Blanchett on Broadway
The one benefit to interviewing Cate Blanchett on the phone, rather than in person, is not having to stare at her luminous lit-from-within skin, penetrating feline eyes, and sky-high cheekbones and feel utterly inferior. Of course, just talking to her offers its own lessons in humility. Her resonant, surprisingly husky voice—her accent leans toward BBC English, with only sporadic appearances by nasally Aussie vowels—drips with intelligence, and she’ll almost always choose a four-syllable word over its simpler cousin. She answers in paragraphs, not short sentences, and you get the feeling she could go on about Chekhov for hours—which she might if she weren’t at home in East Sussex, England, on a Friday night, fielding questions from her three boys, ages 15, 12, and 8, and worrying that her nearly-2-year-old daughter might wake up.
This month, Blanchett makes her Broadway debut in The Present, a reimagining of Chekhov’s first play, the sprawling, unpublished epic Platonov. The playwright Andrew Upton, Blanchett’s husband and frequent collaborator, adapted it for the Sydney Theatre Company in 2015, and the entire cast—including Richard Roxburgh, who plays Platonov—have made the transfer to New York. Blanchett and Upton served as co–artistic directors of the Sydney Theatre Company from 2008 to 2012, producing dozens of critically acclaimed works, including four others that played off-Broadway in New York with Blanchett in starring roles: A Streetcar Named Desire, Uncle Vanya, The Maids, and Hedda Gabler. Upton stayed on as artistic director until 2016, while Blanchett filmed Blue Jasmine, Cinderella, and Carol, and this production of The Present serves as the final act from their tenure in Sydney. “I’m excited to see what New York audiences make of it,” Blanchett says. “Hopefully there’s an appetite for it.”
Obviously, there will be. Blanchett’s name has been synonymous with quality since her star-making turn in Elizabeth in 1998, and theatergoers who have been lucky enough to score tickets to her prior New York productions still brag about seeing her in the flesh. It’s obvious that she loves performing in any arena, but being on stage is different. “Theater is not just the presentation of some work of literature,” she says, the passion rising in her voice. “It’s this living, breathing, bastard form, and that beating heart of the work comes alive when you have a full house.”
This is your fifth time doing theater in New York, but your first time on Broadway. Is it different? Does Broadway hold more weight?
I don’t know. Ask me in six months [laughs]. It’s longer. The wonderful thing about having run the company with Andrew is we’ve been invited often to transfer a show. But because of the actor availability and length of run required for Broadway—and personally having quite a number of children—that’s been an impossibility. But now that we’re both freelance again, it’s possible. And it feels like a wonderful culmination of the work that Andrew and I facilitated, but also bore witness to, in the time that we ran the company.
In your experience, do audiences respond differently in New York than they do in Sydney?
Yes. I really, really noticed the difference with Streetcar, actually. There is a deep cultural understanding of the resonance of the play that I thought I understood and I thought audiences in Australia understood, but when you bring it back to America, there were layers that the audience, through responding to things, shone a light on. The audience can often think that they’re passive participants, but they’re an absolutely vital part of it—you learn so much about the play from those responses you get. The most exciting part for me is always the previews. It’s a gladiatorial sport—let’s face it. But it should be dangerous.
So let’s talk about The Present. And the present.
Yes, the elusive present. The Present isn’t only the title of the play.
Is there an actual tangible present in the play, or is it about living in the present?
It’s enigmatic, isn’t it? It’s both. It’s set around a birthday party. There’s a fantastic line that Richard says when he makes a toast in the first act: “To life, now. To life as it actually is.” It’s about the now-ness, the indescribable, indefinable now. How do you exist in the present?
To me, the plot sounds like a Russian version of The Big Chill. How do you describe it?
[Laughs.] It’s a gathering together of people who knew each other inside out. It’s centered around the birthday of the character I play, Anna Petrovna, who has brought together a whole lot of disparate people from her past in order to celebrate. And they don’t always get on. What makes it really special is that Andrew has set it at the moment in time in Russia when the oligarchs were beginning to rise and calcify, at the beginning of Putin’s reign, so there is the sense that one corrupt regime has been supplanted by another known corrupt regime. There’s a choice to rebel against that or to participate. And the heart of a myriad of relationships is Platonov, who is a once-potentially-great man who has settled for the average. Andrew’s version of events is very much about people who have almost missed the moment and are looking at what they have left, at what they can salvage.
The literary critic James Wood wrote that the people in Chekhov’s plays “act like free consciousness, not as owned literary characters.”
Yes, yes. They’re like the weather. You move through one state to another. I think often when Chekhov is done in English, they’re either mistaken as being somehow mad Russians or eccentric, but if you play the different states, and you allow those things to be juxtaposed against one another, then you have a character. You can’t really play that character—you just have to play the condition of those emotional states. And also you have to be very, very available to the other actors.
Almost a year and a half after you premiered this play in Sydney, does it feel like a blessing to do it again? Does it feel new?
Definitely. I learned that very profoundly in the three seasons that we did of Uncle Vanya: We did it in Sydney, we did it at the Kennedy Center in Washington, and we did it at City Center with the wonderful people at Lincoln Center Festival. Chekhov is built and designed and written with the understanding of a company, and so the more frequently you return to it, it ripens with time, and there are these imperceptible understandings and unspoken connections and cobwebs between the actors that develop in a way that’s completely unconscious. I think it really resonates with an audience the longer it sits with a company. It’s a gift—pardon the pun!— to be able to do it again.
You’ve had the pleasure of revisiting a lot of stage roles when you transfer productions. Do you ever wish you could revisit film roles?
In some ways, you do revisit a film role, because there are so many stages to it. There’s the actual showing up during the shoots and what we all make together, and then there’s the ADR [automated dialogue replacement] process—although if you work with Woody Allen, that section of the process is nonexistent [laughs]. And then you get to reexamine the role in a slightly objective way when you have to suddenly be answerable to “So what did you find interesting in the character?” “What drew you to the role?” Questions that you probably don’t ask yourself when you’re in the more unconscious stage of making the work. So you do revisit it in a way. But in terms of playing it again, I feel that way all the time. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. Film is a very finite medium, so you get to the last week of the shoot, and you’re always full of regrets. You think, “Oh no, if I only could go back and do it again, I’d do it like this…” But maybe it would be worse. So it’s probably best to finish up and move on and do something else [laughs]. In a way, there’s always unfinished business with a role that you play in film, and so the habits you didn’t break or the bits you didn’t investigate somehow unconsciously then drive you in the next role that you end up taking.
You’ve done a lot of revivals on stage. Are you more drawn to older plays?
It’s funny—that’s a term we don’t use at home, the idea of a revival. Because in a way, every single kind of play that is performed, whether it was written five years ago or 500 years ago, it’s always … no, it’s not a revival, it’s a reinvention. And you have to risk tearing scripts up, and you have to simultaneously have a kind of irreverence and a respectful relationship to the words on the page and the situations created. Do you consider Shakespeare a revival, or is it a modern classic?
I wouldn’t call it modern, but I’d call it a classic.
Right, but I mean, if someone was doing a production of Richard II, would you call it a revival?
No, I guess you’re right. It’s a weird choice of words.
It’s only a term that I encountered in the U.S., and when it’s, say Ibsen or Arthur Miller or…
I think I’d call an Arthur Miller play a revival but Ibsen or Shakespeare or Chekhov a classic.
Yeah. It’s funny, isn’t it? They’re just stories. Great stories brilliantly told. But Ivo van Hove’s production of A View From the Bridge [which won the 2016 Tony for Best Revival of a Play]—he created something utterly new. And so I wouldn’t use the word revival. It’s so much to do with your relationship with the director and the vision for the piece.
Are there any roles that you’re waiting to be old enough to play?
[Laughs.] You’re too kind.
You know, like Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night?
Yeah, but Mary’s not that old. Luc Bondy [the late Swiss director] and I were talking about doing a variation of that, and he was pointing out that she’s probably only about 40. If you wait until you’re 60, it has a different poignancy. It’s like having a young Arkadina and a very young Konstantin [in Chekhov’s The Seagull]. These plays take on a very different flavor. If you look at Blanche DuBois or Hedda Gabler, often there are enough stage hours in order to attempt to pit yourself against those great roles—and I say attempt because it’s always an attempt. But, in a way, if you look at Blanche, she feels like she’s 50, but she’s only 31. And it’s not that someone who’s 31 or 28 couldn’t play it, but you need to have someone who can access that world-weariness. Often there’s a poignancy when people are younger when they play them. Mary Tyrone is a wonderful role, but I don’t think about roles that way. It’s totally dependent on a production for me. Like in The Present, I’m very much part of the ensemble, and it wasn’t the role itself that drew me to the piece—it was working with Richard again, it was working with John [Crowley, the director], it was working with Andrew, it was working with Chris [Ryan] and Toby [Schmitz] and Jackie [McKenzie]. It was that that made me want to do it. And it’s the same in film: The role is always secondary.
Is the ensemble feeling in a play different than in a film?
It depends. A lot of that comes from a director. So if you work with a director like Todd Haynes, he chooses the cast and the staff—he’s inherently an ensemble creator, so all of you are very much a part of making something. He’s a non-hierarchical filmmaker in that way. I don’t respond well when, just because you’ve got more lines than someone else, you’ve got better access to the biscuit tin in the green room.
Do your sons come see you in your stage productions?
The elder ones came and saw The Present, and they enjoyed it, but they find it really weird seeing me in the flesh up there doing things with other people.
But they don’t feel that way watching you in movies?
No, I think because there’s, well, there’s a screen. There’s a kind of finality to that product. There’s a distance that one has to it. Also, frankly, they don’t watch a lot of what I do. I’m not their speed. Although I did get some brownie points for working with Chris Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo on Thor.
You just finished filming Thor: Ragnarok in Australia. Was that a good experience?
I really haven’t made a film for quite a while, so this was the icebreaker. I can’t tell you—it was so much fun. All of us, my entire family, had an absolute ball.
I read your eldest son was worried about your career and suggested that you do a blockbuster.
Yeah, and I took his advice! [Laughs.] I try to take his advice. I keep thinking everything’s bound to be big: Carol will be a blockbuster! [Laughs.]
And your son Iggy had a cameo in Thor?
Nooooo! He didn’t have a cameo! Basically there was a big scene with a lot of extras, and every single person had a relative who worked on the crew or was in the cast. And he really wanted to be an extra. My thing is, if you can see the waiting around and the length of time you have to spend in hair and makeup, then maybe that will disabuse him. I’m always telling them the least glamorous side of being an actor—because they have a desire to do it.
So your sons are interested in acting?
Yes, they’re definitely interested in stories, for sure. However that manifests itself, I don’t know, and I’m not interested in trying to shape it. If we were lawyers or doctors, there would be an expectation or a hope or understanding that our children would follow in our footsteps, but I think when you work in the arts you have nothing but fear. You want them to do it because they have a burning desire to do it, an inescapable urge to do it—it’s the only way. It has to hunt you down, because the ups and downs are many and continuous, and there are many shallow periods, so it has to be your desire that’s driving you, not the desire to replicate the experience or the perceived experience that your parents had.
Your whole family is relocating to New York for The Present. What’s your favorite thing about the city?
This is going to sound banal, but the cut and thrust of it. And if you have the opportunity to stand up high in the city, it’s strangely like Versailles. You look over the guard, and it’s the park, and then, like Versailles, you’ve got this central garden and this crazy jungle on every side of it.
Are your boys excited to be here?
Oh, I wanted to give them the number of 1-800-OBESITY. They were looking up where you can find the best Cronuts. Their focus is slightly different than mine. I was saying, “Oh, you can see what kind of exhibitions there are, and there might be a really interesting suite of old movies we can see.” And they came back with the best place to buy Cronuts. It keeps it real, I guess.