Movie Interviews
3:54 pm
Fri January 10, 2014

Cate Blanchett Finds Humor In The Painfully Absurd

Originally published on Fri January 10, 2014 6:19 pm

The actress Cate Blanchett is in the States this week; it's summer vacation time for her kids in Australia, where she and her husband are artistic directors of the Sydney Theatre Company.

It's also awards season, and Blanchett makes a compelling claim for one: She plays the title role in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine, for which she's earned near-unanimous acclaim.

Jasmine French is a latter-day Blanche DuBois. Or a Ruth Madoff. She's the financially broke, mentally disintegrating widow of a Wall Street con man, who descends on her sister's modest household and family.

Blanchett tells All Things Considered's Robert Siegel that a careful mixture of humor and drama is crucial to Blue Jasmine. In fact when she read the script, she initially took it for a comedy.


Interview Highlights

On the necessity of "buoyancy" in drama

I remember thinking, when I was playing Hedda Gabler, that several sequences of the play were utterly absurd. So maybe when I say "funny," I mean absurd.

And I think that's where the hallmark of Woody Allen's work is. He understands the painful absurdity of life, and it's in those juxtapositions [that there] lies, often, a very black sense of humor.

But tone is everything, really, I think, when you're working with Woody, because he's made films of such diverse tone, from Bananas to Interiors. And having never worked with him before, you're not quite sure where the playing of it is going to lie, and I thought you could take it in either direction. Hopefully, I think, the final product of Blue Jasmine — you have a buoyancy to the pain that makes it truly sort of pathetic.

On giving a story depth without weighing it down

I think he wanted to make sure there was a depth to it. And when I say "depth," I don't mean weight. I think those two things are quite different. It's like when you're playing Hedda Gabler, or Blanche DuBois or Richard II or any of those great roles, you have to find the buoyancy to the depth so it doesn't become heavy. Because I think often when people are in crisis, they're not sinking into it. They're trying to find those moments of lightness, and it's the pull in those two different directions, I think, that allows [the film] to reach the audience, and for it not to become a dirge.

On her character in Blue Jasmine

I think, I hope, what I brought out in Woody's screenplay is that she's utterly constructed. I mean, the references that are made to her teen years, you know — she's changed her name. She's estranged from her biological beginnings, you know — to avoid thinking of what? The chasm, I think, that has always existed, [which] she's filled with her husband, her social network, her clothes that she buys. And I think a lot of people said, "Well, why should we feel anything for her?" But I tried to find a connection to that universal problem that so many of us feel — who am I, without all the trappings of our lives?

On why she wanted to do the film after a substantial hiatus

Strangely, the part [itself] is the last point of connection. [For me] it's who is going to be in it, and who's directing it, and what's the story? And I was compelled and utterly gripped by the story, the tale. [I've] been running the Sydney Theatre Company with my partner for the last six years, producing theater and performing onstage. ... I've been reading play texts. And it had the depth and complexity and the level of craftsmanship that a lot of theater texts have. I thought, "This is a part to swing a cat in, and how do I?" So you just have to throw yourself at it.

On working in both theater and film

I've been very grateful I've been able to move between the two forms, because they're not diametrically opposed; I think they feed each other. You know, you do have a self-awareness as an actor. That's what you bring from the theater, is that you're very aware that you have to hit that light, whilst also talking about the fact that you've lost your children and you know that someone is answering their mobile phone in Row G, and that someone else is opening a lolly wrapper in the back of the stalls.

And so you have all of these awarenesses, and it makes you fearless, in a way. Because you can tell whether something is living or dying when you're on the stage, and you can do something about it.

I think sometimes when you're working consistently in film, and maybe this is just me, but you do feel quite dislocated from your audience. I was acutely aware of the audience in the cinema when I was doing Jasmine. I don't know whether that was the pace itself or whether that was just my recent experience.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Cate Blanchett is in the states this week. It's summer vacation time for her kids in Australia, where she and her husband are artistic directors of the Sydney Theatre Company. It's also the movie awards season and Blanchett makes a compelling claim for one. She plays the title role in Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine." Jasmine French is a latter day Blanche DuBois, or a Ruth Madoff. She's the financially broke and mentally disintegrating widow of a Wall Street con man and she descends on her sister's modest household and family.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE: "BLUE JASMINE")

DANIEL JENKS: (as Matthew) Mom said you used to be OK, but you got crazy.

MAX RUTHERFORD: (as Johnny) Yeah, and then you talk to yourself.

CATE BLANCHETT: (as Jasmine French) Well, there's only so many traumas a person can withstand till they take to the streets and start screaming. That's right, boys, they picked me up on the street talking to myself and gave me something called Edison's medicine. Why Edison? Because they use electricity to get you thinking straight.

SIEGEL: Cate Blanchett, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

BLANCHETT: Thank you. Pleased to be here, Robert.

SIEGEL: I want to ask you about something you said about the part that you play in the movie "Blue Jasmine," which is that when you read the script, you said you thought it was funny, it was comedy.

BLANCHETT: Maybe - yes. Maybe that's a bit of a litmus test. Maybe I think life is funny. I remember thinking, when I was playing Hedda Gabler, that several sequences of the play were utterly absurd. So maybe when I say funny, I mean absurd. And I think that's where Woody Allen and the hallmark of Woody Allen's work is that he understands the painful absurdity of life, and it's in those juxtapositions that lives often are very black sense of humor.

But tone is everything, really, I think, when you're working with Woody, because he's made so many diverse - films of such diverse tone, you know, from "Bananas" to "Interiors." And having never worked with him before, you're not quite sure where the playing of it is going to lie. And I thought you could take it in either direction and, hopefully, I think, the final product of "Blue Jasmine," you have buoyancy to the pain that makes it truly sort of pathetic.

SIEGEL: But did you play it differently? After I heard you say this, I went back and looked at the DVD of "Blue Jasmine" and, you know, it did strike me that the scenes in which your character's working at a dentist's office, rather unhappily, this - another way of playing it, this could be Lucille Ball, almost. I mean, it's...

BLANCHETT: Oh, one of my heroes. Yes.

SIEGEL: Well, it could be very broad comedy if you play it that way.

BLANCHETT: Yes. I mean, you know, Woody did say three weeks in, you know, this is a serious movie. And I said, God, why didn't you tell me that three weeks ago?

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Out of - three weeks out of how many, by the way, shooting with him?

(LAUGHTER)

BLANCHETT: We had - I can't remember now. I think it was about eight. It's quite fast and furious. But no, we were in the dentist's office. I mean, that whole situation, you know, when he's commenting on Jasmine's teeth, I mean, the writing is absurd and I think hilarious. But I think he wanted to make sure that there was a depth to it. And when I say depth, I don't mean weight. I think those two things are quite different.

I think you can play - it's like when you're playing Hedda Gabler, or Blanche DuBois or Richard II or any of those great roles, you have to find the buoyancy to the depth, so that it doesn't become heavy. Because I think often when people are in crisis, they're not sinking into it. They're trying to find those moments of lightness and it's the pull in those two different directions, I think, that allows the audience to - to reach the audience, and for it not to become a dirge.

SIEGEL: In "Blue Jasmine," you're virtually playing two characters.

BLANCHETT: Many characters on any - well, depending on who she was speaking to, I think.

SIEGEL: In flashbacks, though, she is riding high and she is a Park Avenue matron, extremely rich, and we're watching her in the process of unraveling in the present.

BLANCHETT: Oh, Robert. Rich doesn't necessarily mean happy.

(LAUGHTER)

BLANCHETT: I mean, look, I think...

SIEGEL: But she's composed in the flashbacks.

BLANCHETT: Yes, but, I mean, I think, I hope what I brought out in Woody's screenplay is that she's utterly constructed. I mean, the references that are made to her teen years, you know, she's changed her name. She's estranged from her biological beginnings, you know, to avoid thinking of what? You know, the chasm, I think, that has always existed, that she's filled with her husband, with her social network, with the clothes that she buys.

And I think, you know, a lot of people said, well, why should we feel anything for her? But I tried to find a connection to that universal problem that so many of us feel as who am I, without all the trappings, you know, of our lives?

SIEGEL: But, frankly, this is not the most sympathetic character we could imagine you playing. And does that make a difference to you? Is it more attractive to play somebody who's difficult to sympathize with?

BLANCHETT: I think, for me, obviously, I don't know how to do it unless you're doing it with other people. So, strangely, the part is the last point of connection. It's who is going to be in it and who's directing it and what's the story? And I was compelled and utterly gripped by the story, the tale. I mean, having worked, you know, I've been running the Sydney Theatre Company with my partner for the last six years, producing theater and performing on stage.

So having not made a film for a very long time, I've been reading play texts. And it had the depth and complexity and the level of craftsmanship that a lot of theater texts have. And then, you know, I thought, this is a part to swing a cat in, and how do I - so you just have to throw yourself at it.

SIEGEL: Did you say this is a part to swing a cat in?

BLANCHETT: Yes. Do you not say that in your country?

SIEGEL: No. I haven't heard that. I mean, let me check with the crew through the glass here, and no, they're all...

BLANCHETT: Looking bewildered.

SIEGEL: ...they're all bewildered by that, trying to imagine that.

BLANCHETT: Yes. Well, that's what I did every day.

(LAUGHTER)

BLANCHETT: For eight weeks, I swung that cat.

SIEGEL: I see. As you said, you've been doing a lot of theatre recently, more so than films, theatre in Australia and also traveling. Is that much more satisfying to you? What you're saying about "Blue Jasmine" is you're describing the great virtues of this project because it resembled a stage play, what you said. Is it much better work?

BLANCHETT: Well, no, it's different. And, you know, I've been very grateful that I've been able to move between the two forms because they're not diametrically opposed. I think they feed each other. You know, you do have a self-awareness as an actor. I mean, that's - I think, that's what you bring from the theater is that you're very aware that you have to hit that light whilst also talking about the fact that you've lost your children.

And you know that someone is answering their mobile phone in Row G, and that someone else is opening a lolly wrapper in, you know, in the back of the stalls. And so, you have all of these awarenesses, and it makes you fearless, in a way. Because you can tell whether something is living or dying when you're on the stage and you can do something about it.

And I think sometimes if you were - you know, when you're working consistently in film, and maybe this is just me, but you do feel quite dislocated from your audience. And I was acutely aware of the audience in the cinema, I think, when I was doing "Jasmine." And I don't know whether that was the piece itself or whether that was just my recent experience.

SIEGEL: Well, Cate Blanchett, and the most important thing is for you to verify that I'm correct in saying Blanchett, not...

BLANCHETT: Blanchett.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Not Blanchett, but...

BLANCHETT: No, no. Look. I mean...

SIEGEL: You accept Blanchett, you've told people.

BLANCHETT: I will accept that. From you, Robert, I will accept that.

SIEGEL: But it is...

BLANCHETT: As long as you don't spell it Blanchard.

SIEGEL: But to put our listeners in the know, it is accurately Cate Blanchett.

BLANCHETT: Well, it's actually Blanchett. You do it in this...

SIEGEL: Blanchett.

BLANCHETT: That's much better.

SIEGEL: Cate Blanchett.

BLANCHETT: Now, I know - now, I come to. Now, I'll come.

SIEGEL: Well...

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Cate Blanchett, thank you...

BLANCHETT: You're telling it so good.

SIEGEL: ...thank you very much for talking with us.

BLANCHETT: Come and work at the Sydney Theatre Company.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: OK. That's a deal. Thanks a lot for talking with us about "Blue Jasmine."

BLANCHETT: Thank you. Thank you.

SIEGEL: Cate Blanchett plays the title character Jasmine French in Woody Allen's movie, "Blue Jasmine." You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.