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On Thursday morning I met up in Los Angeles with Cate Blanchett, the star of Woody Allen‘s latest film Blue Jasmine — which opens today — to discuss her life, career and performance as the new film’s titular character, for which she has already garnered some of the best reviews of her career. In the dramedy, she plays an ex-Park Avenue socialite now in financial and emotional shambles whose prior existence — before her husband was exposed as a sexual philanderer and a Bernie Madoff-style fraud — is revealed in flashbacks, until the past connects with the presence in the most unexpected of ways.
Blanchett, of course, is already firmly ensconced as one of the finest actresses of her generation. Since the Australian-born thesp’s breakthrough at the end of the 20th century, she has played everything from the Queen of England, in both Elizabeth (1998) and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), earning best actress Oscar noms for both, to an elf in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003); from Katharine Hepburn, in The Aviator (2004), for which she won the best supporting actress Oscar, to Bob Dylan, in I’m Not There (2007), for which she was nominated for it again; not to mention a scandalous teacher in Notes on a Scandal (2006), which bagged yet another Oscar nom, a tourist whose shooting sparks international crises in Babel (2006) and a woman in love with a backward-aging man in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008).
Most famous actors have at least a few duds sprinkled among the highlights of their resumes, but Blanchett has a remarkably high batting-average; indeed, her presence seems to almost guarantee that a movie is worth seeing. The 44-year-old says that there is no real secret to her consistent track record. “The only criteria I’ve really had is: If I know how to do it at the beginning, then I think someone else should do it. You always want to think, ‘This is an unsolvable problem,’ because then you’ve got kind of a dangerous, dynamic relationship to the material. It’s the adrenaline of risking screwing it up — which, from my perspective, I’m usually doing. For me, that’s what keeps me going.”
For the five years leading up to Blue Jasmine, she stopped “going” as much as she had been, due to familial growth and professional commitments Down Under. She popped up in Robin Hood (2010) and made what were essentially cameo appearances in Hanna (2011) and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), but otherwise she was radio silent in Hollywood. “Now I’ve got three children,” she explains, “so your relationship to your work and the time that you’ve got to do it — it utterly changes. My work ethic has become more economical.” Additionally, she says, “The last five years I’ve been focusing on theater — running theater companies with my husband [writer Andrew Upton, whom she married in 1997].
But then came a call from Woody Allen — and two minutes later (literally), without even reading the script, she agreed to come to back to star in Blue Jasmine.
Allen is famous for coaxing great performances out of actresses: nine actresses have received 10 nominations (lead or supporting) for their work in his films, five of which resulted in wins — Diane Keaton won best actress for Annie Hall (1977), Dianne Wiest won best supporting actress for both Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Mira Sorvino won best supporting actress for Mighty Aphrodite (1996) and Penelope Cruz won best supporting actress for Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008). Consequently, virtually every film actress in the world dreams of the chance to act in a film for Allen, and Blanchett was no exception.
When she eventually read the script, she realized that she had her work cut out for her. Because of the structure of the film, she realized she had to carefully map out and perfect “the calibration of the character’s breakdown.” Moreover, she would have to get to better know the sort of woman who she would be portraying, which led her to spend several weeks in New York observing the Upper East Side set in their natural environment — restaurants, shops, etc. — before the production commenced.
Interestingly, Allen elected to shoot the scenes in Jasmine’s present (in San Francisco) before the scenes in Jasmine’s past (in New York), a decision she initially doubted. “I thought it would’ve been great to have done the New York stuff first. But, in a way, because Jasmine is the architect of her own downfall, in a lot of ways, her present experience makes her look back, like the audience does, thinking, ‘Was it such a happy time? Was it always a fantasy? Was she ever really a princess?’ ” Blanchett now concedes, ‘It was probably a good thing. The knowledge of what had gone on in San Francisco informed the backstory. It wasn’t purely happy. There was something vibrating underneath.”
Blanchett says that Allen is as economical a director as David Fincher, her Benjamin Button director who is famous for demanding dozens of takes of virtually every scene, is not. “97 percent of his direction is in the script,” she says. “You know that the script is not going to change. The architecture of it, you can trust. It’s a life raft.” As for his aversion to takes, Blanchett says it is real — “Jasmine was certainly a challenging pace. Woody has a particular filmmaking rhythm, and you just have to be on” — but that he is not inflexible, and she occasionally pushed for more. “I’m never satisfied,” she says. “I’d often say to him, ‘Can we please just do one more so that I might [emotionally] break a bit more or break a bit less?’ “
In the end, she nailed not only the emotional beats of the character, but even the physical transformation that such a person might endure — namely, looking worn down and zombie-like — an approach that might not have appealed to a vainer actress. Blanchett, on the other hand, has never seen herself as possessing movie star looks, even if she has flawless skin and cheekbones on which one could sharpen a pencil. “I didn’t think I was that girl. I’m peculiar-looking, I think,” she notes with a laugh before adding, “Well, my husband is happy.” But, she goes on, “I think it’s lucky as an actor that you can sometimes look decent-looking, and then you can also look strange and, dare I say, ugly. I think that’s good as an actor.”
Many have likened damaged and dysfunctional Jasmine to Blanche DuBois, the troubled woman at the center of Tennessee Williams‘ A Streetcar Named Desire (whom Blanchett played in Liv Ullmann‘s 2009-10 off-Broadway production), and to Ruth Madoff, the wife of ponzi-scheme orchestrator Bernie. Blanchett acknowledges that she and her co-stars were certainly cognizant of the parallels while making the film but insists that Allen never intended for them to model their performances after anyone else. For instance, he says that she and co-star Bobby Cannavale even suggested to him that they add some sexual tension between their characters to play up the Blanche-and-Stanley dynamic, but Allen nixed it. “He wasn’t interested in that.”
“It’s a Woody Allen creation,” she says. “It’s absolutely through his prism of understanding, his sense of humor and his understanding of how absurd and tragic life is.”
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