“I felt like, in a way, the studio system as we had known it was beginning to calcify, and that some of the most adventurous storytelling was happening in the television space or the streaming space —whatever we call it now,” says Cate Blanchett as I ask her, on an episode of The Hollywood Reporter’s Awards Chatter podcast, what led her to take on a substantial role on TV — that of anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly on the FX on Hulu limited series Mrs. America— for the first time since becoming a movie star 22 years ago. “But,” continues the 51-year-old Australian two-time Oscar winner, who is now Emmy-nominated for her Mrs. America performance, “in the end, I’ve always been interested in the conversation [about what a project could be], and those conversations hadn’t come up for me before, so it wasn’t about having a particular attitude towards television; it was just that it hadn’t come up, and I’d been busy doing other things. But this conversation was an undeniable one. And it’s about finding the right platform,the right length, the right people, to tell a story. And it felt like this story” — which explores the battle between Schlafly and second-wave feminists over the Equal Rights Amendmentin the 1970s — “couldn’t be told in an hour-and-a-half or two hours. It needed to be chapter-ized, in a way, because it was dense and exciting and thrilling and confronting and relevant. You needed time for an audience to breathe through it. It felt it could only happen in this way.”
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Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Elton John, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Al Pacino, Julia Roberts, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett and Norman Lear.
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Born in Melbourne to an Australian teacher and an American serviceman-turned-adman, Blanchett attended drama classes and performed in school theatrical productions as a youngster, but insists that she “never, ever thought that one could be an actor for a living.” Even as she went off to university, her intention was to become an artist or a museum curator, but midway through her studies, at the urging of an instructor, she transferred to drama school, and within a year of graduating in 1992 she was winning awards for her work on the Sydney stage. Her agent urged her to begin auditioning for screen roles, and a couple of early jobs led to her breakout part as Queen Elizabeth I in Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998). “He told me that he saw my face coming out of the water in a shot from the trailer of [Gillian Armstrong’s 1997 film] Oscar and Lucinda and he said, ‘That’s my Elizabeth,’” Blanchett recalls. In early 1999, at just 29, she received a best actress Oscar nomination.
Blanchett’s profile rapidly grew through a wide range of projects, from Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) to Barry Levinson’s Bandits (2001) to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), in which she played an elf queen. “I’m drawn to things where you’re not necessarily clear about what the outcome will be,” she admits, which probably explains why she embraced Martin Scorsese’s invitation to play Hollywood legend Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator (2004), for which she would win her first Oscar; played, in a single year (2007), both Queen Elizabeth I (in Kapur’s sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age) and Bob Dylan (in Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There); took on a host of challenging roles in films such as Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Babel (2006), Richard Eyre’s Notes on a Scandal (2006) and David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008); and then disappeared from the big screen for five years — apart from cameos as the aforementioned elf queen in Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy (2012-2014) — in order to run the Sydney Theatre Company with her husband, the playwright and screenwriter Andrew Upton, and star in several of its productions, including A Streetcar Named Desire.
When she returned to the big screen, it was with a bang, winning her second Oscar for a towering performance in Woody Allen’s 2013 dramedy Blue Jasmine (“I don’t think I could have played the role in Blue Jasmine unless I’d played Blanche DuBois,” she notes). Two years later, she was arguably even better in Haynes’ Carol, playing a housewife who falls into forbidden love with a shopgirl in 1950s New York. And then — after a few years of relative quiet — came Mrs. America and Schlafly. “I didn’t know anything about her” except that she had been embraced by the Trump campaign, Blanchett says of Schlafly, who died in 2016. After Trump’s election, she continues, “I was trying to work out how we got here, and the Equal Rights Amendment, I think, has a lot to do with it. And so being part of telling that story, no matter who I played, was, I thought, going to be a really important and interesting ride.” Six months of work and nine episodes of TV later, she says, “I couldn’t have played a character more different from me, in every sense of the word, than Phyllis Schlafly, but the journey is to try and find a point of connection.”
As for the project’s warm reception, she emphasizes, “I’m really pleased that a lot of people have been able to look past the usual suspect angle of the series, which is ‘It’s about second-wave feminism and the Equal Rights Amendment’ — of course that’s what the narrative is about — to the fact that it’s actually talking about what connects us, what separates us, the toxic nature of political discourse as we know it and how women of all political persuasions have been shut out from that conversation, women of all races and sexual persuasions have been shut out of that conversation.” Then, in what seems like a polite rebuttal to Gloria Steinem’s recent criticism of the show, she adds, “It’s not a ‘catfight.’ It’s called ‘conversation’ and ‘dialogue,’ which is what men have when they talk about political issues.”