Dana Delany: 'I've tried hard all my life not to be a desperate housewife'

She started her career at 21 playing a professional virgin, turned down the role of Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City, and is now trying to out-Bree Bree in Desperate Housewives. So who exactly is Dana Delany?

By Maureen Paton / October 16, 2008
© Trevor O'Shana
When Dana Delany – the most recent addition to television's Desperate Housewives – grins at me from a quiet nook in a busy London hotel lounge and announces: 'This is the naughty corner,' I can tell that she's going to be fun.

Even more so when Dana then casually props one bare leg at right angles across the other. How often do you get such relaxed body language from a Hollywood star?

She has been cast as the mysterious Katherine Mayfair, Bree's new rival in the red-haired ice-queen department. Ironically, Dana (pronounced Dayna) was originally offered the part of Bree before her great friend Marcia Cross, but she turned it down because she wanted to avoid typecasting after playing a similar character in a TV drama called Pasadena.

Desperate Housewives' creator Marc Cherry was so keen on wooing this
two-time Emmy award-winner, however, that he came back with the offer of the new character of Katherine, explaining that he wanted her to 'out-Bree Bree'.

What actress could resist such a bitchfest challenge? Not Dana, who started her career at 21 playing a professional virgin ('quite a stretch,' as the straight-talking star drily remarks) on a daytime TV soap, won her Emmys for tough army nurse Colleen McMurphy in the 1988-91 TV mini-series China Beach, built up a stage career on Broadway, played a dominatrix in the 1994 film Exit To Eden and appeared alongside her old friend, the future Sex and the City star Kim Cattrall, in the 1995 girltalk comedy film about female sexual fantasies, Live Nude Girls.

Why wouldn't Wisteria Lane snap up such a woman?
Desperate Housewives/ABC
'It was very clever of Marc to make Bree and Katherine clash because we're the two control freaks in the story – and he was building on the history of me being offered the role of Bree first,' says Dana, laughing at the mischief-making.

Yet at first she hesitated before accepting. 'I thought, "This concept is so retro, what happened to feminism?" And in fact a lot of people had doubts about the show to begin with, because they thought that female-friendship thing had already been done with Sex and the City. But they underestimated Middle America, where many women really do feel like desperate housewives even in this day and age.'

The paradox, however, is that in real life this self-possessed 52-year-old who has never married or had children is as far from being a housewife – and especially a desperate one – as you can possibly get.

She was very nearly Carrie Bradshaw, since – as she reveals here for the first time – she was the original choice for the lead Sex and the City role that made Sarah Jessica Parker world-famous.

'It's something I've never mentioned, but the show's creator Darren Star asked me to play Carrie,' she tells me. 'I swear that Darren got the idea of televising Candace Bushnell's Sex and the City from seeing me and Kim in Live Nude Girls – it just had to be a precursor.

'But I said, "Darren, I can't talk about sex again on screen or people will just lynch me!" I had already got pilloried for playing the Exit To Eden dominatrix after China Beach because audiences had a certain image of me as Colleen and didn't want to see it change. There was such a strong negative reaction that I remember thinking, "It's not like I murdered anyone or anything!"'

And then Kim Cattrall called her and said that Darren had offered her the part of Samantha. Dana had no hesitation on her friend's behalf.

'Kim is really fun, a great dame in the American sense, so I said to her, "You should do it,"' says Dana, who admits she's been better in the past at giving other people career advice than herself. 'The problem is that I do like adventure and change, so I haven't thought long-term in a calculated way,' she explains.
© Trevor O'Shana
Which is why, despite her talent, looks and non-stop work record, Dana Delany has never become a major star until now.

Named one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world by People magazine back in 1991, the creamy-skinned, hazel-eyed Dana does not disappoint in the flesh. Despite her low-key, slightly self-mocking manner, she looks the epitome of the sexy older woman who can fascinate men of all ages.

She has acted with everyone from Bruce Willis to Steve Martin, and numbers the actor Treat Williams and Eagles drummer Don Henley among her former lovers.

But when I mention one Internet rumour that she's bisexual, she laughs and calls it 'wishful thinking. I did an episode of The L Word [the American drama series about lesbians] so maybe that's what they were thinking of, but I'm not bisexual – although I know it's very "in" now,' she adds teasingly, not remotely offended.

This easy-going actress lives alone in Santa Monica with a view of the ocean from the bedroom window, and also in Manhattan where she has a Greenwich Village apartment (very Carrie Bradshaw) and loves the 'energy' of the city that hits her as soon as she walks out of the door.

As she says: 'I have tried hard all my life not to be a desperate housewife. I grew up with 70s feminism and I try to hold true to those principles. A job is often a better bet than many men, and more fulfilling.

'My mother is 80 years old and still works as an interior designer, so I was raised with a very strong work ethic. I didn't think that being a wife and mother made her happy, so I remember saying to her when I was 16: "I'm never going to have kids." She said, "Oh, you'll change your mind", but I never did.

'Once in a while I think about it, especially now that it's too late, but I just really like having my freedom. My sister Corey doesn't have any children either, but my brother Sean has two and I'm a good aunt to them.

'I've had proposals, but I like being single so much that somebody would have to be special to make me marry him. I would be happy to marry somebody who already has kids; I would be fine with that because I would make a great stepmom.

'But marriage never seemed that important to me, which I think was part of growing up in the 70s,' adds Dana, who then recounts the chilling story of her parents' 'ugly' separation.

She grew up in Connecticut in a well-to-do, middle-class family, but when her mother tried to assert her independence by leaving the marriage, the idyllic life ended.

'It was around that time of Helen Reddy's 1972 feminist song "I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar" when a lot of couples were splitting up,' she explains.

'My mother went through a horrible divorce from my father that was all about money.
I saw that marriage did not make people happy, that being true to yourself makes
you happy.

'I was 16 at the time and my mother restarted her career while my father moved to Virginia, which was an extremely conservative state at the time. So because of that, my mother didn't get a dime – a legal technicality meant that she could be sued on grounds of desertion because she was working in Connecticut.

'My brother was at college by then but my sister and I went to live with my father, which was unusual for the time, and I sort of became the woman of the house before going to university. And that's another reason why I didn't feel the need to get married – I felt like I had already done it,'
she says.

Not that the experience put her off men, because she managed to stay close to her father as well as her mother and still mourns the fact that he met a tragic end when he contracted pancreatic cancer and died in 1981 just a year after remarrying.

'I have certainly had a lot of relationships, so I feel I'm lucky because I have had every experience I've ever wanted and all sorts of men,' she says. 'But my sister is now divorcing after 30 years of marriage, and it's devastating for her.

'She's dating again now for the first time since college and it's so confusing to her. I feel badly for her, whereas I know who I am – and what the traps are.'

And just as Desperate Housewives defied ageism by giving Katherine a much younger second husband, so Dana frequently finds herself being romanced by younger men in real life. She dislike the term 'cougar', however, for a sexy older woman who dates younger men, because 'it sounds predatory, which is really not my experience,' she explains.

'I date a lot of younger men, but they are always the ones who approach me. My last boyfriend was 13 years younger and for six months I fought him off, saying, "You're too young". But he just persisted.'

Currently, however, she says she's not with anyone and is just happy to do her yoga, read her books, play with her newest iPhone like the gadget freak she is and wait to be called to the Desperate Housewives set where she works an average of three days a week.

'I feel like I've earned my contentment at living on my own,' she says. 'I don't even have any pets, and the only plants I have are orchids because they can take care of themselves. In fact, my maid looks after the orchids because I would kill them otherwise by forgetting to water them,' she adds with a giggle.

So much for the lemon-meringue pie wars and other domestic disputes between Bree and Katherine as they strive to have the best-kept house on the block. 'The joke on the set
is that neither Marcia nor I are domestic in real life,'
reveals Dana with another grin. 'The domesticated one is Teri Hatcher (Susan), who really does bake.'

Although UK audiences are only just catching up with the second half of series four (delayed due to the Hollywood writers' strike), Dana already has had sight of scripts for series five. She predicts that Bree will become a housewife superstar-type like Martha Stewart and that her truce with Katherine won't last. 'We are frenemies – friends who are enemies – and I think there will always be that tension,' she laughs.

'But I've learnt a new respect for housewives from doing this show, because there are people who live lives of quiet desperation that need an outlet. Ever since high school, I have had a lot of strong female friends, and the older I get, the more I appreciate them.

'Even though women sometimes have their catfights, the great thing is that in the end they always rally behind each other.'