Playing Bob Dylan…running Australia’s largest theater company…resuming, almost a decade after the fact, the role that made her a star.… If it doesn’t sound a little impossible, Cate Blanchett is not interested.
On the prettiest beach in Malibu, sprawled atop a sand dune built especially for her W photo shoot, Cate Blanchett is doing that thing she’s known for: shape-shifting in front of the camera. One minute she’s Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity; the next she’s Helena Christensen from that steamy Chris Isaak video. Blink and Bo Derek from 10 might emerge, sans the cornrows, of course. But after six hours of posing, when she steps down from her trailer as none other than herself—a chic wisp in an embroidered black cotton dress and a pair of mod, bauble-bedecked patent-leather sandals—the 38-year-old actress insists that all that morphing was entirely unintentional. “I was compleeeetely zoning out,” she says, her voice a low purr, her accent somewhere between England and Oz. “I mean, I was practically asleep for a while there. God, it was soooo relaxing.”
Basking on the beach for an afternoon, tasked with nothing more than looking pretty, is not something Blanchett gets to do very often, so one has to forgive her for taking peace where she can find it. The woman keeps herself quite busy. In the coming months, for example, she’ll have two films in theaters; finish work on two more; direct a play in Sydney; headline a performance-art festival in New York; and take over, along with her husband, Andrew Upton, the running of the biggest theater company in Australia. She has two sons under six. She’s done 33 films in just over a decade.
The mile-long résumé, to hear Blanchett tell it, is largely a result of her inability to turn down a challenge. “I used to constantly play that Truth, Dare, Kiss or Promise game as a child,” she says, now in a car (a chauffeur-driven Toyota Prius, per her request) crawling along the Pacific Coast Highway to a sushi place in Beverly Hills. “I guess I’ve never outgrown it. If somebody challenges me to do something, I say okay. I say okay very quickly.”
“It’s another crazy idea,” says blanchett of playing bob dylan. “I just strapped those breasts down and went for it.”
Such was the personality quirk that led her to accept a role in Todd Haynes’s hotly anticipated Bob Dylan biopic, I’m Not There. Trippy, impressionistic and not the least bit linear, the movie (out in limited release in November) tells Dylan’s story through seven characters, each representing a different aspect of his musical journey. Richard Gere, for instance, plays Billy, a wizened fugitive in the Old West meant to suggest Dylan’s outlaw phase. Marcus Carl Franklin, a 14-year-old African-American actor, plays Woody, the embodiment of Dylan’s folk-music roots. Blanchett is the only actress in the bunch, and her character—a wild-haired, skinny male folksinger who alienates his fans when he plugs in his guitar—is perhaps the most recognizably Dylan, both narratively and visually. It’s for that reason that Haynes decided to cast a woman in the role. “The radical strangeness of how Dylan looked was something that we had all gotten used to, so the shock value had gone away,” says Haynes. “The best way to reinvigorate that was to do something extra.”
Blanchett was not so easily persuaded that the something extra would work. “The script was verging on impenetrable,” she says. “It’s like an algebraic equation. You think: This makes sense in the mind of the mathematician. I knew that if you assembled it, somehow Bob Dylan would emerge, but only Todd knew how.” But she’d wanted to work with Haynes for years, ever since seeing a bootleg copy of his decidedly offbeat 1987 film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, a retelling of the doomed singer’s life cast with Barbie dolls. (“It was really emotionally honest,” she says, “this Barbie doll barfing into the toilet.…”) And in the end, she couldn’t resist taking on something that seemed vaguely impossible. “It’s another crazy idea,” she says. “I just strapped those breasts down and went for it.”
Haynes became convinced that Blanchett was the right woman for the job while watching her perform in a 2006 production of Hedda Gabler at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “I had imagined the proportions of the big hair and her thinness working, and seeing it right in front of me onstage, I thought, Oh my God, this could be startlingly accurate,” he says. And it is. Blanchett, in a wiry wig and dark glasses, not only looks eerily like the music legend but masters his nervous energy, his scrambling hand gestures, even the halting, poetic cadence of his voice. “She would take her glasses off, and she’d look even more like Dylan,” says Haynes. “There was no hiding. It was really about just revealing something inside Cate. When she’d come back at the end of the day with her normal hair, I swear the crew would look at her and go, ‘Who is that?’ We got so used to this guy.”
Still, despite Blanchett’s transporting performance, it’s unlikely that the masses will storm the multiplex for such an artsy production, one that even Blanchett concedes is “tricky.” Her other fall debut, however, is a completely different story. In October she’ll resume the role of Queen Elizabeth I in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. The film, directed by Shekhar Kapur, is the sequel to Blanchett’s 1998 breakout, Elizabeth, and picks up during the time of the Spanish Armada, when England was engaged in a holy war with Philip II. Geoffrey Rush is back as her majesty’s top adviser, Walsingham, and Clive Owen plays Sir Walter Raleigh, the movie’s swashbuckling hero.
On the surface, returning to a role with which she had so much success seems a natural move. Kapur, for one, says he’s always envisioned the project as a trilogy. But doing a sequel is never without risk. Elizabeth was nominated for seven Oscars (Blanchett lost out to Gwyneth Paltrow for Shakespeare in Love). And there is always a danger in becoming too closely associated with any one role. After the first installment, Blanchett says, she got offered “basically the same story, just with a different character’s name on it again and again and again and again. All period stuff.” It’s understandable, then, that it took her the better part of a decade to come around to the idea of making a follow-up. “When Shekhar mentioned it to me before, I always said no. Why would I want to do that? What else is there to say?” she says. This script, however, which finds the Queen at mid-reign, single and childless, struck a chord. “I started thinking about what supposed ‘middle age’ means and the really modern concern that women have about infertility and the loss of one’s attractiveness.” And the ambitious, diverse slew of roles she’d done in the interim—not to mention the Academy Award for The Aviator and a nomination for Notes on a Scandal—have also provided ample immunity against typecasting. Even so, putting on that white makeup and slipping back into royal finery “was quite surreal and discombobulating at times,” says Blanchett. “It was that strange thing of, is there an echo in the room?”
Kapur’s instruction to Blanchett—and to the rest of the cast—was to forget the first film entirely. “The only way to get out from under the weight of it was to pretend it never happened,” he says. The fact that Blanchett was a very different actress than she was in 1998, a veteran versus an ingenue, he says, helped avoid the specter of pale imitation. “I knew from the first film that Cate was of a very, very high and very challenging intellect,” he says. “But on this movie she was relying more on unknown things. I think that comes a little with age and with having done all these films in between but also because of motherhood. When you become a mother, there is a love that comes that you cannot completely intellectually explain. She’s embraced that not everything in life is completely tied up and completely solved.”
Blanchett agrees that Dashiell, five, and Roman, three—whom she refers to as “these sweet-smelling little dumplings”—have tweaked her technique. “When you see children play, you realize that you have to have the same flow that they do, to be able to move in and out of states,” she says. Both boys were born in England, where Blanchett and Upton, a playwright whom she met on the set of a small Aussie film called Parklands in 1996, settled almost by accident in 1998. “I was doing a play in the West End and Andrew got an agent in London, and we just lumped there really, but never with an intention to stay,” she says. Though the family had a house until recently in Brighton—where they were part of an Aussie expat social scene that included musician Nick Cave and photographer Polly Borland—it becomes clear, as Blanchett whips a pocket-size photo album out of her bag and starts flipping, that Dashiell and Roman have thus far grown up mostly on movie sets. Here’s Roman at two on the set of The Golden Age, his face caked in white Pan-Cake and punctuated by enormous penciled-on eyebrows. Here’s Dash getting a drum lesson from one of the musicians on I’m Not There. “And I just weep every time I see this photo,” says Blanchett, turning to a shot of her eldest, at age four, posing in a knight costume on the Golden Age set. “There’s one shot where I’m sitting on a throne surrounded by knights. And he came in in his Marks & Spencer knight’s outfit and was standing there so proud. Tommy, the first A.D., told him, ‘Dash, you go stand right back there, and you can protect the Queen.’ He stood there, his sword up, and with every take he embellished it.”
It was the children, for the most part, who led Blanchett back to Australia, where the family recently bought a house near Sydney and where Dashiell, who in the past had studied at Montessori nurseries wherever Blanchett happened to be filming, is now enrolled in what she calls “a proper school.” “He’s five now,” she says. “He needs to be settled, and I need to respect that.” And after a decade of peripatetic moviemaking, Blanchett will soon be doing some settling down of her own. In January she and Upton will take over as co–artistic directors of the Sydney Theatre Company—a gig that’s as close to a steady nine-to-five as someone like Blanchett is likely to find. Not that she plans to take it easy. The three-year appointment entails overseeing three stages, a company of 12 actors, a large education arm and more than a dozen productions a year. “It’s hugely demanding and an enormous stretch,” says Blanchett, who’ll direct David Harrower’s West End smash Blackbird for the company in December and hopes to tread the boards herself in the future.
Though it might seem a professional departure to those unfamiliar with her background, stepping onto the stage is actually a return to her roots. After growing up in Melbourne—the daughter of an Australian mother and an American ad executive father who died when Blanchett was just 10—she attended drama school at Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Art and worked quite steadily on the stage for a time, becoming, in 1993, the first person to win Sydney Theatre Critics awards for best newcomer and best actress in the same year. “There were five years there of very solid repertory theater and ensemble work,” says Rush, who, before working with Blanchett on Elizabeth, starred opposite the actress in a 1993 Sydney Theatre Company production of Oleanna. “Once that gets hardwired into you as a young actor, it becomes a talisman that you want to touch base with.”
Blanchett’s deal with the company will allow her to devote about three months annually to outside projects, but her current frenetic pace of three or four movies a year will no longer be an option. “And good-O is what I say to that!” she nearly shouts, explaining that—perhaps because she has such a hard time turning down anything she perceives as a challenge—she looks forward to having some externally imposed limits. “In the past it’s always just been whatever’s come up, and then one thing leads to another. Now I’m going to have to plan things, to say, ‘This is the window I have, and if it fits in, great, and if it doesn’t, oh well.’”
More children are also part of the larger plan. She’d like a couple more, and sooner rather than later. “We’re not going to wait forever,” Blanchett says, downing a rather large vitamin pill before tucking in to a plate of crispy eggplant. “God, I’d love it to be now. I’d love it to be next week.” But before a return to diapers and 3 a.m. feedings, she’ll try to cram in a bit more work. She was just in Hawaii with the kids, filming the fourth installment of Indiana Jones, which she refers to only half jokingly as “the ultrasecret, secret project, the one that cannot be discussed.” And she has two or three more weeks of shooting left on David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, an adaptation of an F. Scott Fitzgerald story, in which she stars opposite Brad Pitt. In October she’ll be in New York working with artist Francesco Vezzoli on his latest project, a faux opening night of a play that will never be launched. The performance will turn the entire rotunda of the Guggenheim into a theater, and Blanchett—a contemporary-art enthusiast who counts Gerhard Richter and Bill Viola as favorites—will deliver a monologue by Pirandello. “I needed somebody who had a very iconic presence but at the same time a very specific acting capability,” says Vezzoli. “And Cate is pretty much the one.”
In advance of all that, however, Blanchett will have a few blessedly domestic weeks in Sydney, where Dash will start the new school year and she and Upton will work on renovating their house. Green before it was hip—she cites Al Gore and David de Rothschild as heroes and believes that leaf blowers “sum up everything that is wrong with the human race”—the couple are trying to make the ecological footprint of the home as small as possible, installing solar panels and even a filtration system that will allow them to drink their own wastewater. She plans to cook a lot—“I actually squeezed the raspberries to make the coloring for Roman’s birthday cake icing,” she says proudly—and read Roald Dahl books to the children before bed. “Believe it or not, I’m pretty good at just doing nothing,” she says. “I’m either sitting very still or running very fast.” And, as if on cue, she’s up from her chair and off into the night. “I’m shooting again tomorrow. Early.”