When it comes to this year’s Academy Awards, Cate Blanchett has a problem that’s at once frustrating and enviable: She's poised to dominate this awards season with lead roles in the Todd Haynes lesbian romance Carol and the journalism drama Truth, but Oscar rules stipulate that a Best Actress candidate can only be nominated for one performance, not two. Perhaps it's fitting, though, that Blanchett is her own rival: Who else could measure up to this two-time Oscar winner, considered one of the most versatile and talented performers in film at age 46?
It may be months before we know which way those awards-season chips will fall, but in the meantime, I met up with Blanchett in Los Angeles to discuss the Jamie Vanderbilt–directed Truth, where she plays hard-charging 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes, whose 2004 report on the National Guard tenure of then-president George W. Bush provoked attacks on her journalistic credibility and precipitated the ousting of both Mapes and CBS anchor Dan Rather (played by Robert Redford). Resplendent in peacock-colored couture and swallowing sashimi, Blanchett was game to discuss what drew her to Truth, what she really thinks of her own performances, and how she feels about Quentin Tarantino's recent diss.
There’s a sequence in Truth where Mary goes online to see what people are writing about her, and she’s shocked by the level of vitriol.
Can I ask, does that happen to you? Where people comment on stuff that you’ve written?
Oh, sure. But I adopted a “don’t read the comments” policy a while ago, and I try to stick to it. Did you have to develop your own policy when it comes to what people say about you online?
There’s a difference between being accountable to your audience and becoming obsessed with how you’re received, and with the latter, that way lies creative death. But being accountable to your audience is really important, and I think maybe that comes from years and years of doing theater: You can tell when you’re losing an audience, just as you can tell when they’re really with you and surfing the same wave — which is thrilling. It’s taken me a long time to accept that you’re never going to quite have that same visceral understanding of your audience in the cinema. Initially, I thought I’d be able to get that from critics, but you can’t.
So there’s no way for you to properly measure the audience’s reaction to your films?
Except if someone stops you in the supermarket! Sometimes people say, “Oh, I’m really sorry, I don’t want to bother you,” but I'm like, “No, I’m interested!” And they don’t always like my films. [Laughs.] Sometimes they say, “I didn’t like blah blah blah,” and I’m like, “Okay, and … ?” But you’ve got to know, and you probably feel the same way, that there are around five people you should really listen to, and you want them to tell you the hard shit in addition to, “That was really good.” In the end, the praise is far more difficult to handle than the criticism. The criticism I know what to do with.
Then how did you feel when Quentin Tarantino bashed Notes on a Scandal and said, “Half of these Cate Blanchett movies — they’re all just like these arty things. I’m not saying they’re bad movies, but I don’t think most of them have a shelf life.”
Well, he’s entitled to his opinion.
Not when he’s wrong about Notes on a Scandal!
It’s like horses for courses, not everyone’s gonna like what you do. Was it Louis Malle who said, “It takes as much effort to make a bad film as it does to make a good film”? That’s just his opinion. I guess.
You've worked with a lot of experienced A-list directors over the course of your career, but I don't think you've ever made a film with a first-time director like Jamie Vanderbilt. What was it about him that convinced you to do Truth?
It’s all about the conversation, and it doesn’t matter to me whether that person has made 100 films or not. It’s wonderful to work with Scorsese, of course, or to work with Todd, or to work with someone again like [Steven] Soderbergh — I have to make some television in order to work with him! But I found the conversation with Jamie to be so exciting, and I loved the script so much. And he was irreverent with it, which I thought was healthy. It’s one thing to write a great script, but often when a director directs their own material, they’re singing the same note, and the direction ought to be discordant with the material. I felt he had the desire and the ability to do that.
Were you surprised by the story?
I knew nothing about Mary. I obviously had seen the Abu Ghraib story she did, and was aware of how socialized Bush’s time in the National Guard — or lack thereof — was in Texas. I’d seen the story of 60 Minutes, but I wasn’t aware at all of the fallout. I knew Dan Rather had left CBS, but I didn’t know why. So I went online, as one does, and I saw this series of interviews Mary gave after the story had come out. I saw this quiet, defensive lockdown in her, and when I met Mary, I found it very difficult to reconcile this vivacious, hilarious, searingly intelligent and instinctual human being with that. I thought, Somewhere between those two things, those two energies, lies the performance.
What did you want to know when you first finished the script?
I had many dumb questions to ask Jamie. I don’t live inside this culture. One can’t help but consume American politics no matter where you live, because the machinations of this country have such a big effect on the globe, but I had a lot of mechanical, dumb questions to ask before I could even get to first base.
Oh, they’re too dumb to even dare to tell you! [Laughs.]
You had a pretty packed 2014: After you won the Oscar for Blue Jasmine, you filmed Carol and Truth, and starred in The Maids in New York. After a year like that, do you feel accomplished? Exhausted?
Well, I’d been with Carol for a really long time. It was very difficult to get made, and I’d been with it through all its ups and downs, so it had been living inside me for a really long time. I was just relieved that it was finally happening, and to be working with Todd again and to finally be working with Rooney [Mara] and Kyle [Chandler] and Sarah Paulson — who I just love, I adore her — was special. But then Truth happened like a bolt from the blue. I read it, I ate it alive, and it got up incredibly quickly. And Jamie found a way where we could shoot it in Sydney, because it’s mostly interiors.
Which you’d never know.
No, you’d never know where anything is shot, really. I mean, most things are shot in Romania, let’s face it. But that was the one that blindsided me, and after it was over, I was really exhausted. So I haven’t worked much this year. I just did a play, but I needed to take some time off.
You described Carol as something that had been living inside you, and Truth is a deep-dive performance, too, so do you feel a sense of postpartum loss after these shoots are over? Are the roles hard to shake?
The next project helps you shake it, and the fact that I’ve got such a life outside work helps me shake it. You know, I’ve got four kids — they’re not interested in the detritus from me walking off set. That helps. But it’s a strange thing with filmmaking, because I’m always filled with regret on the last day of shooting when I think, I finally understand this character. That’s what I love about theater: You get to go out the next night and repair the fuck-ups that you did the night before, but with film, there is a strange sense of loss, because you have to let that person go. Even with someone who’s as detestable as the stepmother in Cinderella, there’s a kind of relish in playing her, and you have to let it go.
And after you’ve let it go, it often takes a while to see what you’ve done, since a film can take upwards of a year to complete … or several years, if you’re talking about Terrence Malick.
Like seeing Carol in Cannes … I made Carol with this great bunch of people in March of last year! That’s a long burn, in the film world.
And when you finally get to see these films, are you thinking, Wow, I wish I’d done that performance differently?
Word got out recently that you’re interested in making a film about Lucille Ball, and that Aaron Sorkin might write it. What stage is that project at?
Someone talked about it too early. It’s very embryonic. The idea is really fascinating, but we’re not yet sure whether it’ll be for television or a feature — that’s how embryonic it is. And I mean, Aaron Sorkin is very tied up right now.
Yeah, he’ll be promoting Steve Jobs for a while. Have you caught it yet?
I’m so desperate to see it! There’s so many films I’m excited to see. I want to see Spotlight!
Have you seen Brooklyn?
That’s a good one, too. Saoirse Ronan is just heartbreaking in it.
There’s such a diverse array of films this year. John Crowley, who directed it, just did a play with us in Sydney.
How important is it for you to make films with female filmmakers? I know that at one point, you were attached to do a film that Julie Delpy would direct for HBO …
Oh, Cancer Vixen! Look, I’d love that to happen, she’s fantastic. I’m pretty instinctual about what I do, and I don’t have any long-range agenda. It’s all about the ask. But I love working with great women, and there’s a wealth of them.
Are you looking to direct a film yourself? You’ve directed some theater over the last few years.
I’ve been asked a few times, and it’s just about finding the right material at the right time. There’s a four-part television thing that I’m attached to direct in Australia, so that’s my directorial focus at the moment. Sometimes I’ll digest some material and think, I couldn’t play that role, but I’d love to help facilitate it as a producer, and someday, I might want to facilitate it as a director. But I’ve worked with some pretty great directors, and I’d have to be pretty inside the material to want to step into that arena.
That instinct you just copped to, where you read something and think, I couldn’t play that … is that ever something you’ve thought about a role that you still signed on to do?
Bob Dylan [in I'm Not There].
At what point did you realize you actually could do it?
When I stepped out of hair and makeup, and I thought, Well, I have to do something with this.
*A version of this article appears in the October 19, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.