A new interview from Cannes Film Festival!
The location for this interview is more than appropriate – the rooftop terrace of the Cannes Festival Palais, which Cate Blanchett has already ruled over with her enthusiastically received love drama Carol. At this point she does not know yet that the jury will ultimately overlook her performance as a New York socialite falling in love with an ambitious shop girl. But the broader verdict seems likely to go in her favor; the Australian actor is bound to dominate the next award season.
It will be an elegant dominance, if her demeanor in this interview — punctuated only by the occasional swear word and accented by open discussion of her sexual orientation and the involvement of her husband and children in her career — is anything to go by.
In what ways is this movie about gay characters relevant to our period of time?
There are many countries around the world where homosexuality is still illegal. What makes the film so special is that Todd (Haynes) thinks like an outsider, which what makes his relationships and his perspective on the world as a filmmaker so surprising and arresting. He’s described it as Romeo and Juliet, or rather Juliet and Juliet. These characters are falling love for the first time. Yes, it’s important it’s two women falling in love but it also describes the experience when you are connecting with someone deeply. The characters find that dangerous, not only because the love that they feel is illegal, but because it’s so alarming for them.
Everyone is in awe of your performance in this film…
How do you prevent this from getting to your head? Doesn’t it drive you crazy when everybody is singing your praises?
That’s what they say to my face. I don’t know what they are saying behind my back. But it is really lovely that people are receiving it warmly. It has been a long labor of love for Phyllis Nagy, the writer, in particular. I have also been attached to the project a long time. And also working like someone with Todd, it really became a film when he came on board. It’s a collaborative process. But if you believe the good, you also have to believe the bad.
How important was it for you to know the social and legal context of this story?
It was absolutely vital. We did a political timeline and a social mores timeline from the end of the Second World War until the beginning of the Sixties. You are dealing with a decade. The 50s are not a homogenous blob. In the Second World War, women took on a lot of masculine roles they didn’t previously get the opportunity to do and then they were back in the kitchen and then you got the Cold War and nuclear technology, you’ve got the subterranean nature of American politics. And also knowing that same-sex love is illegal. Certainly in the country where I live it’s important to remember that. Even though the film is not overtly political, the conversation that may come out around it may very well be.
I also got a lot of outsider girl-on-girl fiction of that time, because I wanted to know what Carol was not in terms of the choices she hadn’t made as opposed to the choices she had. But I didn’t think of a particular sexual or political label with her. All those things just added to the texture.
Did you find any inspiration in actresses of the time?
Todd showed me a film called Lovers and Lollipops (about the relationship between a widowed mother, her new boyfriend and her daughter), which I had never seen before. It was a revelation. There was a rawness and a really unusual perspective. Also I didn’t know Vivian Mayer’s work, and I saw an extraordinary documentary on her. It had mostly to do with photographs, and there as a transition, because originally in the novel and the screenplay Terese wants to be a set designer and then she becomes a photographer. That became a really important thread in the film. It was not so much the drama of the period but more the images of the period, the music of the period.
Was it difficult to do the love scenes with Rooney Mara?
Everyone focuses on the love scenes. I loved working with Rooney. We have the same sort of practicality about work. I have great respect for her. We take the work seriously, but we don\t take ourselves seriously. So I found it very easy to work with her. There are very few actresses who could have created a character as demure and flung out of space as Therese. She has incredible range.
The great thing that Todd did about the more physical scenes — we did it with all scenes. We talked very much how we are going to shoot the thing, because there is a very clear and shifting perspective in the film. For example, when Terese sees Carol and (her husband) Harge arguing in the kitchen, we are not inside the argument, we are with a child looking at a parental argument, and that changes the way we choose to block the scene. So Todd invites you into that world. Rooney and I didn’t talk much around the scenes, but we were very open to each other on the day.
Did the crew take off their clothes?
They offered. I said: Please don’t.
Your husband is executive producer on the film. You two also ran a theater company together. How do you manage to juggle this with all your obligations as parents?
A lot of people looked at us in horror when we said we wanted to run a theater company together. But it seemed like a natural extension. When I met him, I felt I could finally talk to someone about my work and work generally. And you are only as interesting as the people you are talking with. Just talking to him, I found him fascinating. And also we don’t judge each other’s adventures, creative adventures. I love working with him.
And your children, are they involved with this as well? Are you like a full on theater and film troupe together?
Initially we tried to quarantine the children from the unpredictability and vagaries of creative life. But running a theater company — being back stage is like a big sleepover. They love it. If I was a lawyer, people would think: Of course my children are going to be at the bar. In my case people are saying: Your children want to be actors? They have to really want to do it. There has to be a vocation, because there are a lot of pitfalls and rejections along the way.
How was your children’s reaction to Cinderella?
They loved it. They loved it! You might think that’s not a film for boys, but they all went to the premiere and each of them took two boy friends, and they loved it.
Did they take your side or Cinderella’s?
They didn’t tell me and I didn’t ask. But I’d rather have dinner with the stepmother than Cinderella.
Todd said that you can sometimes be too harsh on yourself on set…
It’s sometimes when you think: ‘I can sense what it is but I haven’t quite got there’ — and you don’t want that to get in the way of anyone else’s work. Sometimes you’ve to just let it go. We haven’t got any more time. That has to be it.
But that’s what maybe spurs me on – the thinking ‘(I) screwed that up’. But that’s not to a neurotic degree. I am quite practical about my work, but that’s what I love about the theater. You get a go at it every night and get to closer to something that is perfect. That’s the one dissatisfaction I have with filmmaking that it’s often when you reach the end of filming when you think: Now I know how to do it.
With this part as well?
Oh, all the time. That’s why I – apart from having to make a living – keep wanting to work. When I go: I didn’t quite achieve that. Maybe I can investigate that through that role and with that director and that actor. You don’t quarantine each job. You look at Terrence Malick’s work and you put it all together, and it’s all one lifelong investigation. He wouldn’t know it when he is in his 20s, 30s or even now, but when you look at it objectively, you see: ‘Oh, I see it’s the suite of movement that got him there.’ Yes, that film might be one chapter, but that doesn’t mean the investigation stops.
Now that you have been performing for decades…
Thanks for reminding me.
…which means you have an oeuvre like a director. Is there an investigation going on in your work?
That’s interesting. I have to think about it and get back to you. I am not being coy. I don’t know. But I guess I have done enough now that I can say: I have a career. Even though there is always a chance to kill it.
Does it make a difference when you are playing a real person like Katherine Hepburn (in The Aviator)?
It is when you are playing them in the same medium they are iconically known. I was shitting bricks, pardon my French, but when Scorsese asks you – are you going to say no? Of course you are going to say yes.
The best piece of direction he gave me at the beginning was: ‘You can be blonde. You don’t have to look like her. You look great!’ What he was basically saying to me was: ‘Don’t worry about people think, don’t worry about looking like her. We just want an energy.’ And he showed what he did. He said: ‘I want you to look at this film, this film and this film.’ And through the connective threads I knew what he was trying to show me: He was talking about the energy of the woman.
It was not a biopic about Katherine Hepburn, it was about Howard Hughes. And I thought: He wants me to burst onto screen. The first scene is all talking. You have just got to listen to the cues a director is giving you. Because it’s not about: I must give my version of Katherine Hepburn. In a Martin Scorsese film you’ve got to serve the piece. So it’s not about slavishly being exactly like the person.
How important was it for you to have a specific lavish look in your first scene with Therese – Rooney Mara’s character?
I always find the hair and make-up process that Todd is very involved with a really creative time. Obviously film is a visual medium and people start putting together the psychology of a character before they open their mouths, and so the look of Carol was very important. And then it becomes freed up during the road trip with Therese. Also how Therese becomes more like Carol when she matures after her heart is broken. But I didn’t want to become too wound up in looking so-called ‘beautiful’. It was also an energy-production thing. It was also about trying to create a mystique or ambiguity around Carol and unknowability around her without making her alienating, still allowing an audience in, but still having that remoteness that exists within the novel.
It’s also about sexual allure…
That’s why I was cast first (smiles). Yes, because that’s in the gaze. I can act sexual allure till my pants fall down. That’s in the filmmaking, and that’s where Todd was really great. He was holding our hand a long way as we were making it together. I knew what frame I was in, and that was helpful.
Did you steal one of the dresses?
No. Although I do like a girdle. It completely alters the way you walk. Underpinnings are very important.
There was that misinterpretation of Variety magazine about you allegedly claiming that you had lesbian relationships…
It was not necessarily Variety. It’s the down side of the Internet. Internet is a fantastic tool, but it’s also like the back of a toilet door. Something gets said and then it’s these whispers. Who I am is of far less interest than the film Todd Haynes has made. It’s only annoying if it becomes a smokescreen between the audience and the work. But I didn’t let you finish your question.
I was just thinking…
Am I gay? (laughs) Not yet. We are pointing at the ’50s and yet we are acting as if it mattered. But this also points to an obsession that we have if actors are to truly connect to a role, they have to live it. And your job as an actor is to transport the audience to make it feel it couldn’t be any other way. That is the part that I love — you get to inhabit. From an anthropological perspective, you get to politically, socially investigate the mores and people of a certain time and step inside their shoes. It’s like an act of physical investigation and research. What my sexual persuasion is, what my politics are — that’s of absolutely no interest.
Can a character be a challenge to you personally?
Definitely. There is a little residue of a character that stays with you. I can’t say what it is. But that’s what the pleasure of being an actor is, you get a little bit expanded. It’s like the more novels of great writers that you read, the more your sense of the world expands, the more great roles you get to play or and the people you get to be in creative conversation with, the more your sense of the world gets expanded and the residue stays with you.
Is there a real difference between theater and cinema for you?
It’s been a big help for me as an actor to be have been able to move between the two. Without sounding too banal, I think, working within a big proscenium arch I understand better how to use a wide shot and also being in big cast on stage I understand better how to be intimate. But also the theater makes you accountable in an immediate sense for the audience. And that’s a really important thing for me as an actor to constantly reingage with that energy. Because you do get quite dislocated from that in the cinema. Not here in Cannes — they’ll tell you whether they like it or not.