Byline: Merle Ginsberg

PORTLAND — In a Volvo sedan, a spritelike creature with inch-long hair barrels down the twisting byways of Oregon, singing along at full voice to Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf.” She hangs a U-turn, then punches the accelerator. She’s lost, and she couldn’t care less.
This is Cate Blanchett in interview mode, which is to say, everyday mode. Which is to say, no mode at all. Blanchett is a creature of impulse, spontaneity and faith. And when she’s firing on all cylinders, well, look out. While the actress has generally been associated with prim, “Masterpiece Theater”-style roles — English queen, debutante, Elizabethan wife and so on — the real Cate Blanchett would seem woefully out of place in a drawing room. Particularly today, shorn of her silky, corn-colored hair and showing not a whit of the fabulous fashion sense she’s displayed on so many red carpets. Every one of her fingernails is painted a different pastel metallic hue, and her outfit of jeans, leather vest, printed parka and clogs — with socks, no less — would not look amiss on a Seattle grunger cutting art class to protest the IMF.
“I’m looking for this place we had a drink last night. It was dark and quiet, with very forgiving lighting,” says Blanchett. She’s been tied up on a movie set for the last week — shooting Barry Levinson’s “Bandits,” described as “a modern-day ‘Butch Cassidy,”‘ with Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton — and she’s dying to bust loose in a new town.
“Cate’s full of life and no-nonsense,” says Sam Raimi, who directed her in “The Gift,” which opens tomorrow. “She’s very earthy, solid. And strong. She’s so delicate when the role demands it. But I think you have to be a strong person to expose that side of yourself — and have a real intrinsic knowledge of people.”
Indeed, Blanchett (full name: Catherine Elise Blanchett) seems to have an understanding of human nature well beyond her 31 years. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that her father, an American naval officer who became an ad man, died when she was only 10. Cate and her two siblings were raised by their mother, a Melbourne schoolteacher.
“Cate definitely seems like an old soul,” says fellow Aussie actor Geoffrey Rush, who worked with Blanchett in “Elizabeth.”
Blanchett’s soulful side gets a serious workout in “The Gift,” a Gothic thriller written by Tom Epperson and Thornton. It tells the story of a psychic named Annie Wilson whose “gift” for seeing the dark futures of her wayward small-town Georgia neighbors turns out to be something of a curse. The cast includes Keanu Reeves as a violent neighbor, Hilary Swank as his victimized wife, Greg Kinnear, Katie Holmes and Giovanni Ribisi.
For Blanchett, the chance to add a Southern psychic to her increasingly all-over-the-map resume was one of the role’s major attractions. Working with Raimi, the old master of shock-horror, was another. “We had almost no budget,” she says. “Everyone was there to work with Sam.”
For Raimi, the appeal of working with Blanchett was somewhat simpler.
“She’s the best actress in the world,” he says. Blanchett’s rampant accent-hopping has led to comparisons with Meryl Streep, but, for Raimi, “that’s almost starting to sound like a cliche. To me, Cate’s more like Lon Chaney — but better looking. When the camera goes close, there’s more and more. And if she has to draw on the darker side of herself, it only gets more interesting.”
The Savannah accent wasn’t the only difficulty presented by “The Gift.” Blanchett, a quintessential no-nonsense Aussie, had never been to a psychic before agreeing to play one. How many Hollywood actresses can say that?
“I’ve never wanted to know what was going to happen to me,” she explains. “And if I was at a point where I needed to find out — I’d go roller-skating!”
Mike Newell’s “Pushing Tin” was the first movie in which audiences saw Blanchett do her linguistic cartwheels. But for her, playing a big-haired Long Islander with an accent like a weed whacker was just another day at the office. “Mike said to me, ‘Look, do you think you can be American?”‘ she recalls. “And my answer was, ‘I’ll try. I’m never sure. But, hey — I’ll give it a go.”‘
And if she’d failed? “People are always saying, ‘You’ve got to be sure you can do something.’ Ugh! How boring is that?” she moans. “There are always dark 4 a.m. moments when you look at the wardrobe and say, ‘I can’t do it.’ For me, it’s about living as many lives as I possibly can. I’m very curious about things. The problem is, my memory’s so bad it’s shocking — and I can’t remember whatever it is I’ve discovered!”
Perhaps that’s because she moves so quickly from project to project. During the last year-and-a-half — in addition to “The Gift” — she filmed starring roles in “The Man Who Cried,” a World War II drama directed by Sally Potter; “Lord of the Rings,” Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy series, and “Heaven,” the last script by the late Krzysztof Kieslowski. After “Bandits” wraps in February, she’ll jump to France to do “Charlotte Gray” with Billy Crudup.
Blanchett’s recent cropped hairdo — the result of a scene in “Heaven” where she and co-star Giovanni Ribisi shave their heads — shows the effort she’s made not to be distracted by matters of appearance.
“That’s not what life’s about,” she explains. “If you starve yourself to the point where your brain cells shrivel, you will never do good work. And if you’re overly conscious of your arms flapping in the wind, how can you look the other actors in the eye to respond to them?”
Blanchett has just as little patience for the careful career strategizing practiced by most high-level stars. “I am not, nor will I ever be, a corporation,” she says. “Once you become a corporation instead of an actor, you have to make decisions based on what’s best for the corporation. So I make acting decisions. It’s very simple.”
She means it, too — for better or worse. According to Hollywood scuttlebutt, Blanchett has passed on such likely blockbusters as “Hannibal,” “Bridget Jones’ Diary” and “The Shipping News.”
On the drive back, she takes the opportunity to put forth a bold defense of her musical tastes. “I’m not saying you should always listen to Duran Duran,” she explains. “You temper it with the Clash. You take these things in doses. It’s all about cross-referencing. You listen to Midnight Oil and Whitney Houston. Sometimes you only listen to Bob Dylan. Then you listen to Joan Jett and Bonnie Tyler.”
“Hey, this is a real good one!” she continues, as “Her Name Is Rio” wafts out the windows into the Portland night. “God, what did I do here? Took the wrong turn. Don’t be frightened! Did I tell you I failed my driving lessons? Oh, bloody hell, where are we?” Miraculously, we are at my hotel.
“Hey,” I suddenly think to ask, “why don’t you have a chauffeur?”
“Nah,” she says, pulling away with a wave. “I’m too much of a backseat driver!”

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