Catherine Zeta-Jones is at her best being the worst.
Whether it’s her Oscar-winning performance as Velma Kelly in Chicago, Julia Roberts’ insufferable sister in America’s Sweethearts, or a vengeful divorcee in the Coen brother’s Intolerable Cruelty, Jones has become especially adept at adding dimension to characters who seem deficient in any redeemable qualities–and the same can be said for her new role in Facebook Watch’s show Queen America.
Jones plays Vicki Ellis, a cutthroat beauty pageant coach driven by two goals: producing winning girls and perfection. When Ellis’s star pupil loses her crown, Ellis finds herself attempting to groom the unpolished and inexperienced runner-up so she might grab the national crown.
“Out of the gate, you think that Vicki Ellis is this b-i-t-c-h, and she’s not that. She’s very complex,” says Jones, 48. “Through her fear and pain and anger and disappointment of probably not becoming what she wanted to become, it’s a defense mechanism. So with all these issues, it was just something I couldn’t wait to get my my hands on.”
Queen America comes at a particularly interesting time with the Miss America pageant scrapping the swimsuit portion of the competition earlier this year after years of complaints of it being demeaning. For all the ire beauty pageants have drawn over the years, Queen America show runner and creator Meaghan Oppenheimer digs past presumptions and finds a nuanced story that doesn’t rest on the knee-jerk notion that pageants are inherently evil. And it’s that complexity that attracted Jones to the role.
“[Queen America] deals with very current questions and tries to understand that through the facade of someone who has it all pulled together, who has that desire for perfection–whatever that is–we are all human and there’s vulnerabilities and there’s fractures and there’s cracks in the surface. And we delve in into that,” Jones says.
The actress admits knowing next to nothing about the pageant world, but through her research (she highly recommends the documentary The World Before Her) and her own experience as a dancer growing up, she was able to understand why young women would voluntarily submit themselves to a system of superficial critiques.
“What I do connect to is that thought of bettering oneself, of me coming from a small town in Wales. What can I do to get that next step to fulfill my dreams?” Jones says. “The people who pooh-pooh the whole pageant world and go, ‘Do women really need to be doing this right now?’ That’s empowerment to women–a woman who takes her own future into her own hands, who goes, ‘You know what? It will get me on the stage, get me speaking in public, get me out there and maybe get me a job at a TV [station].’ I think it’s admirable.”
Building on a character like Vicki in a show that focuses on the gray zone in what most see as a black-and-white debate is the type of challenge Jones wants at this point in her career.
“I relish becoming a 49-year-old woman because I know there is a beautiful next chapter of my life where I get to play some of the real juicy roles,” she says. “I’m not the ingenue anymore. I never wanted to be the ingenue anyway. But now I’m able to bring my life experience to different characters that I would never have been ready for [before].”
Catch new episodes of Queen America every Sunday at 9 pm EST/6 pm PST on Facebook Watch.