The revelations of Cate Blanchett
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For her next role, Cate Blanchett is… “Oh God,” cries the Australian actress, “I look like a vampire! I look like I’m about to play the organ!” She is sitting late one night in the study of her home in the English countryside, and it’s true, the mood is gothic with a touch of eco-spiritual, with two small owl totems looming behind her. The surroundings are very dark, and more to the point, she is wearing black, pointed, thick-rimmed glasses that make the actress, one of Hollywood’s most beautiful women, look like she’s auditioning for a highbrow reboot of Elvira: Mistress of the Dark. Luckily, she’s smiling.
Blanchett, 53, is home after a long day spent filming her latest project, Disclaimer, a new thriller series for Apple TV directed by Alfonso Cuarón. At her feet, alternately snoozing and scratching, are her three dogs Doug, Polly and Fletcher, who mostly behave themselves (although “they’ll start farting in a minute”, she warns, “and we’ll really be in trouble”). Disclaimer will add to a lengthy list of achievements, including Oscar-winning turns in Blue Jasmine and The Aviator, two Oscar-nominated takes on Elizabeth I, roles in other films such as Carol, Hanna and The Lord of the Rings, plus TV series like Stateless or Mrs America. A theatre actress by training, she has starred in a slew of ambitious stage productions as well, not least when she co-ran the Sydney Theatre Company with her husband, Andrew Upton. She shares her British home (and others across the world) with him, their three sons and daughter, and her mother.
Blanchett will star in two films this season, one of which has already placed her as a leading contender in the annual awards-season circuit. Tár is a virtuoso piece written and directed by Todd Field that showcases the actress as Lydia Tár, a complicated music conductor who, approaching 50 and preparing a seminal performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, is also careening towards a gigantic personal reckoning. It really is a showcase: Blanchett is in every single scene. “Look,” she admits, “it was one of the most extraordinarily intense and revelatory experiences I have ever had.”
Artistic with a capital “A”, ambitious, elusive, refusing easy definitions but eye-wateringly committed, the performance arguably sums up the actress herself. Todd Field confirms this when asked if he wrote it with her in mind. “No, not with Cate in mind. I wrote it for Cate, and only Cate. Of course, she didn’t know that,” says the maker of Little Children, who has been absent from our screens for 16 years. The two had met several years ago with an eye to collaborating on a film Field had written with Joan Didion, but nothing came of it. Instead, the meeting left Field with “the impression of an individual operating at the pitch of perception, someone who possessed the kind of wit and intelligence one rarely, if ever, encounters. An honest-to-God genius. So, who better to play a genius?”
Faced with all this, Blanchett struggles to discuss Tár: “I don’t think I’ve quite processed it, to be honest. It doesn’t happen very often.” Part of preparing for the role involved her conducting full orchestras in certain scenes. “It’s a completely different way of viewing the world through sound – and to play someone who has such an acute sensitivity to sound.”
More bluntly, though, Tár is about someone reaching the top and realising they’ve come horribly close to the edge. We see Lydia promote and dismiss colleagues, teach and argue with students, ponder the nature and needs of art – and try to ignore the manic emails of a former protégée; she has form, it seems, in blurred relationships with female acolytes. Yet to call it a lesbian #MeToo movie, or an indictment of the patriarchal classical music scene, would be to severely misread it.
“It’s much more existential than that,” says Blanchett, who herself is the star of a thousand TikToks obsessing about her sexuality. (A question as to whether she has heard of a cult Insta account called “dykeblanchett”, which likes to give a Sapphic twist to her every move, brings bafflement, then a honk of laughter, and then a hint of concern: “Am I fully clothed?)” “Tàr has that painful, painful moment – which I hope you have in adolescence, because, my God, you want to have that feeling early – the painful discovery that you are not who you think you are. And in fact, the way people perceive you is entirely different, often, to the way you move through the world. That’s why social media is such a strange, anxiety-ridden hall of mirrors – because we try to control the things we simply cannot control.”
As to what Tàr herself has done right or wrong, “I don’t want to define it,” says Blanchett, a warm conversationalist who likes to give rattling, rambling answers, bouncing around all sides of a question before alighting on a cautious conclusion. “But I think, in the end, she’s on the run from herself… because you can’t outrun yourself. You can think you’re a Great Dane – but if you’re a chihuahua, it is far better to look that in the eye, and work with that chihuahua!” Otherwise, “that unexamined chihuahua, whatever it is, is going to wake you up at 3am and strangle you!”
All of which begs the question: what has she been on the run from? A vast pause. “My kids are constantly saying to me how restless I am and how I need to sit still. They absolutely love it when I am in my pyjamas – when I don’t get dressed.” She is, she admits, “always heading to the next destination – and it can be tiring at times.” But then, “there’s so much to do in the world, and so many conversations to have, so many fascinating people to meet, that I do find it hard to say: ‘No – I’m staying in my pyjamas today.’ I don’t know if that’s running from something.”
She certainly ran towards another opportunity to work with Guillermo del Toro, for whom she is voicing the sprightly Spazzatura, the lovely monkey in his stop-motion-animated remake of Pinocchio; the second time they’ve worked together after last year’s Nightmare Alley. It was an especially pleasing role for Blanchett, an actor (and a person) who loves to play against type. “We all have those conversations where people go: I know who you are. You’re this. And you immediately go: am I? Or, I’m not all that. It makes you want to stretch out in another direction.”
She was further delighted when del Toro announced that he thought she was, innately, a “foul-mouthed 12-year-old boy”. “Cate has a tremendous sense of humour and can be the most thoughtful friend and collaborator,” says the director via email. “She can unleash full force into wild energy. She said to me that Spazzatura was her spirit animal. I believe it!”
It is 24 years since Blanchett burst onto international screens, aged 29, in Elizabeth, a sumptuous period piece that affirmed her regal qualities. She’s been a famous actress for as long as she’s been married. “I’ve been married for 25 years – it’s a miracle,” she says simply. Did she expect to have that kind of relationship? “I honestly don’t think I had a game plan.” Blanchett was the second of three children growing up in Melbourne’s suburbs. When her father, a US naval chief petty officer turned ad man, died of a heart attack when she was 10, she was brought up by her teacher mother and grandmother. She first studied economics and fine arts at Melbourne University, before dropping out for a year, travelling, and then enrolling at a theatre school in Sydney when she was 20.
“I wasn’t one of those people who thought: I must have children, or I want to be in a relationship, or I want to be an actor. I didn’t have any of those thoughts at all,” she says. “It was literally one experience rolled into another. I mean, you asked about what was revelatory about playing Tár. To play someone who was that driven, that consumed by the fire of needing to make music, and someone who is that self-possessed, was an extraordinary experience.”
Would she really not say she had that drive? Considering her CV, you’d imagine that… “What? I look like a driven person?” She seems borderline appalled at the idea. “Not at all! Not at all,” she insists. “I think it’s more of a compulsion than a drive, and I think there’s a difference… If I’m running away from anything, it’s keeping doing it.”
Blanchett’s protean quality in acting has also made her perfect for fashion. Few of the bigger stars can pull off both a delicately frilled gown or a manly tux, but she can do both with ease (indeed Tár is, among other things, a feast of slouchy masculine tailoring). It’s why everyone from Giorgio Armani (who paid her a reported $10mn in 2013 to be the face of his perfume Sì) to, latterly, Nicolas Ghesquière and Francesca Amfitheatrof at Louis Vuitton has designated her a muse. She became a Vuitton ambassador this summer.
“My love of fashion began with costume,” she explains. Her sister first trained as a sets and costume designer, “so we used to spend a lot of time doing that in our childhood – she would dress me up and name the character. It would just be a game we used to play. A lot of my close friends now are costume designers, and I love those conversations.” She points out that “you manifest the psychology of what people think they are through their clothing. But also, you can reveal their emotional state with how they wear it.” (Her crumbling socialite attire in Blue Jasmine comes to mind.) “When they’re dressing for other people, or when they look slightly uncomfortable,” she continues. “There are so many ways, before you utter a word, that people can read who the character is. And I find that really fascinating.”
What about her, though? How does she dress in real life? “Look at me!” she cries, mock-shocked. “I’m in a onesie!” She is mostly a comfortable dresser at home. “I love incredibly beautiful things, but it’s also about how those things are made, where they’re made, what materials they’re made of, how the workers are treated. All those things affect how beautiful something is. It’s not just the garment itself, or the piece of jewellery.”
At the start of her career, Blanchett starred in David Mamet’s Oleanna, which is often cited as a proto-#MeToo play. With its similar concerns with sex, age and power, it forms an interesting counterpoint with Tár. Has Blanchett seen much change or progress in the intervening decades?
“On one level, yes. I think women feel much more mobilised. My generation was brought up by another generation of women, a lot of whom felt the backlash for calling themselves feminists, and so were worried about their daughters being proactive.” This, she says, is over. “But then you look at what’s happening with reproductive freedom and you think, well…” She peters out. “Look. I am positive that changes are happening – but the people who are holding onto power do not want to let go.”
As causes go, however, she has even more pressing things in mind. An active climate spokesperson, Blanchett co-hosts a podcast, Climate of Change, with her friend Danny Kennedy, for which she has interviewed William, the Prince of Wales, former Irish president Mary Robinson and the historian and author Rutger Bregman in a bid to find potential solutions. “First of all, we’ve got to make sure we’re not going to burn,” she says. “Hopefully, we will make the transition from a fossil-fuel driven economy to a more circular one in the next three or four years – otherwise I don’t know what to tell my children.” Even an innocuous question about her love of gardening – she and her mother may go harvest the tomatoes tomorrow – lurches into a near-apocalyptic fear of droughts. “When you ask me about it, I kind of get a lump in my throat,” she murmurs. “I’m very water-obsessed.”
Despite all this, Blanchett doesn’t leave you feeling doomy; she is so animated, so inquisitive and so voluble that you get the sense there’s always a solution. And watching a film like Tár, you’re reminded that she still has much to do.
“You know those monkey bars?” she asks. “I had a friend at drama school who described happiness. They said that in the process of letting go of one hand, you swing to grab another, and in that swing is pure joy. I’ve experienced that when you fall in love, or any moment when you’re in full unfettered flow in life, and they’re rare. But I have also experienced it on stage, and in rehearsal rooms, and in making movies like Tár.” The addictive thing, she explains, “is wanting to feel that flow again. So maybe it’s not what I’m running from,” she says, reaching a conclusion – for now. “Maybe it’s what I’m running towards.”
Pinocchio is on Netflix from December; Tár will be in cinemas on 13 January in the UK