Cate Blanchett on Her Oscar-winning Role

Posted on 05 March 2014

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By Danny Peary; Photo by Brad Balfour

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Cate Blanchett’s selection as Best Actress was probably the least surprising moment at Sunday evening’s Academy Awards, a show full of predictability.  I knew half-way through Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine that the great actress would finally receive the Oscar that has eluded her.   How deserving she was.  Blanchett gives a tour-de-force performance as a combination of Blanche Dubois and Ruth Madoff, a brittle, selfish, self-delusional New York socialite who loses everything but her knack for pretense after her unfaithful, unscrupulous financier husband (Alec Baldwin) is arrested and she comes to stay with her down-to-earth sister, Ginger (the wonderful Sally Hawkins, who got a Best Supporting Actress nomination).  Prior to the film’s New York City release, Blanchett took part in a press conference with Peter Sarsgaard (whose rich politician falls for the dishonest Jasmine), Andrew Dice Clay (Ginger’s unsophisticated husband) and Louis C.K. (one of Ginger’s suitors after her breakup). Finally I am keeping my promise to post more of the conference. Below are the questions Blanchett was asked and her responses.  I note the one question I was able to pose in the crowded room, as well as my editorial annotations.

Q: Woody Allen said this was one of the rare cases when he wrote a part with a specific actor in mind.

Cate Blanchett: Is that true? He never told me. I just got a call from my agent saying that Woody had a script he’d like me to read.  So Woody and I spoke on the phone for about twenty-five minutes and he said, “Can I send it to you?”  I said, “Yes, I’d love to read it,” and he said, “Well, call me when you finish it.”  I read it straight away and thought it was brilliant. Then we spoke for about forty-five seconds and I agreed to do the film. I met him when he started doing camera tests in San Francisco.

Q: How was it working with him once shooting started?

CB: That first day was awful, just awful.  But it bonded all of us and made us want to do better the next day.  In the end, there’s an obvious reverence for Woody and his body of work, and I think the danger of that is the set can become a sacred place where people are sort of laying their offerings at his feet. Woody’s a brilliant dramatist, apart from being a filmmaker, and much of his direction is the script itself, which allowed him to get out of the way on the set, as he likes to do.  I actually found Woody to be really forthcoming.  When you ask him a question, he will give you an answer, and when you set up that dialogue it then becomes really enjoyable.  Then he felt free to say, “That was awful,” and I felt free to say, “Okay, then what are you after?”   I might suggest something and he might then say, “We will try that.”  So he was forced to direct me!

Q: Were you worried at all?

CB: I was worried.  Woody would always say to me, “The audience has already left the theater.”

Q: He’s famous for firing people.

CB: For firing people? You just assume it’s going to happen, but you make it to day thirteen and it’s going well, and then you make it to day twenty, and then it’s the end of the movie. It was like the Disabled Olympics.

Q: To play Jasmine, did you immerse yourself in the stories of people who’d been affected by the recent economic downturn?  Or did the character come from somewhere else?

CB: It’s a contemporary fable. In part, Woody catered to the zeitgeist—and who hasn’t followed the Madoff affair and doesn’t know the epic nature of that catastrophe?  There are thousands of stories he could draw from for Jasmine. Those reference points are there to be drawn upon and that’s what we did.  But also, there’s a strong line in the film from Jasmine to women in American theater who walk along the border between fantasy and reality. Like Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire and Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.  But in the end, you’re acting in a Woody Allen movie, knowing he’s created some of the most iconic characters in his previous films.  So you just play your part.

Q: Having starred in A Streetcar Named Desire at BAM, what are the similarities you see between Jasmine and Blanche Dubois?

CB: Woody never brought up Streetcar. But the other actors on set–a lot who worked in theater–were talking about the set-up [in which a broken woman comes to stay with her sister] being similar to Streetcar. There are parallels, but the texture, the tone, the rhythm, the character portrayals, and the details are quintessentially Woody Allen, not Tennessee Williams.

Danny Peary: While playing Jasmine, were you feeling sympathetic toward her and protective of her?  Or did you think, as I did, that she is deservingly—at least to a point–getting her comeuppance?

CB: I don’t think it’s particularly useful to fall in love with or detest your character. I think it’s up to the audience to have those feelings.  If you’re a bit sentimental, you’re not going to present any nuances. There are plenty of traits to be presented in Jasmine, but in the end her flaw is tragic. [Allen says her flaw is her inability to see what’s right in front of her—DP] Oedipus, for example, fucks up royally–he marries his mother, for God’s sake–but it’s a tragedy because he does it unwittingly. Jasmine is the unwitting agent of her own downfall, in a way. She is riddled with guilt and rage and fear. She’s on Xanax and drinks vodka. And then you add to that the situational aspect. Woody often places his characters in absurd situations. For instance the scene where Peter Sarsgaard’s character [Dwight] and Jasmine are in the car together is completely absurd.  But you have to play it honestly. The situation is real and the stakes are high.

Q: That’s the core of the tragedy, I think, the deception. [Each of the characters is being deceived, deceiving someone else, or deceiving themselves. It’s a dominant element in each story.-DP]

CB: That is what the film actually delves into quite deeply.  It’s what the characters choose not to see. It’s not just people on the Upper East Side, or people with unreal aspirations, but it’s also Ginger, played by Sally, who chooses not to see certain aspects of who Jasmine is. So, going back to the previous question about whether Jasmine is sympathetic or not, there are different ways of looking at A Streetcar.  So you can see that Blanche is a compulsive liar.  Or you can see that the world is set up to stamp out the poetry in her soul.  Is there something intensely dysfunctional about the world in which she finds herself?  Similarly, Jasmine doesn’t land in a San Francisco where there are a bunch of people who’ve got their shit together. Everyone has issues and everyone is fooling themselves to some degree and wanting to live fantasies that are better than their daily existences. Jasmine does this to a spectacular extent, but they all do it.

Q:  Talk about Jasmine and her reliance on fantasy and delusion.

CB: It’s interesting that there’s a level of delusion and fantasy that exists with Ginger as well as Jasmine.  They were both adopted into a lower middle-class family.  Jeanette changed her name to Jasmine, and there began the fiction.  She set about creating a fantasy world and being a princess.

Q: Talk about working with Sally Hawkins.

CB: I absolutely love Sally. She was an absolute ally, and for the first week we cried into our beers together because we thought we were really screwing this up.  She’s wonderful, wonderful actress and one of the kindest, most generous people I have ever worked with.  I don’t know if I would like to take her to a hotel and have sex with her, but many would.

Q:  Did you think about how the film will play to the slightly younger demographic that likes Frances Ha and HBO’s Girls, which both have younger anti-heroines?
CB (laughing): Younger than me, so to say?  Thanks, just rub it in.  Girls is one of my all-time favorite shows, so even though I am a geriatric, I still can connect to a younger crowd.  I think Woody’s genius is that while he seems to be writing about a particular set of people from a very particular socio-economic, intellectual background, he somehow writes them as Everyman and Everywoman. They are archetypical as well as being utterly unique and specific.  Even though his films are really personal, they resonate with a much broader audience.  That’s why people of all ages have loved his films for so many decades. Even though Blue Jasmine seems to be only about the demise or fall from grace of a privileged rich girl, there are a lot of people who have fantasized about what it means to live in America but see that it has blown apart in the last couple of years.  There’s a lot that young people can relate to.  There are people of all ages in the audience who have had to reshape their lives because of the economic circumstances that have been forced upon them.  Like Jasmine, they need to really look at who they are and what their aspirations are and decide how they are going to pit themselves against the world.

Q: Has achieving fame influenced your choice of movie roles?

CB: It doesn’t influence me. That’s why I haven’t made a movie in a while and have been out of this environment for nearly six years. That’s why I run a theater company with my husband in Sydney. I didn’t do Blue Jasmine because I was courting fame but to work with Woody and the cast.  I didn’t do it because it would get me anywhere in particular.  I did it for the experience.

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