LONDON — “What a drag it is getting old,” a young Mick Jagger sang five decades ago, though he may have changed his mind since.
That’s also a theme of “Sweet Bird of Youth,” Tennessee Williams’ play about a faded movie star and a frazzled young hustler drifting toward disaster in a steamy Southern town.
Few feel the creep of time more acutely than actors, whose physical appearance is key to their livelihood.
So for Kim Cattrall and Seth Numrich, tackling these exposing roles on the London stage was a special kind of challenge.
“Doing theater is scary,” Cattrall said during an interview in an Old Vic rehearsal room.
“It really is. You’re really vulnerable. I think that’s also what makes it irresistible, because I don’t want to not go there. I think the other stuff is just too easy at this point. And I’m not a personality actress; I don’t want to play just one role for the rest of my life.”
There’s little doubt Cattrall could have coasted comfortably after creating one of the most indelible TV characters in years, the vampish Samantha Jones in “Sex and the City.”
Since the show ended in 2004, the 56-year-old has done two “Sex and the City” movies, but has also taken stage roles in London and New York in the likes of “Private Lives” and “Antony and Cleopatra.”
Still, it took some persuading by Old Vic artistic director Kevin Spacey, the Academy Award-winning actor, to get Cattrall to agree to play the physically humbling, emotionally demanding role of Alexandra Del Lago, a drug-addled falling star on the run from a disastrous comeback attempt who finds herself holed up in a Gulf Coast hotel room with tarnished local golden boy Chance Wayne.
Cattrall said that when it was first suggested, the director of the play she was in at the time told her she was far too young for the role.
“I said, ‘Great’ and then I thought, well, how old is Alexandra Del Lago? She must be in her 40s, and I’m in my 50s, so why is it too young? And I am dealing with some of these issues.”
She warmed further when a female director became involved, Marianne Elliott, a Tony Award winner for “War Horse.” But she still had reservations.
Cattrall recalled going over the play with Elliott “and thinking, ‘Yes, it has validity with things we’re dealing with, but is there anything else we can do?’ ”
In the end, they decided there wasn’t another play that dealt so honestly and revealingly with issues of image and aging, failure and desire.
Cattrall said yes.
Spacey said he wanted to cast Cattrall, in part, because “here’s an actress that in many ways has had a parallel career to the character in the play, in that she’s known for her sex appeal.”
“I also felt she was the perfect age. Now that did take a little convincing,” he said. “The fact that she was able to face and deal with those very issues was another indication that she was brave.”
The central characters in “Sweet Bird of Youth” are among Williams’ roster of “beautiful monsters,” whose need is as overwhelming as their honesty.
It seems at first that Chance is a callous gigolo taking the older woman for a ride. But the relationship turns out to be much more complicated, and the ravages of time are also of concern to the young man, who is 29 and fighting a growing sense of failure.
The steamy saga, first staged in 1959 and shaped for this production by playwright James Graham from Williams’ oft-reworked drafts, has hit home for Numrich as much as for Cattrall.
At 26, the American actor is very much a rising star, with Broadway turns in “War Horse” and “Golden Boy” already under his belt.
Numrich has made a big impression on critics and audiences in his London stage debut, in which he spends extended period clad only in pajama bottoms.
“Like a cross between a young Paul Newman and David Tennant,” said The Stage newspaper approvingly, while The Independent noted Numrich’s “washboard-flat stomach and silky torso” as well as his nuanced performance.
The physical scrutiny may be one reason Numrich admits “there are definitely parts of Chance that I do feel very close to: certain insecurities and fears, fear of failure.
“Having to have my shirt off in front of a thousand people for an hour every night is very nerve-racking and uncomfortable,” he said. “But I feel like that’s exactly what it’s about, what we do: taking on those kinds of challenges and trying to face them. It’s a meditation, in certain ways.”
“Or therapy,” Cattrall added. “But cheaper.”
Cattrall, who began her career in the 1970s, knows all that youth-and beauty-obsessed Hollywood can dish out.
She’s said before that the number of scripts she received fell dramatically once she hit 35. But she’s happy where she is now. After “Sweet Bird of Youth” ends its run Aug. 31, she’s off to Toronto to shoot “Sensitive Skin,” a remake of a BBC comedy-drama that starred Joanna Lumley.
Theater, however, remains her true love. “We don’t do it for the money. We don’t do it even for the fame, because how many people are really going to see it? We do it because it’s there, and you can, and you don’t know if you can. And that makes it so gratifying.
“I worked with Jack Lemmon early on in my career, and I said to him, ‘I’m really nervous. What I want is longevity. I want to have a career, I don’t want to just be an ingenue.’ And he said, ‘The only way to do that is to do things that scare you.’ It was a great piece of advice.”