Catherine Zeta-Jones Talks Playing Hollywood Legend Olivia de Havilland in ‘Feud: Bette and Joan’

Feud - Catherine Zeta Jones
Kurt Iswarienko/FX
Catherine Zeta-Jones as Olivia de Havilland

Look past Catherine Zeta-Jones’s perfect skin. Ignore her sultry voice, which can also carry a tune. Forget she has legs that could make a Rockette resentful. Disregard her wealth (she and husband Michael Douglas are reportedly worth $220 million). And the best way left to describe the actress becomes what she’s like as a woman—which is a freight train. In just two decades, the unstoppable Zeta-Jones has barreled through Hollywood (making over 20 movies and winning the 2003 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Chicago) and Broadway (winning a Tony in 2010 for A Little Night Music).

Now the 47-year-old is laying tracks in television, playing another real-life film doyenne, Olivia de Havilland, in superproducer Ryan Murphy’s hit Feud: Bette and Joan. The drama chronicles the longtime rivalry between actresses Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange), which escalated during the making of their surprise smash What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962. De Havilland—best known for her iconic roles in classics like Gone With the Wind, The Heiress and The Snake Pit—had moved to France by the 1960s but remained Davis’s closest confidante and, as depicted in the April 2 episode of Feud, her escort to the 1963 Oscars. Davis was nominated that year for her work in Baby Jane; Crawford was not. It served to further the rift in Davis and Crawford’s already strained relationship.

But Feud is about more than just a fight. “It looks at how women are portrayed as bitches for being tough and ambitious,” Zeta-Jones says. “The show gives insight into how people love a catfight, and Bette and Joan’s was used to publicize the movie. As well as how a plethora of actresses at the time were pawns in the studio bosses’ game, and when a woman turned a certain age, you were put out to pasture.”

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It was Murphy’s reputation for depicting complicated women with sensitivity that made Zeta-Jones set up a meeting with him in the first place, not knowing it would lead to this supporting but pivotal role in Feud. “I don’t live in Los Angeles,” the New York City–based actress notes. “I never just bump into people. He graciously had me over to his office. We were chatting and he went, ‘Oh, you have to play Olivia de Havilland.’ I said, ‘Sign me up.’”

She arranged a chin-wag with de Havilland in Europe last summer, but the older actress (who turns 101 in July) had to cancel due to the terror attack in Nice. And though Zeta-Jones admits to being disappointed, she had other, closer-to-home ways of researching the role: Her father-in-law, acting icon Kirk Douglas (another centenarian), and mother-in-law, Anne Buydens, not only worked in Hollywood during that time period, but they also knew the real Olivia, Bette and Joan. “I know from Kirk that Bette was everything that Susan portrays her as. She was ballsy. She was a real broad,” Zeta-Jones says. “She and Olivia—whose surname alone suggests she has a kind of royalty to her—were a strange mix.” Not that de Havilland wasn’t gutsy: The two-time Oscar winner’s suit against Warner Bros. (the studio behind Baby Jane, incidentally) over unfair work practices resulted in a law protecting actors from exploitation.

“The studio system was a nightmare for men, but especially for women. Olivia went up against it and won,” Zeta-Jones says. “I wanted to be in television to play this type of interesting female. They’re multifaceted. They’re deeper. They’re more mature. They have history. They have issues. And they have joy.”

Feud: Bette and Joan, Sundays, 10/9c, FX