Cate Blanchett pencils in some time for herself

With three movies out a nd three in the pipeline, settling down to a single job near her home may feel rather exotic to the busy actor.

Published January 14, 2007

Swallowing bites of lunch between fielding a reporter's questions about her three current movies, Cate Blanchett was simultaneously trying to calm down her two young children. They could be heard squealing in the background, jet-lagged after a marathon flight from their home in Sydney, Australia (14 hours to Los Angeles, then five more to Manhattan, after a layover).

Such multitasking - or at least switching from one focus to the next - doesn't seem to faze Blanchett, 37, who recently made her directorial debut with a revival of Harold Pinter's A Kind of Alaska, half of a double bill of one-acts at the Sydney Theatre Company. Along with her husband, playwright Andrew Upton, who directed David Mamet's Reunion, Blanchett will take over the role of co-artistic director of the theater beginning in 2008, allowing herself three months off each year to pursue outside projects. Rather than a renunciation of film work, however, Blanchett prefers to think of it as a welcome return to normalcy.

"A lot of sane actors only do one job a year anyway," she points out. What's more, she's looking forward to settling down and educating her children in one place after a lifestyle she calls "peripatetic to an extraordinary degree," a result of what she estimates must have been one move every five months over the past few years. "It'll be exotic," she jokes of her future sedentary life down under. "It's wildly exotic to me."

An odd sentiment, perhaps, coming from someone who can be seen currently playing a married British high school teacher who has an affair with a 15-year-old student (Notes on a Scandal, which opened Friday in the Tampa Bay area); an American tourist who is accidentally shot while vacationing in Morocco (Babel, currently in theaters); and a German woman who turns to prostitution in post-World War II Berlin (The Good German; no local opening date yet).

Character and beyond

Of the three, Blanchett has described the part of Sheba in Scandal as "the hardest journey of connection" she has ever had with a character. Part of it was what the actor calls the character's "desire to be exposed," an impulse that goes against the grain of Blanchett's natural desire for privacy. "My problem is I'm not an exhibitionist. That's why I'm always saying I'll give it up. It takes a lot for me to get up in front of other people and do it."

Beyond that, Blanchett was turned off by the idea of a grown woman having sex with a boy. "I think I was surprised at how strongly morally repugnant the whole thing was to me," she says, while careful to add that she doesn't have to identify with a character to take a part. "I'm not an actress who feels that I have to relate the character's experience to my own life, because I think, in the end, that's a very reductive way to think about a character."

Character, in fact, isn't typically the primary thing that draws her to a project. Rather, she says, she's interested in how she can contribute to the work as a whole. That's largely what persuaded her to take a part in Alejandro Gonzalez Iqarritu's Babel, an invitation she initially resisted because the character spends 95 percent of her screen time moaning and bleeding on the floor of a hut. "It became a bit of a running joke with Alejandro," Blanchett says, recalling that she "would turn up to the same room in the village and say, 'Where do you want me today? Oh, I guess you'll be wanting me in the corner, covered in blood, lying on the mat.' "

It was only a three-week shoot, but an intense and physically demanding one in the middle of the desert. The surreal low point came, according to Blanchett, when she realized that the crew was pouring real "meat juice" on her to attract flies. "At one point, I saw this fellow with an old water bottle with a whole lot of blow flies buzzing around it, and I realized he was the fly wrangler, who would sit behind where I could see him and release the flies on cue to be attracted to the wound."

The acting muscles exercised in that part - "How many shades of red can I paint? How many definitions of pain can I underline?" is how Blanchett characterizes it - were the "complete antithesis" of those utilized in The Good German. That plot-oriented, black-and-white thriller is "all about what a character did and said," and not what was going on inside her head.

In addition to Blanchett's three movies in theaters, she has three more on the horizon: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a romantic fantasy about a man who is growing younger; the part of the Virgin Queen in Shekhar Kapur's The Golden Age, a reprise of her title role in 1998's Elizabeth; and one of several actors playing Bob Dylan in I'm Not There.

Leaning on experience

In that last film, a "gloriously insane idea" due out this year from "the screwball brain" of Todd Haynes, she says, Blanchett shares screen time with Richard Gere, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger and others, playing several aspects of the singer-songwriter over his long career. Blanchett plays the mid 1960s "electric" Dylan.

"I think the process of connecting to a character happens by osmosis," says Blanchett, who says the thing she misses most is the luxury of lengthy character research. "I think, after having children, my preparation time just became a lot more economical," she says. "There's a lot of things which I loved doing - the reading around, the chatting, the long talks late into the evening, which you now can't do. But in the end, I think a lot of that stuff is to stave off anxiety, and I think the more I've done, the less anxious I've become."