Raised in Mumbles, Wales, Catherine Zeta-Jones has over 40 film, TV and theatre credits to her name. From childhood roles in musical theatre, this seriously determined actress won her way to Hollywood stardom with films like The Mask of Zorro, Traffic and Chicago, becoming the highest-paid British actress in the world in the process.
Here are 20 things you may not know about the critically acclaimed star.
20. She used to get second chances at auditions by returning in disguise
Dreaming of the limelight, Zeta-Jones left school unqualified at the age of 15 to join the cast of The Pajama Game.
In the following years, she turned up for a lot of chorus auditions in the West End and worked out a trick to secure a spot in shows.
After any failed audition, she used to join the same queue for a second round – pretending to be someone new.
“I would queue up for auditions and then change my costume or put on a different leotard and audition again,” she said in an interview with The New York Times.
“It might take me two tries, but I always got the job,” Zeta-Jones added. “I figured out what they wanted.”
Aged 17, she was unexpectedly bumped up from second understudy to the lead role in 42nd Street. Her performance as Peggy Sawyer was so captivating that she stayed on in the role for two years.
19. She played Velma rather than Roxie in Chicago simply so she could sing All That Jazz
For the 2002 musical film Chicago, Zeta-Jones was approached to play Roxie Hart, the main protagonist.
But Zeta-Jones, an experienced musical actress, desperately wanted to sing All That Jazz – the famous opening to the show.
And this classic tune isn’t sung by the lead role at all – instead, it is performed by the supporting character Velma Kelly.
Zeta-Jones as Velma won the Academy Award for Supporting Actress. Meanwhile, Renée Zellweger was nominated as Best Actress for the role of Roxie but did not win.
Chicago also won Best Picture – the first musical to do so since Oliver! in 1968.
In a review for the Los Angeles Times, critic Manohla Dargis wrote, “It’s Zeta-Jones who keeps you watching from start to finish.”
18. She said filming Chicago was almost as painful as childbirth
According to Zeta-Jones, the gruelling training for Chicago was almost as painful as giving birth to her first son.
Featuring larger-than-life dance routines, the role of Velma was particularly physically demanding.
In an interview with Playbill, she said director Rob Marshall’s enthusiasm kept her going throughout the filming.
“That’s why you let him off when he says it’s three o’clock in the morning, and you can’t hardly breathe and you can’t feel your toes and your legs and your knee-caps are swollen and he’s like, ‘Honey, one just for me, just for me.’”
For the heist movie Entrapment in 1999, Zeta-Jones similarly performed most of her own stunts – including backflips and splits on a beam with a 20ft drop.
She stars as an investigator who is hot on the heels of an art thief, played by Sean Connery.
17. A £100,000 bingo prize funded her training in musical theatre
When Zeta-Jones was still a child, her parents went out to play bingo one night and returned with £100,000 in winnings.
They splashed out on singing and ballet lessons for their daughter, who went on to train at the Arts Educational School in London.
At ten years old, Zeta-Jones wowed judges in a Junior Star Trail talent competition at a Butlins holiday camp. Her rendition of a Shirley Bassey song won first prize.
Starring in a production of Annie in Swansea, and later playing Tallulah in Bugsy Malone in the West End, her singing abilities were a huge boost in her young career.
She is also a keen tap dancer, winning a national championship while she was a child.
Amid 2020’s global health crisis, Zeta-Jones has kept up her tap dancing skills by practising on tap boards she laid in her New York living room.
16. Zeta-Jones and Will Smith could have played Mr and Mrs Smith in the eponymous 2005 film
Mr and Mrs Smith, the 2005 box office hit about married assassins, birthed the high-profile relationship between co-stars Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.
However, this memorable movie was once set to co-star two entirely different actors.
At one point Nicole Kidman, the original Mrs Smith, dropped out due to scheduling conflicts and Pitt followed suit.
Directors turned instead to the promising pairing of Will Smith and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
The Mask of Zorro had established Zeta-Jones as an action star, and the directors hoped the pair would draw huge audiences.
When Brad Pitt rejoined the movie with Angelina Jolie, however, the Smith and Zeta-Jones plan was scrapped.
15. Steven Spielberg was the one who talent-scouted her into Hollywood
By 1995, Zeta-Jones wanted to break away from her fame in the UK, sensing that she was getting typecast as little more than a pretty face.
She decided to restart her career by moving to Los Angeles, where she was far less well-known.
Cast as the heroine in the TV miniseries Titanic, she caught the eye of Steven Spielberg.
He persuaded Martin Campbell, director of The Mask of Zorro, to give her an audition.
Despite being relatively unknown in the States at the time, Zeta-Jones won the role of Elena, widely regarded as her breakthrough performance.
Zeta-Jones would later star in a Spielberg-directed movie: The Terminal, a comedy in which she plays a flight attendant.
14. She was too scared to hang out on the set of The Haunting after dark
For the 1999 supernatural horror film The Haunting, the directors had the challenge of recreating a Victorian mansion with a distressing past in Long Beach California.
They built the rooms of the house in a WWII hangar, filling it with shadowy Gothic designs and creaking hallways.
The space reportedly terrified both Zeta-Jones and her co-star Liam Neeson, who always headed home before sunset.
“I’d never be caught dead on this set after dark,” she told Entertainment Weekly.
Director Jan de Bont assembled 50 sound effects with which he spontaneously frightened the actors during filming, including creaks, moans and scrapes.
The film’s exterior scenes, however, were filmed at Harlaxton Manor in Lincolnshire. This Grade I Listed building was also a filming location for the black comedy The Ruling Class in 1972.
13. She’s friends with Bonnie Tyler
Bonnie Tyler and Zeta-Jones have both lived in the same Welsh suburb – Mumbles, in Swansea.
What’s more, Tyler is also married to Robert Sullivan, a cousin of Zeta-Jones’ father.
Tyler performed her hit Total Eclipse of the Heart at Zeta-Jones’ wedding to Michael Douglas in 2000.
In an interview with the Daily Express, Tyler said she receives lavish Christmas gifts from Zeta-Jones each year but sends nothing in return.
“Well, what can you possibly give Catherine Zeta-Jones?” she replied.
The pair were recognised together for their contributions to Welsh art at the inaugural Lord Mayor’s Honours in Swansea in 2016.
12. Her character in Traffic was re-written to incorporate Zeta-Jones’ pregnancy
While filming Traffic in 2000, Zeta-Jones was six months pregnant with her first child Dylan.
In this crime drama, her character was the wife of a drug dealer, originally written to have two young children.
To keep Zeta-Jones in the film, the writers modified some of her action sequences, and re-wrote her character as an expectant mother.
Her real-life partner Michael Douglas also stars in the film – though the couple share no scenes.
This now-famous Hollywood pair were engaged at the time of filming and got married soon afterwards.
Douglas’ and Zeta-Jones’ children – who are also the grandchildren of actor Kirk Douglas – are reportedly keen on pursuing acting too.
11. She worked as a waitress in NYC to prepare for her role in No Reservations
Before starring as a chef in No Reservations, Zeta-Jones joined the catering staff at the Fiamma Osteria restaurant in New York City to build a convincing character.
Quite a few customers blithely noted how much their waitress looked like Catherine Zeta-Jones, to which she replied in an American accent, “I hear that all the time!”
In this romantic comedy, Zeta-Jones plays a head chef in a restaurant in NYC’s West Village.
Her character’s niece and adoptive child is played by Abigail Breslin, while her love interest and rival in the kitchen is played by Aaron Eckhart.
The film met with mixed critical reception. It was in fact a remake of the popular German film Mostly Martha, with which it was compared unfavourably.
Critic Roger Ebert wrote that Zeta-Jones was “convincing as a short-tempered chef,” but noted that “the characters seem to feel more passion for food than for each other.”
10. She runs a film production company with her brother in Wales
Zeta and her brother Lyndon set up Milkwood Films production company in the early 2000s.
The company is named after Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’ 1954 radio play Under Milk Wood.
In an interview with the Mirror, Zeta-Jones explained her connection to the poet.
“I went to an academic school and they had no drama, nothing,” she recalled. “But I was lucky enough to be born in Dylan Thomas’s hometown.”
“And so the government would finance the Dylan Thomas Theatre’s amateur dramatics and I was in,” she said. “So we had a lot of art in a very working-class coalmining town.”
In 2012, Milkwood Films worked with Mick Jagger to produce Crossfire Hurricane, a documentary about The Rolling Stones.
9. As a child, she gave daffodils to her idol Elizabeth Taylor
While Zeta-Jones was a child starring in the musical Annie, she idolized the actress Elizabeth Taylor.
A classic Hollywood star, Taylor was famous for roles like Cleopatra – as well as her dazzling “violet” eyes.
“All I wanted was to see [Taylor’s eyes] in real life,” Zeta-Jones recalled.
During the run of Annie, Zeta-Jones heard that Taylor would be attending a matinee performance of a different play at the same Swansea Theatre.
That afternoon, Zeta-Jones dashed to meet Taylor and present her with a bunch of daffodils, the national flowers of Wales, as the Hollywood legend stepped out of her car.
But Taylor’s eyes were hidden behind sunglasses, to Zeta-Jones’ great disappointment. When the aspiring star politely asked Taylor to remove her glasses, Taylor quipped, “It’s far too early in the morning to do that, my love.”
8. Danny DeVito introduced her to her future husband
Actor Danny DeVito can take credit for Zeta-Jones’ very first meeting with her future husband, Michael Douglas.
He introduced the pair to each other as they attended the Deauville Film Festival in France in 1998.
Later Douglas arranged a first date with the help of his publicist – and told Zeta-Jones at that moment, “You’re going to have my children.”
Their high-profile wedding at New York’s Plaza Hotel cost an estimated $1.5 million.
Funnily enough, the two share a birthday – though Douglas is 25 years older than Zeta-Jones.
The pair separated in 2013 but reconciled in 2014, and they have two children together.
7. A Monkees singer helped her on the road to stardom
When Zeta-Jones was 14, auditions opened in Swansea for a touring musical.
It starred former Monkees vocalist and drummer Mickey Dolenz. Intrigued, Zeta-Jones auditioned for a part in the touring chorus.
The producers were impressed, and she secured a part in a production of The Pajama Game.
A popular musical from the 1950s, The Pajama Game is about underpaid labourers in a garment factory.
Zeta-Jones’ parents and teachers agreed that she could join the company and drop out of school, with the promise that if she struggled with her acting career, she would return to formal education.
Fortunately, the young Zeta-Jones thrived in the company and in life on tour.
6. She avoided listening to the songs before her Tony Award-winning performance in A Little Night Music
Playing an old actress named Desirée Armfeldt in A Little Night Music, Zeta-Jones won a Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical in 2010.
This modern Broadway revival of a 1950s musical was a huge hit and saw Zeta-Jones performing the famous song Send In The Clowns live at the Tony Awards.
To make sure her performance stood out, Zeta-Jones decided not to listen to any past recordings of the musical’s songs as she prepared for the roles.
She wanted to avoid being influenced by other actor’s interpretations of the character.
A Little Night Music was a muted contrast to Chicago. “There’s no jazzy hands, no high kicks, no fishnet stockings,” noted Zeta-Jones in an interview with the New York Times.
“The characterization is everything. It’s not one of those shows where you can dig about three inches and come out the other end. You can keep digging and digging and digging.”
5. She took the name Catherine Zeta-Jones from her grandmothers
Zeta-Jones was named after her grandmothers Catherine Fair and Zeta Jones.
She was originally named Catherine Zeta Jones, with no hyphen – but “Catherine Jones” was already the name of several actresses when Zeta-Jones took to the spotlight.
The star decided to hyphenate her middle and last names to create a single, more memorable surname.
Her father David owned a sweet factory, and her mother Patricia was a seamstress.
As a child, Zeta-Jones was full of energy and had her first taste of performance at the Hazel Johnson School of Dancing.
This small school took place in a church hall just down the road from where she grew up in Mumbles.
4. Her first recording role was in a concept album about Spartacus
In the 1990s, Zeta-Jones began a foray into the world of pop music.
Composer Jeff Wayne created his album Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of Spartacus from 1992.
He invited Anthony Hopkins and Zeta-Jones to sing and speak in this experimental project. On this album, Zeta-Jones’ song For All Time reached the UK Top 40.
Her duet with singer David Essex, True Love Ways, was released as a single in 1994.
In 1995, Zeta-Jones released her single In the Arms of Love with Wayne’s Wow! Records.
She also reached the UK Top 40 with this pop song, though it only spent two weeks in the Top 100.
3. She washes herself in honey and beer
Zeta-Jones follows an unorthodox beauty regime that involves using various edible ingredients as exfoliants.
“I rub a mixture of honey and salt all over my body to moisturise and exfoliate, she said in 2009. “You wash it off and your skin is gorgeous.”
She uses a combination of beer and honey to keep her brunette locks shiny. “I smell like the bottom of a beer barrel for days afterwards but it’s very good for the hair.”
As a harsh exfoliant, plain salt is not widely recommended as a skincare ingredient.
The actress also says she eats an apple after every meal to keep her teeth looking polished.
When it comes to meals themselves, though, her favourite foods are “smoked salmon sandwiches with potato chips crunched inside – and fish and chips.”
2. She was awarded a CBE for services to the film industry
Zeta-Jones received her CBE from Prince Charles back in 2011, as part of the Queen’s Birthday Honours.
She said she was “absolutely thrilled” to receive the award from the Royal Family.
“As a British subject I feel incredibly proud,” she said. “At the same time it is overwhelming and humbling.”
Alongside her Tony Award and Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, Zeta-Jones has collected a myriad of honours over the decades.
She counts a European Film Award for Best Actress (People’s Choice) for Entrapment, A Blockbuster Entertainment Award for The Mask of Zorro, and a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for Traffic among her wins.
Zeta-Jones was also nominated for the MTV Movie Award for Best Fight, for her duelling scene with Antonio Banderas in The Mask of Zorro.
1. She says she’s “sick of being humble”
In an interview with the Mirror in 2018, Zeta-Jones said she wanted to brush off her habit of apologising for her successes in life.
“One thing I’m not is humble anymore,” she said. “I’m sick of being humble. I really am. ‘So sorry I’m rich, so sorry I’m married to a movie star, so sorry I’m not so bad looking.’”
“No sorrys. Enough,” she concluded. “All that is important to me now is my work.”
With a fortune worth over $200 million, Zeta-Jones and her husband have owned properties in Wales, California, New York and Mallorca.
Speaking to E! News, Michael Douglas said of his wife, “She’s an entrepreneur and I totally support her.”
“The acting roles, particularly for ladies at a certain age, become much more difficult. This is something where you can actually control your life so she really enjoys it.”