IF YOU THINK all actresses regard an Oscar win as the pinnacle of their career - or even their lives - try talking to Cate Blanchett. 'Winning an Academy Award isn't important to me,' says Blanchett, who received a best actress nomination for the 1998 historical drama Elizabeth. 'I think most actors would say the same thing. It's the media which make a big thing of the Oscars, not us. It's lovely when that stuff happens, but it's certainly not why most people get into acting. At least, it's not why I did.' It's a typically down to earth remark from the Australian actress who has come to represent the intelligent side of Hollywood. Like Meryl Streep, to whom she is often compared, Blanchett seems more interested in the craft of acting than the celebrity trappings that come with film success. Some actresses revel in the glamorous lifestyle, but it almost seems like an irritant for Blanchett. 'The acting's ... more than just a job, it's a vocation,' she says. 'For me, acting is very much a human exercise. It's about expressing and unlocking what it means to be human.' That could sound pretentious if it weren't that Blanchett is so good at her chosen vocation. Many young Hollywood actresses simply act themselves in every film. That's partly because they want audiences to remember them, rather than who they're playing. But Blanchett really acts. She has the ability to merge so seamlessly into her roles that she becomes invisible - it's her characters who steal the limelight. 'I'm interested in the people I play, not me,' she says. So far, those people have been ambitiously diverse. She immersed herself in the life of a 16th-century monarch in Elizabeth, and a crusading Irish journalist in the otherwise lacklustre Veronica Guerin. She brought pathos to her portrayal of Galadriel, the elf queen in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, and before that a trashy sexuality to her flirtatious wife in The Shipping News. Her latest outing, The Missing, is something of a tour de force. Blanchett infuses her 19th-century frontierswoman with a steely independence. One of the reasons that she can be so chameleon-like - or 'forgettable', as she once joked - is that she never tries to find similarities between herself and those she is playing. 'I'm more interested in the differences,' she says. 'I try not to reduce them down to my small world because I want to understand the larger aspects of them. People always want to know if actors are like the characters they play. They can be, but I don't think I am.' The 'larger aspects' of Maggie Gilkeson, the tough medicine woman Blanchett plays in The Missing, provided a challenge. For more than two hours, Gilkeson is like a dam of emotion waiting to burst. The story starts in 1885 in the remote American southwest, where Gilkeson makes her living by pulling teeth and curing minor ailments. Then her daughter is kidnapped by renegade Indians, and Gilkeson sets off to rescue her. She's helped by her father (played by a gnarled Tommy Lee Jones), but that doesn't amount to much - she hasn't seen him in years, and he's gone native, wearing braids and praying to Indian gods. During her search across an inhospitable frontier, she must deal with both the loss of her child and this rediscovery of her father - not to mention some Indian attacks. 'That time in American history was fascinating,' she says. 'For women, it was a bit like the second world war. The journey west and southwest that the wagon trains were making went into uncharted territory. The demands on survival were so immediate that women got to do things that were previously only done by men. Women became doctors simply because there weren't enough men to do it. There were many new undiscovered diseases, and there were many women available to be educated to be doctors. It was a time when women had a chance to do things and to have new experiences. 'My father loved westerns - the shooting and the clatter of hooves,' she says. 'But that doesn't really interest me. The departure that The Missing makes is that the western elements are very much in the background. The women are no longer the victims, or the prostitutes in their frilly skirts. They are far more complicated, and much more a part of the drama than women usually are in westerns.' Blanchett, too, had some new experiences while making the film. These included learning to ride a horse - something she now does with aplomb - and being taught how to shoot a rifle. 'I have a very uncomfortable relationship with guns in real life,' she says. 'It was hard for me to pick one up and fire it. I talked to Tommy Lee about it a lot, and also people who live out on the land. I read a lot of the frontier diaries to try and understand why people had to have them.' She much preferred the riding. 'I loved riding the horses - that was fantastically liberating. My husband joked that he was going to give the horse I used in the film to me for my birthday. But there's nowhere to stable it where we live, so we had to leave it in New Mexico,' she says. Blanchett is currently playing another liberated woman, movie legend Katharine Hepburn. As Hepburn, she pops in and out of Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, a drama about jet-engine inventor and filmmaker Howard Hughes (played by Leonardo DiCaprio). Hepburn, too, starred in a western - opposite no less a cowboy than John Wayne. The unlikely couple appeared together in 1975's Rooster Cogburn - and got on surprisingly well, says Blanchett. 'Often when you put unexpected people together on a movie, it works out better than you'd think,' she says. 'Who would have thought that John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn would have hit it off? I suppose it's the same with me and Tommy Lee Jones in The Missing.' Playing a screen legend can be worrying. Who can hope to recreate the charisma of the movie gods and goddesses? Blanchett says the best thing to do is treat it as if you're playing a fictional person. 'You have to accept that you are creating a fantasy, even if the film is based on a real figure,' she says. 'In Veronica Guerin, the events are based closely on the last two years of her life - but it's still a film. You have to find the drama, you have to hone the story, you have to omit certain things and take some poetic licence to shape the narrative. 'It's the same with Katharine Hepburn. Marty [Scorsese] was always telling me to look at it like I was playing a character who just happened to be called Katharine Hepburn. That was very liberating, and it took the pressure off. But, really, you have to be insane to try to represent a film icon on film! Unless, of course, Martin Scorsese is directing you.' Hepburn drew a sharp line between her public image and her private life. Blanchett hopes to do the same. 'I think that it's difficult to draw the line between where your job as an actress ends and where your life begins, because it's very much intertwined,' she says. 'But I think the job of an actor is quite different to what it was in the 40s. With the proliferation of the media, you have to accept the public side of your work. You can't pretend that it's not there. But I don't drag the people in my intimate circle into it. Everyone has a different relationship with fame and the media. Some people love all that stuff, and some people don't.' Blanchett is married to screenwriter Andrew Upton, and they have a two-year-old son, Dashiell. Another child is on the way. She says she tries to keep her life as stable as possible despite all the travel. The Australia-based actress was living in London and Rome for substantial periods last year. She doesn't mind her life being different because she doesn't think there is such a thing as 'normal'. 'If you think about it, what exactly is a normal life? I don't think about the fame side of things very much. I don't think that I'm the centre of the universe. Most of my friends aren't in the film industry and aren't even interested in the film industry. They may be interested in what I'm doing because they're my friends, but that's all.' Blanchett is certainly not unhappy to be one of Hollywood's most sought-after actresses, and has so far managed a Hepburn-like balancing act with her privacy. 'I am very happy with my life,' she says. 'When I discovered I was pregnant I had to pull out of a film that I really wanted to do with Mike Nichols and Clive Owen. It was a great script. I was devastated. I thought, 'I am never going to get over missing my chance to make this film'. I sobbed for half an hour. Then, I thought, 'That's great! I'm pregnant!'' Next up on her calendar is an advertisement for DKNY. Then there's The Life Aquatic, directed by The Royal Tenenbaums' Wes Anderson and co-starring Bill Murray. But she has no definite plans beyond that, she says. She's certainly not the kind of person who'll sit down and list the things she wants to achieve with her life. 'The only lists I make are for drycleaning,' Blanchett laughs. 'I'm not like Stalin - I don't have a five-year plan. The whole thing about being an actor is that work happens in a really random fashion. I love that randomness. Some people are good at setting things up for themselves. But I like to just let things happen. If something bad happens, I believe something good will come along to replace it. I just accept that there are some things you can control, and some things you can't. I am very fatalistic.' Just fatalistic enough to accept that Oscar if it turns up in her lap, perhaps.