Rome: Cate Blanchett Defends Straight Actors Playing Gay Characters

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Cate Blanchett

The actress said she will "fight to the death for the right to suspend disbelief."

Cate Blanchett came to the Rome Film Festival on Friday to participate in a “Close Encounter” discussion with the fest’s artistic director Antonio Monda.

Blanchett talked about her life’s work, joking that she had to act to find Brad Pitt sexy in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and admitting that she was so nervous to receive a phone call to work with Martin Scorsese in The Aviator that she accepted the role without even understanding that she had committed to play Katharine Hepburn.

While looking at footage from Todd Haynes’ Carol, based on Patricia Highsmith's novel about a forbidden love affair between two women, Blanchett said she had never been asked more questions about her sexuality than when she played a lesbian character. Many interviewers during the Carol junket seemed to imply or question whether having a lesbian experience was essential to understanding such a role.

For Blanchett, she believes that defies the whole point of acting. “It also speaks to something that I’m quite passionate about in storytelling generally, but in film specifically, is that film can be quite a literal medium,” she said.

“And I will fight to the death for the right to suspend disbelief and play roles beyond my experience. I think reality television and all that that entails had an extraordinary impact, a profound impact on the way we view the creation of character,” she continued. “I think it provides a lot of opportunity, but the downside of it is that we now, particularly in America, I think, we expect and only expect people to make a profound connection to a character when it’s close to their experience.”

Outside of acting ability, Hollywood has been criticized by multiple human rights groups in recent years for giving its limited gay roles to straight actors, as well as giving transgender roles to cisgender actors.

As Sir Ian McKellen has pointed out, no openly gay man has ever won a best actor Oscar, whereas many straight actors have taken home the trophy for playing gay parts: Charlize Theron in Monster or Sean Penn in Milk, among others. The Advocate has pointed out 52 straight people who received Oscar nominations for playing gay characters, including both Blanchett and Rooney Mara for Carol.

“Part of being an actor to me, it’s an anthropological exercise. So you get to examine a time frame, a set of experiences, an historical event that you didn’t know anything about,” said Blanchett. “But also I'm about to play a character whose political persuasions are entirely different to my own, but part of the pleasure is trying to work out what makes her tick.”

The actress is hopeful that more gay films are being greenlighted today, saying that Carol was difficult to get off the ground when it was in development, even with herself and Mara attached as leads.

Carol was a real labor of love for me. I’d read the Patricia Highsmith story ages ago, when I was in high school. And the film, I think now would be made in a heartbeat, but eight years ago, it was a very difficult film to get up,” Blanchett said. “Two women, both of whom are of lesbian-ish persuasion in the 1950s, which is like, ‘Who wants to go and see that? Only 12-year-old boys go to movies.' Thank goodness we’re changing the demographic of the critics who write for Rotten Tomatoes.”

She added, “For me, if something is difficult to make, it’s like a red rag to a bull. It makes me want to make it more.”

The festival continues through Oct. 28.