Interview: Cate Blanchett - on motherhood, movies and working with Woody Allen

The Oscar-winning actress lights up Woody Allen's latest movie Blue Jasmine. She tells Geoffrey Macnab how she mixes marriage, family, stage and screen

A wet afternoon in an upmarket central London hotel and Cate Blanchett is sipping hot water and lemon. Later in the day, she will be attending the British premiere of her latest feature, Blue Jasmine, directed by Woody Allen. She is wearing a dark Givenchy dress that shows a lot of leg and she looks extraordinarily glamorous in an old-fashioned movie-star kind of way.

Blanchett seems happy to be back in the UK. The 44-year-old Australian actress lived in Brighton for several years before heading back down under to live in Sydney where, in 2008, she and her husband, writer-director Andrew Upton, became joint artistic directors of the Sydney Theatre Company.

“I miss it enormously. I miss Brighton enormously, enormously. There is so much I miss, including rain,” Blanchett sighs. “I miss the verdant countryside. And I obviously miss friends. But you have to make a choice at some point. My husband and I were offered the chance to run the Sydney Theatre Company and our parents weren't getting any younger. It [Australia] is a very magnetic and very creative country so we were very drawn back to it.”

The Australian is now in her mid forties. This is an age at which some female stars have struggled to keep on landing parts. Blanchett, though, is in her prime and is a formidable character actress as well as a leading lady. “Maybe it has come out of the model of actresses who move between film, television and the theatre in England,” she muses on the opportunities still open to her. “There are so many actresses – you think about Helen Mirren, Judi Dench or Maggie Smith – who've had such rich careers in all mediums. They have forged those careers because they have not stopped at any point in taking risks and trying something new. People love working with them.”

In Blue Jasmine, Blanchett plays a Manhattan socialite married to an immensely wealthy businessman (Alec Baldwin.) The hitch is that he is a philandering crook, essentially a younger, better-looking version of Bernie Madoff. Jasmine, broke and emotionally vulnerable, has fled to San Francisco to live with her sister (Sally Hawkins) and to try to rebuild her life. She is a character with more than a hint of Blanche DuBois about her, a pill-popping, hard-drinking diva who clings to ideas of class, status and sophistication even as her life and sanity are unravelling.

Woody Allen recently jokingly told the BBC that casting Blanchett was like unleashing a “hydrogen bomb” on his film. Her powerhouse performance (already being widely tipped for an Oscar nomination) gives Blue Jasmine an emotional complexity and explosive drive that Allen's recent films have lacked. She acknowledges that playing Blanche DuBois on stage in Liv Ullmann's 2009 revival of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire was good preparation for Jasmine.

“I think there is a long exploration in American drama of women in particular who, by force of circumstances or because they are predisposed to, choose fantasy over reality,” Blanchett reflects on Blue Jasmine. She cites Mary Tyrone, the morphine-addicted mother in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, as a character in a similar mould to Jasmine. Another point of comparison could be Greta Garbo in her first talkie, the 1930 film version of O'Neill's Anna Christie. Her very first line was: “Gimme a whisky, ginger ale on the side, don't be stingy.” Audiences were startled but fascinated to see a screen aristocrat like Garbo slumming it. Blanchett provokes a similar response in Blue Jasmine.

Part of Blanchett's research for working with Allen was watching the recent Robert Weide documentary about him. The Woody Allen that Weide portrays was a private and aloof figure who didn't engage emotionally with his collaborators.

“Well, he puts himself out there, he puts himself on the line by writing these things in the first place,” Blanchett defends Allen's hermetic working methods. “He certainly directs through his writing. All of the clues and suggestions happen in the dialogue and situations he places the characters in. He is not particularly verbose. He won't speak unless he has something to say but he loves being surprised. If something happens on set that takes him by surprise or he hasn't thought of, then he will go further into that... and he'll say what he doesn't like. He'll be quite brutal about it. That's a good thing because it establishes a base line of honesty.”

As befits someone who played Shakespeare's Richard II on stage and Queen Elizabeth I on screen, Blanchett gives Jasmine a regal hauteur. There's a wonderful moment early in the film when Jasmine arrives in her sister's San Francisco apartment with all her Louis Vuitton luggage. She is broke but still travels first class and tips taxi drivers extravagantly. Jasmine walks into the apartment for the first time, looks around, frowns and turns her nose up at how small, shabby and poorly furnished it is. There is no dialogue but Blanchett's expression conveys perfectly her character's snobbery, fear and disdain.

Blanchett took the role in Blue Jasmine in a gap between Sydney Theatre Company productions of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya and Jean Genet's The Maids. With three young children, a stage career and other film commitments to juggle, she admits that “it's a military operation” to plan her schedule. “But it is for most working parents.” She adds that she has had “the most creatively fulfilling six years of my life running the Sydney Theatre Company, being on stage two or three times a year, touring internationally and producing the work of others.” The company has a turnover of close to 30m Australian dollars (£18m). She was co-CEO until January (when she stepped down to leave Upton to run the organisation on his own). “It has been such a challenge and so rewarding that I feel very invigorated by it. If you had asked me as a freelance actress 10 years ago would I be doing that, I would never have conceived of it.”

In the past, Blanchett chose movies on the basis of the script and director. “Now, it's who's directing it, what time of year is it happening and how long do they need me for. That sounds a bit ungrateful and banal but there are a lot of other people to consider. I can't necessarily make the choices I feel like making.” There is little sense, though, that Blanchett is rationing her screen performances. We'll soon see her opposite George Clooney and Matt Damon in Clooney's The Monuments Men, a Second World War caper about daredevil art curators trying to retrieve stolen treasures from the Nazis. She is in a new, as yet untitled Terrence Malick film. She is expected to work again with Todd Haynes (for whom she played Bob Dylan in I'm Not There) in Haynes's Patricia Highsmith adaptation Carol, and to take the lead in Cancer Vixen, an adaptation of Marisa Acocella Marchetto's graphic novel/memoir about her 11-month battle with cancer. She will be playing an older married woman in 1950s New York who has a lesbian relationship with a much younger department-store clerk (Rooney Mara.) She is just about to start filming on Kenneth Branagh's live action version of Cinderella. (“Someone said I was playing the ugly stepmother. I said, 'no, no, there's no ugly about it. She's wicked!” Blanchett sets the record straight on her role.) The trade press has just reported she is to make her film directorial debut with The Dinner, an adaptation of Dutch writer Herman Koch's controversial 2009 novel Het Diner about two bourgeois couples struggling to cope when their teenage sons commit an act of extreme violence. (A Dutch film of the book has just been made by Indiana Jones writer Menno Meyjes.)

Another new role is in David Mamet's JFK conspiracy thriller Blackbird. In working with Mamet, Blanchett will be coming full circle. Early in her career, one of her first notable stage roles was in a 1993 Sydney Theatre Company production of Mamet's controversial play Oleanna, about a university professor and one of his students, who accuses him of sexual harassment. Geoffrey Rush played the professor. Blanchett's initial reaction to the play was that “it was a misogynistic piece of crap,” but soon revised her opinion and took the role as the student. She relished the fact that the play was so polarising. “It punches an audience senseless,” she commented. “The conversations you had in the theatre afterward made you feel that this was what theatre was supposed to do – to provoke an audience in a profound and intelligent way.”

Even so, Blanchett acknowledges that it felt strange when she recently met with Mamet in Sydney to discuss the new film. “I did have a moment where I thought, 'I am sitting with David Mamet in my kitchen'. I could not have imagined as a 22-year-old when I was playing that role [in Oleanna] that I would be having this conversation with him, talking about working with him. It was one of those pinching moments. I didn't tell him, though.”

The actress clearly relishes creative tension. Ask her if she ever argued with her husband when they were running the theatre company together and she says that she welcomed their disputes. “That's great. You do not want to be in a creative organisation with everybody being like-minded and stroking each other's creative egos. You want differences of opinion... constructively. We come from different places which is why I think it has been a very creative partnership. I think a lot of people, other couples, have looked at us with horror, saying, 'how can you work with each other?'. I think it is a partnership based on respect.” Upton hasn't yet written roles for her. “I wish! It's very difficult for him to write. Obviously, he's CEO and artistic director of a very large theatre company. I look forward to the day when he can go back and write me a role.”

Blanchett's three young sons are obviously aware that she is a famous actress. Does she show them Lord of the Rings? “Do I force them on a Saturday afternoon and say, 'you're not going to play soccer, you're all going to stay home and watch mummy's movies!'?” she laughs. “I only shot for eight days on The Hobbit. The first time around [on Lord of the Rings], none of them [the children] existed. So I took them with me for those eight days and they had a ball. They've watched a lot of shows from the wings. What I really loved is they see the hard work that goes into it. They can see the crew pulling the strings. They can see the teamwork. That's a really good thing for them to see – that it's not just about the famous face at the front. In film-making, for instance, it's about the crew as much as it is the actors. The cast wouldn't get a chance to do it if someone wasn't filming them.”

Thanks to Lord of the Rings and now The Hobbit, the Australian is very famous indeed. She has been nominated for countless awards and won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her turn as Katharine Hepburn in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator (2004). As her fame has increased, so has her value and fascination for the gossip columnists and paparazzi. A decade on, she is still startled by the stories that ran in the British press about her £20,000 solid marble bath that had to be hoisted into her Brighton home.

“There are certain people who prize celebrity over substance. That makes the media world go round. The media needs those people to exist,” Blanchett states. “The downside of that is that they assume that every actor is motivated by money and celebrity. You sound entirely disingenuous if you say, in fact, this is the not the case for me.” She acknowledges that she is “incredibly lucky” to be financially secure. “There are thousands of actors who are not. But I certainly didn't go to drama school expecting to be sitting here in the Corinthia Hotel in my designer dress having my hot water and lemon! That's a wonderful by product but it certainly isn't what gets me up in the morning. Look, no-one would be interested in my bathtub or what soap I wash my clothes with if I hadn't made films. But also I don't suffer that incredible scrutiny some actors do. Our lives are very private and we keep them that way.”

Blue Jasmine is in cinemas now

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