What a year its been for Aussie actress Cate Blanchett. This past season has seen the star appear in three major roles such as Steven Soderbergh’s “The Good German”, the much award-hyped “Babel”, and now the British thriller “Notes on a Scandal”. One of the big draws of ‘Notes’ is that the psychological thriller is a battle of wits between Blanchett and another great actress of our time – Dame Judi Dench:
Question: Cate, you have a lot of movies out this Fall.
Blanchett: That’s a bit of an understatement, isn’t it? That’s not my doing. “Babel’s” out already, so there you go. That’s one down. I think “The Good German” and “Notes on a Scandal” are being released in very quick concession. I’m certainly sick of talking about them, proud as I am of them. But I think they’re all very different. Years like that do not come along very often. To have gone from “Notes on a Scandal” to “The Good German,” and to be part of an endeavor like “Babel”, they’re three things I’m very proud of. If I had my way, I’d have Christmas off. Maybe you should speak to the studios.
Question: How much of the last year were you actually working?
Blanchett: I had about six to nine months off, then I made “Babel”, which was 3 weeks, and then “Notes on a Scandal” which was a couple of months. The seam between “Notes on a Scandal” and “The Good German” was very tight. I literally walked off one set on a Friday and started filming on the Monday, which really is not very pleasant.
Question: Were all of these roles that just came to you or do you have to actively seek them out and get them to see you can do it?
Blanchett: They came to me, lucky girl that I am. I met Alejandro [González Iñárritu], and I really didn’t want to work, but he’s such a flatterer that I sucked it up and went to Morocco. Look, I’m so proud to be a part of that film; I think it’s an astonishing vision. All three films. It was an amazing year, then when you get offered “Notes on a Scandal.” Patrick Marber is a friend and I knew he was writing the screenplay and I’d read the book, so that very quickly evolved. It didn’t look like “The Good German” could fit, but then the two camps worked it out, so it was tight for me, but it fitted in. Once you got an offer like that from Steven Soderbergh, you just do anything you can to make it fit.
Question: So let’s talk about your latest movie, “Notes on a Scandal.” Do you think that your character Sheba’s loneliness is for lack of love, and how was it to get that nuance?
Blanchett: Well that’s a common problem, isn’t it? Anyone who embarks on a destructive relationship, there’s an enormous cry for help in there, and Sheba doesn’t actually know where to start. In terms of her justifying it to herself, what I like about the film is that it doesn’t really set out to justify or explain in any simple terms why she does what she does. She says, “I love him.” If she sat down on the analyst’s couch in 15 years to deconstruct it, she might find the language to explain it. I liked how fragile she was.
Question: Did you find that you had to justify the character to yourself?
Blanchett: I think it’s important to ask all the questions, but not necessarily to answer them. I think it’s important to let all those ambiguities breathe, because once she dives in… why do we decide to embark on any relationship? You jump off the cliff. Once she’s done that, there is no way back. The wound is opened and there is no closing it, whether the affair stops or not. The damage to her children, to her husband, to herself… you’re on the public hit list and will be forever so.
Question: Did you have a hard time relating to a character who would sleep with her own student?
Blanchett: Yes, absolutely. I think it was very important for me to suspend my own moral judgment, because there is no way to defend what Sheba has done. I don’t think the film attempts to do that at all, that’s not the question. The main thing is that the relationship with the boy is the catalyst that propels her into Barbara’s arms, and there lies the true drama, and the delicious and thrilling side of the drama. Once I understood Sheba as being someone who was incredibly lost, enormously fragile and a time bomb, then there was a way in for me.
Question: Did you want to try to talk to any women who had affairs with their students?
Blanchett: Pretty hard to find anyone who will openly discuss that, but it’s a very different thing. Sheba’s not one who’s going to write her life story. She’s not Mary Kay LeTourneau, and she’s not someone who stayed with the boy. I think it’s interesting that the Siouxsie and the Banshees, that kind of punk of her adolescence… she describes herself as being a good wife and a good mother, but there’s a sense that she just wants to f**k it all up. I think that there’s a lot of people who feel that way. The more happy people perceive them, the more they want to destroy it all, and kind of start again, by having an adolescence she never had. Sheba herself married her teacher, so there’s an echo, a mirror held to herself.
Question: Was Zoë Heller’s novel a good source the character and her look?
Blanchett: The novel was a great source it was from a unreliable narrator, because it was all from Barbara’s perspective. I think what Patrick did in the screenplay, which was fantastic, was to liberate Sheba from Barbara’s perspective, which is really important. I think it’s enabled the film to become it’s own entity. Barbara never struck me as someone who had an enormous fashion sense. She described Sheba as being fey and I find that quite helpful. She described one of her dresses as being floaty, so the costume designer and I talked about fabric that floated. I think given the hard edge that the punk of her adolescence…I’ve met several English women like that, who all have bangs, and there’s sort of a gossamer quality to them. And she’s described as having a dancer’s body, so that sort of presentation that some women have, chestbone forward that’s a little bit, “I’m dashed against the rocks.”
Question: Did you ever see your character and Judi’s as extensions of one another?
Blanchett: I think they both underestimate one another, Sheba to a fatal degree. She probably feels quite sorry for Barbara in a lot of ways to begin with, and has no idea of the length Barbara will go to attach herself to Sheba. I think Barbara completely underestimates how lonely Sheba actually is. She just sees the trappings of her life and how peopled her life is and doesn’t realize how isolated she is.
Question: You had to get a bit physical with Judi in one scene, so is she stronger than she looks?
Blanchett: She can hold her own. We had to do that quite a lot, and she had this sort Ninja Turtle pad that I had to thrust her into the bookshelf. We were both dreading the scene, actually, because it reaches a level of absurdity, the stuff that they’re saying to one another. It’s kind of thrilling to hear the words that Patrick has put into the characters’ mouths, because the stakes are so high. “Where did you get my hair, did you pluck it from the bath with some special f**king tweezers?” I mean it’s a pretty great line.
Question: Did the theatre background of all the actors help the film come together?
Blanchett: I think definitely what people who only work in film or primarily work in film can be very private about their process. There’s something about being in a theatre rehearsal where people just go for it, and they’re not embarrassed to make mistakes because it’s a rehearsal, and on the road to get better. It’s a much more open process, it was a much more open set, and that comes from the director, that comes from Richard Eyre. He ran the National Theatre and has been an extraordinary producer, but also as a director is a great lover of actors. So it was certainly very enjoyable from that perspective. You felt like you could muck it around and there wasn’t any judgment.
Question: Moving onto “The Good German,” your accent in the film didn’t sound like a typical Hollywood version of a German accent. Did you have any dialect training to play the role?
Blanchett: I think the model was more the European actresses who were embraced by Hollywood during that period. An actress I watched a lot was Hilda Knef, whose work I didn’t know before, and Maria Louis Wehde and Ingrid Bergmann. Fortunately, when it’s released in Germany, it will be dubbed. What the difference is I suppose is that if it was a film of the ’40s, then I wouldn’t be speaking German. Steven decided at the 11th hour, when I arrived, that in fact he wanted me to speak German. A bit of mild internal panic there, but there was a fantastic German advisor on the set who helped me, and obviously Christian, who was playing Lena’s husband, was fantastic and great to have an actor who said that if it you give it this cadence, it would have this meaning.
Question: Are you the kind of actress who has to stay in accent all day while on set?
Blanchett: I think the more you do as an actor, the more facility you have to switch on and off. Maybe five or six years ago when I played Elizabeth for the first time, I called home and my mum asked, “Why are you speaking funny?” and I didn’t think that I was. I think your facility becomes greater the more you do, and I’ve certainly done a lot.
Question: Since Steven Soderbergh wanted to make the movie in the style of the ’40s, did that carry through onto the set?
Blanchett: He didn’t work in the style in terms of the star system. Section 8, that’s not there ethos. Definitely in terms of the visual style, he did, and it was utterly influential. If you were asked to perform in this highly theatrical way, it has a very different emotional production to the way or truth to the way we perceive truthful acting today without the backdrop, the built sets, the backlot quality, and also the noir-esque lighting, then I think you would have been in trouble. But all those elements really supported that performance style.
Question: Did you do any research into Nazi scientists or any of the other things in the movie?
Blanchett: Well, I studied the Second World War, but I think ultimately from a victor’s perspective. That’s the thing about wars. It doesn’t deal with the vanquished until many, many years later. Something that I did read and delved into a lot was an anonymously written book called “A Woman in Berlin”. It was a journalist who diarized her day-to-day experiences of living in Berlin when the Russians came in after Berlin had fallen, and it was horrific and terrifying and the way that just became normal. The odd thing to have been at the center of an all-powerful nation one day, and a nation that was vilified by the rest of the world the next, and what that did to your sense of what was good and what was true, and that sense that you couldn’t trust anyone. This woman just described when her husband returned, how she’d just been irrevocably changed by being raped on a daily basis, by having to sleep with people for food, by being betrayed at every step of the way; that they couldn’t be together anymore. So I sort of carried that into the film.
Question: How generous is George Clooney as an actor, compared to other leading men you’ve have worked with?
Blanchett: I’ve been pretty lucky in the leading man department. I had a good year. Brad [Pitt], George [Clooney], Bill Nighy. George, he’s great. He’s incredibly humble. He’s got such a great perspective on who he’s perceived to be, who he is, and what he can achieve in the world, and I think he does it incredibly. He’s a very smart man, and I love spending time with him.
Question: I was a big fan of “Little Fish” and I wondered what happened with that?
Blanchett: It was so badly released. Let’s face it, it was hopeless. It was a really small film, but small films can have a chance to find a small audience, so it was kind of criminal what they did I thought. I think most of my films have a life on DVD.
Question: Are you worried about people getting burnt out on you, since you’re in so many movies out at the same time?
Blanchett: I think every actor has that worry. You never want to be all me or him or her again. I think the camera tires of everyone; everyone needs to step away for a while.