Cate Blanchett is Reborn (as Rock Royalty) in I’m Not There and The Golden Age

By Steve Garbarino

Click here for the Cate Blanchett gallery! pf_main_cateblanchett.jpg “I don’t know that I would ever deign to say I share anything with Bob Dylan. I understand the sentiment behind what he has said. I’m a wallflower. Someone asks me to dance, I’ll dance because I love to dance. Wanna dance?” ’Cate Blanchett, above.

“I cannot guarantee any clear and thoughtful answers,“ Cate Blanchett writes me, referring to her responses from our face-to-face interview, a few days after we spent a morning and afternoon photographing her for this story and having dinner (she: wild salmon, spinach salad, water for lack of vodka) at West Hollywood’s French hideaway Little Door. “If only Sophocles could answer for me. Do you have his number?“ she continues. I respond that I have Heidegger on speed dial, and she writes back, “Heidegger is fine by me.“

This back-and-forth lightens things some, as I have been literally terrified for weeks over the prospect of interviewing Blanchett, particularly after watching her excruciatingly commanding performance in the sequel to Elizabeth. She may have second thoughts about lopping Mary, Queen of Scots’s head off, but I’m still worried she’s going to eat me for dinner. Or we’ll just sit there, staring’me, a pawn in her game, the clinking of cutlery as deafening as a gong quartet. I’m almost hearing her say drolly, “Oh, really“ to everything I say.

Photography by Warwick Saint, Styling by Elizabeth Sulcer


Our e-mails continue with a few questions about the drastic difference between the elaborate and fantastical costumes of the Elizabeth role’somehow more wildly intricate than her first go-round in the cinematic 16th century’and the lean black pants and jackets of the Dylan character. And to get the facts straight, I ask her what designer she was wearing from her personal wardrobe the evening we met up. Her response: “In regards to my clothing, it would be far more interesting to say, “She was appallingly put together, somewhat in the manner of Little Edie Beale [see Gray Gardens], away from the guiding hand of her army of stylists.’ Or you could say I was wearing (I’m so goddamned helpful) Australian designer Akira Isogawa. I’ll have you working at WWD in no time!“

As I tell her that I’m already back in New York City the following day, she writes, “I hope you traveled back okay. It is a long way to walk, but I admire your commitment to reducing your carbon footprint.“ So much for the notion that Cate Blanchett is devoid of humor, or not one wryly cool lady. In her chic, fitted, wine-colored leather jacket’hidden away in a back, back room of Little Door, Blanchett looks perfectly settled, all by herself, away from “the army,“ as she put it. Wanting a vodka and soda, she settles for bottled water, as the caf���� only serves wine and beer. She chats with her husband by phone, never mentioning nannies, grease-fueled cars, or swag bags. She’s light, amused, cool without trying to be. She asks as many questions as I do. Believe it or not, one feels one could have some actual fun with her. Says Todd Haynes, I’m Not There’s director, “You think she’ll be very serious because her reputation precedes her. You hear how incredibly prepared she is and professional. And I’m thinking, OK, this is going to be a serious, hardworking actress, which is fine. But you end up getting this incredible, lovely, articulate, funny, playful, warm person, along with those things. She’s this amazing package. She was a consummate performer. She upped the ante on an already demanding role.“

Of Blanchett playing a man’albeit a rather famous one’he says, “I knew it was a huge risk and, in some ways, a stunt. You’re watching a hybrid, but I think most people will adjust to that, accepting this construction. Cate has a presence that dominates. She has that superstar power. Dylan was very powerful. Cate was in a position to duplicate it.“

And, he adds, “Funnily enough, she plays Dylan at his most misogynistic. In 1966, he’s singing “Just Like a Woman,’ and other songs that were questioned by feminists. There are actually prettier moments in Dylan’s younger years. This wasn’t a prettified glamour like David Bowie’s. Because of how well-known he was, with the big hair and the skinniest body, the big sunglasses, the constant smoking, and all those amphetamized gestures’his hands were flying all over the sky when he sang’there was major shock value to what he looked like. This wasn’t 1969, it was 1966! Nobody looked like this then. But the shock value of it now is gone. We wanted to reinfuse that strangeness, and to do that was to have a gender switch. Dylan had a strange androgyny, infused with drug use and a high-caliber lifestyle. I felt a woman could do something uncanny with all of that. And Cate had that depth and got the complexity.“

Trivia blip to alternative music nerds: Steven Malkmus, the reedy former lead singer of Pavement, supplies the vocals for Blanchett’s lip-synching turns of “Maggie’s Farm“ and “Ballad of a Thin Man.“

Born in suburban Melbourne, Australia, Blanchett’s father died when she was 10. Rather surprisingly, he was from Texas. Blanchett trained as a theater actress and graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney, and worked, as she puts it, “pretty much exclusively in the theatre until making Paradise Road [1997, directed by Bruce Beresford]. I have continued to move between the two mediums since,“ she says. (Side note: She fell into acting after being asked to play an extra in a film while she was staying at a hotel in Cairo; she walked off the set.) Blanchett was cast in 1998’s period drama, Elizabeth’for which she won the Golden Globe’after she was seen in a production of Chekhov’s The Seagull (1996). It was there she met her husband of ten years, playwright and screenwriter Andrew Upton. Last year she drew raves playing Ibsen’s 19th-century female Hamlet, Hedda Gabler, in the Brooklyn Academy of Music production.

But Blanchett has also shown her comedic side in 2001’s Bandits (opposite bad boys Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thorton) and Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), where as a pregnant reporter she had the pleasure of goofing with frogman Bill Murray and love interest Owen Wilson. Far cries from last year’s devastatingly sinister Notes on a Scandal, in which she transformed into an extremely unlikable (yet so darned hot) schoolteacher, who gets trapped in sociopathic school marm Dame Judi Dench’s lesbian web after she’s exposed as having had an illicit affair with a male student. And then there was her noir role in Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German, and her heartbreaking turn in Babel, also in 2006. That year she won the Academy Award for best supporting actress in Martin Scorsese’s Howard Hughes film, The Aviator, portraying Katharine Hepburn. Mainstream theatergoers, perhaps, know her ethereal visage best from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, in which she portrayed the incandescent “Galadriel,“ the “High Elf Queen“ in all three films.

Through it all, Blanchett’with Kate Winslet not far behind her’has become the best actress on the planet. And the disparity of her oeuvre makes her stand apart from such Oscar-winning heavies as Nicole Kidman, of whom it’s become increasingly difficult to separate her celebrity status and fashion ad campaigns from her true acting, characters, and natural forehead wrinkles. (And, for that matter, other than a sock stuffed in the crotch of her pegged-leg jeans for the Bob Dylan role, she’s never worn a fake nose; hers is perfect in its own imperfection.)

Quick appraisals of I’m Not There and The Golden Age:

The former is indeed a latently indie concept project-cum-extended musicvideo, utilizing some of Bob Dylan’s best songs to evoke a moment in time’not so different from now’when people still said things like, “Up the Establishment,“ called police officers “the Man,“ and wouldn’t think twice about seeing Blanchett floating in the air, her leg tied to a string, like a human kite. It’s about as close to a biopic as Fur was to the life of Diane Arbus. Blanchett here plays “Jude,“ one of multiple incarnations of the Bob Dylan character, her time bubble being the poet-rocker’s much-maligned move to “electric“ in the mid ’60s from acoustic protest songs. It’s a lot of fun watching “the Queen“ being hit on by girl groupies, clutching a cigarette in every scene, and hitting the stage with cocksure, rock-star force. And it’s a great movie to look at (no surprise, from the director of Far From Heaven and Safe). Each freeze-frame could be seen as a work of art.

The Golden Age takes a darker, more psychosexual turn from Elizabeth, exhibiting the internal difficulties and not-so-cloaked vulnerabilities of being the Virgin Queen, getting on in her years, while taking wartime action (think body armor and a white steed) to defend her throne and slap herself on the map as one of the world’s most ingenious and respected leaders through 45 years of rule. And the film indelibly transforms Clive Owen into the swashbuckling leading man he’s always been, portraying the mercenary-turned-nobleman Sir Walter Raleigh, who helped to colonize North America with his roguish crew. Both films are worth seeing, and will muster Blanchett’s name again for further Hollywood and Foreign Press accolades.

And yet, through all the fame and awards, according to director Shekhar Kapur, Blanchett remains a real person. “There are two ways to get attention,“ he says. “Go to the freak show, go to jail. And the other way is for you to give distance from it all. It shows how Cate has chosen to conduct her life. We voyeur into Paris Hilton’s life. We aspire to be the kind of person that Cate is.“

Says Kapur, “The moment the makeup is off and the shot is done, she becomes this normal, wonderful person you’d like to have as a friend’ best friend. She’s not affected. She’s not become a “star’ yet. She can suddenly fall back into being this Aussie girl with high intellect, be open, inquisitive’just a normal person to have fun with. Hopefully, with her performance in The Golden Age, the audience will take a look and see their own selves.“ And, Kapur hopes, the audience won’t feel a need to see the film purely as an extension of Elizabeth. “At the Melbourne International Film Festival, I was asked how did I direct the second film similarly to the first,“ he says. “And this is true: I had forgotten the first film. My mind blanked out when I was asked how I approached it. I approached [The Golden Age] with complete freshness.“

Now at 38’with piercing blue eyes that make Liz Taylor’s seem ridiculously obvious, skin that defines the word “luminescent,“ and an angular body that doesn’t speak of celebrity eating disorder’the environmentalist and mother of two young boys (Dashiell and Roman) makes her home again in Australia, with a vacation retreat in Hawaii. As she and her husband prepare to become co-artistic directors of the Sydney Theatre Company, Blanchett is smack dab in the middle of her next double-top-secret project, the long-awaited thrill ride Indiana Jones IV. It is one of the few areas of discussion for which she takes an oath of silence, for fear of Steven Spielberg setting her to a great white shark. STEVE GARBARINO: Do you think that people somehow believe’due to certain formidable and intense roles’that you don’t laugh, aren’t funny, and are a very serious young lady?

CATE BLANCHETT: Yes? No? Probably? Maybe? Tant pis. SG: At least in America, do you think we have become more shallow, form over function, style over substance, celebrity over real talent?

CB: The external shape of an idea, of a form, can often be the way in but if you’re not using the externals to get to something else dare I say deeper’then yes, the conversation quickly turns tabloid.

SG: Why do you think culture seems obsessed by tabloid fodder these days? That so many people are reading Star and US Weekly, and not The Economist, The Atlantic and the like? Why do we go through these phases in which we’re so intrigued by every celebrity’s mishap, shoe size, favorite designer? What’s wrong here? You said that you thought perhaps we as a culture might be “depressed.“

CB: Speaking of tabloid! Well, what were all of Weegee’s crime-scene photos about? And Kennedy’s death coverage? Fascination with grim reality, I suppose. The tabloids now feed this same fascination. However, the tabloid images that we are currently exposed to are so minor, trivial, personal, and staged. If 25 paparazzi are following a 20- year-old girl in a car at 120 mph, then some theatrics or accident will eventually occur. There is an inherent falsehood to the whole exchange that we take for media “reality.“ SG: Is it enough to just be an actress, or does one have to put their best Manolos forward as much as possible and feed the entertainment world with juicy bits, and designer shout-outs? CB: I love what I do. The acting is what I do. The pomp and ceremony of the rest of it is an enjoyable by-product. I partake in as much of this by-product as allows me to remain sane. Silence is often golden, non? It would more than likely be my Roger Vivier’clad foot forward at any rate, my dear. SG: Digressing, can you put to words some defining element about being Australian that makes so many of your country’s actors so damned good? Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Nicole Kidman, and Aussie-by-proximity Naomi Watts, among others.

CB: Curiosity. And, maybe on a deep level, having to prove ourselves to ourselves.

SG: Why do you think that American actors are put through the ringer when they take on a British or European accent, but when Australians and English do “American,“ they’re mostly treated kindly by the critics? Are we joshed and mocked a bit over yonder?

CB: You sound wounded, Steve! One can’t generalize. Many Americans do brilliant vocal gymnastics. Meryl, anyone? An accent is most successful, I think, when it’s not tacked on and is an organic extension of the way a character breathes, the way she or he thinks. SG: You said in an interview that you are “always running away from acting.“ Can you explain better? And, cliche here, if you were not an actress, what would you like to be?

CB: Something useful. Garbage collector? Garbage is a big problem, man!

SG: Did your motivations into becoming an actress have anything whatsoever to do with a need for attention, as it seems to be the case with so many of our current young American actors?

CB: Honey, we all need to be loved. Maybe, Dr. Freud, my accidental life as an actress came about through the need to conquer fear? SG: America’s best actors, such as De Niro, Sean Penn, Nicholson, and music artists like Bob Dylan, are less than thrilled when talking about their “craft,“ or how they do it. You said you shared that with Dylan. The song says what it does’like a painting, it’s subject to interpretation. Is this a stupid question?

CB: I don’t know that I would ever deign to say I share anything with Bob Dylan. However, I understand the sentiment behind what he has said. I’m a wallflower, but if someone asks me to dance, I’ll dance, because I love to dance. Not a stupid question at all. Wanna dance?

SG: Does the sense of reserve you have help keep fans at a distance to some degree? Does it help you to not have people running up to you in grocery stores and asking for your autograph and the like?

CB: Does it help me? If they are running up with the price check on the can of organic lima beans I’m holding, then that is very, very helpful. SG: Do you try to keep your husband [Andrew Upton] out of the hubbub, or is he accustomed to it?

CB: Andrew is 100 percent his own man. I don’t keep him from a thing.

SG: Is it possible to not become self-absorbed as an actress? All the attention and fawning thrown upon one, I mean. How does one remain humble and grounded?

CB: I don’t think I have a sense of entitlement. One day it’s me, the next day it’s someone else. It’s possible to be a self-absorbed insurance salesperson. It’s down to one’s outlook, one’s upbringing.

SG: I don’t suppose your upbringing made you think you’d ever be playing Bob Dylan in a film? Or going up against fine actors, also playing incarnations of Dylan, in the same film? I mean, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, and Christian Bale are all pretty fantastic in I’m Not There, too.

CB: Let me just say this. There was a sock down my Y-fronts.

SG: You have an unconventional beauty, almost androgynous at times. Did you attract both boys and girls growing up?

CB: I’ve always loved a well-cut suit. I was tall. I played all the boy parts at school. Androgyny can be a useful thing.

SG: The real Elizabeth, you brought up, had to maintain appearances at all times so that her following and potential suitors would continue to find her attractive, as she was the Virgin Queen. How much of your job means having to do that as well?

CB: I’m happily married and deeply in love.

SG: Should actors take on causes? They’re often made fun of when they do. Like, who are you, an actor, to be telling us that Bush should be impeached, that the glaciers are melting? CB: It is very complicated. People have lost a lot of faith in the current so-called democratic process. A media platform is afforded people in the public eye. Better that they use this leverage to sell records? Or perhaps highlight the problems in Darfur? SG: Does the average Australian citizen give a hoot about who wins the Oscars? Do they keep up on celebrity gossip, or think it’s beneath them?

CB: We also have running water and telephones.

SG: Back on the costumes, which look did you prefer: that as Elizabeth or the Dylan character?

CB: Very different. John [Dunn, the costumer for I’m Not There] was reinventing. Alexandra Byrne was inventing. Alex is a neo-Edith Head and mind-bogglingly talented. She has a razor-sharp eye matched only by her wit. She is wonderful to talk to and collaborate with. I love costume, the entire process of realizing it. The workroom is a place I can easily get lost in; you’ll find me in a corner, ferreting through a box of antique Chinese head combs or lace Alex was using that had been made by the tsunami survivors.

SG: And your favorite of the two?

CB: One hand tied behind my back, I’d say it was the whole armored costume [in the battle scene in The Golden Age]. The underpinnings themselves were a glory. We shot them for Italian Vogue.

SG: Which director you have worked with, from Martin Scorsese to Peter Jackson, are you most aligned with? What do you hope for from a director when you’re hitting the set for the first time?

CB: If you can communicate with them, then that’s a great start. Sometimes that takes time. Sometimes it happens only when you are shooting. Sometimes it’s silent communication. I really respect people who have the courage to say, “I don’t know, let’s find out,“ rather than bluffing. But, hell, we all do our fair share of bluffing.

SG: You’ve played Katharine Hepburn’and won the Oscar for it’in Scorsese’s The Aviator. And, of course, Elizabeth, twice. And now, Bob Dylan. How do you avoid simply mimicking a famous character?

CB: Scorsese liberated me from the get-go. He screened films, many Hepburn films, of course, but also ones in which he was attracted to the performance style. For example, His Girl Friday, in which the rapid-shot dialogue was thrilling. He was after this energy in my first entrance in the film as Hepburn, whose persona was shocking at the time. He wanted me to pin Howard Hughes [played by Leonardo DiCaprio] to the back wall with the force of Hepburn’s athletic spirit. He screened Bringing Up Baby for the family scene. It was as much about style, energy, and delivery as it was about being “Hepburn.“ It was also in color, which is dislocating for an audience, as they are used to receiving a young Hepburn in black and white.

SG: Were you yourself pleased with the outcome?

CB: It depends on who you speak to as to if I succeeded or not’which is to be expected. As you say, there is a sense of ownership of certain actors and actresses by fans, and Katharine Hepburn has a legion of owners. I think you just have to brace yourself and run the gauntlet.

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