By Paul Hegeman
Cate Blanchett completed six movies in the past two years and gave birth to her first son. So what’s driving her? She tells Paul Hegeman
IT IS difficult to find any actress more enchanting, complex and original in cinema these days than Australian Cate Blanchett. In the five years since she rose to world fame as the leading lady of the costume drama Elizabeth, she has come to guarantee quality and variety.
Whether playing the Queen of England (Elizabeth), a vapid girl (The Man Who Cried), a bank robber (Bandits), a clairvoyant (The Gift) or a Scottish war heroine (Charlotte Gray), she is always well cast.
But as much as her appeal is subtle and mysterious, her work ethic is down to earth — she goes at her career hammer and tongs. In between shooting six movies in the past two years, including two brief appearances in The Lord of the Rings and Shipping News, she managed to find the time to give birth to her first son Dashiell. She politely rejects any wonderment about such a wide radius of activity. “I just love flying on planes,” she says, “and for each of these movies I had to pack myself off to a new continent.
“In the plane I not only can leave everything behind me, but also concentrate really well. I read my scripts and catch up on correspondence.
“Also, I don’t experience a real division between work and private life. They blend into one another and feed off each other. If things go well you do not choose your vocation. Your talent develops naturally into a daily pastime.
“I, for example, fell in love with acting and, thank God, the love is mutual. In any case, I find it hard to say `no’ when I am drawn to a project. The past 18 months have been a bountiful time for me, getting to choose all these magnificent parts.
“The problem for a lot of people is that they cling to the illusion that they can control it all. The terrible obsession for total happiness at all times really wreaks havoc with many people.
“I don’t mind that my life is often a terrific mess. I just ended up taking my son along with me to the set of my new movie Veronica Guerin.”
Besides her preference for variety, Blanchett relies on what she calls her “tingles in her belly” when choosing parts.
“You mustn’t think too much,” she says. “To me it is a game, and the trick is to not get too fearful or panicky, no matter what. There is only one real criterion: I want to work with people I admire.
“I agreed to do Galadriel, the elf in Lord of the Rings, solely because I wanted to meet the director, Peter Jackson. Until the shoot I had been unaware of the impact the saga was having worldwide and the attendant pressure on us actors.
“My collaboration with Billy Bob Thornton was for the same reason. Billy Bob and I are like brother and sister. It was fantastic to act with him in Bandits, and through him (Thornton also wrote the script) I also got the part in The Gift.”
Blanchett’s hair, which undergoes a transformation in each movie — the latest surprise was a bald head for her most recent movie Heaven — is now platinum blonde.
“Believe me, it is not really this blonde. Joel Schumacher asked me to dye it for my part as Irish crime reporter Veronica Guerin,” Blanchett says.
She laughs her contagious laugh, showing her gums, something that was seen as an obstacle to leading-lady status when her career began.
“And that told me right then,” she says, “how small-minded the movie world can be.”
She does agree that the choice of the right haircut can help her develop a character.
“Yes, a physical detail can be of immense value that way, like in The Man Who Cried, where I, as superficial as it may sound, used the lipstick as my starting point.
“A specific outward appearance can help, but the essence of a part comes from here,” she says, gesturing from her forehead to her stomach. “One shouldn’t emphasise the outward appearance too much in acting. I like it when things are not overstated, but touched upon lightly.
“That goes for content, too. I hate it when a movie really milks some father complex or an incestuous relationship. The characters should give up their mysteries bit by bit, not all at once, leaving them exposed throughout the rest of the movie.”
A large part of Blanchett’s mystery can be attributed to her chameleonlike qualities. It is impossible to predict what she will look like next.
According to the books, she has reddish blonde hair, a pale complexion, a large expressive mouth and prominent cheekbones. But she manages to look completely different in each movie.
As Anthony Minghella, who directed her in The Talented Mr Ripley and was executive producer for Heaven, says: “In Ripley, she looks like she has a weak, timid face, with no cheekbones.
“And then you see her in Heaven and wonder where that woman went. Her face suddenly shows an intensity and rigidity, as if every bone has a steel pin in it; like she has a new face — very impressive.” And Minghella has not even mentioned her voice. Blanchett is renowned for the ease with which she adopts various new accents, be it Oxford English, Russian or a Southern lilt.
“Through lots of practice and no smoking,” she says, “I am able to use my voice like an instrument. It not only matters from which country or region your character comes, the tone or sub-register is also important.
“Some actors use a personal trainer to keep up their physical condition; I do vocal stretches.”
All these linguistic gymnastics have made it impossible to guess where the actress is originally from.
“A lot of people think I am British. I don’t mind, because I love England and enjoy working there, but that doesn’t make me any less proud of the fact that I am Australian.”
CATHERINA Blanchett was born in 1969 in Melbourne, the daughter of an American father and Australian mother. Although her childhood was marred by the early death of her father, she has fond memories of all the girlish fantasies she enjoyed as a child.
“Once I read Shogun, I spent years fantasising that I was in Japan and I played detective games with a friend in the street,” Blanchett says.
“We were constantly solving mysteries. We would inspect peoples’ driveways, make notes and check if the dumped mattress was really taken away.”
Acting was not her greatest ambition, despite the fact her mother put her in acting classes and everyone told her she was a born actress.
“I was too introverted and not exactly brimming with self-confidence. And being rebellious as I was, I decided to study economics,” she says.
However she ended up enrolling at Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Art after a false start at university. She quickly made a name for herself in theatre and then ventured into movies.
The world discovered her in Paradise Road (1997) and director Shekhar Kapur decided, after seeing her in the reel of Oscar and Lucinda, directed by fellow Australian Gillian Armstrong, to entrust her with the title role in his movie Elizabeth.
Elizabeth highlighted her ability to ignite a fire in a character that keeps smouldering long after the movie has ended. She received a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for it.
After that, the road to Hollywood lay wide open to her. The young Australian decided differently though, in the same way as she does everything, to avoid the glitter and glamour of her profession, except for showing up in extravagant outfits at prestigious award ceremonies.
In The Gift she wears baggy woollen cardigans and faded grey leggings.
“In Charlotte Gray I also look terrible at times,” she says. “I am an actress, not a movie star.
“Nor is it intentional to show what a good actor I am. That would be even more narcissistic. I am just doing my job. But I am vain enough,” she smiles prettily, “after all the movies the critics loved, but nearly no one saw, I am now being recognised everywhere thanks to my 15 minutes as Galadriel in Lord of the Rings, and I quite enjoy it.
“I have nothing against entertainment, as long as it asks a pertinent question or two in passing.
“Pure popcorn cinema is not for me. I think I can put it this way: My ideal movie asks more questions that it answers.”