Academy Award-winning actor Catherine Zeta-Jones began honing her craft as a child on theater stages and went on to work in TV and film. She earned an Oscar for her performance in Chicago, starred in Traffic, Ocean’s Twelve and The Legend of Zorro, among many other films, and recently as Olivia de Havilland in the TV series Feud. The vast majority of the roles she has played have been beautiful, glamorous women, until Cocaine Godmother, which will air next year on Lifetime. Zeta-Jones plays the powerful and ruthless Griselda Blanco, a real-life cocaine trafficker in the ’70s and ’80s, who would stop at nothing, not even murder, to further her business. Zeta-Jones talks about the appeal and challenges of the role.
WS: What intrigued you about the role of Griselda?
ZETA-JONES: Griselda fascinated me because she was a woman who came from nowhere, the slums of Medellín, Colombia, who built up the biggest empire in the drug world. She was the most powerful, most revered and most feared gang leader of the drug trade in Miami in the ’70s—the height of the drug business—and she was a woman. How did she live so long in that world? How did she get so much success in that world? That, as an actress, is something you want to play. And for me, to get under the skin of such a woman was something I became kind of obsessed with. And I’m so happy that I got the chance to do it the way that I wanted to do it, in a medium, television, where I know a lot of people are going to see it, not just in America. And I’m always fascinated by great stories, and great stories about women are something that I, of course, gravitate to.
WS: She’s so different from you in so many ways, physically as well. Did that take a toll?
ZETA-JONES: Yes, physically I wanted to put on some weight. I worked on my body language, my posture, even my Latino way of speaking and working and moving. She was a woman who could take a punch and not really fall over, someone who could take pain. I threw my back out literally a week after I finished and that was from sitting and working and reaching [differently from how I move in real life]. It was physical, but I wasn’t doing any stunts. It was mentally [challenging] and physical in a way that I’ve never been allowed to [play]. In a lot of the [roles] I’ve been cast in, the character’s name and description were preceded by beautiful, sexy, glamorous, and it’s just boring as an actor. For many years I got a little disheartened by that. Playing Griselda reminded me why I love acting. It reminded me why at 9 years old I was in the theater in London, why I wanted to be in this world, and it was to immerse myself in a story of a character that’s not me, or playing somebody who’s not me. I think a lot of actors—I don’t speak for everybody—but there’s an inherent quality within us all of wanting to be in different situations and pushing our emotions to where we’ve had to hide them before. That’s what turns us on, that’s what we want to do this job for, and you don’t necessarily get the opportunity. So Cocaine Godmother was a real treat, it was a gift for me.
WS: Was it desperation that led her to become as evil as she became? Were you able to psychoanalyze her enough to understand her motivation?
ZETA-JONES: I tried, yes. I’m big on psychoanalyzing, not just characters I play but human beings at large! [Laughs] Griselda came from the slums of Medellín—it’s shocking and a dangerous world that she was living in. No shoes, but she had a gun. She was abused. Any child who is abused carries that with them for the rest of their lives. And [either] they’re able to work through the process or, like cancer, it forms into something else—whether they become abusers themselves or whether they have serious mental issues related to that abuse. That said, there are many women, many men, who came from Medellín from that very same situation who didn’t become Griselda Blanco. Yes, it was circumstance; yes, there was greed; yes, there was wild ambition. Yes, she was able to justify her behavior because she never wanted that to happen to her kids, but she wasn’t as humble as that. Her life was about greed, danger; it was about terrorizing others just as she was terrorized herself. So it’s a very complex character to play. Her emotions were always hidden, but deep. And at certain points in the movie, I dig down into those emotions and try and show them. When she starts to crack, you see fragile parts of her character, which she was never allowed to show. I think women today are always frightened to show that beautiful quality called vulnerability; we have to hide it because it makes us look weak or it’s a sign of being able to be abused or that I can be talked down to or trampled on or beaten. It’s a very hard lesson to teach my daughter—the beauty of being vulnerable, the beauty of a childhood innocence that, as an actress, I’ve never lost, because I can live in fantasy worlds, I can dip my feet into worlds that are so different from my existence. People who are beautiful and glamorous in a world that one would think would be perfect but, in fact, is not. Or to the dark, black side, the sad, abusive, physically violent side of Griselda. The beauty of vulnerability should never be lost in women, and I’m trying to teach my 14-year-old daughter that. We have to learn and we have to be re-programmed to understand that not everyone thinks that vulnerability is a beautiful quality.