This is not an interview
An Interview with Cate Blanchett
Black Book magazine
NY, October 2003
There isn’t really a name for this part of London. For the cognoscenti, it’s north of Bond Street, approaching Marlybone. The restaurant is called Defune. In the taxi over I’ve been persuading myself that the name, conceivably, signifies a French cuisine. Green salad, lemon-grilled fish – all very stylish, grand even, but at least familiar to me, with a homely, if heavy, cutlery.
A glance through Defune’s window gives the lie to that. Japanese. Sushi. Chopsticks.
I’m early, but this isn’t politeness, it’s nerves. I pass the restaurant and find a wall in the shade, there to sit and smoke. Pigeons eye me cagily, wondering is it worth their while approaching. It’s too hot for pigeons. It’s too hot for me. London is suffering a heatwave, highest temperatures on record. Sweat drips on my good pink t-shirt. What on earth possessed me to bring a jacket?
I’m meeting Cate Blanchett. Cate Blanchett, elf-queen, surely the world’s most beautiful woman. In my satchel I have her press pack, delivered to me that morning. And it’s some press pack, I tell you. Cover of Vogue, Harper’s, Vanity Fair, the list goes on. The photographs describe an epitome of chic; but the gaze is aloof, unapproachable. At the back of my mind there’s a notion not too far from sympathy: it’ll be hard on anyone being chic in this weather.
My opening gambit rehearses. Ms Blanchett, my name is Jamie O’Neill. I’m a novelist and I live in Galway on the west coast of Ireland. It’s so kind of me to be interviewed by you ...
What it is, I passed through Dublin the night before. You can’t visit Dublin without a few jars of the black stuff, it wouldn’t be human. Now, in consequence, I have the hangover of the world. Raw fish, anyone?
Even the condemned man’s cigarette must eventually smoke out. I loaf into the restaurant, plunge down the stairs. To find – dear joy, there really is a god! – the restaurant is air-conditioned. They bow me to my seat in a half-screened corner. Things are looking up. The menus arrive and I reach for my glasses. But my hand comes away empty. Sweat chills on my spine. Could things get any worse? I’m hung over. I’ve never eaten sushi. I don’t know how to order it. I can’t use chopsticks. I’ve never conducted an interview before. And I’ve come away without my bloody glasses.
For one mad minute I’m tempted to dash out the kitchen door and join a Buddhist monastery. But it’s not to be.
For now, here she comes, tipping down the stairs, ladies and gentlemen, a warm welcome please, for my guest this evening ... Cate Blanchett.
Or is it she? I had been concerned that I wouldn’t recognize her. There’s a notion abroad that film stars don’t look like themselves: that they hardly have a self to look like. The closest they come to it is their next role. In person, however, she’s unmistakable. There’s an essence of Cate about her, a sort of Blanchettness, which I can’t immediately put my finger on: something to do with the way she moves. She glances round the room, spies me in my corner: and smiles.
I’m touched by the smile. It carries exactly the right measures of uncertainty, welcome, common feeling even, that this odd forced uphill situation requires. Either she’s supremely professional, our Cate, or she’s a very natural person. Or even both. It crosses my mind how unfair it is, really, that reputation should precede introduction.
She takes her seat. For all the weather outside, there isn’t one liquid ounce of sweat on her face. It’s as though, for some people, the entire world has been air-conditioned.
‘Oh good,’ she says, ‘you’ve ordered water.’
But I’ve neglected – could there be a more boorish oaf? – neglected to arrange a glass for my guest.
It’s no problem. She’s sure the waiters will bring one. She wants to know have I looked at the menu. I mumble something about my glasses.
But again, it’s not a problem. ‘It’s all in Japanese anyway,’ she says. It’s a humorous thing to say and I relax a tad in my seat. She looks up. ‘Unless of course you read Japanese?’ Not so much humour now, as amusement in her eyes. ‘It’s simple,’ she decides: ‘I’ll order for both of us. What sushi do you like?’
‘Actually, I’ve never eaten sushi before.’
The smile remains, but it travels her face, uncertain where to fit. ‘Never?’ I shake my head. Concern creases the smile. ‘I wish I’d thought,’ she says.
My turn now, and I say, ‘No no, I’ve always wanted to try.’ It’s a bit like being at Confession. I decide to make a clean breast of it. ‘To tell the truth, I don’t even know how to use chopsticks.’
Even this is not a problem. She shrugs. ‘A lot of people use their fingers.’
One last hurdle and my sins are thoroughly confessed. ‘And, this must sound awful, but I have a bit of a hangover.’
Something canny in her glance this time. She leans her head on her palm, her elbow angled to the table. Her eyes are glinting, collusive. ‘Miso,’ she says, ‘miso soup. It’s the only thing for a hangover.’
It seems nothing will faze this woman. I’ve got everything off my chest now, and my soul soars with sanctifying grace. Saki has arrived and I sip the grateful liquid. This is not an interview. Most certainly it is not. It’s dinner at eight, in fashionable London, with a charming and surprisingly easy-going guest.
The odd thing is, this resolution has hardly formed when I feel a presence beside me, a lumbering pompous presence, who introduces himself now as The Interviewer.
‘The what?’ I say.
‘The Interviewer,’ he repeats.
He’s fiddling with some contraption in my bag. Oh no, he’s going to produce the tape-recorder. I grab the bag and leave it out of harm’s way. The Interviewer, undeterred, finds notebook and pen. He leans closer over the table.
‘Now then, Ms Blanchett,’ he says, ‘would you care to describe what you’re wearing for our readers? That blouse, for instance, would I be right in thinking it silk?’
The inanity of the question is breath-taking. Thankfully Cate seems not to have heard. She’s busy with the waitress. I snatch the notebook from his hands.
‘This is not an interview,’ I hiss.
‘It most certainly is,’ he replies. ‘And your hair, Ms Blanchett – how would you describe your current hairstyle?’
The food ordered, the waitress departs; Cate turns her attention to me. Immediately I glance away. My god, she is beautiful. Far too beautiful to stare at. I have to keep reminding myself, she’s a person, not a picture.
And she really isn’t a picture. While we talk I see the photographs have, unavoidably, lied – for there’s nothing static about her at all. She’s amazingly mobile in fact, both in body and facial expression. She doesn’t sit in a chair, so much as inhabit its space. Words animate her. In some way she seems to become what she says. So that in each flicker of your eyes is revealed a perfect snapshot, rather poised than posed, and you think to yourself, ‘Oh, that’s what the word consequence looks like.’
The Interviewer hurrumphs. ‘That’s enough about mobility,’ he says to me. ‘Now, Ms Blanchett,’ he continues, ‘can we talk about your films? You’ve been quoted as saying that the work should speak for itself. What does that mean exactly?’
Well, we do talk. Ireland is common ground: her latest film is set there: so we chat about the place, its scenery, its ridiculously windy roads. It’s always pleasant when a visitor can talk intelligently about your home country. She has the one-street towns off pat, with their seven pubs, seven hair salons, inevitable Chinese takeaway. Not that the film, Veronica Guerin, reflects any of this. There’s none of your usual Emerald Isle stuff, and I doubt the Irish Tourist Board will be plugging it in the States. Drugs – gang wars – official incompetence – brave reporter – she’s murdered – things get better. It’s a true story, and as such, the film can be said to suffer from truth. But the climactic scene – under the troubled treble of a street-kid’s singing – quite blew me away when I saw it in Galway.
In Ireland the film was hugely well-received. We like our heroes, and Veronica Guerin had the true strain of wilful strong-headedness. Cate plays her supremely. It’s the accent that gets you. Film stars’ approximations of Irish accents are a reliable source of fun at home. I went to the film intending to check for the usual Hollywood Oirishness. Half-way through and I realized I’d forgotten to listen for it. That’s how good she is. Spot on. In consequence Cate has herself been raised to a class of honorary Irishwoman. Yes, we like our heroes: particularly when they’re beautiful, talented, charming and bright.
‘Ms Blanchett, could you tell our readers how you set about realizing the role of a murdered Irish press reporter?’
But the food has arrived and I’m looking at my chopsticks. ‘How do you use them?’ I ask.
Again that glint of amusement. ‘All those Chinese takeaways in Ireland – didn’t you ever go to one?’
‘But you don’t usually get chopsticks,’ I say, trying to imagine a farmer’s son in Ballydehob chopsticking his way through curry and chips.
‘I’m a hopeless teacher,’ she says. But she thinks a minute, and you can see the ideas sorting through her mind. When she begins, it’s as though she’s been scanning a script. ‘You smoke? Well, you hold one like you’re smoking.’ She demonstrates. ‘The other one, well, it’s like you’re playing pool. Bring them together, and look, you’re more or less writing with them.’
The little boy in me is smugly pleased. This is a good dinner-party tale. The day Cate Blanchett taught me to use chopsticks. But in fact Cate didn’t teach me at all. What happened was that she became a teacher. And I was watching her in her latest starring role. Miss Blanchett, elementary schoolteacher, resourceful but kind, brings table etiquette to Irish gaum.
This comes across in all her films. She subsumes the role so thoroughly that in the end it seems merely a convenience that they have her name on the credits. Some people find this annoying, and you hear them complain, ‘But where’s Cate Blanchett in all of this?’ As though the purpose of a film were to be a vehicle for its star. Cate might be a star, but beforemost she’s an actor, so brilliant at her craft you forget there’s an actor on the screen at all – which, you’d have thought, was exactly what actors were supposed to do.
But there’s no pleasing some people, and one of these people is The Interviewer who now primly inquires, ‘Ms Blanchett, how in your opinion will the film play to American audiences?’
The impression you get is that she doesn’t know, and she’s not going to worry herself into a tizzy over it. What we forget with film actors is that the current film is rarely their latest project. They’ve already gone on to other things. They’ve pushed themselves further, elsewhere. She’s interesting about reviews, though. ‘If you believe the good ones, in all fairness you have to believe the bad ones. So where does that leave you?’ Personally, I couldn’t agree more. I tell her about Salvador Dali. He didn’t read his press, he weighed it. If it weighed sufficient, Dali was happy. She’s tickled by that.
At this point, we’re interrupted by a passing tabulator who asks me politely to list the films of Cate Blanchett that I have not seen, giving in each case the year of US release. ‘Remember now,’ the passing tabulator warns, his finger raised: ‘only the films you have not seen.’
It’s a slightly odd request, but I comply. The list goes something like this:
Oscar and Lucinda, 1997.
Pushing Tin, 1999.
An Ideal Husband, 1999.
The Man Who Cried, 2000.
The Gift, 2000.
Charlotte Gray, 2001.
The Shipping News, 2001.
‘Impressive,’ says the passing tabulator. ‘Now, please list the films of Cate Blanchett, again giving the years of US release, but this time state only the films that you have seen. I repeat, that you have seen.’
The Talented Mr. Ripley, 1999.
Lord of the Rings, Parts 1 and 2, 2001, 2002.
Veronica Guerin, 2003.
‘Oh dear, not quite so impressive,’ says the passing tabulator. ‘Now, let A be the first table and B be the second table. If A+B=C, can we say that C equals Cate Blanchett’s filmography to date?’
‘I suppose we could. If you allowed for some early films that didn’t make the US box office.’
‘Thank you very much,’ says the passing tabulator, and he departs, tipping his hat to Cate.
Cate looks mildly amused. The Interviewer looks shocked. He turns on me. ‘What class of interview is this supposed to be?’ he demands.
‘It’s not an interview,’ I remind him.
He hems. He haws. He coughs. ‘Ms Blanchett,’ he says, ‘we were talking about Salvador Dali. On the subject of art, my editor has some questions he’d like me to put to you. What, in your opinion, is the happening, the important, development in current art?’
We both burst out laughing. ‘It’s the vocabulary that gets me,’ she says. ‘As soon as the subject of art pops up, out come all these strange words.’
‘Amorphous,’ I offer.
‘Exactly. It’s like theory has taken over from criticism.’
I posit the view that we’ve made a mistake about art. We’ve made it a noun, when in fact it should be a verb.
‘Interesting’ – but she’s not immediately convinced.
‘Well,’ I expand, ‘instead of saying This is art, or That is art, just say, This arts me or That arts me; or Yesterday it arted me, but today, in this light, it doesn’t art me half as much. It takes the pomposity, the judgmentalism out of it all.’
We’re chatting away and we’re getting quite animated, when suddenly a writerly man in jeans has appeared at our table.
‘Ah, there you are,’ says the writerly man in jeans. ‘Just popped in to see how you were getting on.’
‘God, you’re sweating,’ says Cate, and she takes her napkin to mop his forehead.
‘Hold on now,’ The Interviewer interrupts. ‘We’ve had a passing tabulator. Now we’re getting a writerly man in jeans? Who’s he supposed to be?’
‘It’s her husband,’ I answer. ‘Andrew Upton.’
‘Husband? You mean the screenwriter?’
‘Yes. And playwright.’ I’m sounding rather sad.
‘Does this mean ... ?’
I fear it does: my time with Cate is drawing to a close. It’s a touching gesture – husband rescues wife – and executed with a considerable grace. I’m looking about for the cheque. But it seems nothing with this evening is going to be entirely straightforward.
‘We were talking about art,’ Cate says.
‘Ah,’ says Andrew, ‘art.’ He looks round the table, takes a chair. ‘And?’
‘Jamie was saying it should be a verb.’
And we’re off again. Art, what is it about, what is it for, its effect on the beholder, capacity to bridge the gaping inches. It really does sink in now. This truly is not an interview. It’s conversation: that old simple human thing: what dinner, in the end, was made for. There’s a freedom to it, and an art all its own. And anyway, is there anything ruder, more calculating than an interview? Question, answer, question, answer. All prepared and pokey-nosey. The sheer presumption of it all. As though, given half an hour with a tape-recorder, some inner self will be revealed, a personal truth hitherto unsuspected.
The ideas are flying, and I hardly notice that the restaurant has emptied around us. ‘Let’s continue down the pub,’ suggests Andrew.
‘Yes, let’s,’ says Cate. ‘You’ll join us, won’t you?’
But The Interviewer isn’t too sure about this. He’s gone all sheepish since Husband has arrived. ‘We’re overstaying our welcome,’ he mutters in my ear.
‘Oh, we’ll risk it,’ I tell him: ‘I’m having fun.’
Outside the heat at last is bearable. It’s even pleasant as we amble up the road. ‘It’s so nice to get out,’ says Cate. ‘We don’t get much opportunity. With Dashiell, I mean.’
Her baby son. ‘How’s he putting up with the weather?’
‘Oh, hot. We couldn’t get the fan to work. We’ve been blowing over him all day.’
She and Andrew pantomime blowing wind from their mouths. My mind jumps crazily to a nativity scene, wherein the holy couple and the shepherds and angels are all fussily wafting mouthy breaths over a slumbering babe in his crib. Families.
We’ve taken pavement seats outside the Tudor Rose pub. Andrew has got the drinks in. Talk passes on to politics. The usual suspects, I suppose. Bush, Iraq, Bush, globalization, Bush. But, as Shakespeare said, good wine needs no bush; and we sip our chardonnay. Their hands are joined across the table. They pull forward and back as minor points are argued.
I watch the passing concourse. The eyes of all are drawn to Cate. Well, we’re all of us drawn to beauty. Plato founded an entire philosophy on the principle. Himeros, he called it: the desire that strikes the soul through the eyes. She’s conscious of the people looking, she’ll often smile in return. The smile says, Yes, isn’t it strange, meeting you here.
‘You’ve grown rather fond of Ms Blanchett, haven’t you?’ The Interviewer murmurs in my ear.
‘Yes, I think I have.’
‘She is lovely,’ he allows.
Yes, lovely. And that mobility. Somehow it forgives her face its perfection. In movement her beauty is made possible, human.
I’m not struck on fame. For six years I lived with a TV talk-show host in England, and in that time I had my fill of the strops and idiocies of passing stars. There’s none of that with Cate. Fame is little more than a humorous anecdote.
She tells the funniest story about meeting the Queen of England’s husband – Mr Queen, as we decide to call him, or Prince Philip to give him his due. The man is an old fogey, notorious for his gaffes. Anyway, she’s in some line-up awaiting the royal progress. There’s a flunkey making introductions. And when it comes to Cate’s turn he whispers in the royal ear, ‘This is Cate Blanchett. She’s in the movies.’ ‘Ah,’ says Prince Philip, suddenly wide awake. ‘Movies, you say? Only we have one of those DVD things at home. There’s a wire sticking out at the back. Don’t suppose you could tell me where it goes?’
It’s time I made to go. Andrew hails a taxi, while Cate kisses me goodbye. In the taxi after, The Interviewer asks why I didn’t buy another round of drinks. ‘I forgot to bring any English money with me,’ I tell him.
‘You’re not very good at this,’ he says.
No, I’m not really.
‘Still,’ he continues, ‘you were kissed by the Elf-queen Galadriel. That’s something.’
It’s not true. I was kissed by a very beautiful, very natural person. But it feels like it’s true.
On the flight home, Cate is staring out at me from the in-flight magazine. Yet another interview. The woman beside me says, ‘I wonder what she’s really like.’
Well, she’s not like the girl next door. She’s like a woman who works in the same building as you, but several floors up. You always thought she was unapproachable. Then one day you share the elevator. The rest, really, is up to you.