Cate Blanchett: Invisible woman

Cate Blanchett is an elusive superstar. Her amazing ability to inhabit a role - be it elf queen or investigative journalist - means that her own persona stays out of view. Daphne Merkin meets her and finds out how, as an actress and a mother, she never loses sight of reality

Cate Blanchett is not, at first glance, conventionally beautiful; indeed, her strong face can, from certain angles, seem almost plain. Her cheekbones look less enviably sculptured than they do on-screen, and her gorgeously ripe mouth shows up less than it does when it is slashed with crimson, as it is in The Talented Mr Ripley and Charlotte Gray. Her ears (as she points out, lest I fail to notice) are big, and she wears her hair scraped back in a non-do. She is not, in fact, immediately recognisable until you get up close and see those extraordinary wraparound eyes - long, narrow and a searching pale blue. Show-stopping eyes that register emotions with a clarity that conveys some Platonic essence of whatever the emotion in question is. So, I think, this is what it means to be photogenic - to have the kind of face that veils its magic until it meets up with the camera.

It's a Saturday afternoon, and the 34-year-old actress and I have been having lunch at the Four Seasons Hotel, smack in the middle of New York's shopping heaven. One of the first things I realise about Blanchett is that she is a very unsuperficial person. She is, in fact, incapable of sounding superficial, even about topics such as the hazards of fame, but since she moves in a world of mirrored surfaces, she wants to make sure I haven't mistaken her for some tinfoil, penny-ante movie star. "You're not going to talk about clothes, are you?" She sounds genuinely panic-stricken, as if I had unearthed an incriminating detail from her deep past with which no one has confronted her until now.

Blanchett speaks in a beguiling tumble of words with an elegant, lightly accented voice that is not quite placeable, and this is the first time in our two hours of hopscotching conversation that she has sounded anything other than unfazably low-key. Except when she is being wildly enthusiastic (two of her favourite adjectives are "extraordinary" and "fantastic"), she tends to be wryly deflating of herself or other peoples' perceptions of her. "I don't live in the media," she declares. "'Well, you will one day, won't you?', people always say. As though all actors aspire to the same thing." Detouring briefly to the subject of her childhood, she explains that as a middle child, she was left mostly to her own devices. I don't ask whether it was her father's death when she was 10 that triggered her interest in acting, on the assumption that she is tired of having this neat scenario presented to her as a profound insight, but she sees fit to confide that Gregory Peck and Alan Alda stood in as "substitute fathers" when she was growing up. She talks about her growing family; she has been married to the screenwriter Andrew Upton for six years, she is the mother of Dash (short for Dashiell), who will be two next month, and is four months pregnant.

We discuss her beginnings in theatre, where she caused a stir almost from the moment she started performing. Geoffrey Rush, with whom Blanchett worked in David Mamet's Oleanna when she was in her early twenties, was a mentor. She recounts that when Rush, whom she had idolised but didn't know, called to say he was looking forward to working with her, she sat in her apartment, perspiring ("I didn't know there were sweat glands in my elbows, but I discovered them"), listening to his "mellifluous voice" on the other end. "I thought: I'm talking to Geoffrey Rush. I'm about to start working with Geoffrey Rush. It can only go downhill from here."

The subject of clothes has come up because Jessica Paster, Blanchett's stylist- cum-friend (or friend-cum-stylist, depending on how much credence you give to the friend part) has shown up at the table to take the actress out for some fresh air (which I take to be a euphemism for a shopping spree). While Blanchett takes a call from her husband, which has come through on Paster's cellphone, the stylist informs me that she has worked with Penelope Cruz and Uma Thurman, and I inquire into the provenance of the silk kimono-like top (Chloé) that Blanchett is wearing with jeans and pointy, kittenish heels.

The two of us are discussing the ubiquity of nail salons in LA when Paster's client-cum-friend returns and expresses dismay at the fluffy turn the conversation has taken. She is clearly less at ease chatting about what she calls "the lipstick side of things" than when she is analysing her subliminal connection with her characters, or when she is explaining, with a lot of arm gestures, her favourite moment during her theatre period: "What I love," she explains, "is when you're transported into the collective unconscious - that magical place between audience and stage when you both jump up."

Still, her initial response to the mention of clothes strikes me as a bit hyperbolic. Blanchett is, after all, regularly featured on magazine covers as a contemporary style icon, and is a muse to cerebrally inclined designers such as Karl Lagerfeld (who flew her to Paris in order to dress and photograph her as Coco Chanel) and John Galliano (who designed the hummingbird-bedecked frock she wore to the Academy Awards in 1999). Earlier this year, Donna Karan succeeded in wooing Blanchett to represent the latest incarnation of the "real woman" the designer claims to have in mind when she whips up her costly and largely impractical couture collections.

So, it seems puzzling at first. Why would a young woman who has succeeded in becoming "one of the most revered young actors of her generation" - as James Lipton solemnly describes her in an Inside the Actors Studio interview - be at such pains to distance herself from the starry aura and frivolous curiosity that attends upon having a certain kind of face and body attached to a certain kind of fame? In the space of less than a decade, Blanchett has become a coveted screen presence who adds instant cachet to any movie she is associated with. She is the sort of über-actress that moved the director Anthony Minghella to create a part where previously none existed (The Talented Mr Ripley). Sebastian Faulks sent his bestselling novel Charlotte Gray to Blanchett in the hope of interesting her in playing the title character in the film version. Brian Grazer, co-producer of The Missing, a gripping neo- Western about an errant father's attempt to make peace with his daughter, to be released in the UK in March, tells me that he and the director Ron Howard always had her in mind for the leading role of a resourceful frontierswoman. He explains that he needed an actress who would be "believable and formidable" up against Tommy Lee Jones, in a difficult role set in a barbaric time and place (New Mexico in the 1890s). "You've got to feel the dirt in her hands," Grazer says. "And she has to have enough sex appeal to hold the screen."

Blanchett is a closet workaholic, dashing from set to set without scheduling much time to luxuriate or enjoy domestic life. (Although her son and husband have already flown back home to London when we meet, she makes a point of noting that her son is almost always with her. "The longest we've been away from each other is three days.") She has touched down in New York just long enough to tape the Inside the Actors Studio segment before she returns to Los Angeles to put in a final day on Martin Scorsese's film The Aviator. (Blanchett plays Katharine Hepburn and Leonardo DiCaprio plays Howard Hughes.) Less than a week later, she will fly off to shoot the spring 2004 campaign for Donna Karan and then begins work on a new movie, The Life Aquatic, directed by Wes Anderson and co-starring Bill Murray. She has also been talking with Liv Ullmann, whom she greatly admires as a director (she is a fan of Sophie and Faithless), about playing Nora in a film of Ibsen's A Doll's House.

For such a breathlessly busy person, Blanchett is almost devout about living in the moment, which may be the truest legacy of her father's death. "I've always felt the shortness of time," she says. She's also too intelligent to let her ambition show. To listen to her, you would think her meteoric film career has been more fortuitous than planned. She insists that she would be happy doing something else, that she needs to be convinced that the enterprise in question is worth her effort. "Each time I work," she says, "I want to be seduced back." She seems adamantly unimpressed to find herself in the business of "being projected 30ft high". "Film," she declares, "was never a mecca to me." It's hard to believe that she would be so ready to walk away from making movies, but it makes her seem charmingly insouciant, as if she were discussing a more mundane line of work, such as bookkeeping.

She most recently starred in Joel Schumacher's movie, Veronica Guerin about the intrepid Irish journalist who exposed Dublin's largely unreported drug problem and was killed in 1996 at the age of 36. Although Blanchett picks her projects carefully, she is wasted in a movie that would be entirely unmemorable except for her performance. I wonder aloud whether the part of Guerin may have been too much of a star vehicle, too much of a Julia Roberts kind of role. Blanchett listens and then diplomatically responds. "Who knows," she asks, putting her finger on the existential mystery that underlies the construction of any screen persona, "who Julia Roberts really is?"

In the course of plying her craft, Blanchett has frequently been compared to Meryl Streep, whose mantle of thespian prestige she has inherited and with whom she shares a singular ability to impersonate all sorts of accents, from the broadest of Southern inflections to elf-speak. She is invariably described as chameleon-like because of her uncanny ability to get under the skins of characters as diverse as a 16th-century queen who renounces her private life to rule her parlous empire (Elizabeth), to a single mother of three with psychic powers who lives in rural Georgia (The Gift). "Maybe by 'chameleon' they mean forgettable," she says. It is an appealingly self-deprecating remark, but not entirely off the mark.

Blanchett's tendency to sink into the environment of the film and fully inhabit other lives includes within it the risk of blurring her own physical presence in favour of the character's, sometimes to such an extent that you forget whom you're watching. (A day or two before I meet her, I admit to a movie-aficionado friend that I can't recall what role Blanchett played in The Talented Mr Ripley, and he sheepishly concedes that he can't remember, either.) It was said of the great English character actress Peggy Ashcroft that she didn't have a face, and in the sense of not seeming to be fixed in her own physiognomy, Blanchett doesn't have one, either.

What is less frequently mentioned, though, is the way in which Blanchett has, despite her own resistance, subtly mutated over the course of time into a bona fide movie star. She wears Chanel and Prada, doesn't carry her own room key, and moves with an entourage of handlers. But unlike some of the talented actresses of her generation, such as Nicole Kidman, whose considerable abilities often disappear under the scrutiny of the tabloids, Blanchett has risen to the top of a brutally competitive profession without appearing to have sacrificed her creative aspirations or her grounded, just-folks quality.

However she has done it, she has skillfully avoided being pawed by the fawning pop press, with its fickle affections and malicious innuendoes. One way I have of gauging what I take to be the actress's relatively low celebrity quotient (or "q factor", as it's called) is the utterly blasé response of my 14-year-old daughter - who would have been beside herself with excitement at the thought of my meeting Gwyneth Paltrow or Kirsten Dunst - to the fact of my breaking bread with Blanchett. She didn't even request that I bring back an autograph.

The actress's disarming presentation of herself as a person who just happened to wander into the limelight and doesn't find Being Cate Blanchett all that fascinating, is either a tribute to her authentic sensibility - or a brilliantly disingenuous piece of marketing. Perhaps because she is more securely moored than is usually the case with people who look to be applauded for portraying someone other than themselves, Blanchett is able to draw on the same abundant curiosity and receptivity that she uses as an actress to endear herself to the many strangers who claim her time and attention. I've no doubt that all of us go away thinking that we alone have been privy to her funny, self-aware ruminations.

I'm not sure how she has managed to bring off this balancing act - between the claims and seductions of celebrity as opposed to the considered and serious impulses that have guided her personal and professional choices so far - and it will be interesting to see if she will continue to do so as the pressure to live up to her Hollywood billing increases. My hunch is that she intends to keep her $10,000 red-carpet ensembles as beside-the-point as possible.

'Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King' is released on 17 December

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