Cate Blanchett and writer-director Warwick Thornton are visibly shivering on an unseasonably windy rooftop at the Cannes Film Festival. “I’m suddenly freezing,” Blanchett says when we meet, tucking her hair into her jacket. “And I’m wearing a woolen suit!” Save for the suit, which, for the record, is a Tár-adjacent gray, the primary thing keeping her relatively warm and awake and in punchily good spirits is the leftover energy from the Friday premiere of Thornton and Blanchett’s film, The New Boy. “There’s a lot of adrenaline from last night,” she says, ordering a hot tea.
In The New Boy, which is Thornton’s second film to play at Cannes after Samson and Delilah won the Camera d’Or in 2009, Blanchett plays Sister Eileen, a “renegade nun” in 1940s Australia who runs a remote monastery that houses Aboriginal children. One night, a mysterious new charge (Aswan Reid) is deposited onto her doorstep, and it soon becomes clear that he has magical powers and/or may be the second coming of Jesus Christ himself. Eileen, a generous woman but also an intense Christ fanatic with a weakness for red wine and many secrets of her own, is left to square her own ramrod religious beliefs and repressed feelings with an Indigenous spirituality that challenges and calls into question those long-held ideas.
Inspired by Thornton’s childhood experience of being sent to a missionary-style boarding school, and co-produced by Blanchett, the film is enigmatic and discursive, leaving its audience with more questions than answers. Perhaps that is why the three of us spent our time together talking about everything from how to fake your own death to why we can’t stop staring at our own faces on Zoom.
Tell me about how and when you first met.
Cate Blanchett: Well, I don’t know if you remember it!
Warwick Thornton: I do, but there was a conversation where I said, “I don’t know if I’d ever met Cate!” I actually had. [Both laugh.]
C.B.: We had a relationship for two years and Warwick couldn’t even remember my name! No, it was right before the pandemic, at the Berlin Film Festival. You were there with Mystery Road, and I was there with Stateless, both in the TV quadrant. We’d bumped into each other at a party. And you’d met Andrew, right?
It was brief and noisy. And then during lockdown, I just started thinking about home and what sort of films I would be interested in making and who I’d like to work with. I said, “We should call Warwick and see what he’s up to!” And it went from there. It was mostly over Zoom. Phone calls, actually.
W.T.: Yes. You found a book about …
C.B.: Oh, people disappearing! How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found.
Did you want to disappear completely?
C.B.: It was something I was contemplating doing. It’s a self-published book someone gave me. I still find it so interesting. It’s a way that you completely eradicate your identity and your footprint so you cannot be found. It wasn’t a spy handbook or anything. It was literally like, “If you want to no longer participate in society, here’s the steps you need to take.” And you, Warwick, had just had that come-to-Jesus moment, where you’d taken a walk …
W.T.: On the beach, yeah.
So you were both thinking about faking your own death?
C.B.: Yes. We were both in a similar state of erasure. We still are!
W.T.: Or maybe faking our own birth.
C.B.: I think I have the name of a psychologist who can help you with that.
What brought that desire on?
C.B.: I’m hazarding a guess that it was the pandemic — for me, anyway. All of this stuff was dormant, but the pandemic provided a space in which it could do nothing but come out. You were left alone with your own thoughts and dilemmas and trying to connect with the dilemmas of others.
W.T.: And creating your own failure. The pandemic created so many failures in all of us. “Oh, I’ve got time to learn Latin now, haven’t I?” Bullshit! “Time to learn those three country-western chords on the guitar!” You just set yourself up to fail.
C.B.: Did you make sourdough? Every man I know grew a beard and made sourdough. Everyone said, “Oh, the pandemic kilos,” it’s because everyone’s partner or boyfriend or brother was making fucking sourdough. Not learning Latin.
W.T.: Or ginger beer.
Cate, you were making sourdough?
C.B.: My husband was. And I ate it, unfortunately.
Where were you both physically while having these calls? Seems like they were some really wide-ranging conversations.
C.B.: I was in the country in England.
W.T.: I was in Sydney. They were, because of the time difference. Generally Cate seemed like more of a morning person. It was you in the morning, and me after a bottle of red wine at about 11:30.
C.B.: It was a bit random. Sometimes I’d get texts from you that were like, “Oh my God. It’s four in the morning, your time. Why are you still up?” I don’t know if you found this in the pandemic, but my sense of what was up and what was left and what was right … it was like being in Scandinavia over the summer. I totally lost my sense of time. It was immaterial to me whether I was talking at three in the morning or in the afternoon. I think that’s what facilitated these open-ended conversations. I said, “I’d love to work with you,” and I don’t think he took me seriously. We didn’t think about an outcome, but one day, you mentioned you had a script you’d written a long time ago. You’d been thinking about it again, didn’t know how you felt about it, but did I want to read it? And I said, “Of course.” And I just fell in love with the predicament and the characters. But I thought, “Oh, well, there’s nothing for me to play in there.” But we got started talking about what would happen if you flipped the character from a priest to a nun.
W.T.: It was a slightly black-and-white story, as a priest and the new boy. But when we changed it to a nun, all of these shades of gray happened. Which is what a story should be. An evil person and an angel is such a boring place for storytelling.
Why do you think you two bonded so deeply? It’s unusual to Zoom with one person that often and for that length of time.
C.B.: I think it was phone calls, actually. We didn’t know what each other was wearing. That’s too much information. I got used to Zooms now, and in a way they liberate you, which is great for the planet, from traveling so much for meetings. But there’s something about the telephone. I love when the person says, “Mind if we have a phone call?” It feels to me like people are saying, “I really want to talk.” There’s something about the computer screen where I do click off mentally.
W.T.: You stop listening and you look at your own image. You’re just working on that image.
You can’t not look at yourself.
C.B.: That is the truth. It’s terrible. It’s like a mirror.
Who came up with the idea that Sister Eileen would be this secret alcoholic? And the rest of her backstory?
W.T.: I rang you with this great epiphany: “She burnt down the convent where she was learning to be a nun. There we go, that’s all done.” Literally four hours later, we hung up. We had a four-hour conversation about her backstory.
C.B.: Alcohol was always in there. Having seen all of the cuts and the evolution of it, seeing it screened large, so many things came to me for the first time. I connected much more the idea of the sacramental wine, which is what she’s drinking, with the blood of Christ. Her alcoholism had this strange, subtle connection to Jesus.
W.T.: All cultures — western, Indigenous — use certain hallucinogens to communicate with God. To get closer to whatever you’re looking for.
What do you see as the primary differences between making films in the American studio system and making them in Australia? What did that feel like for you?
C.B.: I don’t think you ever really leave the Australian film industry, to be honest. There’s so many of us working internationally and we all have a very similar ethos, which is much less hierarchical than American filmmaking is. We’re used to taking risks. Strangely, I’d been in South Australia relatively recently to film Stateless. And it was very important to me, actually. I want to be onstage every year or 18 months, just to touch that well. And I feel the same way about being on terra firma in Australia. There’s just something … it’s the light. It’s the crews. It’s really meaningful to me.
You said in the press notes that Australia “haunts your dreams.”
C.B.: It does. [Laughs.] Not always in a good way. It’s a very magnetic country. I don’t know if you feel that way about where you were born.
Definitely. But I do think Australian film has a certain level of darkness running through it that I haven’t quite detected in other countries’ films. I’m thinking of, for example, The Snowtown Murders. It just seems like there’s just something deeply embedded there and I’m curious if you feel that way, too. An intensity.
W.T.: It’s a young country. Even though it’s one of the oldest countries in the world.
C.B.: As a “nation,” quote, unquote, it’s young.
W.T.: Two-hundred years old. And there’s the grass, the sprinklers, the colonizing of the country by creating green lawns in a desert so it’ll feel more like England. There’s a fear of the landscape and a colonization of the landscape. And people do not understand the landscape. If you talk to an Indigenous person, you’ll get a lot of answers quickly. There’s an incredibly special connection, and other people in Australia are looking for that.
C.B.: I always say when people talk about Australia, going to the beaches and the rainforest, I say, “No. You don’t really understand Australia until you go to the desert.”
W.T.: Australia is a veranda. Everyone lives on the edge.
The movie is very much about spirituality and Christianity and organized religion and magic and the interplay between all of these things. I’m curious where you both stand: Are you religious, spiritual — how do you define yourself and think about the world, in that sense?
C.B.: Just a small question to end on!
W.T.: It’s a beautiful thing: As I get older, culture and spirituality get me up in the morning, and I take a pill that keeps me alive, which is science. The more I think about all of it, the less I know. When someone dies, a friend, you’re waiting for them to wake you up at the end of the bed and go, “Hi. It’s pretty cool on the other side.” And it never happens. But I believe it will, still! It’s this great conundrum I’ll never work out until I die.
C.B.: I get bewildered by the degree to which most western religions have this backbone of certainty. They preach and they lecture towards certainty in order to eradicate doubt. When I think about Indigenous cultures, wherever they may be, there’s much more appreciation and openness to other ways of viewing things. Which speaks to a greater confidence, I think, that’s moved beyond doubt to a sense of curiosity about the world. I find that a lot of organized western religion is not open to the world and is incurious. Therefore, I don’t gravitate towards it. But in Australia, after we filmed, since I hadn’t been there for three years, I said, “We’ve got to take the kids to the Centre.” I had the most profound experience there when I was 19. I’m clearly not Indigenous, but I’d been to Uluru, and it was one of the most humbling moments of my life. That rock vibrates. I don’t know anything about the geology of it, but that is ancient. That is beyond me. It made me feel deeply doubtful and uncertain.
W.T.: I was told the most beautiful thing about it: Just imagine it’s Grand Central Station for spirits, spiritual energies.
My last question is for you, Cate. I interviewed Pedro Almodóvar here yesterday and he said he was worried you might be angry about him leaving the A Manual for Cleaning Women adaptation that you were working on together. Can we clear that up for him?
C.B.: Oh, God, no! I love Pedro. We hope to work together on something else again.
W.T.: He’s gotta get in line now.
C.B.: I just bumped into Ethan Hawke in the hotel. I can’t wait to see the short. This movie was just too big at that point in time. He wasn’t ready to work outside Spain at that particular point. If you look at a lot of his work, it’s all centered around a small group of performers that almost perform like an ensemble, and I think he was finding it difficult to imagine holding all of that in that space. And I totally respect that. We’ve been talking about working together for 20 years. So, I mean, there’s no rush! I’m impatient in some ways, but I believe the right things happen in the right way.
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