"The curtain went up and somebody yelled out, 'Love 'ya, Sam!'" the actress says with a wry smile.
The "Sam" in question is, of course, the man-eater Samantha Jones from "Sex and the City." The trouble was that Cattrall wasn't playing Samantha on this night: She was trying to be Amanda in a production of Noel Coward's "Private Lives."
Momentarily shaken, Cattrall pressed on. "You just go to yourself, 'Oh, that's sweet.' And then you go, 'OK, let's go. Who's got the first line?' You're in character. It's just what you do."
Since putting down her last cosmopolitan in the second "Sex and the City" movie, Cattrall has politely been trying to shake off Samantha and remind people that she's also a veteran theater actress.
That mission will get easier when "Private Lives" opens Thursday at the Music Box Theatre. Cattrall steps into the role played by respected actresses including Gertrude Lawrence, Maggie Smith and Elizabeth Taylor.
It's the tale of a divorced couple who discover they have adjoining rooms while honeymooning with their new spouses and rekindle their romance. Cattrall stars opposite Paul Gross, star of the TV shows "Due South" and "Slings and Arrows."
Cattrall, 55, in person is as thoughtful and sincere as Samantha is not, a beauty with a regal air whose stunning appeal hasn't faded in the years since she was an ingenue in "Police Academy," ''Mannequin" and "Porky's."
She's built a career switching from commercial films to theater, but the Samanthas in her career seem to stick more in the popular consciousness than her role in "Three Sisters." She's been in "View From the Bridge" at the Lee Strasberg Institute, in a Donmar Warehouse production of David Mamet's "The Cryptogram" and played a quadriplegic sculptor in a London production of "Whose Life Is It Anyway?"
"If you look at my resume, you'll see my theater and film — they look like two different actors in a lot of ways," she says. "I knew from a very early age that if I wanted to be viable in the theater world, people know who you are if you have film credits."
Richard Eyre, the director of "Private Lives" and who helmed "Mary Poppins" and Indiscretions" on Broadway and also was head of the Royal National Theatre, has long been hoping to work with Cattrall.
"Quite often people think actors who have celebrity because of a TV career have not proved themselves on the stage. But she was a stage actress before she became a television actress," he says. "It doesn't go away."
The two didn't initially intend to team up for the Coward play. They actually planned to work on a production of Henrik Ibsen's "Ghosts," which created a sensation by raising the taboo topic of venereal disease. But they found out there was another production of "Ghosts" in the works that had booked a theater in London.
While searching for an alternative work, Cattrall was sent "Private Lives" by messenger. "I read like the first 15, 16 pages and I called Richard and I said, 'We've got to do this. Let's leave syphilis behind,'" she says with a laugh.
"It really made me laugh. I loved the clip of it. I loved the barb of it. I loved the screwball comedy of it. I had been doing such heavy things and I thought this would be really, really great."
A successful run in London led to a stint in Toronto and now Broadway, a trans-national trip that has significance for Cattrall, who was born in Britain, grew up in Canada and now lives in New York. "This play is hitting every major stop. It's really quite astounding," she says.
While Coward plays are often considered to be frothy and mannered, Cattrall sees "Private Lives" to be ahead of its time. There are very dark elements, including allusions to wife-beating, and Cattrall's character has a feminist streak. "What he's really writing about is heterosexual relationships and the obsession of love," she says of Coward.
Cattrall, who made her Broadway debut in "Wild Honey" with Ian McKellen in 1986, has found plenty of work since "Sex and the City" began winding down. She was in a stage production of "Antony and Cleopatra" for director Janet Suzman, in the miniseries "Any Human Heart" on PBS, and in the films "Meet Monica Velour" and Roman Polanski's "The Ghost Writer" opposite Pierce Brosnan and Ewan McGregor.
The theater is where she feels happiest, though. For one thing, there are fewer Samantha Jones parts, which she now gets offered a lot. "The theater, for me, especially now, is where the best parts are," she says.
"I love Samantha but I don't think the writing could surpass what we were given on a weekly basis. And secondly, I feel like I did it to the best of my ability. To revisit it outside the actual creative team, I don't think would be that satisfying for me."
She likes to cite a lesson she learned from actor Jack Lemon. When they met, she asked him the secret of his longevity in show business. His reply is something she's taken to heart: Take things that scare you.
But she doesn't want to be preachy about it.
"I'm not interested in educating people about me and what I've done and haven't done. They can read it in the Playbill," she says. "What I want for them is, hopefully, to be entertained and have an experience that will possibly have them buy another ticket to a straight play."
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