This is Cate Blanchett’s time. The most exciting actress to emerge in recent memory, she’s now starring in no fewer than five films, including the wartime romance Charlotte Gray. So why can’t she bear to see herself on screen? Nigel Farndale meets her
IF there is a correct way to sit when heavily pregnant – finishing schools are a little hazy on this point – I would guess Cate Blanchett is sitting it, here on a sofa in the Dorchester, her pale blonde hair luminous against a black velvet suit. Her ankles are drawn together, as are her knees, which are turned slightly to one side of her 5ft 8in, straight-spined perpendicular.
The 32-year-old Australian actress has long thin fingers and these are cupped together, resting in her lap, her arms framing her bulge. Her face – angular eyebrows; pronounced, almost swollen cheekbones; a puffy curve for a top lip – is raised fractionally, her head tilted, indicating courteous, if guarded attentiveness.
Beautiful, of course, in that etiolated, otherworldly, strong-nosed way of hers. But warm and playful Cate Blanchett is not. ‘I’m not nervous about the birth,’ she says with a low, diluted Australian lilt, levelling impassive blue eyes at me. ‘Excited, but not nervous.’ It’s hard to imagine her being nervous about anything.
Spookily self-possessed, yes. Industrious, certainly. But nervous, no. And why should she be? She is starring or co-starring in five – five! – films gripping or about to grip America and Britain: the £100-million blockbuster Lord of the Rings, Bandits, The Shipping News, Heaven and, to be released next month, Charlotte Gray (based on the Second World War novel by Sebastian Faulks).
She is planning to return to work within the next couple of months, baby in arms or, rather, in maternity nurse’s arms, to star in a film about Veronica Guerin, the Irish crime reporter murdered in 1996. Did she arrange her pregnancy to fit her schedule? ‘I wish my life were that well planned,’ she laughs politely. ‘We conceived during Charlotte Gray, one of those happy accidents. On the day I found out I was pregnant I had to film a scene in which my character [Charlotte, a Scottish linguist who joins the SOE and works with the French Resistance] does an assault course as part of her training. It was a physical film but I’m very fit and, because I was working, I was being responsible – not drinking, getting lots of sleep.’
‘We’ refers to herself and Andrew Upton, the Australian scriptwriter she married in 1997. They met the previous year when she was appearing in The Seagull. He thought her aloof, she thought him arrogant. Not love at first sight, then? ‘No, I was looking in the other direction, I guess. We didn’t like each other much at all.
Then he kissed me and it was one of those, “Oh my God! What was that?” moments.’ In the same year they married Blanchett appeared in her first major film role, in Oscar and Lucinda, based on the Peter Carey novel, opposite Ralph Fiennes. Next came her starring role in Elizabeth, in which she portrayed the Virgin Queen as a warm and passionate woman who transforms herself into a chilling hermaphrodite with plucked and peeled features and chalkily phosphorescent skin.
For that role she won a Golden Globe and a Bafta and was nominated for an Oscar. She followed it with equally acclaimed performances in An Ideal Husband and The Talented Mr Ripley. Her husband’s biggest success so far has been with the script for Babe – Pig in the City.
Does he have to make compromises in his career in order to accommodate hers? ‘When you both have careers you have to negotiate and juggle,’ Blanchett says. ‘I think you have to be honest, really, take pride in each other’s successes and acknowledge each other’s failures. I try to go with Andrew whenever he has to work abroad, but that’s been difficult since I’ve been pregnant. The painful thing about when he was in Australia recently and I was in Dublin [researching for the Guerin film] was the physical distance. We were on the phone constantly; you know, three in the morning. As long as the two of us are together we don’t really mind where we live. I know couples who live apart for four months at a time but we don’t have that kind of relationship. We’re hopelessly co-dependent!’
The couple have homes in north London and Sydney (on the waterfront). ‘It has forced us to think hard about where the baby should be born. I do think of myself as an Australian. That is my identity.’ Cate Blanchett’s mother, June, a property developer, still lives in Australia, as do her brother and sister (Cate is the middle child).
Her father, Bob, a Texan naval officer who moved to Melbourne in his twenties and became an advertising executive, died from a heart attack at the age of 40. Cate was ten at the time and thinks now that she probably underplayed the psychological affect on her. ‘He died incredibly young. But children adapt. It becomes who you are. You assimilate that change, that pain. It was harder for my mother to lose her partner, so that was where my empathy lay. I didn’t think about it much then, but I did think about it when I got married, and am thinking about it again now I’m having a baby. And there are times when I see friends with their fathers and I think, “What would Dad have been like?”‘
She once said that she wished she lived in a haunted house – perhaps, she thought at the time, as a way of connecting somehow with her father. In her late teens she also developed a fascination with horror movies, and fantasised that her father had been abducted by the CIA and that she might catch a glimpse of him in the street. She doesn’t think she had any replacement father figures as a child.
‘Not consciously, anyway. But I had a strong mother figure and my grandmother lived with us, and that was just the way our family was. Matriarchal. My poor brother!’ It makes her sad to think that her father never knew what became of his daughter. ‘But that is how it is – so I accept it. He’s almost an abstraction now. My memories are only those of a child. But we talk a lot about him in my family, so I now know more about his history and background than I probably did when he was alive. Most of my memories come from photographs, they fill in the gaps. My brother made a compilation of home-made films, and on it I saw footage of my mother and father on the beach together – it really freaked me out. He’s moving! I thought, “That is so strange. There is the human being, my dad, moving.”‘
She shifts her weight delicately on the sofa, runs a hand over her belly, remains erect. ‘It was magical, and I think now I’ll become one of those obnoxious parents who constantly videos her child!’ Has she considered the possibility that she might see ghostly genetic echoes of her father in her baby? ‘Yes. I wonder. I wonder. My father had beautiful hands’
She trails off, then, returning efficiently to film promotion mode, she adds: ‘There’s a lot of that father-daughter stuff in the novel of Charlotte Gray. There is a deep level of unresolve and disquiet.’ In the film her character takes a word association test with a psychiatrist: has she ever tried anything like that herself? ‘Yes, I have, actually. I really wanted to try it before I did that scene so I went to see a psychiatrist in Hampstead. He was great. There was no preamble – he didn’t make me feel comfortable at all, just sat me down and threw words at me. The intensity of the concentration – I had to do it with my eyes closed – was quite strange. I surprised myself with my answers. I went in there feeling very clear-headed, like the character I was playing. I wasn’t going to be intimidated – but then the word that came up a lot was “fear”.’
And her fears are? ‘I’m not sure. Um, I used to be superstitious about taking certain flights, but now I quite like flying. I like the long trips home to Australia because, well, because it means I’m going home. I love it because you get to watch films and read books. With security stepped up since 11 September, I think it’s the safest time in the world to fly.’
Unexpectedly, given her fluency and dynamism in performance, Blanchett can seem a little awkward physically. It is as if she almost deliberately avoids calling upon her acting skills to help smooth out situations in real life. Perhaps this is to do with her belief that you only realise how precious your anonymity is once it is taken away. She talks of acting as shedding skin; does she want to strip away her own personality?
‘It depends. Often you start with a point of connection between yourself and the character you are playing, then you explore the differences. I’m not interested in playing myself, even though I’m sure there are parts of myself in things I do. I don’t want to reach a level of self-consciousness where I become aware of them. That is why I don’t like to watch the daily rushes during filming, for fear that I will over-analyse my performance and lose my spontaneity.’ When asked to describe this ‘self’ she is not interested in playing, she says, ‘Passive-aggressive, a very Australian quality.’
A duality seems to be indicated, certainly. In some ways she is remarkable for her ordinariness, or at least for not being as starry as might be expected. But she is also enigmatic. Her best friend is a social-worker. To relax she plays gin rummy and bakes bread. During pregnancy she acquired a craving for sardines, but she doesn’t believe in faddish diets – ‘If you starve yourself to the point where your brain cells shrivel, you will never do good work.’
She is self-deprecating, too, saying that she never feels she makes sense in conversation, drifting off instead into silence. ‘I feel there is something missing in me and so I’m always trying to find that last piece to complete the picture. Everyone loves clarity but I’m incredibly incoherent, so people will have to be satisfied with the incomplete sentence.’
She is at her most animated – and, yes, coherent – when talking about her craft. She refers to ‘energy production’, ‘spheres of concentration’ and ‘how to use your entire body to transmit ideas and feelings’. She says her theatre work taught her how space works and how to control her voice. ‘It’s about having the tools to problem-solve,’ she says. ‘It means you don’t have to be a paranoiac dredging up childhood fears of drowning in order to connect to a certain moment.’
She laughs. ‘Am I making any sense at all? Not much. Perhaps it’s to do with being pregnant.’ Affectingly, her character in Charlotte Gray tries to save two Jewish boys, orphans, from being sent to a concentration camp. When she watched the preview screening of the film – heavily pregnant and, presumably, with her hormones running amok – was she emotionally swept up in it? ‘After getting over the initial shock of seeing myself in close-up and thinking, “Oh my God, I can’t look, it’s me, me, me, me up there,” I was swept along, yes.’
Why would it bother her to see her face in close-up? ‘Think about it, it’s awful.’ For someone like me, perhaps, but she is used to it – and she is photogenic. ‘I am more used to it than I was, true, and I have become more objective. But I rarely watch films a second time, so why would I want to see myself twice?’ With a shrug, Blanchett describes herself as ‘looking ugly’ in certain of her film roles. She thinks that the greatest compliment she was ever given was when another actor said that she had ‘an actor’s face’.
Is there anything about herself she would change? ‘Sure. Can’t think what, offhand. But sure, why not?’ Perhaps, I suggest, it will be easier for her than it is for other women to accept the ageing process because she knows her youthful self is preserved on celluloid. ‘I doubt it. And I doubt they will be having a festival of my movies when I’m 60. But…’ She trails off. ‘There is an enormous pressure on actresses to stay young and beautiful. Film can be a very superficial medium but if you can overcome that and dig deeper within it you can do something worthwhile. I’m not wedded to looking a certain way. I don’t feel I’m carving, as actresses did in the 1940s, a certain niche for myself. I do what I feel is required for the role and if that means not looking particularly attractive, then that is my job. If someone said, “She doesn’t look very attractive, I don’t want to work with her,” then I’d think, “F- him, I don’t want to work with him either.”‘
She smiles widely at this thought. She has rarely if ever felt self-conscious, she adds. At school, the Methodist Ladies’ College in Melbourne, she was, she says, part extrovert, part wallflower. Her mother introduced her to acting when she sent her – aged 12 – to a theatre workshop. ‘I always thought I was quite shy at school, but apparently not. When I speak to old schoolfriends they remember me as the one who was always instigating things, organising things. I was probably a show-off. I went to drama classes and did a lot of drama at high school but I never imagined I would do it as a living because I thought there were two separate categories in life: fulfilment and work.’
After school Blanchett won a place at the University of Melbourne to read fine arts and economics, another duality, the one for fulfilment, the other work. She laughs at the memory. ‘God, my brain is so deeply unmathematical it’s not funny. I thought I’d do economics so I could get into international relations. But instead I travelled for a year, came back, dropped the economics and took up architecture instead. I used to love the reading side, but my essays were a mess. Scrambled. Too many jumbled thoughts, and no through-line. It wasn’t for me. I always think if you are meant to do something, you don’t need to pursue it actively, it comes about. So I didn’t actively pursue the theatre, it just came about. Finishing my degree was on my must-do-when-I’m-pregnant list, but it hasn’t happened.’
It seems disingenuous of her to take such a fatalistic view. After all, she did pursue the theatre actively enough to enrol at Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art. After graduating in 1992 she worked in the theatre with Company B, a loose ensemble of actors including Geoffrey Rush, who later starred in Shine.
According to Rush her prodigious gifts were obvious even then. ‘She was an emotional acrobat swinging from tragedy to comedy to ecstasy,’ he has said. Anthony Minghella, director of The English Patient and The Talented Mr Ripley, has gone further, calling Blanchett the most exciting actress to have emerged in recent memory.
In some ways, though, Blanchett’s fatalism is understandable. In childhood it may have been a pragmatic way of dealing with the misery of losing a father. And there was an incident not long ago which does seem strangely coincidental. She believes she was destined to play Charlotte Gray because she was chosen for the role while playing Susan Traherne, an SOE agent, in David Hare’s Plenty at the Almeida in 1999.
‘A friend suggested I read Charlotte Gray because both Susan Traherne and Charlotte had SOE encounters. I was moved by the book and felt lifted by the sense of hope and love it has, which was juxtaposed to the post-War despair that Susan Traherne experiences. Then, out of the blue, Sebastian [Faulks] sent me a copy saying it is going to be made into a film and I would make a wonderful Charlotte.’
She leans back and pats her bulge. ‘It was as much a happy accident as the timing of the baby, really.’