Fortunately for James Lipton, Cate Blanchett has a subtle sense of humor.
After shrewdly dodging Lipton’s endless torrent of personal questions and professional fawning during a taping of Inside the Actors Studio several years ago, she was asked, like most of Lipton’s guests, to name her favorite word. “Today?” she asked, a cheeky look flickering across her face. “The word ‘circumnavigate’ is quite a beautiful word.” At this the audience of acting students erupted in laughter, delighted by Blanchett’s dead-on appraisal of her own performance.
That Blanchett is allergic to talking about herself becomes even more apparent once you spend time in her company. To the Australian actress, self-promotion is about as cringe inducing as a Tide jingle, and her ability to deflect praise is nothing short of impressive. Ask about her reputation for being the most prepared person on a film set, and she’ll reply, “Well, I’m about to dispense with that myth!”—a reference to the following day, when she’s to begin shooting a Joe Wright–directed film called Hanna, in which she plays an intelligence operative. “I’m always winging it,” she adds. But then 10 minutes later, she’s huddled over a computer with her assistant, composing a thoughtful e-mail to Wright about changing several of her lines to better suit the story.
Or tell Blanchett how much you loved her performance in Notes on a Scandal. “Yes, Judi Dench is incredible,” she’ll respond in a voice that’s made from the same bucket of cream as her skin. Perhaps a less directly flattering route will be more fruitful, so you ask her how she approached the role, what her process was. But here her circumnavigation grows only more elaborate. “Well, Zoë Heller’s book, it’s a huge page-turner,” she begins. “She writes in a way that’s really intimate. And then Patrick Marber’s script—he’s searing and also savagely funny.” Minutes of this monologue go by before you begin to realize you’re nearer to hearing about the vast talent of the film’s key grip than anything about Blanchett herself.
“Cate is someone who can seem secretive. You don’t know what she’s thinking,” observes Liv Ullmann, who directed Blanchett in A Streetcar Named Desire, produced by the Sydney Theatre Company, which is headed by Blanchett and her husband, playwright Andrew Upton. The play drew glowing reviews throughout its run in Sydney, Washington, D.C., and New York, where it spent three weeks at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and sent New York Times critic Ben Brantley into paroxysms of awe over Blanchett’s Blanche DuBois. Ullmann hopes to one day film the production so that a wider audience can see Blanchett’s face up close. “A thing would just happen in her eyes, in what she was thinking,” Ullmann muses. “In this very private woman, who doesn’t give all her secrets away like a lot of other people, you could see the secret of Blanche.”