Gillian Armstrong spent six years looking for the ideal female lead for her adaptation of Peter Carey' Oscar and Lucinda. Even after she had secured Ralph Fiennes as Oscar (long before Hollywood woke up to him), Fox Searchlight were urging her to cast an equally stellar name as Lucinda. The studio talked of Sharon Stone, Meg Ryan, Uma Thurman and Winona Ryder. Armstrong wanted an Australian; more precisely, she wanted Cate Blanchett. She was even prepared to make the film on a smaller budget, with Blanchett, rather than on a larger one, with a big Hollywood name. Armstrong had been bowled over by Blanchett's screen-test: "She has an incredible sensuality on screen." Blanchett was as right for Lucinda as Judy Davis had been for Armstrong's 1979 debut, My Brilliant Career. Ralph Fiennes had never met Cate Blanchett, but he, too, saw the tape of her screen-test and it was enough to convince him that he wanted to work with her. The star of Schindler's List, Quiz Show and The English Patient put in a call to the Fox executives. Resistance crumbled.
In 1996, Shekhar Kapur was stumped as to who should play the lead in his film, Elizabeth. The names Madonna and Bette Midler were being bandied around, but Kapur wanted to focus on the queen's early life. Which raised the prospect of Kate Winslet; but he wasn't sure. Then, one day, he was in the office of his producers, Working Title - the people who brought us Four Weddings - and happened to see a trailer for Oscar and Lucinda. Never mind Winslet, Kapur knew he had found the perfect Kate for his Elizabeth: Cate Blanchett.
OSCAR AND LUCINDA, Peter Carey's first novel, was published in 1988, and won the Booker Prize that year. Carey and Armstrong became friends in Sydney in the mid-Eighties, and would talk from time to time about her making a film of one of his short stories. When he finished Oscar and Lucinda, he sent her the manuscript. She was entranced by his magical, surreal Dickens of a tale, about two Victorian misfits, one an English man of God, the other an Australian industrialist, who share an illicit passion for gambling, and whose embryonic love for each other culminates in a bet - to take a glass church to a savage corner of New South Wales - against which one stakes his life, the other her fortune.
"I read it and adored it," Armstrong recalls, sitting in the lobby of the Dorchester on a trip to London earlier this month. "But in Australia, 11 years ago, budgets were like Au$2m [less than pounds 1m], and taking a glass church down a river was going to be an expensive exercise. So I said, I don't know how this film can be made. Then, a year later, when the book was published, I read in the paper that the rights had been bought by the producer Robin Dalton, and I kicked myself: how stupid I was that I let it get away!"
John Schlesinger was signed up to direct, and Armstrong thought she had missed her chance. "How's my Oscar and Lucinda?" she would ask her friends in the British film business. "And I said it really as a joke, but lo and behold, about a year later, I got a call from Robin. They weren't happy with the script, John Schlesinger had other commitments, and he didn't think it was fair to make her wait. So that's how I got it back."
That was in 1990. It was another six years before Oscar and Lucinda went into production, with a screenplay by Laura Jones (The Piano). But if Armstrong had made the movie straightaway, it wouldn't have had Cate Blanchett in it; and that would have been a travesty.
IN 1990, Blanchett hadn't even decided to become an actress. She was born in 1969, to a Texan father and Australian mother, and grew up in Melbourne. Her father, Bob, was in advertising, and "lived quite fast and died incredibly young"; her mother, June, a property developer, was left to bring up their three children on her own. After high school - where she read Oscar and Lucinda, given to her one birthday - Cate enrolled in fine arts and economics at the University of Melbourne. But, after a couple of years, she dropped out to make "the rites-of-passage trip that a lot of Australians do".
She came to England, but hadn't arranged a proper visa, and wasn't allowed to stay. Instead, she ended up in Egypt, where she found work as an extra in a boxing movie. She returned to Melbourne, and her hybrid degree, but didn't settle to it: "I was failing miserably in economics, and spending less and less time in the library, or in the galleries I should have been in. Those subjects were as different as the two sides of the brain. One was driven by guilt and one driven by my heart - and of course your heart wins out. I kept doing theatre, and then I auditioned for drama school and got in."
At the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney, she was, according to Armstrong, "one of the stars of her year". She proved it straight after graduating in 1992 by winning two Sydney Theatre Critics Circle Awards, one of them for Oleanna, David Mamet's explosive two-hander about sexual harassment, in which she played Carol, the accusing student. The accused professor was Geoffrey Rush, who was to win an Oscar a few years later for Shine. She then did a couple of mini-series for Australian television, as well as several more stage productions, including The Tempest (Miranda) and Hamlet (Ophelia).
Then, in 1995, Blanchett landed her first part in a feature film: Susan, the nurse in Paradise Road. By the time that film opened here last December, Oscar and Lucinda was being released in the US, Thank God He Met Lizzie, a dark romantic comedy in which she made a lot of a supporting role, was out in Australia, and Elizabeth had just wrapped in England.
I MET her last month, in Sydney, where Blanchett was enjoying a hard- earned spell at home after two years in which she had made four feature films back-to-back, stopping only to play Nina in The Seagull, in a short run at the experimental Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney, and to get married, last June, to Andrew Upton, a script and continuity editor for whom she had fallen head-over-heels on the set of Thank God He Met Lizzie.
We meet in her publicist's office, a 19th-century terraced, balconied house typical of its neighbourhood, Paddington, the Notting Hill of Sydney. I have just seen a preview of Oscar and Lucinda, but might not have recognised its heroine, as she appears in the kitchen doorway. "Hi, I'm Cate," she stays, extending a firm handshake. "How are you? Did you have a good trip?" The statuesque, magisterial, red-haired Lucinda is nowhere to be seen: instead I'm talking to a bright, blue-eyed blonde, the essence of a contemporary girl-next-door, who just happens to look a bit like Gwyneth Paltrow. She's unmade-up, giggly and bouncy; her hair is tightly scraped back, and only a crinkle of bleached curl escapes across her forehead. In a clingy, scoop-necked black T-shirt and floaty, bias-cut skirt, she looks slim and willowy, but any impression of waftiness is tempered by her solid loafers: her star may be shooting to the sky but her feet are firmly on the ground. You have to look at her for some time to perceive her beauty: pale-turquoise marbles of eyes, set far apart; plump, sensuous lips that an elastic smile stretches almost as wide as her angular eyebrows; a proper nose; creamy, untanned skin, and cheekbones you could almost hang your coat on. After a while, she doesn't look like Gwyneth Paltrow at all.
The first thing she does is apologise. As we sit down at the kitchen table, gulping water - it's a particularly steamy day, the kind that reminds you that Sydney's climate is sub-tropical - she rummages in her green suede Kate Spade bag. "I'm really sorry, I've got this," she says, pulling out a mobile phone with disdain. "I hate them - it's my husband's - but it's going to ring once, and I'm going to have to answer it." Moments later, it duly squeals, and she's on the line for a couple of minutes, making what sound like incredibly involved plans. Every time she catches my eye, she mouths, "Sorry, sorry," in cartoon fashion. When she hangs up, she gives me her well-honed views on how rude and awful mobile phones are, or rather how rude and awful people are when they abuse them.
THAT STRAIGHT, we talk about Oscar and Lucinda. It's an extraordinary story, and, for her, a real ripe plum of a role. Lucinda Leplastrier is strong, independent, self- possessed, compulsive, naive, flirtatious, fragile and lonely. Her proto-feminist mother dressed her daughter in "rational" bloomers and inculcated in her strong beliefs about the virtues of labour; on her deathbed, she ruefully admitted, "I have produced a proud square peg in the full knowledge that all around, to the edges of the ocean there are nothing but round holes". As a child, Lucinda "caught a passion" for glass. As a young adult, she buys a glassworks, and aggravates her alienation: stuffy Sydney society can scarcely contemplate the notion of a businesswoman, let alone one who wears trousers.
Oscar Hopkins is no more conventional: brought up in extreme isolation by his overbearing father, a minister with the Plymouth Brethren, Oscar defects to the Church of England, goes to Oxford to train for the priesthood and is seized by an obsession with gambling. When Oscar and Lucinda finally meet - 250 pages into the book - on a ship bound for Sydney, they connect with a kind of static electricity. "They're not socialised," Cate explains. "So they both keep bumping, not only into each other, but into the world around them. It's almost like they're able to forget themselves, and the physical reality around them, and the restrictions of their time, through falling in love. Which I think is so true."
As she talks, her voice rises and falls, speeds up and slows down. She leans her body forward over the table, slinking from side to side to emphasise a point. She seems to speak with her shoulders. You'd call her feline, if she weren't so friendly.
Her subtle, dazzling performance as Lucinda is the result, not just of sheer acting talent, but an acute empathy for the character: "She's very flawed, and she's also really blind to her strengths. I think she kept building up a brittle exterior because she felt that she was jello inside. In order to function in a very male world, she had to have a discipline and a sense of duty that made her, in her sub-life, want to be completely reckless: not only to get rid of the blood money she'd inherited, but also to abandon herself to someone or something."
To play Lucinda, Blanchett not only had to convey her contradictions with a flicker of facial muscle, but learn to deal and shuffle like a croupier. "Ralph and I played a lot cards. We went to casinos, which are so depressing. But the dexterity that the croupiers have with the cards is not unlike a magician's. It's really quite beautiful."
She was thrilled to work with Fiennes - as, by all accounts, he was to work with her. "It was wonderful. It was simple," she says, still sounding awed more than a year on. "He's got such an extraordinary imagination: he draws on quite unusual sources, which are amazing to bounce off. He was really supportive - which was great. I think he was probably aware that it would be quite daunting for me - although he's very self-deprecating."
Her admiration is no less heartfelt for Gillian Armstrong. "She can be forthright and scratchy, but she's just so compassionate, and I find that, in all her films, she's interested in the deep, real connections between people, that aren't romanticised at all. And Gill loves actors, so she creates an environment where you can play. I don't like to be molly- coddled in any way, but it's important to know that you have someone's trust. And I felt trusted."
BLANCHETT WAS filming Oscar and Lucinda when she heard that she had won the part of Elizabeth. So she would go from playing one complex character, opposite Ralph Fiennes, to playing another, opposite Joseph Fiennes, Ralph's younger brother. She found Elizabeth just as compelling as Lucinda, but "It's hard when you play an historical figure. There's a sense of reverence, but you do need to find the dramatic reason for telling the story." True to form, the director of The Bandit Queen has flouted the first rule of history, chronology. "There's no timeline to the film," Blanchett explains. "It's more a metaphorical thing - about what happens in public to the private self, and the melding of the heart and head.
"Shekhar Kapur looked at the beginning and end points of Elizabeth's reign, and then invented, and said, 'what if?' What if Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was in fact the love of her life? Which may or may not have been true. There are so many varied reports about her - she was a hermaphrodite, she was a man, she was asexual, she was unable to have children - and I think it's like what happened to Princess Diana. When somebody is that much in the public eye, people talk; and gossip, particularly over the centuries, becomes fact. And fact often becomes irrelevant. When you're writing to the queen, you're not gonna, you know, tell the trout what she really looks like, particularly when you're dealing with someone who is perhaps highly-strung, perhaps quite neurotically brilliant and quite emotionally fragile. And I'm making that up. I mean, she may not have been any of those things: how do you actually know?"
She is not sure how Elizabeth will emerge from the cutting room: "Often the experience of making a film is completely different to how it comes across on screen. It's like catching yourself in a shop window, when you're feeling really good, and you think: 'I've walked around for two hours thinking I'm one of the most extraordinarily beautiful women. But I am wrong.'"
In Thank God He Met Lizzie, Blanchett plays an extraordinarily beautiful bride, but contributes a lot more than a pretty face. Cherie Nowlan's debut film has struck a chord with thirtysomething audiences. "It's about the love of your life not being the person you actually end up with, and the unpalatable compromises that people make when they decide to love somebody. Often. I'm lucky, I fell in love, but I've been in that situation before."
She would like to do more theatre. "There's a preciousness about film, which doesn't exist for me in theatre." Her Oleanna with Geoffrey Rush, who has since joined her in Oscar and Lucinda and Elizabeth, was clearly electrifying. "We'd be in the bar having a drink after the show, and people would come up and pat him on the back, and say, 'Well done, mate.'"
Men said that? "Yeah. Men would say that. And completely cut me off, and they'd say to Geoffrey, 'I don't know how you worked with that.' People just couldn't hold back how they felt. You'd hear men and women fighting as they left the theatre."
So, does Hollywood beckon? She's not keen to move there. "I spent 90 per cent of last year in the air," she says, "and I don't want to live my life like that." Especially now she has a husband to go home to. Will they stay in Sydney? "I love it here. I don't know. To Be Arranged. To Be Negotiated."
Meanwhile it's back to the air: she's leaving for Toronto to start shooting Pushing Tin, Mike Newell's film about air- traffic control. "I play a housewife from Long Island. That'd be fun: married to John Cusack!" The other imminent project is a cameo in Anthony Minghella's The Amazing Mr Ripley, which stars Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow. She's glad not to be carrying a movie, for a change.
Inevitably, because she's Australian, she is being compared to Judy Davis; but perhaps the more apposite comparison is with Meryl Streep. Blanchett has that chameleon-like ability to reinvent herself for every role, and yet remain distinctively herself. "It only happens once - that an actor is suddenly recognised as the star they are," says Gillian Armstrong. "It's a very special moment, and I'm so glad it's my movie that will really launch Cate."
It would be a very impertinent US studio boss who now dared to ask: who is Cate Blanchett?
'Oscar and Lucinda' (15) is released on Fri. 'Elizabeth' will be out in Sept. 'Thank God He Met Lizzie' is showing in the Australian Film Festival: Manchester Cornerhouse (0161 228 2463), 15-22 Apr; Edinburgh Filmhouse (0131 228 6382), 24-30 Apr.