with herself.
Of course. She's just now becoming curious. Or becoming conscious. And she's not alone. It's usually now, at this period of time, that men and women are shedding off the need to be successful: They've done it, they've attempted it, the need to be the perfect parent or mate. Your world, which has been so large, for the first time you start to turn around and realize that it's narrowing, and time is of the essence. Time means something different. That's why I don't need to just be on a film set any more. You know? I need to be on a film set where I have something to say. Or something affects me.
When men have a midlife crisis – I'm told – they buy a sports car or try to have an affair; they become figures of comedy, or pity. Davina is having a midlife crisis, but rather than a sports car, she buys an aggressively fashionable and deeply uncomfortable couch. She also considers an affair. Do you see her as comical?
No. But what we're attempting is to take situations that are real and make them bearable, not just for Davina but for us as an audience, by using the comedic craziness of the reality. The couch is like another character, it's her attempt at change, but it's very superficial. And she thinks if she gets that couch, that will be the answer; if she moves to downtown Toronto and sells the suburban home, that will be the answer. We're using these characters for comedic effect, but we're not making them grotesque or bigger than life. Much as, in the same way Sex and the City took on sexual taboos, we're taking on taboos of aging here.
Would you hope people see those in their late-50s and 60s differently because of this?
I hope so. I don't want it to be on a soapbox. I want to open it up and use comedy in doing so. We have "anti-aging clinics," you know? We live in a world where people are pushing [aging] further and further away – it's terrifying – and making themselves into alien beings in the process.
You've spoken lately about how unfair Hollywood is toward older women: That the scripts dry up once you hit your late-30s and you become, in the eyes of casting agents, less sexy and desirable. When you were younger – and getting work in part because you were young and sexy and desirable – did you feel things were unfair toward your older colleagues?
I didn't feel sexy and desirable, not for a minute. I felt quite lonely and unhappy and very far away from my family and friends, and certainly far away from Toronto, doing underground theatre. I felt destitute in the sense that there was no substance around me, there were just archetypes of movie stars that they wanted me to inhabit.
Still, you were benefiting from the bias toward youth. Did you feel things were unfair toward older actors?
I didn't have that consciousness. I was just trying to pay my rent and work as an actress. But I continued to study, I continued to do theatre, I continued to work at my craft, and that has brought me to the point of being an executive producer. And taking time out, especially after the series, to take another trajectory – because I could have gone on to play Samantha Jones for the rest of my life – but I thought: "Well, then I won't act any more, because I can't learn." That's what keeps you young. That's the secret. That's what I would say to Davina: Work. We have work.
This interview was condensed and edited.