From The Sydney Morning Herald
Mother of two, movie star and pistol-packing housewife, Cate Blanchett can do it all, writes Richard Jinman.
Cate Blanchett is a busy woman. She’s juggling two children under three, rehearsals for a lead role in a play and an impertinent journalist who’s asked to see her breast pump. The device in question emerges when I ask what’s in her enormous red shoulder bag. Nappies?
“No. No nappies,” she says. Blanchett’s older son Dashiell John, two, has outgrown them and baby Roman Robert is at home with his father, the writer Andrew Upton. “There’s a breast pump and the … oh, you don’t want to know.”
I do, actually, so Blanchett, 35, gives me a tour of her maternal tool kit. Her other piece of luggage is an esky. It contains the breast milk she’s been expressing during breaks from rehearsals for the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Hedda Gabler. When I admit that I’ve never seen a breast pump, she gets it out for a bit of show-and-tell.
“They look a bit like a … ‘ello?” Blanchett has clamped the business-end of it to her ear. She’s right, it does resemble an old-fashioned telephone. We’re both laughing now and for an instant I can see what Geoffrey Rush meant when he described her as a “toothy clown”. But Cate the slapstick comedian doesn’t stick around for long, leaving Cate the best-actor-of-her-generation and mother-of-two to clean up the mess.
“Oh, I’ll have to sterilise that,” she says, slipping the pump back into her bag. “What were we talking about?”
Unfortunately, the topic had been the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev – or for Blanchett it was, as she’s not only heard of him but has actually read him. It was a conversation about Turgenev that drew her to Upton.
The way she tells it, they were both in Adelaide working on different films. Mutual friends and interests had pulled them into each other’s orbit, but they didn’t really click. At first, she considered him “arrogant”; he thought her “aloof”.
“We tolerated each other and kind of thought, ‘you’re not so bad’,” she says. “Then one night he was talking to me about Turgenev. He’s a very passionate man and … I don’t know.”
Her words trail off, but the look in her eyes fills in all the blanks. I make a mental note to read as much Ivan Turgenev as possible, or to at least learn how to spell his name.
Blanchett and Upton married in the Blue Mountains in June 1997, just before she flew to England to film Elizabeth. “We married really quickly,” she says. “I think it [works] when you meet someone who has the same spirit as you, who is prepared to take that risk. Because it is a risk.”
Upton, 38, remembers their courtship differently. He and Blanchett did have a “eureka moment”, he says, but for him it occurred when she told him “a great joke, that made me see her differently”.
Blanchett’s protuberant cheekbones flush with colour at the memory.
“Oh, I won’t be able to tell it now! It’s been too built-up.” Finally, she relents. The joke involves an actor who keeps putting the emphasis on the wrong word. “Give it to me,” he says repeatedly. The film’s director is going crazy and threatens to throw himself off a bridge. “Wait, you’ve got your watch on,” says the actor.
“Hah!” I say. I’ve completely missed the punchline, but how do you ask Cate Blanchett to repeat a joke?
“You had to be there,” she says. Besides, she’s becoming rather suspicious of all these questions about her private life. “Is this [article] going to be about Hedda Gabler or my relationship with Andrew?”
Oh right, the play.
Hedda Gabler is the hottest ticket in town. Henrik Ibsen’s bored pistol-packing housewife has been a magnet for great actresses since the playwright created her in 1890 – Ingrid Bergman, Glenda Jackson and Judy Davis have all had a go – and everyone wants to see what Blanchett will bring to the role. Particularly since it’s Upton’s adaptation of Hedda Gabler she’s starring in.
It was Robyn Nevin, the STC’s artistic director, who gave him the job. She directed Upton’s first play – Hanging Man, which opened at the Wharf in 2002 to mixed reviews – and was “bowled over” by his adaptations of Don Juan and Cyrano De Bergerac.
Whispers that Blanchett’s star power got Upton the gig are unfounded. Blanchett had already signed on to play Hedda when Nevin asked Upton to adapt the play.
Upton started work on his version in May last year. According to his wife, he was “secretive”, locking himself in the library of their new home in Kemp Town, an exclusive pocket of white Georgian houses in Brighton, England.
Upton says he’s always wanted to write something for his wife. “I genuinely believe she can do anything,” he says with obvious pride. “What’s great about this [Hedda] is the range, which suits her vast capabilities. She really has to turn on a dime in a lot of scenes. On a technical level, it’s perfect for her.”
I ask Upton if he’s seen Ma Femme Est Une Actrice (My Wife is an Actress), Yvan Attal’s 2001 film about a man driven crazy by all the attention paid to his famous wife. It’s a loaded question and he sidesteps it neatly.
“No I haven’t,” he says. “Perhaps I should.”
OK, let’s be a little more direct. What’s it like to be married to Cate Blanchett?
A long pause. “It’s very rewarding and it makes me very proud,” he says, “because it’s a medium and a form that I believe in greatly. I think some people abuse it.”
It’s an odd answer, which makes Upton sound like he’s married to the cinema. There again, given his wife’s elevated status among filmmakers, perhaps, in a way, he is.
At close quarters, Blanchett is just as fascinating as the chameleon-like creature who appears on the big screen. Movie critics love to call her “luminous”, but stripped of make-up, her pale blonde hair pulled back from barely there eyebrows and her elongated “actor’s” face, she seems almost drained of colour. She’s “tired, but not depleted”, she says, and still fighting a cold she picked up on the flight from London a month ago.
Taller and thinner than you expect, Blanchett is dressed-down for rehearsals in sand-coloured combat pants and a beige sweater. She twists her antique necklace like a rosary when she’s thinking and a huge diamond lights up herring finger. Her elegantly fitted jacket is by the French designer Martine Sitbon, but the blue splodge on her sleeve is probably by Dashiell or Roman.
Her long, elegant fingers carve invisible diagrams in the air; blue eyes fix you intently for a response.
She calls Hedda “mythological, an infuriating idealist”.
“I think there are very few people who are trying to be themselves in the fullest sense of the word ‘true’.”
Look, I’m no expert, I say. But isn’t Hedda a one-woman wrecking ball? This, after all, is a woman who tries to get an alcoholic back on the grog, tosses a priceless manuscript into a fire and loans pistols to suicidal men.
Blanchett is more sympathetic. “In order to live, one does destroy, kill, maim and discard,” she says. “They’re not particularly attractive human traits but they’re definitely true.”
It’s been 11 years since Blanchett first appeared at the STC. In 1993, not long out of drama school, she starred in David Mamet’s Oleanna, as a fanatical university student who accuses her tutor of sexual harassment. The play provoked furious arguments in the theatre’s bar each night and she’s still immensely proud of its impact.
“It hit an audience at just the right time,” she says. “It ignited, which is really exciting. You felt it was important and the arguments that went on afterwards were important arguments.”
Why return to the stage now? After all, she’s had Hollywood on a string since her performance in Elizabeth made her an international star. Renowned directors such as Martin Scorsese and Jim Jarmusch now call her personally and ask if she’ll appear in their films.
It was Scorsese who cast her as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator, his movie biography of the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. Her appearance in Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, a collection of oddball black-and-white shorts featuring actors and musicians including Bill Murray, the White Stripes and Tom Waits, was also the result of a personal invitation. Assisted by technology, Blanchett plays both characters in her Coffee and Cigarettes segment. One is a svelte, successful actress (who looks a lot like Cate Blanchett), the other is her gawky, trailer-trash cousin. Both women suck on cigarettes like it’s going out of fashion, but it’s just an act. Another example of non-smoker Blanchett’s ability to get the details right.
“If you do it [smoking] you have to do it properly,” she says. “The worst thing is to see someone smoking and not doing it properly.”
It’s been widely reported that Blanchett is also set to reprise her role as Queen Elizabeth in Shekhar Kapur’s Golden Age. But when I mention the film she flatly denies she’s committed to it.
“What’s Shekhar been saying?” she laughs. “Oh, he’s always making 100 films. Nothing’s a given for me with two children, Hedda Gabler and a film [she’ll begin shooting the thriller Little Fish in Sydney when the Hedda season closes] coming up. I can’t think beyond the weekend.”
Filmmaking, Blanchett admits, can seem like a piecemeal activity compared with theatre, where characters evolve during the run. But she loves both mediums and won’t stop making films.
She accepts, however, that her growing family will force changes to what’s become a nomadic lifestyle.
“I’ve known people whose children are tutored on set and all that sort of stuff,” she says. “But there’s a feeling that actors are wrapped in cotton wool. Their children can be treated like they’re different or special and I don’t think that’s a good feeling for a child to have constantly.”
She seems uneasy about celebrity, particularly those moments when she’s recognised and suddenly the way people treat her changes instantly. It’s the shift from being a nobody to a somebody that disturbs her. “All of a sudden it’s, ‘Oh my God, of course you can open that door!’ It’s so disappointing. You think ‘You know, I don’t want to go through that door actually’.”
Yeah, but being a nobody isn’t so great either, I say. What about the advantages of celebrity? The freebies, the good tables at booked-out restaurants, the effortless queue-jumping? “Well,” she says, suddenly brightening. “The Wiggles were sold out and we got two tickets. Many parents will be outraged to hear that.”
And all of a sudden Blanchett sounds like any other besotted mother recalling her first-born’s adventures at a first Wiggles gig. Her only regret: she was rehearsing Hedda when Dashiell was shaking his booty with Greg, Murray, Jeff and Anthony at Bankstown RSL.
“It was so sweet,” she coos. “I called Dash today and said, ‘How was it?’ He said: ‘I saw Anthony! He’s got funny hair, Mummy.’ “
Hedda Gabler opens on Thursday and runs until September 26. Standing room tickets available.