An Interview with SBIFF’s Modern Master, Cate Blanchett

Switching Roles, Playing for Keeps

Cate Blanchett

An actor’s life, by the very nature of the gig, requires switching personae on a regular basis. It’s expected, unless an actor is limited or subjected to typecasting. Even so, the stakes were particularly high for the most impressive and extreme quick-change act in last year’s film scene.

Cate Blanchett, the rightfully acclaimed Australian actress, reprised her role as the imperious and chilling Queen Elizabeth in Elizabeth: The Golden Age after having put in a command, Oscar-nominated performance in the 1998 film Elizabeth. Then, she leapt into Todd Haynes’s multi-actor, multi-faceted Bob Dylan film, I’m Not There. By most accounts, Blanchett’s Dylan-the sneering, wiry, ’60s-era character as seen in the documentary-was by far the best of the film’s lot.

She just has a way of seizing on a role-whatever the era, sociocultural strata, or gender-and bringing it to life. Which is why Blanchett’s appearance in the list of tributes at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, in the Modern Master slot, is richly deserved, and comes right on time.

Now 38, the open and affable Blanchett spoke recently on the phone from her new home in Sydney, Australia, where she lives with her husband, playwright and screenwriter Andrew Upton. They have two young children, and another in the oven. She has returned to her homeland after living in London for many years. It was Down Under where she had her first major role, alongside Geoffrey Rush in a Sydney Theatre Company production of David Mamet’s Oleanna in 1993. Throughout the years, her filmography has included gem-like performances in The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Aviator (as Katharine Hepburn), Babel, and Notes on a Scandal.

What has gone around is coming around, and this theater-spawned actress with a healthily ambivalent relationship to the movies has taken on a new job just this month. She and her husband are now artistic directors of the Sydney Theatre Company.

I’m impressed by your multitasking abilities. Well, it’s a mother’s necessity, isn’t it? I don’t think it’s anything unusual.

Do you feel a bit stretched, at times, though, in terms of all the things you have to cover? This year, there has been a degree of thrilling insanity to it. I think it’s because we’re between continents at the moment. Once we settle into the job and are simply doing that, I think the focus will calm down somewhat. But I think it is trying to be in three continents at one time while keeping your carbon emissions low. I think it will help to be slightly more mono-focused.

In the end, of course, the art forms of theater and film are not mutually exclusive. I think they really do speak to each other. In the end, it’s not a split focus, but I think it’s just in terms of the fact that Australia isn’t close to Europe. So the traveling and having to be in three places at one time is just physically challenging.

Have you always sensed having a strong link to Australia? Those really are your roots, right? I think it’s not something one has to consciously think about. It’s just there. This is a very magnetic country. I think there’s something about where one is from that, even if you leave never to return, as some people do from their homelands, you somehow continually reference it. And that’s whether you’re an artist in your work or an accountant. Somewhere in the depths of your spirit you feel that.

In Australia, the actual land is very magnetic. In the end, it’s the culture that we continually draw from and feel culpable and responsible for. I’m sure the politics in your country and what happens culturally in your country affect you in a way that what happens in Europe doesn’t. Then, you would have a more academic association with it.

It does seem, in some way, that Australia is somewhat enlightened in its detachment. It’s not Europe and not America, and yet elements of both pass through Australian culture. That is the great potential in Australia, absolutely. There is a large degree, within certain pockets, of that enlightened detachment. Perhaps now with the change of government there might be more enlightened detachment. But there hasn’t been a sense of that in recent years. It has tended much more, in the last decade, to be enshrining terror and using that as an excuse to shut down and not think deeply.

But as I said, there are always people who are fighting that. In the end, the role of an artist is to provoke and inspire and challenge, and reawaken those ideas. I’m looking forward to great enlightenment. (Laughs.)

And you have managed to do that by being involved in so many thinking-person’s films. I wonder if that has always been a premium for you? Yes, box-office death (laughs), those thinking-people’s films. I don’t know. I’ve been involved in films that have worked and have not found an audience. I’ve been involved in films that have found an audience and haven’t necessarily been the best films in the world. I’ve been involved in projects that fall somewhere in between all of those goalposts.

It has been an interesting experience, particularly having gone to drama school and never really being fascinated by films, to tell you the truth. It was never particularly a mecca for me. Working in the film industry wasn’t a destination for me, because I couldn’t consume film the way I could the live experience. Maybe that’s why I’ve been fortunate in my experiences. I haven’t been so ambitious to try and get somewhere in the film industry. I feel like I’ve been meandering.

So that’s your secret? Well, is there a secret? A lot of it’s luck, as one always says who gets to a certain level of success. But there is a huge degree of luck involved.

I had a profound experience when I left drama school. I saw these graduates who were deeply, deeply talented who didn’t necessarily come out at the right time. In a way, I was lucky. I was cast in a production of Oleanna at the Sydney Theatre Company, opposite Geoffrey Rush, which was seminal for me, which hit the world at that time, making it electric.

So then from there, I got a 12-part television series, which was a noble failure, but it was incredible for me to actually get up everyday and stand in front of a camera, and get used to being looked at at a close proximity. The relationship with the camera was not one I immediately understood. I’m absolutely in awe of the 17- and 18-year-olds who can somehow open themselves up immediately to be seen, basically. It took me a long time to be able to be seen.

They may be able to open themselves up on the surface level, but obviously you have this deeper acting impulse. Maybe. I was lucky that I left drama school with this myriad of problem-solving techniques. You have to continually trick yourself and speak to yourself in a certain way. One can become self-conscious. I think that is a danger when there starts to be a level of expectation, because you can’t arrive again.

My husband very wisely said to me, after I made Elizabeth, “You never arrive the same way.” I knew when I was revisiting the role that it couldn’t possibly be received in the same way, because I’d already arrived. People can’t discover you again.

In the end, I suppose it’s like the difference between an affair and a marriage. I feel that now I’m married to the job, with a deep sense of longevity about it. I’m investing deeply into the idea rather than wanting to recapture that first spark.

That’s a good analogy. Looking at your filmography, you’re quite the chameleon. That’s especially true of this past year, as you jumped nimbly from Elizabeth to the ’60s-era Bob Dylan. Isn’t that something of a leap, even by your standards of flexibility? (Laughs.) There is a degree of artistic perversity in that, in retrospect. Look, who wouldn’t do that if it were offered to you? I did say to Todd [Haynes] that my only reservation about doing it was that I literally had to walk off the set of Elizabeth onto the set of I’m Not There. He reminded me that I was in a corset on Friday and then on Tuesday I had sideburns and an electric guitar in Montreal.

There is a quality to that. It’s not the best way to work, with that level of rapidity between projects, on a personal level. But there is something to be said for not thinking too much. Obviously, you do all the research. It was kind of a relief, during the intensity of Elizabeth, during lunchtime, to be trawling through all the Dylan documentaries and watching all of his press conferences. It was kind of a welcome distraction. And in the end, you do have to distract yourself from anxiety. Otherwise, you can become self-conscious.

So you do all the research, of course, but you can over-think things. This is the thing with film, because you have so long to do it. I try to bring the sense of the theatrical play into it. You can do all the research in the world, but if you don’t get up in the rehearsal room and play on the floor with the other actors, then nothing will come to life. In the end, it’s not until you’re in dialogue with the other actors, with the director, and with the cinematographer that any of the research you’ve done coalesces.

And then you’ve got to be open to what happens in the moment. That’s the terrifying and exciting thing. You wonder, “Will it happen this time? Will this crystallize in some way?” You never quite know.


Cate Blanchett will receive the Modern Master Award at the Arlington Theatre on Saturday, January 26, at 8 p.m. Call 963-0023 or visit


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