Tea and Cate

A chat with the prickly star of three big holiday movies.

In a frisky segment of Jim Jarmusch's 2003 omnibus comedy, Coffee and Cigarettes, Cate Blanchett plays a dual role as Cate, the Armani-clad rising movie star taking time from her hectic interview schedule, and as her cousin Shelly, a sullen lump of a would-be rocker in a shagged black wig. The skit speaks volumes about Hollywood and its discontents. Cate is disingenuously modest and dying to get away; Shelly is snippy, barely in control of her jealousy, and determined to catch her cousin in some insincere gesture of largesse. Neither persona describes the real Blanchett, who's unaffectedly gracious as she pours mint tea and does valiant battle on my behalf with a cookie wrapper in a hotel interview suite not unlike the one in the movie. Still, there is an oppositional edge to Blanchett, whom you can picture as the girl voted most likely to succeed in high school and also imagine as the spiky goth lolling in the back row, rolling her eyes at the brownnosers.

Tall, blond, and rangy in heels and a fitted bronze suit (at 5 feet, 8 inches, she says, she's "the shrimp of my family"), Blanchett is every bit as fabulous offscreen as she is on, even after flying in from Australia to do two days of publicity. Her skin is as creamy as we see it on-screen, and you could cut yourself on those priceless cheekbones ("You have to light them, though. Otherwise I look like a pumpkin") as easily as you could on her quick, mercurial intelligence. Though she's smart and funny and ready with an answer to almost any question almost before it's out of my mouth, her agenda is clear: While I may be here to noodle around Blanchett's résumé, which is impressively long for a 37-year-old, and wonder why one of the most gifted actresses on or off Hollywood's radar hasn't had more leading roles, she makes it clear that she's here to promote the three movies that have arrived, nicely bunched up in awards season, at least one of which may earn her a second Best Supporting Actress Oscar. (She won in 2005 playing Katharine Hepburn opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator.)

As a very unhappy hooker trying to buy her way out of post–World War II Berlin, Blanchett is one of the best things about Steven Soderbergh's The Good German (see review, p. 23), an exquisitely mounted but bloodless black-and-white homage to Casablanca and other war movies of the 1940s. Slinky and elegant in to-die-for vintage threads by costume designer Louise Frogley (the actress got to keep the girdle, though looking at her slender waist, one wonders what use it's being put to), Blanchett is at once a sinister and tragic stand-in for the destroyed soul of Germany. Shrouded in noir shadow, her sculpted face has the air of an ineffably beautiful ruin. Though she seems to channel Lauren Bacall and Marlene Dietrich, in fact Blanchett boned up on a host of other movie stars of the period—Joan Crawford; beautiful, blond 1950s star Hildegard Knef, who's famous for filming the first nude scene in German filmmaking; and, of course, Ingrid Bergman. She has a whole subtitled scene in German so fluent it wouldn't have disgraced Dietrich or Greta Garbo.

"I think everything's an accent, isn't it?" she says when I venture that her oeuvre boasts a mastery of accents not her own (a robust Melbourne twang) to rival the Meryl Streep collection. "If I was directing someone and heard their accent slip, I'd say, 'You're not connected to the thought.' It's not just about slapping an accent on top of your performance. It has to emerge organically."

Casual though she is about her own talent, Blanchett has a stage actor's precise attentiveness to craft, and she's extremely articulate about The Good German's Brechtian theatricality and artifice. She wasn't just channeling a siren, but was slipping on the mantle of a '40s movie star with a vastly different relationship to her director than most actresses enjoy these days. "Today you can feel, sometimes, that you're an actor for hire," she says, a touch wistfully. "With the great actresses of the 1940s, the director looked for projects that showcased, celebrated, and developed an actor's persona on-screen. In that sense, my relationship with Steven was quite old-fashioned."

Like Martin Scorsese, who cast Blanchett as Hepburn, Soderbergh was astute enough to see Blanchett's diva potential, but she may be living in the wrong movie era. Set her down among the emaciated twigs who pass for starlets these days, and she's enormous in every sense. She has the charisma, the unorthodox beauty, and the dramatic intensity of a 1940s superstar. She doesn't "disappear" into her roles—that would be mere proficiency—but puts her own stamp on them, and she's way too versatile to be pegged as a character actor. That wide, mobile mouth promises infinite possibilities of strength and vulnerability, and there's a goofy screwball comedian in her who doesn't get used nearly enough.

Yet more often than not, she finds herself in subordinate roles that may help sell a movie but sell her capabilities short. In Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel, as Brad Pitt's troubled wife, who's shot by a sniper in the first few minutes, Blanchett has little to do but writhe filthy and half-naked on the dirt floor of a Moroccan hovel. Blanchett reveled in the intensity of working with Iñárritu, and she shrugs off charges that the director bit off more than he could chew with a huge ensemble and a global reach. "Things that are different always come in for criticism," she says matter-of-factly. "You just have to brace yourself for it."

She's less thick-skinned about the mixed advance word on Richard Eyre's Notes on a Scandal (which opens in Seattle Jan. 5), an atonal melodrama in which Blanchett plays a disoriented high-school art teacher who allows herself to be drawn into an affair with a 15-year-old pupil, then further entangles herself with a manipulative closet lesbian played by Judi Dench. It's true that Blanchett and Dench's overwrought dialectic wrings whatever fun there is to be had from a movie that feels like a cheap parody of a Muriel Spark novel. But when I tell her that Notes on a Scandal has already raised hackles among women who found both characters pathetic and demeaning, Blanchett bridles. She doesn't lose her cool, but she's clearly not amused, and shoots back with a prickly "I think its purpose is to raise everyone's hackles. It's a very spiky, difficult subject, about two women who are deeply, deeply lonely, and utterly isolated in their loneliness. It's always disappointing when you make something and people take it on the shallowest level."

I've spent three days looking at Blanchett's movies, and there's not a shallow performance among them. Unless, oddly enough, you count the one that won her the Oscar, in which she gives a broad, manneristic imitation rather than an interpretation of Hepburn. That's hardly her fault, since Scorsese hasn't excelled at creating female roles. "My knees were sweating when Scorsese asked me to do it," she admits. "I relished the chance of working with him, because female roles in his films, let's face it, don't come up very often. When I had the first conversation with him, I don't think I really registered what he'd asked me to do. I just said, yes, of course, I'd love to. And then I got off the phone and said to my husband, He's just asked me to play Katharine Hepburn in a film about Howard Hughes. And he went, oh my God, that's gonna be tough, playing Hepburn in color. And I said, oh shit. I sat down in a chair and stared at the floor for a long time. And as it sank in, I thought, you just get on with it."

Getting on with it seems to be Blanchett's mantra. She brings a no-nonsense Aussie practicality to her fame and her work, and I get the sense she's not the sort of person you'd ask about her personal life without risking rebuff. When I do ask if she comes from an acting family, she twinkles away, then mischievously offers the opaque reply, "Everyone comes from an acting family." There were no professional actors in her family. Her father, a Texan of French descent who died of a heart attack when she was 10, was in advertising; her older brother is a computer programmer, and her younger sister is a former set designer who's moved into architecture. What Blanchett calls her "playful endeavors" as a child were very much supported by her mother, a Melbourne teacher, and she did a lot of acting and directing in high school. But when her art teacher urged her to go to drama school, she was horrified. "I had a very strong sense that I must be able to look after myself." At university, she was interested in the political side of economics but had no facility for the number-crunching side of it, and after taking a year off to travel, she entered drama school in Sydney. "For some people, it dampens their instincts, but I found it utterly galvanizing and focusing to be at drama school."

Blanchett's first film role was in Bruce Beresford's Paradise Road, in which she played an Australian nurse captured by the Japanese in World War II, and she was charming opposite Ralph Fiennes in Oscar and Lucinda. But since then, as with The Good German, more often than not she's either the best thing about the movie (she brought life to the incoherent 2005 Australian drama Little Fish, in which she played a former junkie struggling to stay clean) or way too good for the role (as the wife of John Cusack's flight controller in Mike Newell's Pushing Tin) or terrific but too little seen (as a bored American heiress in The Talented Mr. Ripley). In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, she wasn't much more than a pair of pointy ears. Given her ubiquity, it's strange that Blanchett still hovers on the periphery of the A-list. Of her Australian compatriots—Nicole Kidman, Naomi Watts, the up-and-coming Abbie Cornish—only Toni Collette shows anything approaching her range. And Collette lacks the charismatic presence, the habit of filling up any screen that frames her, that surely landed Blanchett her only lead role to date, as the Queen of England in Shekhar Kapur's 1998 movie Elizabeth, for which she received a Best Actress nomination. At the tender age of 29 and without apparent strain, she brought off the difficult task of transforming Elizabeth from a lusty, naive girl into a seasoned politician canny enough to transform herself into a virgin, married only to England. "And no authority," Blanchett says when I bring up the film, adding merrily, "A bit like working in the film industry, isn't it?"

Blanchett has never positioned herself as a fixture on the Hollywood scene. She and her husband, the Australian playwright and screenwriter Andrew Stanton, and their two young sons have lived all over in recent years, though mainly in London and Brighton, on England's south coast, an outpost for many expatriate Australians. She comes across as ambivalent about Hollywood stardom. "I think it depends who you're speaking to as to how bright my name shines," she says. "I always feel as though I have one toe in the industry, and that's the way I like it." Enough to have moved back to Sydney recently, where she and Stanton signed a three-year renewable contract as joint artistic directors of the Sydney Theatre Company. "I'm Australian in every sense of the word," she says. "My landscape references, all my internal photographic memories, are from Australia. It's the culture I most want to give back to." Her contract leaves her three months a year to do other things, and Blanchett shows no sign of neglecting her film career. Given the chance, she'd work with some seriously dead directors (Kurosawa, Kieslowski) and some live ones she's already worked with—Scorsese, Soderbergh, Jarmusch, and Sam Raimi, with whom she worked in The Gift.

Next year, she resumes her role as Queen Elizabeth I in Kapur's sequel, The Golden Age, which examines the monarch's relationship with the explorer Sir Walter Raleigh. She will be one of seven actors representing some aspect of the life and work of Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes' I'm Not There. And in 2008, she'll play a young woman in a relationship with an older man who's aging backward in David Fincher's adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Pretty good going for someone who insists that she's "never been on the road to anywhere in particular." But those of us who hanker for the golden days when movie stars were shaped by their personalities, not by publicists, would love to see her star shine brighter yet.

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