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For Cate Blanchett, every role is a fragrant one.
The Academy Award-winning actress chooses a different fragrance for each of her characters, immediately imbuing them with a sense of identity for her.
This story first appeared in the May 2, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“Jasmine smelled of fear and desperation and sweat,” Blanchett said of her role in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” that won her the Oscar for best actress. “When we were doing ‘The Maids,’ Isabel’s scent was Fracas. It wasn’t a scent that I personally would wear, but I wore it every night on stage. They’re never things that I would personally wear — because scents operate on such a psychological, aspirational, dreamlike part of ourselves. I think it’s another way of subtly shifting you into a different mind-set.”
And, ideally for her, a slightly uncomfortable one. Blanchett, the face of Giorgio Armani’s women’s scent Sì, has won accolades for playing everything from a monarch to a CIA agent and more, and with almost every role the down-to-earth actress aims to push herself.
She confesses she even felt insecure about how her role in “Blue Jasmine” would be received. “The script was one of the best scripts I’ve ever read — you know, it’s Woody — but I just felt that I’d fallen flat on my face. When we were shooting, Sally [Hawkins, a costar] and I kept saying, ‘It’s really nice to have known you on the deathbed of your career,’” Blanchett said with a laugh during an interview with WWD.
Little did she know that later she would gather an armload of awards for the role. “All of that [awards] stuff was utterly delightful and bewildering to me — it’s always a shock and a surprise.”
Blanchett is one of only six actresses to win both best supporting actress and best actress Academy Awards, and she has been nominated for many more. So what went through her mind when her name was called this year as best actress? “You’re just so present in that moment, when they start reading the list of people out. You think, ‘Well, this is it, it’s going to go one way or another, and there’s a lot of scrutiny.’ I was intensely relieved and then intensely elated. As wonderful and as heady and as rewarding and exhilarating as it is to win an Academy Award, if you think you deserve it any more than any of those other women, or if you think you’ve arrived somewhere in particular, I think you’re having the wrong conversation with yourself. It’s more like, ‘What’s the next challenge?’”
Despite the Oscar she picked up for “Blue Jasmine,” Blanchett brushes off the suggestion that she carried the film. “Look at who I was working alongside, and I don’t think it was a coincidence that every single actor there had theater bones. Bobby Cannavale, Sally [Hawkins], Alec [Baldwin] and Max Casella…everyone had theater bones. Andrew Dice Clay has terrifying comic bones. And I think that somehow Woody [Allen] wanted to harness that sense of ensemble. It was really an amazing bunch of people. We’d knock things out, throw ideas around — it was a very, very intense shoot, but it was a very playful shoot. And I think it was because of those theater bones.”
Allen was a key reason she wanted the role, added Blanchett. “When Woody Allen calls, or Martin Scorsese calls, or Ingmar Bergman, if he could call — you take that call, and you read it, and you read it with the knowledge of their body of work,” she said. “And I think the challenge when you read a Woody Allen script is that he is the guy who made ‘Interiors’ and ‘Bananas,’ so which way is this going to fall? And so the tonal thing is the challenge, and that’s the conversation that I was trying to have with him on a day-to-day basis: is ‘Where are we heading?’ But what I really relished about him is and the other actors is that we were finding it as we went along.”
She particularly liked that Allen didn’t coddle his actors. “There’s not an ounce of preciousness in the way that he talks to himself about what he does or in the way he treats other actors,” Blanchett said. “He’s got a stand-up brutality to the work, which I found really refreshing. He warmed up — obviously Alec knew him, and Sally had worked with him once before briefly, but the rest of us hadn’t. Once he realized that the questions I was asking him weren’t just a basic question of ‘Do you like what I’m doing?’ but I was actually asking him genuine questions about the rhythm of a scene or was he going to cut to this moment from there, what was it being juxtaposed against, that they were pertinent, relevant questions worth answering, then we started to have a dialogue, and it was very rewarding. I find his frankness and the fact that he doesn’t treat actors with kid gloves refreshing, because somehow you become very infantilized in the film industry, and I think actors are much more robust.”
Another creative partnership Blanchett treasures is that of her relationship with Giorgio Armani — both this scent deal, in which she appears in the advertising for Sì, and his apparel. “I admired him from afar for so long — you build a picture of what the person will be, almost an ivory tower,” said Blanchett. “When I first actually met him, he was fitting me for a dress backstage after a Privé show — I think it was the first Privé show. He immediately put me at ease. He got down on the floor and started measuring my hemline. He didn’t have someone else do it, he did it himself. He was there — the great man — literally at my feet. It was a way of saying, in this moment you are the most important person. It was a profoundly generous thing for him to do.
“He’s unique in the fact that he creates and designs not only garments, clothes but objects and atmospheres that have an intense strength and serenity to them,” she continued. “So he’s a master at harnessing that duality in that he’s able to create things that are easy and sensual to wear, but often for women he’ll harness masculine silhouettes. He’s a master tailor, but yet he has a gossamer quality and I do think as a human being he elevates every creative conversation he’s part of. For me to have been in creative dialogue with him over the last decade, I count as one of the great privileges of my career.”
Armani has also been very supportive of the Sydney Theatre Company, for which Blanchett and husband Andrew Upton served as co-artistic directors from 2008 until the beginning of 2013. Upton now handles the role solo. “[Armani] designed a play that I directed and supported our endeavors, but he’s done wonderful things with scholarship and he’s been a wonderful mentor to so many, apart from what he does in an ongoing way with the house itself,” she said. “He’s got familial connections to the theater, so understands it’s a labor of love for everyone. He examined every costume that everyone was working on and commented and made suggestions. He took particular care with being very generous with the people in our workroom. It just made me love him more.”
Speaking of theater and acting, Blanchett points out that one of Australia’s biggest exports is its actors, something she and Upton realized when they took the theater duties on. “We were so proud of the work that was being done in Australia and we felt that there wasn’t enough national pride in the work that was going on and ironically, or sadly, the work needs to go out internationally. In order to get traction in Canberra, our nation’s capital, you need to go to Washington, D.C. I found that entering into that soft diplomacy — that you get traction domestically by going out internationally — was a very interesting process for me personally. It was a learning curve for me to see the way real political conversations start, in terms of how one can advance culture.”
Blanchett is now turning to other pursuits. “Although I am no longer running it [the theater company], it was a very intense and rewarding time, probably the most intense and rewarding five years of my creative life,” she said. “It made me have a very thick skin and having a thick skin, you don’t want to lose any of your sensitivity, your empathy as an actor. Also, my husband and I have always been in creative dialogue with each other, so it was very bonding for us. I feel I matured creatively by having to be responsible for — on a minute-by-minute basis — producing other people’s work, but also mentoring young artists, emerging writers, performers and directors.”
Asked if her experiences as a director and an actress at the theater influenced either craft, she said, “I was forced to become conscious about the way I worked. In an age where there is no money to make anything and often you have to make financial compromises, you are forced to make very rapid, quick, inventive creative solutions. Sometimes what would seem to us to be a terrible financial compromise that we had to make because we are working with very creative people, we find another avenue around it. I’m not indulgent. I don’t feel that everyone has to work a certain way, but something I was adamant about whenever I was in a production that I would say to Andrew, ‘Whilst I may be the lead actor in the room, I think I realize the meaning of lead actress.’ It’s not just having the nice words — you have to lead the company. You think of the great roles Glenda Jackson played and she led a company of people. When I was in the room, I said to Andrew, ‘I’m not going to caretake the financials on this.’ I didn’t want the other actors to feel that the artistic director was sitting at another table. I was part of that ensemble because it’s really important and an audience can feel it — that a group of actors are together on a level playing field. I knew that when we had to troubleshoot something, and I’d let Andrew know when something was going on, but I wasn’t the artistic director in the room. I was another actress alongside those people. ”
It didn’t necessarily imbue her with the desire to immediately direct a feature film, though. “I’ve been asked, several times, and I realized why perhaps there are not more female directors,” she said with a laugh. “I’m the mother of three boys and I’m in a very supportive partnership. I don’t want to be disingenuous — having had an intense responsibility for the last six years, I’m enjoying being freelance. I’m enjoying not knowing what is coming next and I also enjoy the rhythm of theater. If you have an idea and it’s a good idea, you can gather a group of people and you can get the thing on. You need a profound level of patience working in the independent sector, primarily in the film industry to stay with an idea for the length of time it can take to get made.” Pointing to “Dallas Buyers Club,” which Blanchett said took almost 20 years to make it onto the screen, she said, “With the film I just made, ‘Carol,’ Phyllis Nagy wrote the script 12 years ago. So these things can sit.”
Turning to her appearance in the fragrance commercial — in which she appears highly emotive while constantly moving, almost like in a short silent movie — Blanchett said, “I don’t think I could have done that without being so intensively in the rehearsal mode of the theater company for the past six years. Because in the rehearsal room, on Day One, you just get up there and you have to do something. You have to just say, ‘OK, this is going to be s–t [laughs], but try this and see what happens.’ I think I would have found it really embarrassing [before that] but somehow I think it’s liberated me from any sense of — you’re asking me to do this, so give it a go and it might work and it might not work. Theater denudes you of your preciousness. Also, I knew Anne Fontaine [TV director for commercials] and I had several dinners with her, and I got on very well with Anne and Darius Khondji, whom I adore, who shot the commercial. His work on this was just divine. You knew you were in dialogue with really brilliant people.”
Which leads to the question — favorite role ever? “I played in a German play called ‘Gross und Klein’ [‘Big and Small’] and I played a character called Lotte Kotte,” she said. “I loved it. It was terrifying — I had to start out the play with one of the loneliest experiences an actor can have onstage, a 25-minute monologue. I’d think ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen tonight,’ and I’d start. I loved it. The process of making it with the director and with the other actors was to reinvent something that none of us had envisioned. So it was an utter surprise and revelation to me and I think to the audience.”
Blanchett laughs at the suggestion that she’s down to earth. “What does that mean? Do you interview people who are divas? I’ll tell you how I stay grounded. My husband said to me when ‘Elizabeth’ came out — he was so happy for me and so supportive and he said, ‘This is so great! The next five years are going to be fabulous.’ I said, ‘Oh, are they?’ And he said, ‘Well, you know, it’s not right, but as an actress you only have five years. You should enjoy it.’ And so I took his advice and enjoyed it, and then one thing has led to another. But neither of us have ever thought when he’s at high moments or I’m at so-called high moments that we’ve arrived anywhere. You always have to earn the right to be there.”