"Ihave quite a thing for the desert," Cate Blanchett says. "Everyone associates Australia with its coastline, but I've always found the desert a really introspective place. About an hour and a half from Alice, there are some huge volcanic craters. You can stand there, and no car will come by for... a day, maybe. The silence is very confronting."
Few actors have Blanchett's way with wordlessness. Apart from her celebrated technical skills, it was sheer emotional power that heralded a thrilling talent in Elizabeth (1998) and moved Ingmar Bergman's muse Liv Ullmann to gush: "She has this incredible ability to open her face up to the audience and channel emotions through it, something only theatre actors normally have." It is perhaps a surprise, then, that her latest venture is an action movie by Ron Howard.
Every inch the slender pillar of feline elegance she is on film, Blanchett crosses the room and offers her hand. She grimaces, gives it a brisk wipe on her skirt - "Baby snot, sorry" - and tenders it again. She then plants herself squarely on the sofa in order to accommodate a tidy bump, which in April will be a brother or sister to two-year-old Dashiell John. In doing so, she inadvertently offers a view of knickers (which, fans of her fashion sense will thrill to know, perfectly match an effortlessly chic black ensemble). Blanchett's inner Sheila, it seems, is alive and well. A good thing, too, because Howard's film The Missing is her toughest on-screen workout yet.
"Frankly, the genre of the western was never something I was particularly drawn to," she says. "I knew vaguely about John Wayne's career, because my father was so obsessed with him. But it has such strong archetypes, and women are often relegated to good-hearted prostitutes lounging about the saloon."
Howard's declared intentions for a new take on the genre was put to her at a coffee meeting in New York in 2002. He sketched out a brooding kidnap thriller based on a single mother struggling to raise two daughters in 19th-century Arizona. "Very casually, at the end, he asked me, 'What are you doing in January?'"
Riding, shooting and privation, as it turned out. Relocating to Santa Fe, New Mexico, Blanchett embarked on a celebrity cowboy camp that hothoused her in saddle skills and helped to overcome an aversion to guns. "I shot at ranges, and rode out every day with the wranglers, and we'd play hide and seek in the desert. It wasn't just a matter of me just sitting on a horse and looking pretty." That co-star Tommy Lee Jones rides every day was no small spur. "I wasn't going to look stupid," she laughs.
That her physical competence was convincing, and her south-western twang note-perfect, are givens. "Learning an accent is like a child learning how to walk," she has said. "Basic. No excuse for not getting it perfectly." Her research fascinated her, and had unexpected resonances. "I read the diaries of people who made that epic journey west. It was incredibly savage, and they wrote in such a stoical way - '3pm, set up camp. By 6pm my daughter was dead. Buried her in shallow grave. No coyotes tonight.' There was no emotional exploration; for example, of the way we have come to understand the processing of grief. Which I find very moving, because where does all that stuff go? It must go somewhere, and that fed into the emotional make-up of my character.
"Australia has similar stories. They're taught in school in a very cursory way, but as an adult I took a passionate interest, as does any thinking Australian. And that made me sensitive to how this story resonates with indigenous cultures. Out of many conversations with Ron came a heightening of [her character] Maggie's own prejudice against the native American people for her own childhood traumas. We wanted to make this more than a tale of a noble white woman wronged by savages."
The terrain of The Missing - areas of the national park at Los Alamos - even triggered echoes of Blanchett's father, an American by birth, who died when she was 10. "I didn't think about it when I took the job, but when I arrived, Tommy Lee said, "I hear your father's from Texas.' He'd lived around San Antonio, where Tommy Lee's ranch is. And I became aware that he had spent time in New Mexico too, so there was a kind of shadow effect."
Blanchett found Howard, fresh from his double Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind, eager to break new emotional ground. Exposition was pared back with each rehearsal, to leave performances built on the raw subtextual expression at which Blanchett excels. Both she and Jones, as the father who decades before had abandoned his family to live with Apache people, are studies in weathered fortitude and flinty stubbornness, in a story rich in buried resentments, divided loyalties and inexpressible hopes. Ultimately, though, Howard's movie, for all its earnest intentions and majestic craftsmanship, joins the ranks of projects (Veronica Guerin, for example) in which this actress outshines the material.
"You take responsibility for your input, and you move on," she shrugs. "For me, the healthiest way to work as an actor is to have no sense of consequence, 'cause how the fuck do you know what's going to happen? You've no control over editing, direction, the way a film is marketed, and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. There's a misunderstanding about actors, that they have this desire to be loved. I actually don't think that's why everyone does it, and you certainly develop a thick skin. And frankly," she laughs, "why should everyone love what you do? It's a stupid, childish expectation."
She has come far from her college days, when she took a joint degree in arts and economics as "a practical decision, something to fall back on, just in case". Even at the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney, Blanchett didn't dare to imagine an acting career, for fear that she couldn't take the inevitable rejections. She barely had time for any. Her graduation in 1992 coincided with a creative boom in the city - the directors Bruce Beresford and Gillian Armstrong were returning home to Australia, having proved themselves in Hollywood with Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and Little Women (1994) respectively, and the Sydney Theatre Company and the Company B ensemble provided her first stage roles, several of them opposite Geoffrey Rush. Stage awards started to arrive in 1993, and with 1997's Oscar and Lucinda, for which Gillian Armstrong hired Blanchett on the spot at her screen test, she had an international audience.
Her public profile is high on glamour (her unerringly hip red-carpet couture choices were noticed by Donna Karan, who commissioned Mikael Jansson to shoot the actress for a campaign) and bankability (in five cases so far, her character has given the film its name). Yet global stardom has never spooked her into a rarefied lifestyle, and she has lived an unostentatious and largely unpublicised life with her husband, the Australian playwright Andrew Upton, in the UK for the past seven years.
Does she find this an easy balance to strike? "Yeah, I do actually. Some people manage and love a very public life. It's a skill in itself, all hail to them. And, of course it can be fun. I'm not averse to the premieres and stuff. But I never wanted that to be the work. If you dabble in it and then get on with your life, it's still enjoyable."
For all her affable charm and intelligence, there's an opaqueness to Blanchett; a graceful but firm decision to keep conversation abstract and impersonal. Now 34, she seems a fundamentally secure person who knows and enjoys her own mind. She has strongly opposed cuts in arts funding by the Australian Prime Minister John Howard, and is a supporter of the Aboriginal-rights campaigner and Olympic medallist Cathy Freeman. Other than that, she's said: "I guess my personal politics are revealed by what I choose not to do."
The raciest headlines she has earnt of late have been for the marble bath, priced in successive news reports at £10,000, £20,000 and £30,000, that halted traffic when it was winched into an upstairs window of her Brighton home. "A scandal!" she gasps, cod-horrified.
Her grasp of the public/ private dichotomy served her well last year when she replaced Nicole Kidman as Katharine Hepburn in Scorsese's forthcoming Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator. "Nerve-racking, to play on film someone who was an icon within that medium. But what we all claim and know and love is what she called 'the creature', and I tried to unlock the private person, with a fair amount of poetic licence. Of course, part of that job is to go close towards her physical, vocal mannerisms. But I'm not doing my cabaret impersonation of her. That would be grotesque."
Also wrapped is her part in Wes Anderson's next slice of cerebral screwball The Aquatic Life, which brought a twist worthy of that director. Cast as the pregnant Jane Winslett-Richardson, Blanchett fainted as she was being encased in plaster of Paris during a fitting for her prosthetic bump. "I woke up, and had no idea where I was, other than that I was naked, covered in plaster and wrapped in black plastic. I thought, 'This is the end.'" A screening for stomach bugs revealed her second "intentionally unplanned" pregnancy.
The foreseeable future includes a long stint in her homeland, which will allow her access to two extended families during her first months as a mother of two. From 22 July she takes the title role in her husband's adaptation of Hedda Gabler at the Wharf Theatre in Sydney. "We've talked about a cinema project, but his career's very independent to mine, and keeping our work separate allows each of us to be objective about the other's experience. But I'd love to make a film with him. I think he's got an extraordinary mind. That's the reason I married him."
Her first Australian screen role since Oscar and Lucinda - in Rowan Woods' Little Fish - is also slated for 2004. Fortunate, then, that she has found motherhood so far to be, above all, "absolutely energising. Watching a creature go from a slithering thing to something that crawls to something with gestural and then linguistic skills, the way thoughts and personalities develop... I find my son fascinating. And you revisit your own childhood. The Missing gave me some interesting perspectives, too, playing the mother of a rebellious teenage girl. I gained sympathy for my mother. I kept thinking, 'Oh God, I've said that.'"
Any spare time she invests in diverse interests and in family. "Walking's good, I love being outdoors. And I love visual arts - I took some architecture courses at university, and I threaten about once a week to go back and do life drawing. Dance too, and physical theatre. I found DV8's pieces amazing. If I had my time again, I'd do anything to work with the choreographer Pina Bausch; her work is beautiful. When dance theatre is at its most perfect, you think, 'Why does anyone ever need to speak?' To dispense with words entirely... I wish I could do that."