Luminous, statuesque, angular, daunting, thoroughbred. These are adjectives commonly used to describe Catherine Elise Blanchett, the most respected actress since Streep and Fonda.
They all fit. A tall (though not as tall as you’d think – 5’8”), striking woman of phosphorous skin, sharp bones and fierce blue eyes, Blanchett has lent her severe beauty, glinting intelligence and, of course, frightening talent to a procession of privileged characters. An heiress in breakthrough movie Oscar And Lucinda. A pair of queens in Elizabeth and The Lord Of The Rings (one human, one Elven). A vain, dignified, disdainful actress – Katharine Hepburn, no less – in The Aviator.
Yet to describe Melbourne-born Blanchett with only words of frigid reverence is to be myopic. This is an actress who locates the frailties in the most regal of characters, chipping away at layers of class and austerity to find the vulnerability and warmth – the humanity – within. The Blanchett Total Film meets is bold and confident but also self-deprecating, witty and likeable, quick to offer a wide smile or a sudden laugh. She’ll stray from talking about her career to chat about her husband (script editor Andrew Upton) and two sons (Dashiell, four, and Roman, two), scrambling to find their photos on her phone before blurting, “That’s me on the loo – you don’t want to see that!” She’ll go from discussing her acting technique to asking about the travails of being a film journalist, from nattering about her childhood to asking about yours. She is, in a word, normal: eager to engage in everyday conversation.
Dressed in black (skirt, blouse, heavy-framed glasses) with strawberry blonde hair, Blanchett’s given up her Friday night to sip vodka tonics and eat a rocket-parmesan salad (“I’ve just had shepherd’s pie with the boys...”) with Total Film. Well, that and to discuss her latest role in Little Fish, an intimate drama set in the Sydney suburb of Little Saigon and costarring Hugo Weaving and Sam Neill. Directed by local lad Rowan Woods, it’s the tale of an ex-addict’s battle to reintegrate and reconnect, the 37-year-old actress inhabiting workingclass washout Tracy Heart as she struggles to start her own business and to trust in love.
Little Fish appealed to Blanchett because “it’s not melodramatic; it doesn’t have the same cut and thrust that films of its supposed genre have.” She had no worries about leaving Hollywood to feature in a homegrown drama, either. “Nah,” she says, in her soft Aussie accent. “A director said to me once that I had to stop playing small roles and appearing in small films. I looked at her like she was insane. I think once you start moving on the walkway of film, there’s this tacit expectation that you should all be on the same trajectory. I’m more piecemeal than that…”
Was the pull of making Little Fish partly to do with coming home?
There’s something magnetic about Australia when you’re away from it, but I have to take every project on its merit. I’d wanted to work with Rowan for a long time and, ironically, we’d been looking at stuff coming out of America for a number of years. Then he kinda snuck this one in the back door and I was intrigued by it.
The film succeeds in showing the big picture of a recovering addict’s world. Tracy has to learn to strip away her protective barriers and reconnect...
Yeah. It also explores the wasteland that comes when you’re 30 if you’ve fucked up your twenties. Forget having addiction issues; it’s that thing of trying to get one’s life together, to actually build a future. I found that universally interesting: the shadow of living in your fuck-up. When I say fuck-up, I mean in society’s eyes. I loved the miniature nature of Tracy’s dilemma. It wouldn’t radiate outside her suburb – her life is insignificant in the scheme of things – yet her problems are Shakespearean.
The love scene is the centre of the film, crystallising the themes of Tracy’s fragility and neediness. How did you approach it?
You have to treat it like it’s another scene. You have to say to the director, “Why do we have this scene? What is it?” But I say that about every scene [laughs]. Yeah, I thought it was really important, because it’s about her opening up again after being so closed down.
How do you prepare for a role like this? Do you research it, talk to ex-addicts?
You’re always looking for the point of connection and it’s always elusive. A lot of research that actors do is basically to stave off anxiety. I find that if you’re actively engaged in life as a human being, then the wellspring you draw from is yourself. But Rowan is a research freak so we had a lot of interviews with addicts, counsellors and parents or siblings of addicts. But one can feel a little grand as an actor, swanning into someone’s life and saying, “Tell me your story, I want to use it.”
What do you mean by “finding the point of connection”?
You have to find an entry point. It’s like those endlessly frustrating things that people did in the ’90s… those computer images…
‘Magic Eye’ pictures?
Yeah! I could never do them. I finally did one when I was in Port Douglas. I was on a massage table and I put my head in the hole and I freaked out because there was one of those fucking computer images. I thought, “How am I gonna relax when I’m looking at these fucking dots? I can’t fucking do them!” But she was such a good masseuse that eventually the zebras emerged. That’s what the moment of connection to a character is. As long as you glimpse the zebras once, you don’t have to worry about it.
You once said that acting is about shedding layers to expose what’s underneath.
Did I? Did I say that?
Apparently. What’s your take on it now?
Not what that person said! [Ponders] Well, I do think there’s a process of demasking, because no one wants to see the work, the effort, the research; they want you to be invested in the moment.
Your acting seems to be all about that: finding the truth with no room for showmanship.
Well, some films have a style to them, so you need to find the truth within that style. Take The Good German, the Steven Soderbergh film I’ve just done, or The Aviator with Martin Scorsese. You’re slotting into a particular type of performance style. We talked about this a lot on The Good German, which is kind of like Casablanca in the sense that it’s a ‘Love That Was That Can No Longer Be’ story, set in post-World War Two Berlin. We talked about the heightened performance style of the ’40s, where it was all about what people did and said, not what they felt. It’s the antithesis of what we’re taught now.
But you’re renowned for transforming yourself. Your ‘chameleon quality’ goes beyond the accents and the wigs...
... And the funny moustaches! [Laughs]
Yeah, the Groucho Marx nose and glasses...
If only I could grow a beard! No, I can’t judge that; I can only ever see myself.
You only ever see yourself?
Oh, fuck yeah! It’s awful, absolutely excruciating.
So you’re plagued by self-doubt?
God, isn’t everyone? I actually don’t understand people who don’t have doubt. That’s the only reason you keep going: to make up for what you’ve just done.
Having just seen Babel in Cannes, this supposed doubt is hard to credit...
[Adopts theatrical tone] Why, thank you, darling!
Seriously, though, how do you access and maintain such distress levels? Every minute you’re on screen you’re in physical or emotional pain!
Alejandro [González Iñárritu, director] is a pretty intense guy. It’s not what he says; it’s in his eyes. I mean, if he was speaking Cantonese I’d understand what he wanted me to do. I just absorbed the intensity of his investment.
Going back to the start of your career, there’s Oscar And Lucinda.
Oh my goodness!
It’s a leap, but the Total Film Interview is a career interview that needs to cover all the bases...
And I’m feeling so uninspired tonight!
Is it fair to say that Lucinda is a typical Cate Blanchett role, in that she’s strong and feisty – a proto-feminist of sorts?
Yeah. Lucinda is very prickly and very determined.
Would you say this determination is the through-line of the many different women you’ve portrayed over the course of your career?
It’s odd. I suppose, if anything, I look for the flaws – the fault lines in a character. I think often that if a woman is the central protagonist in a film, if they’re driving the action, then they’re seen to be strong because they have a presence in the film. I think you’d probably notice a man if he played characters who are weak-spined.
The description you’ve just given pretty much sums up your Queen Elizabeth. Tell us about your experiences with the Oscars. You lost for Elizabeth...
Oh no, I absolutely won.
... But you won the award for playing Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator. However, you don’t seem like the type to go lobbying for votes.
I’m very naïve about all that stuff. I suppose the more you do it, the more aware you get. I found it all fantastic the first time out; it wasn’t until the last week that I realised it was all stress and disappointment. But the way it panned out for me was great. You don’t want to peak at 27 [by winning] and besides, there’s a sense that people aren’t rewarded for their performance alone but for their body of work. That’s as it should be.
Really? Most people hate the fact that Al Pacino lost for The Godfather Part II but later won for Scent Of A Woman...
Who’s to say? It’s so subjective. But forget awards – if you want people to see the film, you have to do the talk shows. Elizabeth was this tiny, risky, bizarre, Bollywood film, so to get that far was a triumph. We’re all so saturated now, so you need to shout louder and louder to get the film’s head above water.
Do you mind doing the shouting? Surely such a private person as yourself can’t enjoy doing interviews and having journalists probe at your home life?
You just don’t answer the questions, do you? It’s a choice you make very early on. Nah, I don’t mind talking about the work; I really enjoy that. But I’m not an exhibitionist.
Playing Galadriel in The Lord Of The Rings movies must have been a double-edged sword, then. Alec Guinness hated being accosted in the street after playing Obi-Wan Kenobi...
You know, that’s never crossed my mind. I wanted to work with Peter Jackson. The role was oddly secondary and the consequence of playing it was beside the point. In regards to Alec Guinness, I was one of those children for whom Star Wars was a gateway into his extraordinary body of work.
Now that the dust has settled, how do you feel the trilogy sits in cinema history?
Does the dust ever settle in this medium? Or, more to the point, should it ever settle? I’m in no hurry for it to settle on or around me... But the trilogy is, even a few years on, a singularly remarkable achievement.
The Rings shoot was famously enjoyable, squirrelled away in New Zealand – but how do you cope with egomania in Hollywood? Do diva tantrums appall you?
It doesn’t just exist in the movie industry: there’s plenty of diva behaviour elsewhere! I haven’t got time for any of it. It’s something that happens and I can see why it does: if you’re an actor, you’re not allowed to ride a motorcycle or a horse because, if you break your leg, filming stops. That makes some actors feel like they’re the most important person in the world. But you can turn the coin and see it as it really is: it’s not because they’re looking after you, it’s because you’re an important cog in the machine. But yeah, success reveals who you really are. You have the possibility to… unleash.
How do you like to be treated on set?
With respect. All I want is respect. Everyone wants to be respected, don’t they? You want your work to be respected whether you’re working in the props department, whether you’re the cinematographer, the make-up person or whatever. You want to feel your effort is being appreciated. I haven’t got every ounce of my being invested in film; I can contextualise because I’ve had children and worked in the theatre. I come from a different angle to someone who started off as a child actor or who crossed over from being a musician or a model.
How do you balance a nomadic career with a husband and two young sons?
I used to just take things as they came up. Now I have to think two years ahead because I have to think about how long the boys are going to be in school. As an actor, you have a healthy lack of consequence; being a parent is all about looking at the span of your children’s childhood. But they’re still young, so I’m very ebb and flow about it at the moment. And travelling does afford them some extraordinary opportunities.
Is it going to get harder?
Not really. It’s coming at a time when I want to settle down as well. To put down roots.
To return to your friends and family in Australia?
Yeah, that’s a big part of it. And I want to have more kids. Another couple, maybe.
Didn’t you love horror films when you were a child?
That’s definitely true! It was before my father died, so I can’t attribute it to an obsession with death. When I was seven, I loved those old Sherlock Holmes movies with Basil Rathbone. The Scarlet Claw was one of my faves. And I loved all the Halloweens and that film about the haunted house… Burnt Offerings, with Oliver Reed. Every birthday party was a slumber party and we’d watch horror films.
Do you still like them?
No, they scare me shitless! I had to leave the cinema in the opening credits of Misery, I got so scared.
I am a wuss!
The ‘tree rape’ scene in The Evil Dead upset you, didn’t it?
Yeah. When I worked with Sam [Raimi] on The Gift, I said, “What was with the tree raping the girl?” And he said, “Did it?” [Laughs]
You played a psychic on The Gift. Have you ever seen a ghost?
When I was in drama school, I lived in a house where a girl was murdered. I was in the top room, where she was killed. Just before I moved in, Australia’s Most Wanted came in and did a re-enactment… and I decided to watch it one night, so I saw this guy climb in my room and strangle the girl in the bed. I became obsessed with it. I wanted to make atonement and at least find out if there was anything there. But nothing ever happened and I was very disappointed. It would have been so comforting, no matter how terrifying, to have some connection with the “outside”.
You set that tale up as if there was going to be some incredibly spooky punchline!
Well… when I moved out of the house, I was the last one left. I was closing my bedroom door when I heard a voice say, “Cate”. The door didn’t squeak, the room was bare… it was really weird. [Turns on mobile phone to discover it’s 11pm.] Shit, my husband’s gonna kill me.
Okay, let’s finish by whizzing through your upcoming slate. Elizabeth was the movie that catapulted you...
... Catapulted me into what? Into the shit!
To stardom. Why did you decide to return for the sequel, The Golden Age?
I’m playing her at 52. I kept going, “No, no, I’ve done it,” until they presented me with a script that was about a religious war and that was about a woman dealing with the fact she’ll perhaps never have a child. I found that dilemma very pertinent and modern. The religious dogma was timely and apt, too. I also couldn’t possibly say no to the cast: Mary, Queen Of Scots is played by Samantha Morton, who’s brilliant, and it also stars Geoffrey Rush, Joseph Fiennes, Abbie Cornish [from excellent Aussie drama Somersault] and Clive Owen.
We’ve touched upon Babel and The Good German...
Soderbergh’s a genius. So economical. By the time you walk back to your trailer, the next scene is lit and ready to go.
... So how about The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, with David Fincher and Brad Pitt? Is that going to happen?
I hope it happens. I’d really, really, really love to work with David Fincher. It’s complicated because it’s such an epic film and so personal to David. The scope is huge, but at least the digital technology required to realise it is there now.
Isn’t it about you falling in love with a guy who ages backwards? Why is it so complex?
It’s about time, it’s about death. He’s travelling through time and there’s a Moby Dick quality to it: a man battling the elements and therefore himself.
Where do you come in?
I am… She.
[Laughs] I am She. I am the love. There’s a moment in time when we’re together, like star-crossed lovers. I really hope I get to work with Fincher. I’ve been so fucking lucky. [Rings her husband to promise him she’s leaving RIGHT NOW.]
Last question. Anthony Minghella wrote an article on you after he directed you in The Talented Mr Ripley. He said you’re inscrutable... that he only learned one thing about you.
Oh God, what?
That you’re obsessed with underwear.
Yeah. Apparently you were always pulling at your tights and adjusting your bra. He also claims that you talked about underwear incessantly.
I was talking about underwear? [Laughs] Hey, maybe he’s the one who’s obsessed with underwear! And anyway, I have the worst, worst underwear drawer. I was talking about it yesterday to the costume designer on Elizabeth. I said, “Oh, I’m really sorry, I’ve got some daggy bundies on today.”
Bundies… undies! Up until six years ago, I still had these stretched, elastic, homemade undies that my mother made me in high school to go with my grey and green uniform! [Holds hands apart to illustrate said bundies’ Bridget Jones-style proportions] I actually thought they were quite sexy! [Pauses] I was wearing a girdle on The Talented Mr Ripley. It was incredibly uncomfortable, so that’s probably what it was. Or maybe I was just trying to freak him out!