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.”
None of this is to say that Blanchett, the 41-year-old daughter of a Melbourne teacher and a U.S. Navy officer, is aloof. In person her beauty is more fragile than the strong planes of her face on film suggest, with crinkles appearing around her eyes as she speaks. During lunch on the Berlin set of W’s photo shoot, she distractedly begins scooping up chicken and salad with her hands, then wiping them on her white bathrobe. Later I catch the actress dipping her finger into someone else’s cappuccino and licking off the foam. She is careful with her words rather than withholding, but the caution falls away when talking about life with her three little boys: Dashiell, eight; Roman, six; and Ignatius, two, who goes by Iggy. “Everyone says, ‘Oh, you must have [been trying] to have a girl,’” she says, adding that she’s open to having another child, regardless of gender. “If the next one was a boy, then that’s just our lot! It’s true you do get a bit demented [with three boys].” But, she adds, “the chaos of it is great.”
Chaos is precisely what ensues when the uniformly blond Dash, Roman and Iggy, adorably clad in matching striped shirts and Uggs, show up at the shoot: Christian Louboutins become weapons, costume jewels that are nevertheless pricey become toys, and a mischievous Roman sucks down a bottle of juice in record time before bellowing with glee, “I’m feeling hy-per!” None of the boys seem the least bit fazed by the sight of their heavily made-up mother, her narrow Ichabod Crane frame towering atop terrifyingly tall platform heels and poured into a dramatic Etro kimono. Ullmann recalls that Blanchett often had her sons with her during the Streetcar tour and would tend to them at every break in the play’s action in the cramped backstage of BAM, where Blanchett had volunteered to share a dressing room with two male costars to alleviate space constraints. “Some people would have their kids come once and make a big thing of it, but that’s not her,” says Ullmann. “Actors are dramatic, and they like to make drama of their own lives. Not Cate.” Not even during a performance of Streetcar in Sydney when she was accidentally hit in the head with a prop, an incident that left her a gory mess. “She was very bloody, and we had to stop the show for insurance reasons, but she was laughing,” Ullmann says. “She wanted to keep going, in spite of the blood all over her costume.”
Although she’s most famous for her work alongside Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Russell Crowe, among others—and has nice things to say about them all, of course—Blanchett reserves her most passionate praise for a decidedly non–Us Weekly crowd. “It would have to be Geoffrey Rush,” she says of her collaborator in film (the Elizabeth movies) and onstage (in Oleanna and Hamlet, both before her movie career took off) when asked about the costar who had made the biggest impression on her as an actress. “But also Hugo Weaving. And then the incredible experience with Judi. And it was also amazing to work with Max von Sydow. And John Turturro—”
“Now you’re just dropping names!” says makeup artist Stéphane Marais, who’s applying Blanchett’s eyeliner. “Now I’m dropping names,” the actress agrees playfully.
Her favorite, and most frequent, costar, though, is Upton. Together they are embarking on a second three-year stint as artistic directors of the Sydney Theatre Company, Australia’s most prestigious theater group. “Andrew is the one with the—he wouldn’t say this, but it’s true—he’s the one with the big ideas,” Blanchett says. “I help, uh, enact them.” Again she’s selling herself short: She has directed two productions (Blackbird and a stage adaptation of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking), starred in Streetcar, played both King Richard II and Lady Anne in The War of the Roses, contributed to the company’s educational program and fundraised like mad. William Hurt, who costars with Blanchett in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, out on May 14, remembers the first time he met Blanchett, in the makeup trailer. “She was getting ready to do a scene, so I just quickly said, ‘What do you think if I come down and play Lear for you guys?’” he recalls. “And she didn’t blink—she just started rattling off ideas of who could direct. I thought, This isn’t someone who waits for the rain to fall. She makes it happen.” Hurt has since signed on to play James Tyrone Sr. in the STC’s production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which Upton will direct this summer.
“She challenges, but she’s not aggressive,” Upton says of his wife when asked to describe her as a coworker. “I can tend to be a bit scattergun. She’s quite practical in the end, so I often just fire off, and she’ll sort of pick up the pieces or choose the best bits.” Upton evokes an absentminded professor with a dash of cool (disheveled hair and elbow patches paired with stylish boots), and within minutes of listening to his amiable, literate discourse, you can see why Blanchett fell for him. They have achieved a rare symbiosis in which, creatively and otherwise, they seem to use each other like a second brain. “She would be the first and pretty much the only person I would seriously seek counsel from,” he says. “We’re fairly brutal with each other.”
“We’re really open,” agrees Blanchett, who starred in the STC’s Hedda Gabler under Upton’s direction. “I have friends—she’s an actor-writer married to a director—and she was horrified when we said we were going to work together. She said they don’t talk about work because they don’t want to venture into the territory of being criticized by your partner. But I know what to do with criticism.”
And it’s likely that she’s more critical of herself than Upton could ever be. At one point during our conversation, she announces, “I’m not well read. My husband is well read.” Upton chuckles when her assessment is relayed to him, but he does not dispute it. “She’s got a vast intelligence, so she grips books quite quickly,” he allows before conceding, “though she might not have read a ton of them.”
“My husband keeps me really honest,” Blanchett says. “I remember him saying to me after I made Elizabeth”—her 1998 breakout film, for which she was first nominated for an Academy Award—“‘Sweetheart, you’ve probably got about five years.’ He was preparing me for the time when the work dries up, as it invariably does.”
Upton’s grim prediction perhaps explains why Blanchett made 29 movies in the 10 years following Elizabeth. She has played an eclectic slew of characters, from an Irish journalist in Veronica Guerin to Katharine Hepburn in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (for which she won an Oscar) to the campy Russian villain in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Even when a film fared poorly, Blanchett managed to emerge with new accolades. David Fincher, her director in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, explains why tout Hollywood is so eager to cast her. “It is a blessing to work with someone who is able to respond to changes at a moment’s notice because their random access of the material is constantly humming,” he says. “You don’t find that often with movie stars. In the middle of juggling all the technical things—chin up, chin down, should your head be cocked—you can give her these emotional traffic cones to work within, and she understands innately. I’ve worked with great actors who will say, ‘No, I can’t have that on my mind while I’m doing all the rest of this.’ They’re playing Chinese checkers and she’s playing 3-D chess.”
Perhaps most valuable, Fincher says, is that she inspires the actors around her. “You’re asking the actors to make all these seemingly infinitesimal changes, and they’re thinking you’re a nutcase,” he explains. “But then they watch the crazy director saying ‘I want you to do this little thing’ to Cate, and instead of pulling her hair out, she says, ‘I get it,’ and then she actually does it. And suddenly everyone else is willing to pick fly s--- out of pepper with you.”
Of course, Blanchett maintains that movie acting doesn’t come naturally to her. “Before I made a film, I thought it was easy,” she says. “I thought, They all get so much time, so they can get a perfect moment, and then assemble a series of perfect moments. Then you get on set, and you realize it’s a completely different form of concentration [from theater], because you are used to the grand arc of a story and a film is made so piecemeal. To hold the whole story in your head—I found that kind of impossible and terrifying at first.” She managed to master it obviously, but she grew weary of making back-to-back movies. “It was thrilling for a while, but to maintain that pitch and momentum, I just couldn’t do it,” she says. “I think the height of ridiculousness was when I was playing Elizabeth in The Golden Age while preparing to start shooting I’m Not There. I literally finished filming Elizabethan grandeur on Friday, flew to Montreal and started being Bob Dylan on Monday.”
She is no less of a juggler now, but at least she’s more stationary. Her day job at the STC keeps her in Sydney, except for short stints on the occasional film set—she will film her role in Hanna at breakneck speed in order to fit it into her kids’ three-week school vacation—and last year’s tour of Streetcar. (Discussions of taking the production to Broadway halted, in part so that Blanchett could return to directing the company in Australia.) She sounds relieved to be back in the theater, particularly behind the scenes. “The camera gets sick of looking at you, and you get sick of looking into the lens,” she says. “I’ve seen plenty of me.” Blanchett and Upton have lured some big-screen names Down Under: Steven Soderbergh was recently at the STC to direct Tot Mom, a sort of stage documentary he conjured using transcripts from Nancy Grace to tell the bizarre real-life story of the murder of Florida toddler Caylee Anthony. (While in town, Soderbergh also made a film—tentatively titled The Last Time I Saw Michael Gregg—with the cast of his play that’s supposedly a fictionalized portrait of Blanchett and Upton. At the moment, however, none of the players will talk about it.)
Maybe because she never aimed to become a movie star, Blanchett is the rare actress who does not lament the lack of good film roles for women. “I didn’t go into the industry expecting to be wholly nurtured by it. I thought of it as a bit of an experiment,” she says. Before entering drama school, she’d half expected to become a theater director. “But it didn’t happen, and I didn’t push it.” Now, after helming a few stage productions, she reluctantly admits that she is entertaining the idea of directing a film. “I find the offers to do it, um, curious,” she says slowly, obliquely adding that she has “been approached” with opportunities. “But that’s the thing about working with Scorsese and David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh: Their understanding of the technical aspects of it is mind-boggling. It is a different language, and I understand a few strands of it, but I don’t know if I understand the whole possibility. So you think, Who am I to do this? I honestly hadn’t thought about directing film until somebody approached me about it, but now it’s like, Oh, that’s interesting. It sounds like the thinking of a dilettante, doesn’t it?” she adds, leaving no conversation untouched by a dose of self-deprecation.
Ullmann, who knows something about transitioning from screen legend to director, is confident Blanchett will succeed because, she says, “she understands people. When you saw Blanche on the stage, you also saw things there that Cate knows about life, that are a part of Cate that we don’t see, things that she fears or that she’s happy with.” Ullmann objects to the common tendency to label Blanchett a “chameleon.” “I don’t think she changes colors,” she says. “She’s not good at mimicking. She’s good because her soul is there.”
A week after our meeting in Berlin, Blanchett is reminiscing on the phone about the year of shoestring-budget traveling she did after her first year at university. There are tales of being penniless in Istanbul and of fraternizing with sketchy characters in Egypt. “I’d love to see if the Oxford Hotel in Cairo is still around—some pretty dodgy things were going on there!” she says, laughing loudly. “There was one guy there who’d been in bed for three years just waiting for a package to arrive from Pakistan.” Her giggling becomes uncontrollable. “I don’t know if the package ever came! He had to have gotten bedsores!”
It’s fun to picture Blanchett as a 19-year-old backpacker. I recall a moment during our earlier meeting when she told me that she’s very silly in private but pulls it together in public because, she said, that’s what being an adult means. “Don’t you find that people are always diametrically opposed to what you think they’d be when you get to know them?” she had asked.
I ask her now whether she thinks there’s a public perception of her that is somehow inaccurate. “I’m so misunderstood!” she shrieks dramatically, sounding, for the first time in our conversation, slightly silly. “I’m not focused on what other people think of me,” she continues, her voice again silky and measured. “Some people get you and some people don’t, and to spend your life trying to make people understand how deep and complex and varied you are—I think that way lies madness.”