After Sex and the City went off the air in 2004, actress Kim Cattrall was inundated with Hollywood pitches for her to recreate Samantha, the cougar she played on the brittle New York comedy. She turned them all down. Then she talked to a BBC producer about adapting a series called Sensitive Skin about a woman going through a mid-life crisis. “A half-hour comedy. Well okay, sure, how do you make that funny?” she recalls. “I saw the first episodes and was completely hooked.”
It’s taken eight years for Cattrall to get her North American version of the original made, but Sensitive Skin airs on HBO Canada starting July 20, with the six-part first season available on demand following the premiere. The slyly witty comedy centres around a long-married couple, Davina (Cattrall) and Al (Don McKellar). He’s a pop culture columnist; she’s a former model who works in an art gallery. “I say it’s about a couple—she probably says it’s about a woman—who moves downtown to revivify their relationship and it sort of backfires,” says McKellar, who also directs the series. “Is ‘happy enough’ good enough for you?” one acquaintance asks Al.
For Cattrall, it marks her first return to a television series since Sex. After its finale, she returned to theatre where the roles are “especially good for a woman my age.” What followed was a series of acclaimed roles in Toronto, New York City and London’s West End including last year’s Sweet Bird of Youth at the Old Vic. This summer her voice fills a small Anglican chapel in Manhattan for the latest installation by Sophie Calle, the French conceptual artist and academic, a close friend. In the piece, a tribute to Calle’s late mother, Monique, Cattrall recorded excerpts from the mother’s diary that echo over the art, including a photo of the contents of her coffin and a video capturing her last breath.
The losses endemic to middle age fascinate Cattrall, 57. This is when it all happens, she says, “whether it’s divorce, or a job or a parent.” Those narratives are oddly absent from TV, especially for comedies, and especially when it comes to women. Though the movie industry is slowly realizing the box-office power of mature audiences—the $10-million Best Exotic Marigold Hotel raked in $137 million—the small screen remains the domain of the absurdly young. “The only way I will go back to television is if I can tell a story that hasn’t been told, particularly about playing a woman my own age. I wanted to go beyond the stereotype,” she says. “Time is of the essence, not just for Davina but for me, in the stories that I want to tell. That’s where I want to spend my time.”
Focusing on a couple with wrinkles and a grown child makes Sensitive Skin “weirdly fresh,” McKellar says. The series’ seasoned talent pool isn’t limited to Cattrall and McKellar, who could get away with playing an indie darling for some years yet, but is now 50 with a resumé that includes a Genie for Exotica, an award at Cannes for his directorial debut Last Night and a Tony for The Drowsy Chaperone. Supporting roles are filled by veteran actors including Elliott Gould, Colm Feore and Mary Walsh, while one of the best characters is the oldest: Toronto, going through its own mid-life crisis through an explosive condo construction boom. “The new developments are the new sports-car cliché for the city,” notes McKellar.
The odyssey to get Sensitive Skin made culminated with a very lean shoot last autumn, recounts Cattrall, also an executive producer: “I felt like a wife, a mother, an executive, an actor.” Most of the clothes and jewellery were her own; she spurned au courant fashions for age-appropriate designs befitting a former model. “Her delusions are in her head, not in her hemline,” she says drily.
To nail the long-term chemistry needed between characters, Cattrall brought a net and volleyball to rehearsals. “We thought, ‘Oh, this is a fun little bonding game,’ ” McKellar recalls. “It turned out to be vicious.” Cattrall wasn’t dangerous, he hastens to add, but very serious. “It’s not like you’re going to laughingly tap the ball.” Her volleyball bonding technique worked—the proof is on the screen.