“What a corker of a role,” said Cate Blanchett of her titular character in Woody Allen’s latest film Blue Jasmine. Playing a New York socialite whose life goes into free-fall after she separates from her rich businessman husband, Blanchett gives an unprecedented performance that has garnered the actress a Golden Globe win for Best Actress and her sixth Oscar nomination. From her home in Australia, Blanchett talked about bringing Jasmine to life and working with Woody Allen.
Are you up to your eyes in award season interviews?
No. I’ve mercifully avoided it by living on the other side of the world.
You are in Australia?
Yeah. Our son started high school today. Our boys went back to school today so I had to see them off.
Talk about two separate lives. Getting the kids off to school and having Oscar parties
I know it’s a bit schizophrenic. But it’s a lovely position to be in. I have no complaints.
Let’s talk about Blue Jasmine. I’m a Woody Allen fan, but I have to say this was one of my favorites.
Did you have to audition or did he know he wanted you for the part? How did it come about?
Once again it’s kind of the benefits of living so far away. We spoke on the phone….I have never been through Woody’s notorious casting process — excruciating casting process. (Laughs.) Look, all casting is excruciating. But we spoke and he said he wanted to send me a script and he did and it was extraordinary….It felt so connected to now yet had all the hallmarks of his pathos and absurdity.
How did you get into the character? From the opening scene Jasmine is already on an hysterical ride — and I don’t mean hysterical as in funny, although it was funny, too, I mean it’s obvious this woman has troubles.
It’s happened to me occasionally, on stage and in film — I don’t necessarily mean it works — but you feel like you’re ready to take on a role. And because I’d come off the back of working in theater so intensely for six years the notion of a character playing themselves, which is an inherently theatrical idea but also profoundly human…felt very alive for me. And that was a great place to start with Jasmine because she is so utterly dislocated and is a different creature with whomever she is with.
I mean, ultimately — maybe it’s working in theater and being married to a writer but — I always start with the text. It always comes off of something that character says, or an action the writer has them doing. With Woody, if you want to change a syllable, you have to have a pretty good reason to do so because it’s delicately crafted.
So there wasn’t a lot of ad libbing lines?
Well, he does say, “Say whatever you want, do whatever you want, you don’t have to say what I’ve written.” He is not precious in that way, he just wants it to be alive. So in answer to your question, obviously with a character like Jasmine there is a lot of homework about their physical and emotional state, about the cocktail of drugs and alcohol they’re on, but in the end, Woody’s not interested in any of that, he just wants it to live between the actors.
He will encourage you to change the lines, but then invariably you’ll muck around with the lines and he’ll say, “Oh don’t say that, don’t do that,” because there is a wonderful rhythm to the way he writes. We take that for granted in a way, because it’s become so much of our parlance we forget just how influential he’s been on how we perceive ourselves and how we function in our relationships. (Laughs.) So, yeah, he does want you to make it your own but absolutely hands you the responsibility of making it come to life.
Which you absolutely did.
Well, it happens between the actors, really doesn’t it.
Speaking of that, I grew up with Michael Stuhlbarg, who played Dr. Flicker…
Oh, isn’t he wonderful.
Yes, he is. And he had some lovely things to say about working with you.
I hold him in such high regard as an actor and even more so now because he, like Bobby Canavale and Peter Sarsgaard, didn’t have the script. So [Michael] is completely performing out of context, which is so tricky to do, particularly when you are used to knowing the story and knowing what your function is and you perform in relation to other people. Michael had such a difficult job, but he nailed it.
This is what Michael had to say: “She immediately welcomed me into the tremulous world she was inhabiting and made me feel completely at ease — she was Jasmine, and my first instinct was to try to take care of her. But she was also kind, empathetic, generous, a ready force to be reckoned with, and an instantly trusting scene mate. We were placed, not really knowing each other, into what could have been a nightmarishly difficult situation, and her artistry, fearlessness, and instincts made it feel like we were teammates from the beginning. A mensch. And an artist I have the greatest respect for. I hope we get to play together again.”
Yeah, me too with Michael. I had a similar relationship with all the actors actually, with Alec, with everyone, and Sally [Hawkins] in particular. We just sort of looked at one another and went, “We’re going to do this aren’t we.” It wasn’t spoken…and I said, “This is awful,” but I said don’t worry, it has to be awful to read as awful. And so we just looked at one another and went, “It’s fine.”
There was such chemistry between you and your cast mates. Had you acted with any of them before?
No I hadn’t. I mean I was familiar with everyone’s work and was really, really thrilled when I heard who the cast was going to be. It was wonderful that everyone had done theater so they had a sense of ensemble and a sense of bouncing off [one another].
Everyone has to know what their function is in a scene, particularly when you’ve got no time and no discussion. Maybe it’s that sense of adrenaline, that fear that gives Woody’s films their unique quality (laughs). Sally and I hung out for a few weeks before we started to shoot, which was invaluable. So we talked a lot around it. Both of us I think were panicking slightly.
Jasmine was so intense some people told me they left the film feeling anxious.
I had a friend who actually texted me while she was watching the film saying, “Please tell me it doesn’t end the way it’s going to end I’m really worried.” (Laughs.) I don’t know whether men experience it the same, but I think there’s a real fear in women of becoming invisible. Of losing your sense of identity. Particularly if your identity is being based around a relationship…or your identity is based around your physical appearance.
When those things start to erode then who are we? I don’t mean that for all women, but I think there’s a fear of fading and I think that’s half of [Jasmine’s] panic. Therefore her delusion becomes a life raft for her.
It was so sad to hear Jasmine tell so many lies, but I also found it interesting how quickly she gave up. After her horrible experience with Dr. Flicker, rather than push on and find another job, she seemed to think, “That’s it, I’ve got to find a man.”
She is somebody who is damaged goods by the time she lands in San Francisco. I think it’s so easy to be judgmental of other people’s decisions. As an actor I endeavor to find the reason in the unreasonable. Because no one thinks they are being unreasonable or unrealistic or demanding or behaving madly. We all see ourselves as being justified.
The question is why is Jasmine rushing headlong into this relationship? What is motivating her and how does she want to be perceived? She had no financial support, she had no sounding board, no familial support really, because it’s such a fraught and minefield of a relationship with her sister…I think she’s in free fall.
As I said, she’s damaged goods when she arrived so she’s already fragile. I don’t think she has the means at all and maybe this is where I think what humanizes her is that she has a very unhealthy sense of self. No belief in her ability to solve these problems by herself, which is why she clings so randomly to seemingly crazy ideas. If you’ve been around anyone on the verge of a nervous breakdown or fragile like that then they can seem quite erratic. But I think its panic.
I’m not interested in playing [her] for sympathy — that seems a bit cloying. I think its far more interesting to see a character do horrible things and then to try and work out why are they doing that.…We all do and say things that we regret. It’s just that she does them in film time.
Outstanding Performance of the Year Award: Saturday, February 1, at the Arlington Theatre