Thursday, June 23, 2005

Vogue UK Februray 05 - Cate Blanchett

Siren Call: Cate Blanchett’s talent has never been in doubt. But how many of her films since Elizabeth and Lord of the Rings have you actually seen? Now, roles in three of this year’s big movies will confirm her as a huge screen pull.

When you meet Cate Blanchett, the 34-year-old Australian film star, you can’t imagine her pulling off even the midlest role – one of her housewives, say – never mind Lord of the Rings’ Galadriel, or Elizabeth 1, a role that won her an oscar nomination at the age of 29. She is tall, lean and pale, and even though she has been filming all day, there’s not a trace of set-life about her; not a single actressy tic. The luminiscent beauty that you see on screen is there all right (though that lovely long nose and luscious mouth are much less exaggerated than the camera would make them appear), but she’s so self-contained and self-possessed that it is unsettling, and the notion that she spends the professional life putting on wiwgs and costumes and bellowing out sentiments and speeched that have been written by someone else seems unfathomable. In fact, Blanchett does this better, perhaps, than anyone else of her generation. But although this is widely acknowledged, and although she has made 22 films – Bandits, Heaven, Pushing Tin, Veronica Guerin and Charlotte Gray among them – most people still know her only from Lord of the Rings and Elizabeth. This, it seems, is about to change.

When I meet Blanchett, she is in Rome shooting The Life Aquatic, the new film by The Royal Tenenbaums director Wes Anderson, in which she plays a pregnant journalist seeking an interview with an oceanographer. Before Rome, she was in Montreal playing Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator, Martin Scorsese’s Howard Hughes biopic; and this month she stars as Maggie Gilkeson, a frontierswoman and single mother, in Ron Howard’s Western The Missing: that’s a year spent working with not only the grooviest young director of the moment, but also the most revered auteur of his generation, and one of the Academy’s favourite film-makers. Her co-stars on these projects(she would never bring their names up, but is quick to praise them when I do) are Bill Murray, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tommy Lee Jones. It’s pretty impressive stuff. Ironically, it’s easy to forget this when you talk to Blanchett, because she herself is so uninterested and impressing. Sitting on a sofa, her hair pulled back in a knot, her face gleamingly clean, and dressed in jeans and a baggy zip-up top, her feet bare, you can see why she is known for her chameleon-like ability to constantly transform herself. She is anmated and alive – you can sense her antennae quivering the whole time – but she in nonetheless a still person; her voice, with its Australian lilt, is quiet and soft, and she;s not given to grand gestures, overstatement or maniacal energy. Cate Blanchett is, in real life, every inch not a film star.

While she is in Rome, Blanchett is living in a rented flat on the seventh floor of a dreamy building – its double front doors are big enough for a chariot to charge through – which belongs either to the writer Andrea Di Robilant, or to his historian brother (Blanchett is not quite sure which). But still, what a fabulous place to lodge: a large apartment belonging to an Italian family of writers, historians and artists who have love letters from Casanova lurking in their attic. And yet such details – this flat! In this city! – do not seems to affect the actress. The flat is lovely, she agrees, and yes, she feels lucky to be back in Rome (she was here to shoot The Talented Mr Ripley in 1999), but she hasn’t taken on the inherent glamour of her situation, and seems disinclined to promote any kind of fabulousness at all. “It is fantastic being here,” she says, looking around her. “But…” She stops. “It’s terrible to say this because being able to be here is…of course…but…” Looking around, I can see what Blanchett means. In fact, the room we are sitting in is curiously uncosy. Apart from a few children’s books and teddy bears (her son Dash is nearly two), Blanchett has not made the flat her own. The place is cold and dimly lit and, though full of beautiful things, it has a rather desultory, temporary feeling about it. “I’m ready to go home,” she explains. “I’m loving doing this film. I feel like I’m wafting around Wes’ world, but after being in New Mexico and Montreal, and now here, I’ve been away for most of the year.” Not only that, Blanchett is pregnant with her second child. “Yeah! Thanks!” She says when I congratulate her, the Australian accent broadening as she lights up. “It’s good,” she continues, clearly thrilled. “It wasnt planned. It just happened. But it’s really good when things just happen like that. Thjat’s why I feel like nesting,” she adds. “I want to go home, have dinner with friends and not have to be anywhere.”

Blanchett and her husband, the Australian screenwriter Andrew Upton, met in 1997 on an Australian move set and were married a year later. In photographs he looks not quite handsome enough by her side, but in reality he is absolutely her match, and is charismatic and sexy. Her home for the last five years has been Islington, north London. Blanchett is famously private, but it has been widely reported that she and Upton have bought a large sea-front house in Brighton. “Supposedly we’ll live there,” she says, smiling. “I’m loath to talk but it. England’s such a small place, you know, and I don’t know where we’ll live actually. We’re going to be in Australia for six to nine months next year, becausde my husband and I are doing a play together at the Sydney Theatre Company, which is where I did my first job.” The play, which Upton has adapted and in which Blanchett will star, is Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. Incidentally, Blanchett’s first job after she graduated from Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art in 1992, was in a production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls After working in the theatre for a further four years, she made her film debut in 1997 in Bruce Beresford’s Paradise Road. A year later, in 1998, she starred in Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth.

Is she nomadic by nature? After all, it is hardly making a nest to be off in Sydney, playing a ruthless and nihilistic hysteric on stage every night. “Don’t you do that?” she asks by way of response. “I mean, think you are one thing, but then look at what you are actually doing and think that maybe you are not? I say I love being at home and I fantasise about having breakfast in bed, and lazing around not having plans, but I musn’t want that really because I don’t do it.” She certanly doesn’t. The Blanchett-Uptons don’t even own a working TV set. “It’s embarrassing when people come around and want to watch something,” she says, “but it’s very difficult for me to sit still in front of the television. I love being busy and stimulated.”

Does she sound holier than thou? She isn’t. Nor is she coy. She’s outspoken, frank and funny, just not about where she lives or in what manner. She guards her privacy fiercely. “I know,” she says. “Everyone is completely celebrity-obsessed, and if you say you’re not interested in it people think you are being disingenuous. But I need to exist within society; you can’t just ride across the surface of it if you are trying to represent it. There is nowhere I want to get to desperately enough to sacrifice that.”

“Cate truly doesn’t care about fame,” says her friend, the make-up artist Jeanine Lobell (who - as the founder of the make-up company Stila and the wife of one of America’s most popular TV stars, ER’s Anthony Edwards – knows a bit about fame herself). “We joke about it. When autograph-seekers appear, we say things like ‘Thank God the extras showed up’, as if they wouldn’t be there if we didn’t pay them. For Cate, fame is an annoying consequence of her craft.” Lobell is right. Though Cate Blanchett is gracious and warm to interview – she recommends an effective homeopathic treatment to encourage the cervix to open up during the last days of pregnancy as heartily as she enthuses about her favourite Roman café – she genuinely doesn’t seem interested in the sound of her own voice, never mind a famous projection of herself. She listens to questions carefully, but she doesn’t pontificate when she answers, doesn’t self-deprecate, doesn’t try to illustrate how cool she is or how nerdy she once was, or how modest or hip or smart she can be. Instead, she tells me that Tommy Lee Jones has an enormous head (she relays this with proper awe), that it’;s great working with Bill Murray because she’s “been a dribbling fan for years” and that playing Katharine Hepburn for Scorsese inspired her to join a country club, to wear whites when she’s playing tennis, and to take up golf. No, one thing Blanchett definately does not seem worried about is her image.

Yet open up any glossy magazine this month and you will see her modelling luxury clothes in a series of lavish ads for Donna Karan. Fashion advertising seems an odd choice for a woman who is known and respected for her lack of vanity in an industry so obsessed with it. “Donna Karan approached me,” explains Blanchett breezily. “Cate represents a timelessness and a sense of modernity,” says Karan. “You don’t look at the photographs and think, that’s Cate Blanchett wearing Donna Karan. She inspires a more personal connection. Instead, you think, that’s a beautiful woman. That’s how I want to look.” Blanchett, meanwhile, is entirely undefensive on the subject. “I’d just come off The Missing and I thought, you know what? I think I’m ready to get my hair done and put a bit of lippy on.” Her tone becomes conspiratorial. It’s hard not to agree with her. “I’d always dreaded that kind of stuff,” she says, “but we just did the second lot of photos here in Rome and I enjoyed doing them so incredibly. The photographer Mikael Jansson is superb, and the production values are so high it’s like making a short film.” Then, hearing herself explaining, she stops. “The whole thing about setting down a manifesto about what one will and won’t do in one’s life…” She shakes her head. “It just makes life exhausting. It makes people so judgmental. How can you possibly say what you will and won’t do?”

Blanchett’s words ring true, at least when it comes to her own work. She eludes any kind of definition, both as an actor and as a movie star. She seems able to expand her range effortlessly with every or any role, and yet when occasion calls, she is every inch the star. If you watched or saw photographs of the 1999 Oscar ceremony, you will remember that Blanchett stole the show in a purple knit Galliano gown, her bare back emblazoned with embroidered hummingbirds and flowers. And yet she’s never appeared on Letterman, never sat in the front row at a fashion show, never touted her son or her marriage in public, and is never the subject of gossip )a report or two about installing an oversized bathtub into the couple’s Brighton house is about as bad as it seems to have got).

As well as Elizabeth and Galadriel, she’s played, among others, a Southern psychic (The Gift), a Long Island housewife (Pushing Tin), an English murderess (Heaven), a Scottish member of the French Resistance (Charlotte Gray), an American bank robber (Bandits), a WASP heiress (The Talented Mr Ripley), a silver screen goddess (The Aviator), and Irish journalist (Veronica Guerin), a Russian cabaret dancer (Thank God He Met Lizzie) and a monstrous nymphomaniac (The Shipping News). Her accent in each role is so perfectly pitched it is taken for granted – sometimes even used against her, as if being a superb technician might preclude emotional range, sex appeal or comedic timing; which in her case, of course, it doesn’t. (Watch Veronica Guerin and you’ll get all three in one fell swoop.) And yet does anyone go to see a Cate Blanchett movie in the same way they might go to see one starring Cameron Diaz or Hugh Grant?

Chances are they will after The Missing. Blanchett’s character, Maggie, is mother to 10-year old Dot and teenage Lily, and a farmer in the unforgiving mountains of nineteenth-century New Mexico. The movie, a Western told from the point of view of a woman who is neither, as Blanchett puts it, “a prostitute with a heart, nor a lusty wench”, is expected to be one of this year’s big Oscar contenders, which is hardly surprising, given that it has been directed by Ron Howard. (His last film, A Beautiful Mind, scooped four Oscars for both its makers and stars in 2002.) “It’s the riskiest film I’ve ever made,” says Howard, adding, with glorious American candour, “I hope it gets award attention. It’s hard for me to imagine Cate not being nominated for an Oscar. With Cate you get beauty, sensuality and this honest, palpable sense of strength.”

Blanchett is, indeed, gripping as Maggie, a woman forced into reconciling with a father who abandoned her in order to try to rescue her own kidnapped daughter Lily. If the sound of this sort of stuff makes your heart sink slightly, wait till you see Blanchett. She plays her heroine without cliché, as a damaged, cold, uncompromising she-cat of a woman. Never once does she go gooey, and yet you can’t fail to empathise with her. There are many reasons to see the movie – I’ve never seen withcraft and magic portrayed with such frightening realism, nor the New Mexican landscape, come to that – but it’s her performance that is most riveting: proper slippery, sleight-of-hand stuff. In one short sentence, Blanchett can give you a whole chunk of Maggie’s history and the secret to her psyche. “People ask me what it was like to work with Cate,” says Howard. “I say that is was like working with Tom Hanks. That’s the simplest way to put it” – as if we should all know what that must be like. “Though they are different personalities,” he explains, “they take similar risks in their works, not to service any over-inflated sense of ego, but for the joy of accomplishment. It’s so refreshing. Cate is tremendous,” he adds firmly. “She’s impressive.”

This, of course, is good Hollywood talk from a good Hollywood director, which is not to reduce Howard’s words to mere hyperbole. Blanchett is tremendous in The Missing. She is impressive. But still, you won’t catch her talking like that. “The Western is not a genre I was ever particularly enamoured of,” she says quietly. “But the departure that this movie makes – it’s about an array of interesting female characters – is really fascinating. That drew me to it – that and the fact that though the emotions in it are complicated, the story is classic and simple and deep.” That’s as grand as Blanchett gets. Ask her about the Oscars, and she deflates the conversation immediately. “The thing is,” she says, “I feel I’m an actor by default,” Default? “Yes,” she continues. “I feel like acting has chosen me, rather than me choosing it. I didn’t embark on this to get somewhere, so though the whole Oscar thing is a lovely by-product of a great experience, it’s something I feel quite removed from.”

God, Blanchett is good. She’s so convincing, you can’t fail to believe anything she says, and yet a lot of it just doesn’t quite add up. It’s true that she doesn’t come from a thespian background, but she still went to the Australian equivalent of RADA, and as a young girl in Melbourne, she was her of her school’s drama department. Surely she has felt some kind of calling? “I’ve never been gripped by acting,” she says undramatically. “Though it’s something that grips me more and mor. But with each job I need to be seduced back into it. There has to be a real reason for e to do something – a challenge, a stretch.” Luckily, with directors such as Scorsese, Howard and Anderson at her door, Blanchett is being stretched. But you never know, she might still slip away. Meeting her, it is clear that she isn;t in show business for personal glory – she’s after the good stuff: proper hard work.

Still, I ask, wasn’t she dissappointed when Gwyneth Paltrow won for Shakespeare In Love the year she was nominated for Elizabeth? “Oh, I think it was great that I didn’t win,” she says cheerily. “It’s lovely to be nominated for these things, but my husband said something to me at the time that is still true. He said, ‘It’s much better to be on the brink than to have arrived, because once you’ve arrived, all you’ve got to do is leave.’” She might well win an Oscar this year. After all, she’s been tipped for two, for her work n both The Missing and Veronica Guerin. But maybe, in fact, she shouldn’t win for either.