SIZING HER UP

Interviewing an actor, Will Self thought, would be like discussing metaphysics with a parrot. In fact, his meeting with Cate Blanchett was more like a bizarre blind date which left him obsessed with one question: is she big or is she small?

I WANT to be like Bernard Shaw. By that I don't mean I want to be dead, or bearded, or celibate, or a wearer of purpose-designed, Jaeger, all-wool suits. No, the Shaw I want to be is the dramatist, the salon frequenter, the chaste wooer of actresses. On a fine June evening such as last Monday, if I were Shaw, I would've been cycling along the Embankment, my beard whipping over my shoulder like some hairy standard of rebellion, on my way to see a revival of one of my own plays, followed by a little dinner at Sheekey's with my glamorous, actress protegee. But as it stands, I was dogging rather than whipping, the play was a revival of David Hare's Plenty, and all I managed was a brief backstage chat with its star, Cate Blanchett, about Abba: The Musical, rather than a Shavian tete-a-tete.

Not that Blanchett herself would've been averse to a Sheekey's supper. When I cornered her for a longer chat, in the same dressing room, a few days after seeing her perform, she told me that she knew "just about every dish on the menu". One of the virtues of having the play's run extended, and of the theatre being within easy projecting distance of the fish restaurant. "You should try the organic salmon," Blanchett said in the afternoon gloom of her dressing room at the Albery Theatre. "It's fantastic." The actress is, herself, fantastic; and in the almost aquatic limpidity of the distempered room she might well have been some kind of organic salmon too. Silvery as she is, arching back as she was.

But what size of catch does Blanchett present? If I were an angler, how far apart would my hands need to be spaced in order to convey the right idea of her heft? In truth, it's this, the preoccupation with the actress's size, which really separates me and old Bernard. You can hardly imagine him pacing the streets of Theatre Land agonising over Mrs Patrick Campbell's inside-leg measurement. Yet I'd spent most of my stroll from home to St Martin's Lane entirely preoccupied by Blanchett's bulk.

I'd met Blanchett before, for another article, in the winter. It was just before the Plenty revival had opened, and also in the excruciatingly protracted run-up to her being beaten to the Best Actress Oscar by the all-star androgyne Gwyneth Paltrow. On that occasion we'd spent several hours together. It was more like a bizarre blind date than an interview. We rendezvoused at the Groucho Club; had a drink, and went to see an exhibition of portraits of Elizabeth I at the National Portrait Gallery. Later we had another drink at the Colony Room, back in Soho, before I dropped her off to meet her husband.

I suppose that one of the reasons I found the encounter peculiar is that, unlike my other interview subjects, there was nothing I had to talk to Blanchett about. Interviewing an actor is analogous to discussing metaphysics with a parrot; whereof can they speak without a script? It's the kind of conundrum Wittgenstein would have relished. Some actors complain of being asked to do interviews in character, yet Lady Macbeth is in no position to dissect her own murderous motivations. Or, alternatively, we have the minutiae of their own very ordinary, very bourgeois lives. As Blanchett put it to me: "Yeah - but in the end, what they really want to know about is your sex life."

We don't want to know about that, do we? We're intelligent, grown-up people, and we have a pretty good idea about what the sex lives of 29- year-old, happily married actresses are like, don't we? Blanchett did confide that she'd been finding the performing grind difficult recently because she was "hellishly premenstrual". And I'd imagine that about sums it up - wouldn't you?

No - it's her actual size that matters. On our first meeting I found her presence tentative to the point of being experimental. It was as if she'd taken it upon herself to fully epitomise the expression "to move lightly upon the surface of the earth"; or perhaps that she was according ordinary life itself a provisional status, and waiting to see if she'd passed the audition.

She was wearing a full-length, tan leather overcoat, patterned so as to appear quasi-lizard skin. Beneath this there was an interestingly tufty black sweater, which might have been chenille, or possibly something still more exotic. Her trousers were dark to the point of being opaque, although there was no hiding the fact that Blanchett is achingly svelte. Her blond hair was tightly scraped back, exposing an absolutely flawless face.

I have an unusual, if not to say disturbing, capacity for the minute examination of people; and the Blanchett face received the undivided, highly-focused attention of my insidious pore-cam. There was not a blemish, not a wrinkle, not a single dermatological glitch. Even so, this is a face with real character - not a vapid tabula rasa, waiting for Estee Lauder to get to work on it, oh no. Blanchett radiates strength of character and - for an actor - a lively intellect. Later on, as we wandered around the plush rooms of the National Portrait Gallery, examining the stylised physiognomies of the past, she made a little moue and said that beauty was "all in the mouth".

Yes, it was all well and good, this actress-observing. And I could've got to like it just as much as any of the other strange things I've been compelled to stare in the face during my writing career. But it took me no closer to judging her size. She had no side - a marvellous Australian expression; being direct, affable and wholly uncoquettish. She drank unnecessary Diet Coke and dabbled an order of chips in tomato ketchup.

In the National Portrait Gallery we wandered from a bright room of garish political cartoons, into a vestibule full of the current and recent British culturati. Francis Bacon's mutant, boiled-potato visage, rendered in gouache, weighed down on us - Blanchett was impressed: "He'd be the same upside down y'know - he's that strange." As we strolled into room after room, we examined the detail of the embroidery on the heliotropic extravaganzas which were the contemporary portraits of Elizabeth I. Had she read much biography in order to prepare for the film part? Only a couple - she doesn't find biography congenial. Did she require a lot of assistance from a voice coach to get the accent right? No, not really.

At the far end of the gallery she bought 10 or so postcards of Millais and Reynolds, and a few other masterful figurative paintings. We talked of children, of nest making. She and her husband, the script editor and writer Andrew Upton, have a shore-side house in Sydney, but they've barely been there in the past year-and-a-half, as their careers have propelled them around the globe at an ever-increasing rate. It didn't seem to rankle; the nearest Blanchett came to damning the road was to mention an occasion when she wore dirty clothes rather than re-pack her suitcase for the ninth time in a week.

Her American father died when she was 10 - a trauma she doesn't so much play down as volley into the net of enquiry. She says she is close to her mother and two siblings, all of them still Down Under; and the only worry she evinces in about how she is perceived by others is that she has a healthy anxiety about acting in front of old friends.

Although Cate Blanchett is only 29 she's had a solid grounding on the stage in her native Australia; and, perhaps more importantly, she is an actor who could have done other things. She told me that she "loathed economics" when she was doing an academic degree at college in Sydney, but I gained the distinct impression that this was another example of a very genuine and unaffected modesty. In interviews I had read with Blanchett she continually stressed her feeling that luck played a big part in the breaks she'd had in her career. A point which was underscored on that evening by our venue: she had "run into" Shekhar Kapur in the Groucho Club bar when he was casting Elizabeth.

When I got home my wife asked me how it went: "Fine - she's a wee thing y'know."

"Oh really," she purred sceptically. "She looked pretty big in that film to me."

"Well, I think I might have a better fix on that, having spent more than three hours with her."

"Really?"

"Really. I mean I know that, given my freakish height, I tend to view most ordinary people as all of a piece, but in this case I don't think I can have made a mistake."

"No?"

"No - after all, I saw her in a bar, in the street, at the gallery - there were plenty of things against which to judge her true scale. It's not like I was Bogart on a box and she was Bergman in a hole. This wasn't a screen impression - I saw the true Blanchett."

"Hmm."

In May I had lunch at the Ivy with Marianne Faithfull in order to interview her for this magazine. We got on to the subject of a projected film of Marianne's biography. The actress up to play her was none other than Cate Blanchett: "I went to see her the other night in Plenty," Marianne growled, "and my dear, she's a big, strapping thing."

"Are you sure, Marianne?" I demurred. "I spent some time with her and she seemed quite petite."

"Well, she looked big from where I was."

This exchange I duly reported to my wife as well, and the matter of Blanchett's size - petite? galumphing? - became something of a family issue. On the night we were scheduled to see Plenty, I stayed behind to put the kids to bed - not something which was incumbent on Shaw - while my wife took in the first act. At the theatre I wandered from circle bar to crush bar to stalls bar and back searching for her. I hadn't been in a theatre for about 20 years and now I remembered why - the people my dear. Here they were, sweatily playing their part by making loud, extempore comments on the act they'd just seen: "Just the everyday story of a neurotic woman ..." a man boomed at his wife; "She's mad!" boomed a second.

The "she" in question is Susan Traherne, the lead character in Plenty. Traherne is a neurotic femme fatale, whose exciting time with the SOE in wartime France leaves her unprepared for the disturbing lack of plenty in post- war Britain. Naturally, with Hare now one of the Tony- ennobled, and the Red Dawn victorious in our unfortunately still sceptr'd isle, the play's revival has been of some moment. Does its critique of Britain still stand up? As far as Blanchett the actor was concerned, it was a field day for the critics to say that she "couldn't do the accent"; and that as an Australian - and a film star - she couldn't bring the requisite down-home know-how to this quintessentially English character.

I finally located the wife: "She's brilliant," she trilled, "and you know what, although I can't stand David Hare, this play isn't too bad either."

"Never mind that," I snapped. "What about the size question?"

"The size?"

"How big is she?"

"Well, she's big - tallish at any rate."

"Steeply raked stage? Special lighting? All the other actors are short ...? There are ways, y'know ..."

She was brilliant. The voice boomed a bit - which made it seem affected; but she had Fifties RP down pat. And she moved brilliantly, her whole body like a taut bow: an organic salmon of an actress. I'd been worried that I wouldn't be able to suspend disbelief in Blanchett's Traherne, having met the real woman, but the set was purpose-built to assist theatrophobes like me. The stage was lacking in depth and steeply raked. The proscenium was masked entirely with plain black sheets so as to resemble a film frame; and there were even titles projected on to the curtain between scenes.

"It's really rather good," I whispered to my wife, "far better staged than I remember the theatre being."

"That's because you haven't been in 20 years," she hissed back. "There have been improvements."

Improvements, fair enough, but they couldn't possibly monkey around with her height. As soon as the curtain was down we were out back at the stage door. Admitted to the star's dressing room, I introduced her to the wife and I could only just forbear from urging them to stand back-to-back. Still, there was no need for fine comparisons; clearly I'd been wrong. Blanchett wasn't small, she was a svelte-yet-strapping 5ft 8 or thereabouts.

There were a couple of friends in the dressing room with her and drinks were offered, while the chat turned to the perennial crisis of the West End. Blanchett was visibly still tingling from her performance. No surprises there - it can't ever be straightforward to move from two hours of impersonating a deranged ex-servicewoman to light badinage about the Abba musical. Still, as I observed her tense movements from leg to leg, her back-archings and still- sudden lunges, it occurred to me why I was so hung up on the size issue.

In part, I suppose it was simply an ironic take on the whole industry of stardom. Blanchett's modesty seemed entirely for real - but could it be? It was like the prisoner's dilemma: was she a good enough actress to pretend to be this modest? But the other aspect of the scale question was more pertinent: was she a good enough actress to alter her height? To which the answer was a resolute "yes". Blanchett really does utilise her whole body to act, and on the first occasion we met she wasn't acting at all. Hence the modesty; hence finding her "petite". She wasn't petite - she was just resting.

Still not content, I went back to see her a few days later. I surprised her sleeping - the fruit of a happy marriage: "We were up all night hanging these new etchings we're excited about." When I heard who they were by - Paula Rego - I understood the excitement. Blanchett coiled herself in the corner of a sofa in her silk slip and puffed on Silk Cuts. We talked about the ill-fated Oscars: "It wasn't too bad because I was doing this ... so I wasn't sitting in LA for two weeks getting wound up by people's expectations." I asked her about some of the bad critical reactions to her performance in Plenty, and she told me she didn't read the reviews. I believed her. I asked her if she felt the next film had to be big and Hollywood, and she said: "I'm in no rush." And I believed that too.

No, as Blanchett smoked and arched and chatted, it came home to me that she really was all of these things: a very good actress, a genuinely beautiful woman, a genuinely modest one, and ... actual size. Then I went home and started work on my Pygmalion. I feel it will be a perfect vehicle for her. 1

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