Interview : Cate Blanchett

Paul Dargan 8 September 2021

For years, Blanchett has balanced a burgeoning acting career with activism and it’s clear speaking her truth is a responsibility she doesn’t take lightly

Intensity is a word that Cate Blanchett is happy to invite into her safe space. While many in the elite of the entertainment world substitute passion and power on-screen for a life of luxurious leisure off it, the 52-year-old actress appears happy to push to the extremities, debating and challenging at every point along the route.

It’s not that the fiery Australian has a particular axe to grind when it comes to politics, environmentalism, sustainability, equality, feminism or activism; it’s just that she can see a better place on the horizon. 
“If I didn’t use my voice to try to make change or encourage others to, I think that would be really disingenuous,” she says.

“I hate that whole thing of famous people on their soapboxes—it’s not that; I just feel, sometimes, as a society, we are so much better than we make out!”

That stance—one that has permeated and grown through Blanchett’s time in the spotlight, which now dates back some three decades—makes her an appealing, yet at the same time intriguingly dangerous, interview subject.

In one exchange she can be a soft, even sombre global ambassador who answers with gentle empathy at the irregularities and injustices of the industry.
In another, she is fierce and fiery—take, for example, the suggestion that Cate might be regarded as an exemplar, a role model, for an industry that many feel still fails to do enough to affect some real, positive change...

"I hate that whole thing of famous people on their soapboxes—it’s not that; I just feel, sometimes, as a society, we are so much better than we make out!"

“I’m so sick of hearing, ‘You’re a strong woman, you are an inspiration in this, or that…’” she fires back, with almost alarming voracity.
“What exactly is the definition of that? What makes a woman strong, other than being able to lift a couple kilos? It’s a very glib, overused expression and I don’t really like it.”

The common denominator is that the bland virtue-signalling can be left for someone else; Cate Blanchett isn’t interested. Perhaps it was her four years working as Creative Director at the Sydney Theatre Company from 2008, bookending her two Oscars victories (for Best Actress in The Aviator (2005) and then Blue Jasmine (2014)).

“I think art can sometimes be a real distortion to real life, and that’s something we want—it’s an escape,” she says. “At other times, if you’re working on great texts with great people and great creative teams, you cannot help for the conversation and your understanding of the wider world to become elevated.”

“I’m immensely proud of the work that we produced there, but I’m even more grateful to have opened up a lens to people inspired by the world around us—all those different passions and perspectives.”

Driving forward with a purpose away from film has therefore become second-nature to the actress, with female empowerment often in the ascendancy. “I feel we are in an era where it’s very prominent; but always in the correct sense. And by that I mean genuine enablement not because it’s fashionable, or it’s a quota—but because this talent is being able to rise to the top and flourish.” 

“As a global entity of citizens, male and female, we have probably never felt less repressed or stuck in a system; yet those are not reasons to sit back and congratulate ourselves—to do that is to miss the point.”

In Blanchett’s defence, this was never someone who set out to be a campaigner, a voice. “One of those people,” she chimes in. “I just think that sometimes you have to stand up—you have to pick up the slack when you see others failing to.”

Blanchett in Blue Jasmine

Blanchett in Blue Jasmine

In reality, the actress shouldn’t be surprised at the position she finds herself in, however accidentally. Since first edging onto the scene in a riveting breakthrough as Elizabeth over 20 years ago, earning her first Academy Award nomination, Blanchett has enjoyed a reputation for subverting expectation and ricocheting through the genres.

From stylish noir The Talented Mr Ripley through to a powerful turn as tragic journalist Veronica Guerin in the eponymous 2003 biopic, across Hanna and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, to subsequent further big-ticket nominations for Notes on a Scandal, I’m Not There, The Golden Age, Thor: Ragnarok and Ocean’s 8, Blanchett has been known to always push the envelope.

"When I came out of drama school, I didn’t think I’d ever make a film at all"

“When I came out of drama school, I didn’t think I’d ever make a film at all. I’d always hoped for a long career in theatre, and so anytime I make a film, it’s like a pleasant surprise, even now.
“So you can see why, when I get behind other initiatives, I take the same view. I never expected any of this to work, and in the same way now I feel I have nothing to lose from pushing on.”

Having the courage of her convictions has certainly stood Blanchett in good stead. She will always be an actress first and foremost, yet the plaudits that have emanated from her efforts have escalated her into a whole new realm of its own.

“There’s an inevitability that you end up accelerating yourself into becoming this beacon that people want to reach out to and be guided by,” she says. “My opinion on most things isn’t any more qualified than anyone else’s—but if it means others can come out of the darkness and have the confidence to speak forward too, then I guess I will say, ‘Why not?’”.

In real terms, the star is one of the movie industry’s best exemplars of what she calls “personal change”. While others may go no further than reeling off the staid mission statements of the big global social and environmental organisations, Blanchett’s focus is very much more centred on what she can affect every day, even in small ways, with sustainability at the heart of it.

Blanchett in The Aviator alongside Jude Law

Many years ago, she began to make subtle changes to home habits in order to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. Initially that meant switching her household power supply to an accredited company, GreenPower. She then began washing her clothes in cold water, invested in roof insulation, pledged to walk more and drive less, and even avoided unnecessary domestic air flights, insisting as well to purchase carbon offsets.

“Many of these changes came about when it dawned on me that my children were going to be growing up in a world which just didn’t seem to care for their long-term welfare, and for me that was absolutely heart-breaking,” admits Blanchett, referencing Dashiell, 19, Roman, 17, Ignatius, 13, and little Edith, who she and husband Andrew Upton adopted in 2015.

“I try to teach my children about things they need to reflect on as they make their way in life. They do not have the same carefree attitude to the world or the environment that we were afforded as kids—it’s not a privilege they’ll have. “And sure, sometimes the advice goes in, other times it gets rejected out of hand, but it’s there and it’s real.”

Blanchett also found herself a leading advocate for LGBT+ rights when she made the film Carol in 2015. “I look at the progress we made with that movie, the conversations that were started, and I’m very proud about how much good feeling came about.”

As Queen Elizabeth I in Elizabeth (1998)

“At the same time I am astounded how much further society has come in those few years; and yet the rules over sexuality, gender and acceptance seem infinitely more complicated now than ever before.

“That can be frustrating—to see how far you’ve come, yet to realise the whole landscape is so much more complex these days. And yet, here we are talking about it, so it’s no bad thing.”

As for the conversations the actress’s upcoming projects may provoke, there is Guillermo del Torro’s psychological thriller Nightmare Alley, based on William Gresham’s 1946 novel.

She then joins an all-star cast, including Timothée Chalamet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep and Jonah Hill for Don’t Look Up, a comedy about an approaching comet that threatens the Earth’s inhabitants; with action adventure Borderlands, drama TÁR, and coming-of-age story Armageddon Time all slated for next year.

"Blanchett is also keen to readjust the mindset that one person winning means another losing"

Once again, the recurring blueprint for the actress is diversity. “For me, it has always been the case that I need to keep changing, keep evolving and moving through a set of different gears. “My fear of getting stuck doing something I don’t like, for a long time, is real,” she laughs. 

“And of course I’m lucky enough to be able to do that—it’s still the case in many industries, jobs, cities, towns and villages that your gender, your sexual persuasion, your colour, your race is the first thing that walks through the door. 

“I would love to get to a point where that isn’t what people see and feel, but I feel it’s some way off.” Blanchett is also keen to readjust the mindset that one person winning means another losing; although, ironically, that is unequivocally the case when it comes to being cast in one of the actress’s Hollywood blockbusters!

“I feel we need to try to steer ourselves away from the idea that we’re all in direct competition with each other. Take the sexism debate—I don’t believe equality for women means to denigrate from men in any way—I truly feel men can benefit from it enormously.”

“I do think that many of the steps forward we’ve made have been rescinded,” she says. “Conservatism is affecting the way women perceive who they are in the world. It’s going to continue being a challenge going forward, but progress has been made… some progress.”

Blanchett at the Venice Film Festival last year

And while Blanchett is not a huge fan of the digital age, she admits the tools we have at our disposal are far greater than any we had in the past. “We’ve definitely got a better chance now to do something important than we did before,” she notes.

“Social networks can be very useful on some occasions—they drive campaigns, build impact, scoop up awareness and connect amazing people.”
“I just wish that there was a way of cleansing what’s on there. 

It’s the reason I stay away from Twitter and Facebook—I compare it to graffiti… you might read one or two things that are interesting but most of the stuff that’s out there isn’t very useful. That’s the challenge we have as people speaking up for environmental and social change—it’s easy to become bored by what’s being said, and we have to keep the message entertaining and engaging.”

If Blanchett’s level of output for global issues follows the same fullness and diversity as do her film choices, this is surely someone who will retain all the respect and relevance that’s made her such a focal figure in the entertainment world.

She concludes, perfectly: “We’ve just got to keep turning the pages of the script.”

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