Andrew Upton: Life in the shadow of his wife

Andrew Upton is used to living in the shadow of his wife Cate Blanchett. He talks to Alice Jones about their relationship, and coming into the spotlight with his latest play

Wednesday 20 August 2008 00:00 BST

Andrew Upton has taken to calling himself "the hand", so frequently does he find himself not quite perfectly cropped out of red carpet photographs of him with his wife, Cate Blanchett. After nearly 11 years of marriage to the Oscar-winning film star variously referred to as the finest actress of her generation and one of the most beautiful women in the world, the 42-year-old playwright has become expert in taking a back seat. "They just look and think, 'he's not interesting, cut him out.' You can almost see the scissors," he roars with laughter.

To be fair to those ruthless magazine editors, they do make an odd couple: she, ethereal, statuesque, an effortlessly cool Armani muse, he, a puckish bundle of energy with tufty, thinning hair and tired blue eyes.

But in real life there's no separating the couple. Having moved back to Sydney with their three sons a couple of years ago after a decade in London and Brighton, the pair now also work together, day in, day out as co-artistic directors of the Sydney Theatre Company. Blanchett – who has vowed to make only one film a year in order to dedicate herself to the job – has already directed Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking and now Upton is in London to supervise the transfer of his second play, Riflemind, which premiered in Sydney last year, to the Trafalgar Studios.

The production has a suitably starry director in the shape of Philip Seymour Hoffman, whom Upton met ten years ago when he was starring in The Talented Mr Ripley alongside Blanchett. "They both had quite small roles in a big film. Phil, Cate – and consequently me – got snaffled over to Rome for 10 weeks in the height of summer. It was fabulous. Cate and Phil were only working two days a week and we just got on." They kept in touch and eventually Upton sent him the script for Riflemind. The play's dedication, "To Fashion Pizza", refers to the restaurant behind the Piazza Navona in Rome where the trio whiled away the balmy summer days.

A darkly comic piece, Riflemind takes place over a single weekend as the erstwhile members of an ageing rock band regroup in the hope of recapturing past glories. John Hannah stars as John, the cantankerous, messianic lead guitarist whose country manor provides the setting for two days of recriminations, creativity and, naturally, excess. Upton, "a terribly frustrated rock star", was inspired to write it after attending the Don't Look Back gigs in London in which bands – including The Stooges and Dinosaur Jr – reform to play their seminal album. "It's something I've been thinking about for years. How can you have any kind of longevity in a career in the arts? Everyone has a moment when they're at their best – but that can't be it." It's a logical progression from the subject matter of his first play, The Hanging Man, a family drama set at the funeral of the wife of a significant Australian painter. "In painting circles there are often a lot of couples where they are both painters but the wife has given up her art to support her husband's career. I found that really interesting."

Riflemind also offers a fairly forbidding meditation on the perils of fame – the wrangles over earnings, the blizzard of drugs, the corrupting effects of mass adoration. "But I've never lived like that and I've never had that level of success," says Upton. "Having looked through the prism of Cate and what I've been exposed to through being married to Cate for 11 years, you can see across to the people whom that sort of stuff happens to. I don't know those sorts of people, that end of that world." Does he find the attention that comes with being married to a Hollywood star overwhelming? "I quite enjoy it, actually," he says. "I'm never followed but Cate is. Her public identity is very associated with her work, which I think is good, right and proper because she's bloody good at it. When her work is coming into focus, people want to see a photo of her carrying shopping bags. I can understand it – people are interested and I'm glad they're interested otherwise they wouldn't come to see it."

Despite this admirably down-to-earth attitude to the fame game, Blanchett and Upton have already endowed their new workplace with a sheen of glamour. As well as flying in such high-profile directors as Hoffman, they have appointed Giorgio Armani as official patron (on the back of an undisclosed but generous donation), and the highlight of their first season will be A Streetcar Named Desire directed by Liv Ullmann (Ingmar Bergman's muse), with Blanchett as Blanche. Nevertheless their appointment to run what is effectively Australia's national theatre has not been universally welcomed. Most publicly, Colin Moody, an actor in the company, raged that "an Oscar for acting is not a suitable recommendation to run the biggest theatre company in the country", branding his new artistic directors "frauds and charlatans".

"There was a little bit of grumbling but there's bound to be," says Upton. "We came up from right on the outside." In fact, the pair was offered the job (which was not advertised) after Blanchett returned to Sydney to play Hedda Gabler at the theatre. The couple then decided to move back permanently, setting up home in the Hunters Hill area of the city. "We had got to the point where we thought: 'yes, it's beautiful in England, but it's just us there.' We both trained in Australia and we know everyone, it's a very small world. When you grow up in a country you've kind of got an investment in it."

Upton grew up in Sydney, the son of a doctor and a nurse, and wrote his first play when he was 16, after seeing Harold Pinter's Betrayal on a school trip. "It was called The Plumber, a Pinteresque title, without any of the skill, depth or capacity..." At university in Sydney he devoted all his spare time to the drama society before studying directing and playwriting in Melbourne. "I knew I didn't want to act – I tried it at school and it just wasn't my bag."

Hitting a "brick wall" with the theatre, he went into film to earn a living, spending a decade working as an assistant editor (on the film Babe, among others) and in continuity. He met Blanchett while working on Thank God He Met Lizzie in 1996 – "I'd already met her socially because the theatre world is fairly small but then the relationship developed" – and they married soon afterwards in 1997. His writing took off with several adaptations for the STC. His excellent version of Gorky's Philistines premiered at the National Theatre last year.

Upton hopes to stay at the STC for at least six years. In the meantime, he and Blanchett are working on bringing up Dashiell, six, Roman, three, and Ignatius, four months, and making their mansion environmentally sustainable. "Without wanting to sound like a terrible politician, the most important thing that we do is our family," he says. As for working with his wife full-time: "It's great. We've always worked together in a way. You have your odd, 'no, no, no, we have to do this', but in the end you can say: 'Oh, all right, I'll fight for that next year, then.' That collaborative approach is a really important part of theatre – it's compromise that adds, not detracts."

'Riflemind' runs at Trafalgar Studios, London SW1 (0871 297 5461) from 15 September to 3 January

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