Taking a "break" from shooting Kenneth Branagh's "Cinderella" in London, Cate Blanchett walked on the stage of Alice Tully Hall Wednesday night dripping in Hollywood glamor (immediately after an exclusive invite-only dinner in her honor) and sat down with NYFF programming director Kent Jones as part of the festival's Gala tribute to her career. As the discussion got underway, the stunning and humorously self-effacing Blanchett spoke about her experiences working with highly esteemed directors (Allen, Malick, Scorsese ...), her first paying acting gig (for five Egyptian pounds and free falafel—"I only have one anecdote and that was it") and her children's hopes that someday she will be in a blockbuster ("The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, "Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull"?).
Considering her reputation as one of the most talented and adventurous actresses of the past decade or so (instated after jaw-dropping performances in "Elizabeth," "The Aviator," "Notes on a Scandal," and so many more, which were highlighted in an introductory reel), it's easy to take Blanchett's status for granted and forget that above being a movie star, she is an actress who started, she said, "never having expected a film career at all and being very grateful and happy working in the theater."
In a Q&A marked by discussions of her work with auteurs, Jones started with a reference to Orson Welles ("that's a good place to start" - Blanchett) and how he said there was no difference between acting in movies and theater, asking the Aussie actress her opinion on the matter. Blanchett answered, "I would agree, to a certain extent," and explained, "The one primary difference is that you have to relocate your sense of audience. Because obviously tonight, I know exactly how many seats are empty. There are about 37 empty seats. But in film, you never have that information. You don't always know whether people have connected with what you've done in the cinema. So in the end, you're performing for the director and their gaze and for the gaze of the crew." If you had to find a link between all of her performances, it would be this focus on the director and the director's vision.
Why did she sign on for "The Lord of the Rings"? "For Peter Jackson." Why did she play Katharine Hepburn in "The Aviator"? "Scorsese's asking you to do something, so of course you say yes." How did she end up playing versions of herself and her "cousin" in "Coffee and Cigarettes"? Jim Jarmusch "heard that I had a blonde wig and a dark wig and he thought I'd come cheap." Although the last was in jest, you get the picture. She is a director's actress, which has culminated in her latest role of Jasmine in Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine." (Check out our "Blue Jasmine" review here.)
On working with Allen, Blanchett said that her experience on "Blue Jasmine" did not match up with his reputation as a one-take director. For one particularly trying scene, Allen shot so many takes that 'Jasmine' co-star Alec Baldwin even referred to it at the tribute dinner, saying that Allen had "kind of run Cate out a bit" to get her "at her wit's end." At the Q&A, Blanchett clarified that the intensity was due to Allen's very strong personal investment in the film and also specified that he "deeply, deeply cared about going as deep as we possibly can into each scene." She went on to admit, after being asked point blank, that if she had a gun to her head, 'Jasmine' would be her favorite performance. The warm feeling appears to be mutual as Allen not only participated in the tribute with a prerecorded message of well wishes ("I wish I could be there with you, but I find it impossible to sit
through two hours of relentless adulation, especially for somebody else."), but also said that he hoped that they could work together again. Taken aback by the video clip, Blanchett quipped, "Was that for Kate Winslet? How did you get him to do that? Did you promise to finance his next film?"
In spite of being lauded as one of the greatest actresses working today and having Allen call her "a hero" at a gala event in her honor, Blanchett still sees herself merely as a very lucky actress. Even now, she admitted that she finds it "excruciating" to watch herself onscreen. Taking the craft seriously, but not herself, she shared that "the way [Peter Jackson] talked about Mordor, we [on set] thought it really exists and we were really scared," with the same endearing earnestness that she lamented, "Jim [Jarmusch] and very few others now are able to make films that way, with such kind
of out-there ideas and done with such robustness and vigor and
Having worked with a long list of very different directors, she had nothing but positive things to say. She credited Scorsese with the best (and most liberating) directing advice ("make it your own"). She dubbed David Fincher "a master"—"He's so ahead of technology that technology is always in service to him as a filmmaker. Not only is he a lexicon for other filmmakers, but he's always stretching boundaries." She declared that she "would do anything" for Todd Haynes after watching his student film, "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story" ("You've got this Barbie doll
running to the bathroom toilet and you're thinking 'Don't go there!' If he can do that with Barbie dolls, imagine what he could with
actors") and she has indeed, having played Bob Dylan for Haynes' Dylan biopic "I'm Not There" and working with him again in "Carol," based on the Patricia Highsmith lesbian romance novel. That being said, her initial knee-jerk reaction when Haynes called her up for "I'm Not There" was telling him that he was insane.
As for playing the legendary folk singer, she jokingly said the eyebrows were key. More seriously, she reflected on being a woman cast in the role of a male icon—"I think because as a woman I was asked to inhabit that iconic
silhouette of Dylan, it was utterly liberating because I was crossing
the gender line in a medium which is often very literal. And I think if a
man had been asked to do that, there would have been a much greater
weight of responsibility in the accuracy." Blanchett herself is very familiar with that weight of responsibility, being a woman who has played such feminist icons as Queen Elizabeth I ("Elizabeth" and "Elizabeth: The Golden Age") and Katharine Hepburn ("The Aviator").
In approaching the daunting role of Katharine Hepburn (big cinematic boots to fill, for which Blanchett won her only Oscar to date), she explained, "It's still a work of fiction. And you have to know the filmmaker you're working with, the story you're telling, and in the end, all of your homework is irrelevant. And you know that you can but disappoint Katharine Hepburn fans, and you have to accept that." She went on to joke that since Hepburn was dead at that point, she couldn't play herself, so Blanchett was the "schmuck" who got the part. Also, for all of you "Elizabeth" fans, Blanchett mentioned the possibility of a third film—"Shekhar [Kapur] had always envisaged three films. He was fascinated by the fact that when Elizabeth I died, she had apparently stood for 16 hours at a window and then she finally laid down and died. She just laid down in her bed and passed away, and he was fascinated by that image."
On the topic of things up in the air, Terrence Malick came up in the discussion. When asked whether she had been working with him this past year on "Knight of Cups," Blanchett gave the deadpan answer, "I believe I have." She went on to describe the shoot as "a cross between cinema, philosophy, poetry, and a quasi-religious experience. It's almost like he's inventing a new form," and shared that "he kept saying that he wanted to 'catch life on a wing' " and that "you weren't so much playing characters as you were states of being or moments in time." As vague as that reads, it sure sounds like a Malickian experience.
"Blue Jasmine" is playing currently in limited release. The New York Film Festival continues through October 13th.