There isn’t a better time to be in New York City than a few days before Christmas, but it’s safe to say that Cate Blanchett didn’t have a chance to skate at Rockefeller Center, light candles at St. Patrick’s Cathedral or shop the famous uptown department stores, despite being based at the Regency on Park Avenue, where she’d been holding court for reporters all day by the time I arrived.

Mine would be Ms. Blanchett’s second-to-last interview of a very long day in a string of very long days for the Oscar-winning actress. A journalist likes to have a leisurely, thoughtful conversation with a subject who’s mentally fresh, but that’s pretty much best case scenario. Hollywood publicists have a habit of wedging too many interviews into too few square hours of patience, and our sit-down was scheduled for a time when even the most accommodating interviewee could be forgiven if the edges of her charm should begin to fray. The night I arrived at the Regency marked the end of Blanchett’s whirlwind U.S. press tour, which just that day featured roundtable interviews until mid-afternoon and then one-on-ones well into the evening. Despite Blanchett’s gracious reputation, I didn’t know what to expect…

It’s been an incredible couple of years for this hardworking, married mother of two. Many actors exhale a bit when they win the Academy Award and have little dips in their career trajectories immediately afterward. Not Blanchett. Since she was presented with the gold statuette for her channeling of Katharine Hepburn in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator in 2005, the willowy Australian blonde has been in constant demand. Even though you don’t have to tell her about the risk of overexposure, it seems that, at least for now, she’s trying to oblige every interesting moviemaker who wants to work with her badly enough. With Alejandro González Iñárritu’s critically-acclaimed Babel still in theaters (which she stars in opposite Brad Pitt) and Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German just opening (which she stars in opposite George Clooney), Blanchett was in New York to promote Richard Eyre’s Notes on a Scandal, the second of her four high-profile movies to play the big screen in 2007.

First up is Soderbergh’s noirish homage to 1940s movies in which she plays a complicated, war-damaged femme fatale whose virtue suffers collateral damage when the bombs hit Berlin. Next she is a complicated schoolteacher whose life unravels when she can’t resist a steamy affair with a 15-year-old student in Notes on a Scandal. The film, which co-stars the always incredible Judi Dench, finished shooting on a Friday; on Monday, Blanchett was at work on the set of The Good German, prepared to hit the ground running because she’d learned her lines at night, after shooting her Scandal scenes all day. When that film wrapped she couldn’t resist taking on just one more “once-in-a-lifetime” role—portraying the complicated Bob Dylan (no, that’s not a misprint) in Todd HaynesI’m Not There. Later in 2007 she reprises her role as the complicated Queen Elizabeth in Shekhar Kapur’s The Golden Age, opposite Clive Owen, and has signed on for David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (again opposite Pitt), slated for a 2008 release. It’s safe to say that her character, Daisy, will be… complicated.

From the preponderance of evidence, Cate Blanchett is one driven actor. Tonight, after these interviews conclude, she will fly to London to do more press before finally taking the long journey back home to Sydney, the other end of the world and the other end of her perpetually burning candle, where she would no doubt collapse on a couch for a week or so if not for those two previously mentioned young kids.

When they usher me into her suite and she rises to extend her hand it occurs to me that very few actors look better in person than they do on screen, but Cate Blanchett is one of them. It’s not that the camera doesn’t love her, but she has an unconventional—complicated—beauty that lends itself more to certain cinematographers, certain lenses and certain lighting set-ups than others. No such distinction needs to be made in real life. She’s long of leg, completely relaxed, utterly elegant and disarmingly attractive. She smiles, shakes my hand and slumps casually, almost submissively, onto the couch, an expert at reading people and applying the friendly blowtorch of her personality to the ice.

I have a successful actor friend who likes to talk about his early days in the business, when he couldn’t land a plum role no matter how hard he tried. He got a few of the roles he could take or leave, but never the great ones—the ones he really coveted that could take him places. He agonized about what he was doing wrong for a long time and then, after a particularly painful audition, it dawned on him: The secret was not about what he did or didn’t do, it was about what he wanted. He finally figured out that projecting beyond the moment was disastrous; he needed to concentrate on the role, not what it might lead to. Basically, he couldn’t invest too much of himself before he got the part; he couldn’t want it too much.

What does any of this have to do with Cate Blanchett? Her success comes in part from knowing all of the above from day one. Consciously or not, she has always been in on the secret—that “directors can smell desperation,” as she puts it. So she never breaks a sweat. Or, if she ever does, you and I are certainly not going to be the ones to see it.

Timothy Rhys, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): You’re so relaxed and poised.

Cate Blanchett (CB): Well, I don’t know about that.

MM: So I’ve been reading a lot of old interviews with you.

CB: They’re all lies.

MM: Can’t be—you say some of the same things…

CB: Yeah, well, I think that’s a product of syndication.

MM: Okay, so these three movies being released on the heels of one another—Babel, Notes on a Scandal, The Good German… You’ve had this happen at least once before.

CB: Have I?

MM: Most recently with Heaven, The Lord of the Rings and Veronica Guerin

CB: But I think Miramax buried Heaven, because it came out right after 9/11.

MM: I guess I was lucky to have seen it in a theater.

CB: It was out for about a week.

MM: So is this coincidental, or do you try to set your life up like this because you have kids? In other words, do you kind of consciously sprint through work so that you have time off? I’m just curious about how you so expertly seem to juggle your personal and professional lives.

CB: I wish it were that organized. No, I made Babel, which was three weeks; I succumbed to Alejandro’s flattery. But it was an extraordinary project and you didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to see that. He’s a master director, and the fact that this was a combination of a loose trilogy of films, the other two of which I thought were also extraordinary, it was something I really wanted to be a part of and in my small way help facilitate.
In terms of Notes on a Scandal and The Good German, roles like that just don’t come up very often. At first it looked like the two projects could work out because Soderbergh was going really quickly on to Shane and needed to go at the end of the year, but he pushed back and Richard Eyre pushed forward. What it meant for me was literally leaving the Notes on a Scandal set on a Friday in North London and beginning work on Monday on The Good German. That was not the most satisfying adrenaline rush… I was preparing for The Good German at night. It was like doing night school after the kids had gone to bed and after shooting all day on Notes on a Scandal. But the mise en scenés of the two films were polar opposites—the performance styles were polar opposites. One was intensely sort of modern and current (Notes on a Scandal) and the other was drawing on a much more outward, pre-Method performance style of the ’40s. So I was hopefully absorbing through osmosis that style by watching Ingrid Bergman. I watched Notorious many, many times, and Garbo and Dietrich and Hedy Lamarr and Hildegard Knef…

MM: Do you do that on purpose? Do you take projects that are completely different from each other and juxtapose those? From the work you choose, you’re obviously always looking for a challenge.

CB: If it doesn’t seem impossible then I don’t tend to gravitate toward it. Which means that by your own personal yardstick you’re constantly failing. But I guess it’s that desire to keep getting better that keeps one going.

I know I’m fortunate. I’m not sure if it’s the way I entered the film industry, but I’ve been asked by directors to do very different things. And once a director has asked you to do that then you’re crazy not to give it your best shot. This year alone I’ve played Hedda Gabler and Bob Dylan! (laughs)

Blanchett goes electric in I’m Not There

MM: Those are pretty crazy bookends. Tell me about playing Dylan.

CB: Yeah, well it’s pretty Brechtian in that I’m a woman. It’s much more than a biopic, it’s more of a riff on an elusive identity—a musical shape-shifter and somebody I’m completely enamored with in music. He’s been an enormous influence. He’s studied in American high schools—in poetry classes, you know—but call him a poet and he’ll dodge that label. Where I play him is interfaced with the press, and he’s kind of claiming the right to not define himself, which I found hilarious and quite inspiring. I play him when he went electric on the tour in ’66, which is, visually, his most iconic period. It’s the hair, the suit, the electric guitars…

MM: Hard to imagine now that when he first went electric he was called a sell-out and got major grief from his fans.

CB: I’d say so. What was great is that Jeff Rosen, his manager, was completely behind the project, so that meant the snippets of press conferences that you get in the great Scorsese documentary No Direction Home were available to me in their entirety, because Jeff had them on tape and gave them to me—which was fantastic. I mean, I wasn’t particularly interested in reading people’s analyses or accounts of his music—I thought that’s what the film was trying to escape, so it seemed a bit pointless. I mostly just listened to him and watched him and then kind of ran with this crazy kind of Felliniesque style. My section was all shot in black and white, and it was so individually and uniquely wrought by Todd. It was all in Todd’s head—a complete directorial vision.

MM: Todd’s a great director. You’ve had the good fortune to work with some of the most amazing directors in the world— Scorsese, Soderbergh, Jarmusch…

CB: I’m lucky, huh?

MM: Yes, it must be all luck! (laughs) As this is for MovieMaker, I think our readers would be interested to know what the qualities are that you think embody a director whom an actor would love to work with? Actors seem to have disparate opinions about this. Some say they want a director who’s a strong visionary—an authoritarian—and some want a director in the mold of a William Wyler, who was rumored to just say “do it.”

CB: It’s chemistry, I think, in the end. They need to be a good reader of people. They need to know when to step in, when to hold back, when to be verbose, when to stop talking, when to be firm, when to be soft and when to say “Just pick up the fucking glass and move over there.” (laughs)

MM: That’s what Fellini would say, right? He saw actors as puppets.

CB: But if Fellini tells you to pick up the glass, you just do it I would imagine.

MM: He had that gravitas of personality.

CB: Yeah, he knew what he was doing. And that’s what I mean about chemistry. Some people will ask you to pick up the glass and you think “Why?” And you can’t explain it.

MM: So you’re talking about respect.

CB: Respect and trust. You can’t demand respect, but you can command respect. I think some people have that and some people don’t. You can definitely learn it. People keep saying that Ang Lee is very quiet and it’s difficult to get any sort of verbal direction from him at all. I mean, there’s a shape-shifter. But you look at his films and they’re utterly exquisite. You can tell pretty quickly if someone knows what they’re doing.

MM: So, has it ever been your experience that your preconceived notions of who a director was were completely changed when you started working with him?

CB: No, because I think the bravest thing one can do as an actor is to come in with a few options and remain open and not get paranoid. Because I think when you’re working with people like Jarmusch or Scorsese or Todd Haynes, who had such a particular vision, or Soderbergh, who also had a unique vision with The Good German, you think ‘God, am I doing it right? Am I inhabiting their vision?’ And if they don’t say anything, you can become quite paranoid. But say, with The Good German, I walked onto the set on a Monday and thought, ‘Well, I’ll just do it, and if he doesn’t like it he’ll say so.’ I did one take and he said, “Okay, let’s move on.” And I said ‘Uh, can we do just one more?’ And he said “Sure.” So I had to trust that he was happy with what I was doing, because Soderbergh—clearly he knows what he wants.

MM: You’ve directed in the theater. Do you have any desire to do more of that yourself?

CB: I just directed a play with my husband—a double-bill. He did a one-act Mamet called “Reunion” and I did a one-act Pinter called “A Kind of Alaska,” for which Judi [Dench] had actually originated the central role. Directing was very liberating—I was utterly relieved that I didn’t have to get up there and do, I could just facilitate and observe… Next year I’m directing a fantastic work by a new writer named David Harrower called “Blackbird.”

MM: How do you go about finding a character, as you did with Katharine Hepburn?

CB: Where do you start? Generally with an incredible amount of panic! I’m always saying to my husband ‘Help me—please help me! Tell me, what is my process?’ And he says “Don’t worry about it. You’ve got one. Just get on with it.” Coming out of the theater, I think that my first place is probably the text. But I’m also quite visually literate—an image can often spark something. Sometimes it’s just a conversation with a make-up artist. Sometimes it’s the dialogue that happens after an incidental word that the cinematographer says when you’re passing in the corridor. You never know what the key is, and I think that’s why actors often become superstitious.

MM: Are you superstitious?

CB: Me? Bill [Nighy, her Scandal co-star] is incredibly superstitious. I think I must be, in the sense that I know that there’s a sort of magical quality to performance of any type or style, be it dance or music or acting. Because you don’t know what’s going to set something alight, and a portion of that has to remain hidden from yourself. The most tricky thing is how you remain hidden from yourself as an actor, but yet self-aware enough to use your technique—and also not to be a fuck-off as a human being. It’s about how to have a healthy life… while maybe being desperately unhealthy in your work!

MM: Well said. From appearances, you seem to be extremely healthy in your life. Does that come from not living in America? (laughs) You’ve had a stable marriage of what, nine years? Could you have done that living in Hollywood?

CB: (laughing) God… I attribute a lot of my sanity to prioritizing my marriage.

MM: But not to geography?

CB: My father was American, so it’s not that. I think it’s that I don’t take it all too seriously. And I don’t have a sense of entitlement.

MM: Who are some of your influences?

CB: My husband… Robyn Nevin, who runs the Sydney Theatre Company, Lindy Davies, Neil Armfield, Ingmar Bergman, Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall, Liv Ullman, Jane Fonda.

MM: You’ve worked with several people more than once. Who are you dying to work with again?

CB: I hope to work with Steven [Soderbergh] again, for one. I’d actually love to work with him in the theater.

MM: Speaking of theater, you just became the co-artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company.

CB: Well, not yet. It’s been announced, but we’re taking over in 2008 and we’ll caretake the season there and then our first program season solo will be 2009. So it’s great—we’ve got a year to be amongst the daily machinations of the company, so the “handoff” will be as smooth as possible. The internal engine of the company is really well oiled and is functioning really well.

MM: And you’ve performed there before, right?

CB: My first job was there, yeah.

MM: So with regard to your professional path, do you sometimes feel like this kind of success might not go on forever—that you could be at the apex of your career?

CB: God, I hope not.

MM: It’s a question, though, that I’d be surprised if you haven’t considered. You’ve driven yourself quite hard for a while now… and one of the films you have coming out later this year is called The Golden Age, which seems apropos. You’ve got all these high-profile movies coming out, you’ve worked with some of the greatest actors and directors in the world and you’ve made comments about how actresses in their late thirties typically don’t have as many choice roles coming their way… You’re still gorgeous, but it’s possible that these incredible opportunities may not come to you as often in your forties. Looking at where you are now, do you—

CB: (laughs) —I suppose you’ll have to ask me when I get there!

MM: But do you even care, is my question. Because that seems to be a theme in things I’ve read about you—you seem to have this great attitude where you don’t try too hard and don’t want it too much, and it comes to you anyway. So has that changed? Have you started to become accustomed to this “life at the top?”

CB: I don’t think so. I’ve always believed that directors can smell desperation better than anyone.

MM: And you don’t ever seem to have that odor about you.

CB: Audiences can smell it, too. With respect to Notes on a Scandal, I think the audience can sniff when they’re being directed toward the sentimental… So yeah, I never had any particular desire to become an actor as a child. I figured I’d give it a go for a while, but I don’t think my temperament is suited to not being busy. And there are a lot of extraordinarily talented actors who aren’t working. I just knew that I wouldn’t be very healthy if I wasn’t. I figured I’d give it a few years… Fortunately for me, I kept working.

MM: You’re a Taurus, right?

CB: Yes. What does that mean?

MM: Well, they say it typically means you’re an extremely high-energy person, sometimes to your own detriment, very demanding of yourself; you take a lot of pride in doing well—and you don’t like to be wrong.

CB: (laughs) Is that right?

MM: So you have two boys, ages five and two, and your husband (Andrew Upton) is a screenwriter and one of the more famous playwrights in the world. Does his profession mean that he understands a little better than some husbands might when you’re on location or have to go to these crazy press junkets?

CB: Yes. We’re all rather jetlagged at the moment… We haven’t really had long enough to adjust, arriving from Sydney the night before last. But it’s not usual. I couldn’t imagine replicating another year like I had with Babel, The Good German and Notes on a Scandal. I mean, one prays for roles like that—but they just don’t come along. And more importantly, projects like that don’t come along. Because you can get an extraordinary role—you can be offered Hamlet—but unless the world around Hamlet makes sense, then the play doesn’t take off. So it’s not just the role that defines whether one wants to be part of a project, because this work is so collaborative.

MM: So it’s not just about the character, it’s not the artist, it’s a whole-is-greater-than-the sum-of-its-parts kind of thing for you.

CB: Exactly.

MM: Have you ever thought about what role you wouldn’t succeed in? What role you wouldn’t want to take on? You challenge yourself all the time, but what do you think would be so foreign to you that you really wouldn’t want to do it?

CB: Hmmm… I wouldn’t gravitate toward something that involved an enormous amount of gratuitous sex and violence.

MM: You’re obviously not opposed to violence if it’s germane to the story.

CB: Well, look at Babel.

MM: So you’re not opposed to doing nudity, sex or violence if it’s part of the story and as long as it’s not gratuitous.

CB: Yeah, it needs to serve the story directly. And I have to tell you, as an actor I’m sort of terrified of all this digital technology, because I think it’s making the art of acting obsolete. Yet I’m involved in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which includes an enormous amount of digital technology. I’m part of the 21st-century and I’m fascinated by it. So you can’t ever say no to anything because there’s an “Oh, fuck it” quality to how one chooses one’s projects.

You have to have a healthy lack of consequence as an artist, because you’re not running a corporation, you’re involved in a creative endeavor and you cannot project the outcome of that. You have to leap in with faith and good humor and trust your instincts. And sometimes you’re wrong; sometimes the work isn’t elevated beyond the banal and sometimes it is extraordinary and it doesn’t find an audience and sometimes it’s extraordinary and does find an audience. And sometimes the banal is celebrated and it’s incredibly disappointing. And sometimes the audience likes it and you’re disappointed in what you did yourself… It’s a constant conundrum, why something works and why it doesn’t work.

MM: Thank you, Cate.

CB: Not at all. It was a real pleasure. MM

Top image courtesy of Fox Searchlight. I’m Not There still courtesy of The Weinstein Company.