Cate Blanchett: ‘Why complex women inspire me’

Cate's latest role as a self-centred runaway mum suffering a creative crisis is one that resonated deeply for the mother of four.

If you are scandalised by the notion of an unfaithful-to-the-book film adaptation, you might not get along with Cate Blanchett.

“Why even bother?” she said recently, of films that take little to no creative liberties. “The only reason to turn something from a book to the screen is if you’ve got something more to say.”

The actress was being asked about her starring role in Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Based on Maria Semple’s best-selling book of the same name, the movie, which hit theatres earlier this year, tells the story of an agoraphobic architect wrestling with her own wasted potential as her daughter, for whom she put her career ambitions aside, prepares to leave home for university.

The restrictions of the medium mean the film’s plot necessarily diverges from that of the novel.

“But it’s tangentially fascinating,” reasons Cate, whose true-blue Aussie background mitigates the pretentiousness of her frequently over-the-top turns of phrase. “It’s not a replication because the novel exists!”

Cate, it’s fair to say, doesn’t do replicas. Having shot to fame playing Queen Elizabeth I in 1997’s Elizabeth and fearful of being typecast, the now 50-year-old actress turned down a number of period films in the years that followed, explaining that in rehashing “pre-masticated versions” of previous roles, “there was no potential for discovering anything new. There was no risk.”

Her breakthrough role as Queen Elizabeth I of England in Elizabeth

This is not to say there’s no common thread in the roles she’s taken on since. “Malice and mania” is how one journalist described it. “The King Lear end of the spectrum” is how it’s summed up by Cate herself.

We might instead comment on the ‘complexity’ of characters like Elizabeth‘s headstrong virgin queen, Notes on a Scandal‘s cradle-snatching high school teacher, Carol’s bi-curious housewife, and Blue Jasmine‘s socialite brought low.

Gripped by creative failure and, according to Cate, “experiencing the kind of identity crisis that comes with recognising this enormous gulf between who she thinks she was and who she really is”, Bernadette is yet another highly complex character.

As the awol Bernadette in Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

“She’s got this relentless negativity that’s acerbic and hilarious and slightly unhinged,” she explains, pointing out that anyone who’s made professional sacrifices for the sake of family will relate to Bernadette’s despair, and the drastic decisions born from it.

“We all have a certain image of ourselves and we’re all clinging to a particular perception of ourselves that is different from the reality.”

You might think it’s a generous ‘we’ – secretly denoting ‘you and I’, not ‘she’ of the double Academy Award winner, worth $134 million, who has been happily married for 22 years with four children.

But as it happens, Cate is no stranger to a career-centred existential crisis. She certainly said as much to fellow A-Lister Julia Roberts, who in a piece for Interview earlier this year, elicited from Cate an admission that Bernadette’s “creative shut-down” resonated deeply.

Question time

It arose, however, that the trigger for Cate wasn’t exactly creativity or a lack thereof. Instead, questions of deeper fulfilment and its sources were raised and debated, with the Australian saying to the American, “When you’re inside a richly lived life, you suddenly think, ‘Do I need to pretend to live inside these other experiences?'”

Without dismissing her career and the associated experiences that have added to the richness of her life (one of her happiest days was spent kayaking in Greenland, shooting scenes for Bernadette), she makes it clear that acting means taking the good with the bad. And that ‘the bad’ isn’t something she is willing to put up with forever.

“When I was younger,” she told Julia, “I would wonder why the older actors I admired kept talking about quitting. Now I realise it’s because they want to maintain a connection to their last shreds of sanity.

With husband Andrew Upton

As I get older, I ask myself if I still want to submit to the shamanistic end of this profession and go completely into madness… I’m on the proverbial couch thinking, ‘Do I want to go in that direction, or do I actually want to live?'”

There’s no question of what the family-oriented actress would do were she to give up the craft and make ‘living’ her sole focus. But first, a brief history: Having begun her acting career in Sydney, where she met and married fellow thespian Andrew Upton, Cate relocated to the UK in the late ’90s to pursue the parts – including Elizabeth – that would make her a star of international proportions.

Then, in 2006, when Andrew was invited to take over as artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company, the couple returned down under, and Cate spent what she calls “the most enjoyable six years of [her] career” working and raising their young family in an eco-friendly mansion in the North Sydney suburb of Hunters Hill.

Family happiness

When work opportunities called them back to the UK in 2016, purchasing an idyllic piece of real estate in rural Sussex complete with a lawn and a lake was a no-brainer. It’s from here that Cate and Andrew have continued to raise sons Dashiell, 17, Roman, 15, and Ignatius, 11, as well as daughter Edith, four, who they adopted in 2015.

“It wasn’t about biology,” Cate explained to the Daily Telegraph. “We felt we had space, enough emotional room in our hearts and we’re privileged enough to have the capacity to have another child.”

A big proponent of ‘having it all’, she likes her children to see her working. It is, however, important to her to be a highly-engaged parent which, by celebrity standards, means opting into the tasks she could presumably delegate – school drop-offs and pick-ups; making her kids’ lunches; cooking the family dinner.

At times, ingredients are a bone of contention. A vegetarian for a number of years, Cate says her “Machiavellian” plan to turn her children off meat by adopting two pet piglets was a huge failure.

“I explained to them that if they wanted to eat bacon or sausages, that’s where it would come from. They were fine with that and I was horrified!”

But despite having spent “a lot of time running away from being an actor”, it transpires that Cate, unlike Bernadette, has enough creative outlets to keep her in the game for the time being.

She recently remarked that her work with visual artists and choreographers was “more rewarding at the moment than the cookie-cutter projects” – a hangover, perhaps, from helping her husband helm the STC, where she developed a taste for running the show.

This doesn’t mean she’s relegating herself to standing behind the camera, or even swearing off big blockbuster films. And in fact, come 2020, she’s set to appear on the small screen for the first time, playing conservative commentator Phyllis Schlafly in FX’s Mrs America.

A nine-episode limited series about the rise of feminism in the 1970s and the push for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), of which the anti-feminist was a key opponent, the production is already attracting positive attention from critics.

With women’s rights issues a hot topic in today’s America where, due in large part to the work of Phyllis, the ERA remains unratified, the show’s subject matter rings close to home.

Cate – who is also an executive producer on the project – says that the opportunity to “peel back the layers of this recent period of history” couldn’t have come at “a more appropriate time”.

Sisterhood in film

Time, after all, is up. Somewhat controversially, you won’t find Cate making specific statements about the movement’s major targets. Reluctant to wade in on Harvey Weinstein or Woody Allen, who directed her in Blue Jasmine and who continues to deny the abuse allegations levelled at him by his own daughter, she argues that contributing to the “white noise” already before the courts would be “unhelpful to the goal [she is] ultimately interested in,” which is to see justice served.

She does, however, speak positively about how the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements have enabled women to rewrite the power structure. “It’s a matriarchy,” she said to Julia Roberts about the current sense of sisterhood in the film industry and beyond.

“It’s not about competition – it’s about collaboration.” Recounting to Harper’s Bazaar the tale of a male director who pitted female cast members against one another in what she calls a “classic divide and conquer”, she notes that such an approach wouldn’t fly any more, “because women are talking… that’s the biggest, most profound change I’ve felt. It’s shifted things in a really permanent way.”

She adds that with more women in the writers’ room, we can expect more female-centred narratives.

“These characters are being placed in very interesting backdrops and the stories that are being told about them are more sophisticated and complex,” she told Vogue UK in March.

Just as they did at the very start of her career, complex women, it seems, will continue to intrigue and inspire Cate into the future – and not just from an acting perspective, but from an ageing one, too.

“I don’t think about ageing at all until someone brings it up,” she said in the same Vogue UK interview. “When I think of some of the faces that inspire me most, it’s Louise Bourgeois and Georgia O’Keeffe. I’m looking into the spirit of the woman and that’s what I love.”

Yes, she’s realistic about how getting older will impact her work.

“You can’t hope to be of relevance to every generation,” she says. But when it comes to the experience she brings to the table, it occurs that age is, in a sense, Cate’s biggest asset.

And if Bernadette is your touchstone? It’s safe to say she isn’t going anywhere.

Related stories