Without question, Cate Blanchett's physical elegance permeates her roles. Like a dancer, she seems to have complete physical and emotional control over her onscreen work, lending her characters dignity—whether they are queens or housewives. But forget her gracefulness for a second, and what soon becomes clear is the reason Blanchett has evolved into one of the most adored actors in the business: She always seems to ground her characterizations naturally and realistically.
"People have to believe you are who you say you are within the context of the story," said Blanchett, during a recent interview with Back Stage West. "They want to be transported by the story. That's no different whether you're playing Lady Anne, Katharine Hepburn, or whomever. For me, I have to be incredibly technically and psychologically prepared but then remain instinctual, because no one wants to see someone's homework. I think the main thing one has to be is open. You can do all the homework in the world, but you have to be completely open to what the other actor does, because that will shift and mutate the performance. You can prepare, prepare, prepare, but then you have to be brave enough to throw it all away."
Indeed, the way Blanchett works—grounded but searching, informed but open—is clearly reflected in her acting.
An Extraordinary Creature
After attending the Methodist Ladies College in her native Australia, and having participated in the college's drama group, Blanchett briefly studied economics and fine arts at the University of Melbourne, then enrolled in Australia's prestigious National Institute of Dramatic Arts. There she met actor Geoffrey Rush, with whom she performed, straight out of school, in David Mamet's Oleanna at the Sydney Theatre Company. Rush immediately admired Blanchett's exceptional talent, once telling an interviewer, "Before we did Oleanna, I had seen one of Cate's school productions and was pinned to my seat, thinking, Who is this extraordinary creature, with this maturity of performance yet who is still in drama school?"
"I never thought I would do it professionally and earn money from it," admitted Blanchett. "It was always just a kind of outlet. It was something I loved. So when I went to the university, I was trying to be more pragmatic and rational."
The actor took a year off from her academic studies to travel and soul search. "I think taking a year off was saying, 'This is not the way for me.' In essence what I was asking myself was, What am I going to do? I didn't go away with any particular plan. But I came back from being away for a year thinking I was going to go into curation, into the visuals arts. However, I kept doing shows outside the university. It kept pursuing me."
A longtime supporter of theatre, the actor has returned to the stage time and again, despite her film career. She'll soon be starring as Hedda in an adaptation of Hedda Gabler at the Sydney Theatre Company. "As an audience member in the theatre, you're implicated, and if something's embarrassing, or something's amazing, you can complete that circle. You don't feel that you can go to sleep, because something is being asked of you. And right now a lot of audiences don't want things to be asked of them. Film, on the other hand is a much more intimate connection, more edible, more disposable," Blanchett once told an interviewer.
Blanchett doesn't base her life on any sweeping ideals; she does what she does with no hard-and-fast ideas about the product. She wasn't starry-eyed about Hollywood and never pursued celebrity. "I didn't come from that culture. My family culture wasn't that. My Australian culture wasn't that. There wasn't that paradigm, you know? The film industry is so small in Australia. There was never a Mecca for it. I went to theatre school and I was really happy when I first got out. I was working with Geoffrey Rush and some of the best directors in the world [onstage]. My agent said to me, 'You got to get in movies.' I said, 'Well, I will when someone casts me.' There's this panic, I think, that you're not really doing it until you're making a film. I've never felt that."
Under But Not Down
Perhaps another factor in Blanchett's devotion to theatre is the modest state of her homeland's film industry. "I don't think the Australian film industry is in a particularly healthy way at the moment. It's a really hard industry. The budgets are so small. I mean, an average budget for an Australian film is 3 million Australian dollars, which is like a million or a million and a half in the U.S., so it's nothing. It's really difficult when directors want to work with bigger budgets and still maintain their independence. When I'm talking about bigger budgets, I'm talking about 9 million Australian dollars, which is someone's perk package here, you know."
Ironically, Blanchett's first film, Paradise Road—in which she portrayed World War II incarcerated nurse Susan McCarthy—was a bigger-budget, 20th Century Fox production shot in Australia, albeit with an Australian director, Bruce Beresford. The film helped give her wider recognition abroad.
"It was complete and utter luck that [Beresford] cast me," recalled Blanchett. "In the same year, Gil Armstrong was making Oscar and Lucinda, also for Fox. So they were kind of aware of me. In some strange way, there were big films being made in Australia, and they were released outside of Australia, as well. So it was sheer luck in terms of that taking me internationally."
Still, Blanchett noted that the primary advantage for Australians in selling themselves to big-budget projects is to bring attention back to Australia's film community. Said Blanchett, "It's important that Australian writers, actors, and directors get to work with bigger budgets—I'm doing it myself—to go away and work, as long as you come back and work. I don't think you have to always make films in Australia to prove you're Australian."
And she has made it a point to return to her native soil for a project or two since her film successes. Along with her adaptation of Hedda Gabler, she'll work on a film for fellow Aussie director Rowan Woods later next year. Although numerous factors weigh in when choosing a project, Blanchett admitted she relies mostly on instinct. "Take Hamlet," she explained. "It's a brilliant, extraordinary play of infinite dimensions, but it completely depends on who's playing the part and who's going to direct it, and also how it is going to be realized. You might read a great script, but when everyone's attached and suddenly they have to do all of these rewrites, it becomes a completely different beast. I am really fatalistic about work. It's an act of faith when you go in. You want it to be the best it possibly can be, but it's risky. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. It's hard to say."
Whether the films are outstanding, like the Oscar-nominated Elizabeth, or perhaps less so, like The Man Who Cried, Blanchett's characters are outstanding. But the actor emphasized that she is not an actor who thinks only about her character and her character's needs. "I am also interested in the whole piece," she said. "It's very important to me to know its function, because if you can't be part of the whole, it's just not as interesting."
Blanchett's most recent character is that of real-life, dogged journalist Veronica Guerin, who was gunned down in 1996 for threatening to expose key players in Dublin's heroin trade. Critics say that with her combination of steely-jaw and china-doll vulnerability, she is the perfect choice for the title role in the Touchtone Pictures/Jerry Bruckheimer film. For director Joel Schumacher, Blanchett not only was the right choice but the "only choice for Veronica." Said Schumacher, "She's so brilliant in the role that I don't know whether I would have made the film if she said No. I didn't have anybody else in mind as a second choice."
When she was approached for the part, Blanchett knew very little about the Irish journalist. "I met Joel in New York and got along with him really well," she said. "He told me Jerry Bruckheimer had sent him this script about Veronica Guerin. He asked if I knew anything about her. I said I knew of her but I didn't know much about her other than she was killed for what she was writing. Jerry sent me a 60 Minutes documentary about her. I just thought, Wow. I was interested in what made her tick. I had this story that I connected with, and I thought it was a universal story. I sort of agreed to do it before I'd even seen a screenplay."
During the course of her research, the actor said, she discovered a complex, passionate, and extraordinary human being. "I listened to all of her radio and television interviews. In the pauses, the emissions, the hesitations, her thought process was revealed. I could tell she was under a lot of pressure because she began to say a certain thing and then stop and change her tack. She was in a very tricky position legally. There were libel laws that were incredibly restrictive under which she was working. Everyone knew what was going on, but no one could say. I think that must have been incredibly frustrating. These weren't people trying to write gossip articles about the czar; these were journalists who were saying there is a huge socio-economic problem."
One of Ireland's top journalists during the 1990s, Guerin focused her stories on her nation's attention on the rising problem of heroin use in Dublin. She painted a vivid picture of a dangerous world that perhaps many in the country had not yet focused upon. Guerin became the sworn enemy of the city's underworld, ultimately galvanizing the anti-drug forces and paving the way for stronger drug laws in Ireland.
Blanchett felt a challenge in playing a real-life person in the media. "There is a desire to get as close to the rhythm, the energy, the psychology, the physicality, without doing a burlesque of them," she said. "I tried to bring those little details and tidbits, those interesting parts—facets of her personality—into the story in unspoken ways." With Schumacher's help, Blanchett pieced together a portrait of a tough, uncompromising journalist—not a saint but someone disgusted by what was happening in her hometown.
Blanchett remains widely recognized for the total transformation she made for the title role in Shakhar Kapular's Elizabeth, "a left-of-field take on a quite stolid part of English history," she said. Kapular cast the actor after having seen only a promotional trailer for Oscar and Lucinda. The director claimed he immediately saw in Blanchett the three things he was looking for: the ability to "be 400 years ago," the ability to be "now," and the ability "to not be, almost like the spirit," which Kapular explained was her face, which transformed from a nearly transparent young girl's radiance to the heavily made-up, austere look as the virgin queen. For that performance she won the Golden Globe and received an Academy Award nomination, in addition to the numerous awards she received in Australia and elsewhere.
After Elizabeth, Blanchett continued to remake herself: as the lonely ingénue in The Talented Mr. Ripley, as a farcical wife in Pushing Tin, and in Bandits, then returning to a more noble role, as the Queen of the Elves in The Lord of the Rings.
She has been working nonstop for the past few years. "I've been lucky," she admitted. "I've had a constant of things that I've found interesting to do over the last three or four years, though a lot was three years of work that all came out at once. I did a film that was held back because my character set off a bomb. It was just after 9/11. Then I made Charlotte Gray, which [the studio hoped would receive] awards, which I couldn't be less interested in. Then I'd done a week on The Shipping News for Lasse Hallstrom, which of course had Kevin Spacey in it. But I have no control—maybe some actors control this—but I have no control when these things come out. I just think, Well, duh! But there is nothing you can do about it."
Always a workaholic, after the birth of her son she reassessed whether she'd be able to return to work: "When I made Veronica Guerin, I made it soon after our son was born. Then I had the rest of the year off. That was fantastic even though it was an incredible wrench to go back to work when he was 9 to 10 weeks old. My husband and I were really sort of nervous about it. I was nervous about whether I could even do it anymore, if I was interested anymore. I was so profoundly changed. The miracle that unfolds before you is so fascinating. How could you tear yourself away? But I found it really healthy to go in and just battle things out, have these catharses, then come home to someone who really needs you."
It looks to be another frenzied year for her, and she's extremely excited about what's in store. Along with those Australia endeavors, she will be seen starring in Warner Bros.' Western thriller The Missing, opposite Tommy Lee Jones, for director Ron Howard; she recently began production on The Aviator for Martin Scorsese, in which she'll portray Katharine Hepburn; she's gearing up for a film with Wes Anderson, costarring Bill Murray. "I'm really looking forward to going back to Australia and doing this film with Rowan, being a part of the Hedda Gabler cast. I'm really happy. I love what I do. I worked with Ron, which was one of the best experiences I've ever had. Then working with Marty. Then going to do this strange and wonderful film with Wes. It's been a really great year creatively. And I look forward to each new year as it unfolds."
As do we. BSW