‘I’m always interested in drama that explores the grey areas of life,’ says Cate Blanchett, who returns to our TV screens in two roles this year

A commanding presence on both small and big screen, Cate Blanchett is simultaneo­usly a chameleon and one of the most recognisab­le faces in Hollywood. This year she returns to TV in two widely different roles: one as a cult leader and the other as an anti-feminist icon.

There’s no doubting Cate Blanchett’s sheer talent. The two-time Oscar winner has a rare ability to make you forget she’s an actor playing a part rather than the real deal, whether she’s playing the Virgin Queen or the Nordic Goddess of Death. Now the 50-year-old actor has expanded her already impressive range with two almost opposing roles that share one characteri­stic: they’re conversati­on starters for a much deeper problem in our society. The nine-episode Mrs America sees Cate embody conservati­ve icon Phyllis Schlafly, and in the Netflix series Stateless she’s a singing, dancing cult leader (it sounds funnier than it is).

‘It’s ironic, isn’t it, not having entered the television space at all, that my last year has been taken up with acting in, and producing, two pieces of television,’ she says. ‘But they were two things that really needed to get made, and I wanted to help scaffold the conversati­on around the issues that come up with both projects: the notions of equality, and what that means to men and women.’

The middle of three children, Cate was raised in a close-knit family in Melbourne, Australia. Her father’s death when she was 10 changed her family dynamic almost overnight and had a lasting effect on her.

‘My life has been relatively privileged, but I think I developed enormous empathetic connection with my mother because I could see the hurdles – financial and emotional – that she had to get over. But she was determined that we would have a good education, for which I’m incredibly grateful. Not that I did massively well at school, but I had a lot of fantastic experience­s there. Our school plays were all devised by the students, and if we were doing Macbeth, then the girls took turns playing Macbeth as well as Lady Macbeth because they wanted us to have that Shakespear­ean experience.’

Despite – or maybe because of – her early exposure to the arts, at one point Cate wanted to become a museum curator. Fortunatel­y for us, while on a gap year in Egypt, she chose acting instead. ‘Acting had become like this terrible addiction. I felt I needed to give it five years and see where it took me.’

She started on the stage before moving to TV roles in Australia, but it was her mesmerisin­g performanc­e as Queen Elizabeth I in Elizabeth ,at the age of 29, that made the world sit up. It also garnered her her first Oscar nomination. ‘There’s a long and glorious legacy of actresses who have played Elizabeth I, so she’s constantly reinvented because she’s such an enigma. If you think about the Elizabetha­n age, when the English culture as we know it was crystallis­ed, it’s a fascinatin­g period of history. I think there’ll be many more Elizabeths, long after this film.’

Cate’s Elizabeth is widely regarded as one of the great portrayals of the Virgin Queen. What set her interpreta­tion apart, she says, is the fact that this was an outsider’s take on English history: she is Australian, and director Shekhar Kapur is Indian.

And her star continued to rise: she won lead roles in The Talented Mr Ripley, The Lord of the Rings, and The Aviator, for which she got her first Oscar. Then she returned to her role as Queen Elizabeth for the sequel, Elizabeth: The Golden Age.

Cate has won two best-actress Oscars (the other is for Blue Jasmine, in which she played an unstable socialite) and has been nominated for many more. And through it all she seems to have found the perfect balance between her work life and her home life.

She married playwright Andrew Upton after they had been dating for only three weeks. Twenty-three years later, they’ve more than proved that their bond goes beyond instant attraction. They share a home in East Sussex in the English countrysid­e with their four children, sons Dashiell (19), Roman (17) and Ignatius (12), and Edith (5), whom they adopted in 2015.

Exploring grey areas

If you haven’t heard of Phyllis Schlafly, you’re not alone – neither had Cate before Phyllis received a standing ovation at a Donald Trump rally. ‘When she died [in 2016], Trump was at her funeral. And I was thinking, why? Then this project came along, so it’s been an absolutely fascinatin­g journey for me.’

Though the Trump years are behind us (for now, at least), you may wonder why Cate would give airtime to an anti-feminist whose campaigns set gender equality back decades. ‘I think Phyllis represents a whole way of thinking in America that really has to be acknowledg­ed, that there’s a whole stepping back,’ she says. ‘It’s a resonant pocket of history, and we’re still living through its

Acting had become like this terrible addiction. I felt I needed to give it five years and see where it took me.

failures and successes. It’s something that makes me incredibly sad but has also galvanised me. To me, that is the importance of the series – to keep that conversati­on alive. What is so frightenin­g about equality?’

Lesser actresses may have been tempted to play such a character as a one-dimensiona­l villain, particular­ly in this social climate – but not Cate. ‘I’m always interested in drama that explores the grey areas of life,’ she says. ‘This is a non-judgementa­l series that asks, “What do you think about this?” “How do you feel about that figure, or that policy or that movement?” It’s all about the conversati­on, and it’s so relevant.’

As a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commission­er for Refugees, Cate has long used her voice to raise awareness on the issues of displaceme­nt and statelessn­ess. She’s met refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Bangladesh to learn more about their plight first-hand. ‘I remember a Rohingya [a stateless ethnic group from Myanmar] woman I met in Bangladesh. She’d given birth while fleeing through a forest,’ Cate recalls. ‘She hid for six months, foraging and trying to feed her child… Half of the world’s displaced are children, and seeing children in detention is an indescriba­bly heartbreak­ing thing. Not being able to educate your children and the ongoing trauma they experience… It makes me so grateful for the things we take for granted.’

It’s stories like this that led to her series Stateless. It follows Sofie (played by Yvonne Strahovski) as she flees a cult, an Afghan refugee (Fayssal Bazzi) fleeing persecutio­n, and a young Australian father

(Jai Courtney) searching for stable work. Their stories collide at an immigratio­n centre in the Australian desert. The series shines a spotlight on the mandatory detention of immigrants in the country. Cate, who stars as the cult leader, is also executive producer, and getting the project off the ground took six years of combatting pressure from her homeland. ‘It is human and, hopefully, affecting. We are hoping that it will drive a more engaged conversati­on rather than a fear-based conversati­on.’

Stateless is on Netflix, and all nine episodes of Mrs America are available as a boxset on DStv CatchUp.

Contempora­ry icon

Cate was jury president of the 2018 Cannes Film Festival and served as jury president of the Venice Film Festival last year, which makes her one of only two women to have headed juries at both festivals. This is an indication of the respect with which she is regarded in her industry.

‘Cate Blanchett is not just an icon of contempora­ry cinema, courted by the greatest directors of the past 20 years and adored by moviegoers of every kind,’ Venice Film Festival head Alberto Barbera said on her appointmen­t. ‘Her commitment in the artistic and humanitari­an fields and to the protection of the environmen­t, as well as her defence of the emancipati­on of women in a film industry still coming to terms with male prejudice, have made her an inspiratio­n for society as a whole.’

A look at her film career – ranging from children’s films (Cinderella )to blockbuste­r hits (Thor: Ragnarok)

– shows Cate is not afraid to take on roles that challenge her. She regards failure as an opportunit­y to learn. ‘I’m never happy… I think in a good way. When I say I’m restless, I think it’s in that Martha Graham kind of divine restless impatience to constantly be moving and looking for the fault in what you’ve done previously… I’ve learnt far more from my failures than I have from any success I had.’

 ??  ?? Cate Blanchett on the red carpet at the Venice Film Festival in September 2020.
Cate Blanchett on the red carpet at the Venice Film Festival in September 2020.
 ??  ?? Cate portrays a sinister cult leader in Stateless, the new Netflix series she produced.
Cate portrays a sinister cult leader in Stateless, the new Netflix series she produced.
 ??  ?? With her playwright husband, Andrew Upton.
With her playwright husband, Andrew Upton.

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