Cate Blanchett talks about her role in Carol and same-sex relationships in cinema.

By Helen Barlow.

The larrikin side of Carol leading lady Cate Blanchett

Two-time Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett stars in Carol.

Cate Blanchett doesn’t suffer fools. She says what’s on her mind, often with dollops of humour and irony.

The actress seems to be everywhere at the moment, promoting her new movies, the love story Carol and the media drama Truth, her opinions filling the internet, with quotes such as “Selfies are pathetic” and “I’m not a lesbian, but who cares?” being turned into headlines.

In February, at the Berlin festival press conference for Cinderella, I could see her struggling with the puerile Disney line. But she was in full flight anyway, almost impersonating her deep-voiced evil stepmother. Her co-star, Lily James, hardly got a word in. Then in Cannes, publicising Carol, she told a Variety journalist how she’d personally had relationships with women, “many times”. Whether it was just another of the two-time Oscar winner’s grand dame moments, the line created a brief sensation. She later clarified: “If you mean have I had sexual relationships with women, the answer is ‘No’. In 2015, the point should be: Who cares?”

I’ve come to the conclusion that beneath Blanchett’s alabaster skin and glamorous frocks beats the heart of an Aussie larrikin.

“Am I a larrikin?” the 46-year-old repeats, mulling over my question. “I don’t know. I don’t think about myself that much. I think you’ve got to learn when to speak and when to shut up. Hopefully, I do shut up enough.”

Perhaps a larrikin, certainly a punk. At least in her youth. “Oh, yeah,” she says. “So was my husband. I had orange hair. I shaved my head. I did all of that stuff. But that’s the joy of being an actor. I mean, I don’t find labels particularly useful in life or in art. And that’s why I relish working with people like Rooney [Mara], Todd [Haynes] and Sandy [Powell]”, she says of her co-star, director, and costume designer on Carol. “You feel like the boundaries are elastic.”

For Blanchett, the borders have become increasingly elastic since she first worked with Haynes, playing her own distinctive version of Bob Dylan, among other Dylans played by Heath Ledger and Christian Bale, in the 2007 film I’m Not There. Haynes had made his name five years earlier with Far from Heaven, which, like Carol, was set in the 1950s, and had Julianne Moore as Cathy suffocating in Powell’s dresses while her on-screen husband, played by Dennis Quaid, was having gay encounters and Cathy had an affair with Dennis Haysbert’s Raymond. So many taboos were broken. Carol, set slightly earlier, is milder in its tone.

A passion project for screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, who wrote her first draft 19 years ago, Carol is based on Patricia Highsmith’s second and only overtly lesbian novel, The Price of Salt, which the famed American crime author published under a pseudonym in 1952. It pertained in many ways to herself.

“The novel fell into the black hole of lesbian fiction and came out via a marginal underground publisher,” Haynes notes. “It was not published under Highsmith’s name until the 1980s.”

For six years, Blanchett had been attached to a film version of the book. She had been a Highsmith fan since discovering her in preparations for The Talented Mr Ripley.

“I read her biography. I just ate her stuff alive. My husband and I co-commissioned a play for the Sydney Theatre Company called Switzerland about her meeting her Ripley character, so I’ve long been obsessed by her. There’s a darkness, a perversity, an irony and a melancholy, and an isolation, in Patricia Highsmith that I think somehow resides in a lot of her characters.”

Carol really took on its trajectory when Haynes came on board, Blanchett says. “It was on-again off-again, financed, not financed, and I’d been thinking this is not going to happen. Then I got a call out of the blue from Todd and he said, ‘The screenplay has landed on my lap. Are you still attached to it?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it if you do it.’ ” It was Blanchett’s Cinderella buddy, the daring flame-haired Powell, who had suggested it to him.

Carol would become a co-production with Christine Vachon’s Killer Films, the pioneers of LGBTI cinema which had produced Haynes’s groundbreaking debut, Poison, in 1991. Though things have changed since then. Or have they? Certainly when Daniel Radcliffe, as Allen Ginsberg, had gay sex with a stranger in Killer Films’ Beat drama Kill Your Darlings (2013), audiences didn’t blink an eyelid. Yet the sex in Carol is causing more of a fuss, in part because Blanchett is talking about it.

When the lesbian scenes inevitably come up in our interview, she retorts, “Which scene? They’re all lesbian scenes.”

Fair point. What about the one where she is in bed with Mara’s Therese for the first time?

“Oh, the sex scenes. You can say it!” she responds in broad (larrikin) Australian. “The lesbian sex scenes.

“It’s really interesting because my mum’s here. It’s her birthday on Sunday and I said, ‘Look, you can come to the film but there is a scene where I kiss this woman’s nipples.’ And she said, ‘Oh, it’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine,’ ” Blanchett says in a rapid-fire delivery. “We got to the scene and she was whispering, ‘Oh, that’s beautiful’, across to me. That meant a lot.”

The story of a well-heeled socialite meeting her far younger shop assistant lover across the racks at a swish department store was scandalous in 1952. But it crosses certain barriers even now.

“I thought we’d had this conversation but really there’s not that many same-sex relationships that are dealt with in mainstream cinema,” Blanchett says. “Still, I don’t think the film is political. It’s a universal love story almost like Romeo and Juliet. They’re discovering life for the first time and it’s tumultuous and dangerous. Forget the fact that Carol’s falling in love with a woman – she’s a younger woman from a completely different class who has no worldly experience and [Carol] does this as a married woman with a child living in the 1950s. That would be enough even if she were falling in love with a man. There were so many roadblocks to their relationship.”

Blanchett has been praised for depicting Carol’s volcanic emotions with such restraint, until of course they erupt in the film’s key love scene.

“There’s something when you have those moments where you lose the sense of your body and you become conjoined with someone,” Blanchett says. “There’s a beautiful, beautiful image which I don’t think I appreciated the first time I saw the film but which I really saw last night when they sort of said goodbye to one another a second time and they were really enmeshed in each other – and you don’t have a sense of whose arm was [whose]. I think that’s the filmmaking and who’s shooting it.”

At an earlier press conference, Blanchett compared falling in love to being caught in a tsunami. Was she a teenager when she experienced it for the first time?

“No. When I met me ’usband? Yep.”

How was that?

“What do you want me to tell you? Details? It was fabulous,” she giggles. “It was life-changing and it continues to change my life because those things are unconditional and also you lose perspective. When you fall in love the rest of the world drops away.”

Daring moves

Love is a many splendid thing for Blanchett. When widely acknowledged as one of the world’s best actors, just as she enjoyed dual Oscar nominations for Elizabeth: The Golden Age and I’m Not There in 2008, Blanchett made another daring move, deciding to forgo Hollywood to become co-artistic director at Sydney Theatre Company with her husband, writer Andrew Upton. It was a gig that would last five years with Upton staying on for an extra three. And so Hollywood came to her, with the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Steven Soderbergh and most recently John Crowley directing plays for the company. 

“I went to a drama school and I never had a particular ambition that I could work in the film industry, but when I got the opportunity to work in films it was great,” Blanchett says. “My time in the theatre has been producing the work of others and not necessarily performing, so it’s great that our production company is involved in Truth and Carol, because they’re two projects I feel very passionate about.” Her presence even helped facilitate Robert Redford coming to Sydney to shoot Truth.

As to her family: Blanchett’s father died of a heart attack when she was 10, and she wants to relish as many moments as she can with her own kids. Earlier this year the couple added an adopted baby daughter, Edith, to their brood of three sons, Dashiell, 14, Roman, 11, and Ignatius, 7. Was she worried about raising a daughter differently?

“Ah, no. I don’t feel I was brought up to be a girl. Although I’ve ended up being one! No, I don’t think I’m parenting any differently. I’m older so hopefully I’m better at it than the first time around.”

Is there a different dynamic in the family?

“Yeah, absolutely,” she coos. “It’s lovely.”

How does she manage it all? She has help? “My eldest son has been great. I’ve been putting him to work. Obviously, I don’t want to outsource the very important part of my life, but it’s no different to any working mother. Fortunately, my husband and I don’t mind a bit of chaos.”

That sense of chaos seems to extend to their move to America, which was meant to happen around about now. “We could be gypsies but we also have four children so we’ve all got to work it out,” she says. “It’s all in a state of flux.”

Besides, for all the larrikin quotes and casual headline-making, Blanchett is not too interested in keeping the world up to date with her life. “I don’t have a Facebook page, I don’t have a Twitter account, and I’m not on Instagram,” she asserts. “I personally don’t like knowing anything about the actors I see on screen because I feel it gets in the way of me immersing myself in the story.”

One of her reasons for doing Truth was to highlight how the truth often gets lost in contemporary media coverage. Somehow the controversy regarding George W. Bush’s military record was never resolved once Dan Rather (a kind of Brian Henderson of American 60 Minutes) and his producer Mary Mapes, played with great gusto by Blanchett, lost their jobs for reporting from documents that were deemed to be false. Such was the might of CBS News that nobody else picked up the story.

“I don’t think a monopoly of media ownership is healthy for any country and certainly there’s a centralisation of media ownership in Australia,” Blanchett says. Does she read The Saturday Paper? “Yes, I do. It’s great. It’s nice to have a bit of diversity.”

Blanchett will soon head back to Hollywood for the awards season, where Carol is a prime contender. If it’s any indication of the groundswell of support she is receiving, the headline of the recent five-star review of the film by London’s The Telegraph was simply: “Cate Blanchett will slay you.”

I ask about roles for women, the perennial question, one Blanchett has answered many times. This year, though, seems better than most for women. Which creates its own problem.

“When I was reading The New York Times and it said it was the year of the femme, I went, ‘Oh, fuck: it’s not just a year, is it?’ ” Blanchett says. “We don’t want to think about it as being a trend. I think when it’s discussed as a trend, it trivialises the work. So the work is happening but I think it’s the way we talk about the work that is really important.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 19, 2015 as "Love and Cate". Subscribe here.

Helen Barlow
is a Paris-based film writer.