Cate Blanchett revisits the regal role that brought her global recognition, writes James Mottram
Wearing a black mini-dress and knee-high boots, Cate Blanchett bustles into the room with a blend of style and efficiency that suggests she has little time for idle chit-chat. It's just a few days before news breaks that she's pregnant with a third child by her husband of 10 years, playwright Andrew Upton, with whom she's joint artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company. But rather than ease up, she's in London to promote Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Shekhar Kapur's sequel to his 1998 film Elizabeth, in which the Australian made her breakthrough as Britain's imperious Virgin Queen.
Her fourth film released in the past 12 months, even by Blanchett's exacting standards it's been a remarkable year. Beginning with Babel, in which she played a tourist fighting for her life in Morocco, she went on to win the third Oscar nomination of her career for her philandering teacher in Notes on a Scandal before appearing in Steven Soderbergh's The Good German in full-on Ingrid Bergman mode. It's evidently all taken its toll.
'I can't imagine acting at the moment - I couldn't think of anything I'd like to do less,' she says. 'I just want some time off, frankly.
I really think it's important to step away for a bit.'
It's also been a time of 'looking back' for Blanchett, especially while making The Golden Age. Kapur's two films have bookended a remarkable period in her life. When she made Elizabeth, she was a virtual unknown outside her native Australia - until the role won her a first Academy Award nomination. Since then, from playing the ethereal Elf Queen Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings to Katharine Hepburn in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, for which she won a best supporting actress Oscar in 2005, Blanchett's career has been nothing short of sensational.
Nevertheless, it only struck her when Kapur, who calls her 'probably one of the most skilled actors in the world now', screened for her the original Elizabeth in preparation for the sequel. 'I had only seen it once, when it was at the Venice Film Festival,' she says. 'And I realised by watching myself what a baby I was, and how much had happened since then. It's been extraordinary.'
An actress who thrives on diversity, Blanchett took a long time to accept Kapur's offer of reprising her role, an idea mooted almost immediately after the original. 'I need to be seduced back into anything, really,' she says. 'I just didn't want to take a creative step backwards.'
With Kapur proposing this sequel cover the era in Elizabeth I's reign where she orchestrated the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Blanchett, who is 38, thought it better she aged a few years before playing the character once again. 'It just took time for me to be a different presence on screen, and to have something different to say,' she says. While the original was a 'duet', as Blanchett puts it, dealing with the queen's dalliance with Lord Robert Dudley in the early years of her reign, this is a 'love triangle' between her, her lady-in-waiting Bess Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish) and the intrepid Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen).
Yet the film, which has only made US$16 million on its release in the US, has been criticised not only for its over-reliance on spectacle compared to the original, but its historical inaccuracies. When the story opens in 1585, Elizabeth is 52 and in the 27th year of her reign - yet on screen is being presented with various suitors with a view to bringing an heir to the throne. 'Shekhar plays fast and loose with history,' argues Blanchett. 'He is not interested in historical chronology, so you can't really analyse the film saying, 'It's not historically accurate' - he had no intention of making it a history lesson.'
While Blanchett argues the film is more interested in Elizabeth's 'spiritual journey', if there is one constant it's her flawless portrayal of the monarch. A role already played by such luminous talents as Bette Davis, Glenda Jackson and more recently Helen Mirren, Blanchett's two performances must now surely be regarded as definitive. Certainly, she has a habit of putting her stamp on iconic characters. In Todd Haynes' forthcoming I'm Not There, Blanchett is one of six actors playing 'aspects' of Bob Dylan - including Richard Gere and Heath Ledger - but the one who walked away with all the plaudits. Winning best actress at the 2007 Venice Film Festival, she has also received a Golden Globe nomination for the role.
Covering the era when Dylan famously went electric, at a time he was also at his most razor-thin and strung-out, Blanchett says it didn't feel strange to play a man. 'At the time I was playing him he was very androgynous. He's such an unusual figure. I didn't think about playing a man so much - but I thought about trying to capture the spirit of Dylan at the time. I just lapped up the experience. It was hilarious and weird and extraordinary.' Now she's played Dylan, she could play anyone, I suggest. Blanchett breaks into fits of giggles. 'Yeah, Jimi Hendrix ... or Paul McCartney maybe.'
At least Blanchett has some American roots to draw from for the role of Dylan. Her late father, Bob, came from Texas, and gave her an early introduction to film. 'I grew up hearing John Wayne films bouncing and shooting away on a Sunday afternoon,' she recalls fondly. A former Navy man, Bob moved to Melbourne to work in advertising after he met Blanchett's mother, a teacher named June.
As a child, Blanchett was 'part extrovert, part wallflower'; at school, she was too shy to be cast in plays, preferring to put them on in her own backyard. She never saw acting as a career - enrolling in fine arts and economics at Melbourne University before dropping out to take a year off. During this time, 'running away from the prospect of being an actor' as she puts it, she travelled to England and then Egypt. When she wound up as an extra in an Egyptian boxing movie, she finally accepted her true calling.
Returning to college, she dropped economics, auditioned for drama school - Australia's National Institute of Dramatic Art (Nida) - and got in. Graduating in 1992, she joined the Sydney Theatre Company for a production of Caryl Churchill's Top Girls and, within the year, was dubbed Best Newcomer of 1993 Award from the Sydney Theatre Critics Circle.
Three years later she met Upton on the 1996 film Parklands, in which she played a woman who returns to uncover the truth surrounding her policeman-father's death. They had their first child, Dashiell, in 2001, and Roman came three years later. 'Having children does change you,' Blanchett says. 'Before I did, people talked about it as 'your life will change', like it was this heavy thing. But I found it utterly expansive ... I was worried when I went back to work after our first son, because I thought, 'Nobody's interested. I've got nothing to offer. I've got no time to prepare'. But I found I worked in a much more economical way.'
Noting she's also 'much more playful now', this might be why Blanchett is co-starring in this summer's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the long-awaited fourth instalment of Steven Spielberg's series about the intrepid whip-cracking archaeologist played by Harrison Ford. While she refuses to divulge details of her role ('or my children will go to prison!'), coming face-to-face with an icon, rather than playing one, was overwhelming.
'I didn't meet Harrison until I was on set on the first day,' she recalls. 'I walked in and my first interface with Harrison was with the hat and the whip! I was like, 'This is perfect!''
Also recently completing David Fincher's radical love story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, unlike her co-star Brad Pitt, Blanchett has remarkably managed to keep a low celebrity profile. 'All of the stuff - 'What are you wearing? Who do you like kissing most?' - that goes along with the job [but] doesn't interest me in the least,' she says. For her, it's all about the work.
While she and Upton are looking towards overseeing their first full season in January at the Sydney Theatre Company, Blanchett stresses she's not about to stop making films, 'as long as I can fit them in between my children'.
You might say her own golden age is just beginning.
Elizabeth: The Golden Age opens on January 17