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Thursday, Sept. 20, 2007
Faces of the screen queen
Special to The Japan Times
The screening of "I'm Not There" at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this month left many in the aisles whispering "Academy Award" in reference to just one member of the ensemble cast — Cate Blanchett.
Todd Haynes' Bob Dylan biopic, which casts Blanchett, Heath Ledger, Christian Bale and Richard Gere as incarnations of one of the world's greatest musicians, has already earned the 38-year-old Australian the best actress award at this year's Venice International Film Festival. It is likely to push audiences' admiration for Blanchett's versatility off the meter.
Since the beginning of the year, Blanchett has turned in four acclaimed and extraordinarily varied performances: as a tourist wounded in a freak gun accident in Morocco in "Babel"; as a deliciously Marlene Dietrich-type femme fatale in "The Good German," which opens in Japan this weekend; as the powerful Virgin Queen in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age"; and now upstaging the guys in the role of a man in "I'm Not There." She also signed on to star in the fourth installment of the "Indiana Jones" series, due out next year.
But Blanchett's next role is perhaps her least anticipated yet. She will take a break from the silver screen, a move considered daring and risky in Hollywood though also admired in a town notorious for its insecurity. Next year, Blanchett and her husband, playwright and screenwriter Andrew Upton, will take up positions as artistic directors of the Sydney Theater Company in the Australian city where she first rose to prominence playing roles such as Ophelia in Shakespeare's "Hamlet" and Miranda in Caryl Churchill's "Top Girls."
"It's time," Blanchett said in a recent interview with The Japan Times. "I've missed it. It's not been my focus. Theater was of course my first love, but then you get swept up in movie projects, and it's very flattering when you get these wonderful offers, and they sort of pile up . . . they swamp you! And we felt, besides, that now, with the children, it's a good idea to spend this amount of time in one place, in our home base, and return to our roots while remaining in one solid, stable environment."
Blanchett has never been your usual movie actress. From the moment she burst onto international screens in her first film outside of Australia, 1998's "Elizabeth," which won her a best actress Oscar nomination, Blanchett has radiated class and alert intelligence. She went on to win a best supporting actress Oscar in 2005 for her role as screen icon Katharine Hepburn in Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator." Her appeal is such that Time magazine, in naming her among its "100 Most Influential People in the World" in May this year, declared that "the actress who can do anything is now, it seems, doing everything."
Blanchett, however, laughs off her place in the list, refusing to take it seriously.
"With over 6 billion people in the world, and so many political leaders, and a surprising number of billionaires, dictators, terrorists . . . to be listed among such a 100 makes minimal sense, if any at all. I'm not sure that any actor would belong on such a list," she says.
"We are, after all, entertainers. We may influence a number of young people on a superficial and temporary level, but being influential on a global scale is not something that actors achieve unless they go into politics and . . . I have to say it: usually it's the wrong sort of actors — male actors with an ax to grind — that go into politics."
Blanchett confesses with a giggle that the topics most on her mind and in her conversations with friends are her children — Dashiell, born in 2001 (and named after mystery writer Dashiell Hammett), and Roman Robert, born in 2004 — and her upcoming stage work with her husband.
"Children are a whole world unto themselves," she observes. "They require so much time and care and attention, and parenting is quite daunting. It is the most demanding thing. On the other hand, one is aware, from having watched other parents, that this stage — when they're little and so dependent — does not last all that long. I'm sure that every parent has experienced a time, later, when they look back and miss this particular period. Because once this time is gone, it's completely gone!" she laughs.
Walking away from the job might seem difficult to do for an actress known for the seriousness with which she goes about immersing herself in a role with the aim of making audiences forget the famous person on screen. But Blanchett claims to have no difficulty in switching off.
"Going in, you know that you're going to work hard," she says. "Leading roles require a lot of concentration, and the days are long. So is the effort. And there will come a time later in life when leading roles won't be the norm, and so you generally have to do what you can while you are in a position to do it."
Before she does switch off, however, and not necessarily for very long given that Blanchett and Upton both have clauses in their contracts with Sydney Theater Company allowing them several months off at a time for other projects, the actress has completed several films that will keep her on screens in Japan well into next year.
In Steven Soderbergh's noirish life-or-death intrigue "The Good German," Blanchett plays a prostitute in postwar Berlin named Lena Brandt who is being sought out by a former lover, journalist Jake Geismer (played by George Clooney). The role of the seductive Brandt is a departure for Blanchett, who is more associated with women notable for their intellect or status.
"I found her (Brandt's) situation interesting. Again, I don't judge her. Look at the time and place she exists in. It was the aftermath of horror — the end of a major war, and the beginning of a new time of hardship, to say the least, for a nation, and for its women, some of whom would have to turn to whatever means possible to make money and survive . . . You can't say, 'I wonder if people will like this character I'm considering playing.' This is acting we're talking about, not a popularity contest!
"When I was researching Elizabeth I, I was surprised — not from books but from various ordinary people — to learn that several individuals viewed the woman who's also known as Good Queen Bess as a tyrant . . . as a bad person. Somebody quite negative. Everyone has their point of view. To the average Protestant, Elizabeth was a good ruler. She did good things — in general. Although she wasn't a major persecutor of Catholics, she was less popular with Catholics, naturally. And she did, in the end, have (her cousin) Mary, Queen of Scots, beheaded. She was also an absolute monarch as well as a woman, and just the fact of a woman having that much power — of life and death — still turns certain men off today," Blanchett giggles again, briefly.
Blanchett said she joined the cast of "The Good German" in part because she wanted to make a film in black and white, which is considered a very uncommercial format by Hollywood.
"I think black-and-white photography is wonderful for motion pictures," she says. "It does give a more dreamlike quality to a film, and it's a sophisticated, mature way of viewing film. I think if young people and teenagers aren't used to it, if they're not in the habit of watching classic and older films, then they should be brought around and be put into the habit. Black-and-white can be just as expressive as color, and the proof is any number of older films that we're lucky enough to still have around to watch."
"The Good German" is the second recent black-and-white film for Blanchett's leading man, George Clooney, who received critical acclaim for directing "Good Night, and Good Luck," about the McCarthy-era communist witch hunts in the United States. Clooney also gets high praise from Blanchett.
"He is very generous. He's just a lot of fun . . . a complete professional, very dedicated to the project and to its overall quality, above and beyond his own part and looks and ego," she says. "The title . . . 'The Good German,' you know, George is the good kind of American, the sort one hears too little about — at least outside of the United States.
"Not to mention he's extremely good-looking, witty, funny and charming to be with."
Blanchett's enthusiasm level tapers off with regard to writer-director Soderbergh, but she says that he's "an excellent filmmaker. I've liked several of his pictures."
Love of the stage
Asked how film actors compare to stage actors, Blanchett hesitates, then launches into a long, thoughtful critique that reveals her love of the stage.
"It's not the people that differ, it's the setting," she says. "One's environment has, naturally enough, a significant impact on how one behaves. If you're doing a film and the director is engrossed with technical concerns — say, a lot of special effects, lots of action, perhaps a difficult star or two . . . not anybody that I know, of course! — then you can be under pressure to direct yourself and innovate entirely from within, and quickly. Many directors give minimal direction. On a film, or in front of any camera — same thing with television — time is typically of the essence, and there's little or no time for rehearsal and improvisation or much interaction with the director or even fellow actors.
"In the theater, one has the luxury of time. Rehearsal is paramount, and actors interact with and off of each other, and the director's there to help and to guide . . . the writer is also there and has actual and significant input — of which often he has none at all of in a Hollywood type of picture!
"So, I think actors working in a stage environment are happier, because they're able to do what most actors originally go into acting in order to do, and also because they can share more camaraderie with each other. It's definitely a more equitable environment; it's less of the star-versus-supporting actors concept. On the stage, everybody is important, and there is — there certainly is in Australia, anyway — a family feeling. And less competition for competition's sake."
Blanchett has appeared in two films recently with ensemble casts rather than the standard leading man, leading lady variety: "I'm Not There" and Alejandro Gonzalez In~arritu's "Babel." The latter, a globe-trotting film by a Mexican director that earned several Oscar nominations last spring, won acclaim and was much talked about, even if it wasn't a major U.S. box-office hit.
" 'Babel' is an important film," Blanchett notes. "I did not imagine it would create huge fortunes for its backers, but I wanted to be a part of it. And as an Australian, I think it has a very important and valid message, which is that today's world is now global, is so interconnected that, as 'Babel' shows, what happens in one country — Third World or otherwise — can have an impact in unforeseen ways in several other countries, on numerous people's lives, for better or unfortunately and usually more often for worse.
" 'Babel' was a very innovative project. It wasn't designed for the masses. But it got made, it stimulated debate, many people have seen it and many will see it yet . . . I am proud to have been included in it."
While choosing challenging roles is a high priority for Blanchett, she is also known to make some screen choices for whimsical reasons. She chose to be in the New Zealand-made "Lord of the Rings" trilogy largely so she could don prosthetic pointy elf ears of her character Galadriel. An elf queen was "something I loved the idea of playing," she recalls, and "I love anything that is so full of invention and sheer imagination."
She is far more cautious about the revival of the Indiana Jones franchise almost two decades after the last film in the series, "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade."
"The last Indiana Jones was said, in some quarters, to be a bit . . . negative in some aspects, compared to the earlier pictures. It had a darker quality." A brief pause, then she states, "Please don't ask me about the dark, light or commercial qualities of this picture. I'm bound to not say much about it. I can say that it's very exciting to be involved in this project, which I believe will make tons of money and most likely be seen by more people than have seen any of my other films."
Blanchett tackles issues head-on, and she seems to brim with confidence at every turn in a conversation — although a recent remark to the media that she has stopped washing her hair in order to do her bit to conserve precious water might have more to do with bad hair days than any concern for the environment.
When complimented that she exudes classical beauty and regal poise, Blanchett replies: "I don't know about that at all! I'm definitely on the pale side, and my hair is an open question whenever I do get cast. The filmmakers have to puzzle out what hair color I should wear for that new role," today's queen of the screen muses, before regaining her composure quicker than a guillotine.
"I just leave it to them. They can decide. My looks aren't my focus. The work and the character is."