Cate Blanchett for “The Gift”

It has been a whirlwind ride for Aussie Cate Blanchett, since journalist Paul Fischer first met the unassuming young actress on the set of Paradise Road. Defined by many of her contemporaries as the new Meryl Streep, Blanchett is never without work.

Currently shooting the new film Bandits with heavyweights Billy Bob Thornton and Bruce Willis, Blanchett is happy to divide her repertoire between the small and the blockbuster. In between the two, there lay the Southern gothic thriller The Gift, which also stars Giovanni Ribisi, Keanu Reeves, Katie Holmes, Greg Kinnear and Hilary Swank. The publicity shy Oscar nominee took a brief break from filming Bandits, to talk movies, stardom, fairies and the gift of success. Paul Fischer spoke with Cate in Los Angeles.

Cate Blanchett would rather be on a film set than the perennial publicity trail. Doing interviews, from the outset of her career, has never been her favourite pastime. “I hate it and I don’t think I’m very good at it”. Fiercely protective, she is accompanied to this interview by not one, but two publicists. Perhaps all part her recent escalation into the world of movie stardom. Then she has changed a lot since first working in films back in Australia. “The more you do, the more confident you are in some areas, and then the more unconfident you are in others, so it’s kind of odd. I think I’m actually happier. And I have no idea if that’s got to do with where I am personally or professionally. I’m not as pessimistic, maybe”.

Blanchett’s constant comparisons to Meryl Streep may bemuse this actress, but she is, after all, an actress who can slip effortlessly from one character to the next. Best known as Elizabeth 1, Blanchett’s familiar long flowing hair has been severely cut short for the sake of art. “Giovanni Ribisi and I finished another film with Tom [Run Lola Run] Tykwer called Heaven where we had to shave our heads for part of it and it’s only now just growing back”, she says laughingly”.

While so many bemoan the lack of strong or interesting roles for women, Cate Blanchett has been able to devour a variety of characters in so many distinct films, avoiding the trap of going from Elizabeth to instant lead star. “After Elizabeth, I thought I could see a path that was being laid out for me that I could step onto, and I knew myself well enough to realize I wasn’t ready to step on it. And I’m not there yet. People think I’m there because all of the pieces are in place, but I want to try and do different things and play different kinds of parts. I couldn’t have found a better antidote for myself after playing Elizabeth than the character I played in Pushing Tin, which was totally different”.

As different as Meredith in Talented Mr Ripley, or Lola in Sally Potter’s upcoming The Man who Cried, or the very different Galadriel, Queen of the Elves, in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Or of course there’s the Southern widow in Sam Raimi’s The Gift. “I’ve always been very choosy in what I do”, Blanchett explains slowly, further conceding “that it’s always a risk doing film”. Yet in clarifying the divergence of her choices, Blanchett adds that she has “always gone into things knowing why I was making it, even if it was just to have a great time. After Elizabeth I just wasn’t interested in repeating what I had done, hence the smaller stories”.

Despite its high profile cast and director, The Gift, directed by Sam Raimi and co-written by Billy Bob Thornton, is one of those small stories that Blanchett was eager to seek out. Set in rural Georgia, The Gift is the story of Annie Wilson (Blanchett), a widowed psychic with three young sons. To make money, she offers psychic readings to people in the town where she lives, but the more conservative members of the community dislike her because of it. Things only get worse when Annie begins having visions about the darker sides of her neighbours’ lives and a local woman is murdered.

Though it has been year of psychic-themed thrillers (The Sixth Sense and What Lies Beneath), Blanchett sees The Gift as being unique, refusing to draw comparisons with its recent, high profile predecessors. “I didn’t try and compare this to anything else, or this character from those. It was important for me to try and unlock what was in the script”. That, she says, is her first connection with the project. “I loved this script, thought it was very unusual and couldn’t quite pin it down. The trouble with a lot of films at the moment, is that you enjoy them while you’re watching them, but they don’t leave you with anything”. The Gift, she argues, is unusual “because there are so many threads to it and so many amazing characters”.

Cate further describes her own character as very quiet and incredibly private. She’s also very locked down and very shut off, because of the fact that she has not dealt with her grief, of her being a survivor who could not foresee her husband’s death. Being shut off means it’s a lot easier for her to listen to other people’s problems rather than to listen to what’s going on in her own life”. It’s a predicament that the actress can relate to, she says. “I’ve seen that happen for sure. It’s difficult for young men or women, when their spouses die and they’re left with children, and their relationship with the children then becomes INCREDIBLY painful, because they remind them of the family life they had with someone that they loved”.

A challenge on The Gift was playing a Southern character, “and not falling into a cliché. We wanted to make it real”.

In researching the role of a psychic, Blanchett resisted going so far as having a reading, “because I like surprises; I don’t want to know what’s going to happen next”. However, she observed a lot of readings “in LA by just looking up the trades”.

As unique an experience it was playing a Southern widow with psychic abilities, so to was working on the highly elaborate and much anticipated Lord of the Rings. “Both of these films were uncharted territory”, such as in the case of Rings, dealing with blue screen special effects and prosthetics. “It was like stepping into a video game for me”. She talks with childish enthusiasm about the experience of playing Galadriel in the trilogy. “I basically did it so I could have the ears”, she says smilingly. “They were so sweet, because they actually made little bronze castings of my ears. I loved all of that stuff”. Yet again, Blanchett adopts a royal posture, though this time, she is not queen of England but queen of the Elves, a different proposition. “She’s incredibly different from Elizabeth, beginning with those ears”. She also has to speak like an elf. “Tolkien actually wrote a language called Elfish, and there ARE, to my astonishment, Elfish experts, people who speak fluent Elfish”. In the film, she does speak Elfish, and describes the language as “really beautiful, similar to Welsh and a melange of other Celtic languages”.

During the course of this interview, Blanchett was in the midst of doing night shoots for Bandits, which again will represent a different side to the talented actress. “It’s this kind of rollicking romantic comedy, about these two bank robbers, based on two real guys. I play a woman whose life isn’t functioning very well and she forces them to take her hostage. She falls in love with both of them – kind of like a ménage-a-trois”. Now that she is working alongside Bruce Willis, perhaps she feels that she’s made it – at least in Hollywood. “He definitely has a lot of trailers plus my trailer’s bigger and I even have a DVD player and a cappuccino machine”.

Yet these trappings of Hollywood have not meant that she relinquishes any of her initial acting ideals. “I don’t recall why I wanted to act in the first place. Even at drama school, I didn’t feel I was necessarily going to continue acting. I’ve always thought of it as slightly frivolous and I assumed I’d go back to university to study architecture. But in my third year I did some work with a woman named Lindy Davies that seemed to me to have real value. It drew together the strands of what was happening around us and we were able to blurt it back at the audience. It seemed relevant, I guess. So I thought I’d give acting a go for a few years, and then I kept working, and that’s addictive”. Blanchett will return to where it all began: The Australian stage, admitting that “I hope to do a play there very soon”, and she is about to work with Gillian Armstrong who directed her in Oscar & Lucinda. “We’re working on an adaptation of Charlotte Gray with Billy Crudup. I’m very excited about it”.

Cate Blanchett may be terrified of the press, but there is a resigned composure about her. Here is someone who remains intensely passionate about what she does, and as she conceded in an earlier interview, remains happy on many levels. “I’ve always been terrified of being content, because it seems such a stodgy or smug place to be stuck in. But, yes, l am happy in a sense that I am not frightened of momentary disappointments or depressions. That means a lot of things bounce off me today that wouldn’t have bounced off me a few years ago. It’s a difficult question because happiness is a thing you don’t necessarily want to admit to-you don’t want it to go away once you’re experiencing it. Actually, I find the less I think about happiness, the happier I am. The amount of energy you spend on it could run quite a few light bulbs”.