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She's back with five new films. / Larsen & Talbert/USA WEEKEND

Some of her worst days

It's wrenching when her husband, Michael Douglas, gets a checkup for his throat cancer, diagnosed in 2010 and now in remission. "Every time he goes for a checkup my stomach hits the floor with the notion he's going to come home and I'm going to look in his eye and he's going to tell me something I don't want to hear. When that's over, I'm fine. You gotta move on. You gotta get up and get at 'em and get going."

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Catherine Zeta-Jones sits unnoticed in a Chinese restaurant in Manhattan. She eats a crab claw with her slender fingers and makes life, stardom and beauty look effortless.

It’s not. In 2009, she deliberately stepped out of the spotlight to enjoy her family life with her husband, Michael Douglas. But his diagnosis of throat cancer arrived swiftly. Then her publicist announced Zeta-Jones had sought follow-up treatment for bipolar disorder.

“I took a time-out, and then Michael got sick and just a whole bunch of things happened,” she says. “And then it was time to go back, and it was the right time.”

She’s back. Opening this week is Rock of Ages, an adaptation of the Broadway comic rock operathat uses ’80s rock and power ballads to put a tongue-in-cheek spin on boy-meets-girl. The movie’s high-wattage cast includes Tom Cruise and Alec Baldwin.

Zeta-Jones, who plays a mayor’s prickly wife, blasts her big number, Hit Me With Your Best Shot, while in era-appropriate chunky shoulder pads. “It was just fun to go in, to knock out that number. And I mean, knock it out, because it was really physical.”

The family business

Douglas famously saw Zeta-Jones’ breakthrough in the film The Mask of Zorro and introduced himself by offering to father her children. What followed was a lavish wedding and the birth of Dylan, now 11, and Carys, 9.

This winner of an Oscar for Chicago and a Tony for A Little Night Music describes her kids as her “best productions” and acknowledges that striking a balance between work and family takes effort even for a movie star. “I’m the first person to say it’s not easy. I’m not Wonder Woman, and I never will be.”

But she has options, which she knows is more than many of her fans can say in this tough economy. “The beauty of what we do is that we’re not 9 to 5. We work intensively for some period of time and then we can be off for months. ... That’s the privilege we have as a family.”

Partly for the kids, Zeta-Jones and Douglas moved their home base from Bermuda, where they lived for 10 years and still keep a home, to New York City. “My son’s dyslexic, and as great as the schools were over there, I didn’t think he was getting exactly what he needed.” She notes that she has the learning disorder, too.

And while her daughter has already asked about starring in movies alongside her mom, Zeta-Jones is preaching patience to her kids. First, college. Then, the world.

“Gene-wise, they’re both very theatrical, very animated, funny show people,” she says. “People come up to me and say it: ‘You can tell whose kids they are.’”

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