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Cate Blanchett: “Your role as an actor, as an artist, is not to be polite — it’s to provoke”

“The women who really change the game are always the women who no one knows what to do with”

In a wide-ranging interview at the Women in the World India Summit, held Friday in New Delhi, Cate Blanchett has opened up about the role of the artist as provocateur, why she decided to share a job with her husband, the reasons behind adopting her daughter, and her response to the international refugee crisis.

“Here she is, the woman who can wear Queen Elizabeth I’s corsets as effortlessly as she can Bob Dylan’s Ray Bans,” joked Tina Brown, introducing Australian actor Cate Blanchett to a whooping crowd at the Women in the World India Summit.

“And Parents Circle sneakers!” added Blanchett, kicking her feet up in the air to show off the footwear gifted to her by mothers Robi Damelin and Bushra Awad, whose sons were both lost to Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The gesture by Blanchett typified her tendency to deflect attention from herself, as she moved the conversation to a meditation on the singular power of stories. “I consider myself a storyteller,” she said, “but then it’s so humbling the real life stories I’ve heard today.”

Stories, she demonstrated, can be found anywhere, for those who maintain an open and inquiring mind. To the surprise of the room, Blanchett shared a fascinating tale she had heard while being prepped to come on-stage. Make-up artist Charu Khurana, while applying Blanchett’s lipstick, had told her how she had, just this year, challenged a 59-year ruling that women could style hair but not work as make-up artists in Bollywood. “Already 400 women have become make-up artists in [Khurana’s] wake,” Blanchett shared.

Cate Blanchett shows off her Parents Circle sneakers, on stage at Women in the World India Summit. (YouTube/Women in the World)

Cate Blanchett shows off her Parents Circle sneakers, on stage at Women in the World India Summit. (YouTube/Women in the World)

Blanchett, “a very private person” found her own engagement with humanitarian issues amplified eight years ago when she and husband Andrew Upton returned to Australia from a stretch living in England, to share artistic directorship of the Sydney Theater Company (STC). In addition to creating a cultural legacy at the helm of the nation’s largest state theater company, the role required the couple to become advocates for their sector and join the “national cultural conversation.” She astutely observed, however, that while one can provoke a conversation, it will then take on a life of its own and can’t be micromanaged. The couple’s tenure at the STC coincided with a terrible drought, so they took the play (Burnt) into remote communities, “telling their stories back to them.” Many farmers were committing suicide at the time, and touring the play aimed to heighten community engagement with some of the issues devastating rural lives.

When it comes to Blanchett’s film choices, however, the link between art and politics is more oblique, although no less powerful. “I am not a political animal, by nature,” she said, in response to a question about the roles she selects. “I think art and cultural product is provocation, but I don’t see my role as a political one.”

“It was really interesting to hear the extraordinary women behind Fire,” she said, referring to an earlier Summit panel. “[It’s] as revolutionary in 1976 as it is now.” Fire, an Indian film released twenty years ago, questioned and explored female sexualities in India. “I’ve just recently made a film [Carol] with [director] Todd Haynes, about two women falling in love in the 1950s, released this year. The film itself is not political but what happens is, once it’s released into the wider world, it’s all about context, isn’t it? So the work may become political but my motivation to get involved with it is really just about the stimulation of the conversation, in the hope that if I’m engaged then people are.”

“I do think your role as an actor, as an artist, is not to be polite — it’s to provoke,” she said.

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in "Carol".

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in “Carol,” a film about two women falling in love in the 1950s.

Of the look and feel of Carol, Blanchett said Haynes — and for that matter, so too Indian director Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth, 1998) — is “masculine enough to include a feminine sensibility.” Haynes’ frame-of-reference was a slew of 1950s female photographers, whose “richly female” gaze greatly influences the film’s aesthetic.

In the early days of her illustrious film career, Kapur — who has praised Blanchett’s “chaotic state” of working — brought her to a turning point in her life, she said. Her gratitude to the director didn’t prevent them arguing vigorously throughout the making of Elizabeth. “If everyone is on the same page, if everyone is in agreement, then the creative outcome can be a bit beige,” Blanchett explained. By way of analogy, she commented that, “After the Paris attacks, I actually forced myself to watch Fox news.” She wanted to understand what other people — with views unlike her own — were thinking of the event, to appreciate the complexity of the situation.

Despite the conflicts with Kapur, the experience of making Elizabeth was a deeply enjoyable one for the ardent history lover, who immersed herself in Elizabethan history in preparation. “Maths and literacy are prized, but history and geography — we all need to make sure our children have a broad sense of geopolitics and the history of that because it’s that that will carry us into the future,” the mother-0f-four said.

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 17: (L-R) Todd Haynes, Cate Blanchett, and Martin Scorsese attend the Museum of Modern Art's 8th Annual Film Benefit Honoring Cate Blanchett at the Museum of Modern Art on November 17, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

Cate Blanchett (center) with directors Todd Haynes (left) and Martin Scorsese at the Museum of Modern Art, November 17, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

And like good teachers, she observed, a good director can make an enormous difference to one’s path. “You only need one person to believe in you,” she said, of Kapur’s role in launching her career from “unknown Australian actress” to international film star. She also had praise for directors Martin Scorsese (The Aviator, 2004), David Fincher and his “97 takes” (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, 2008) and Woody Allen (Blue Jasmine, 2013). If you ask Woody Allen ‘Did you like what I did?,’ as an actor, he may not answer, she said. “But if you have a genuine question for him, he’ll answer it.”

Under Scorsese’s direction, Blanchett revelled in the role of Katharine Hepburn: “Such an iconoclast.”

“Isn’t it funny?” she said. “The women who really change the game are always the women who no one knows what to do with.”

When Brown raised the current roiling discontent among Hollywood actresses, Blanchett pointed out that filmmaking is not the only industry with gender disparity in terms of pay or representation, citing examples of journalists and employees at Google who have also recently spoken out. Even five years ago, she said, one could feel like a “harpie” for speaking up, but the multiplicity of voices will hopefully effect change. “Media has enormous responsibility in how this dialogue is brought forward, and that we don’t then find ourselves back in Groundhog Day, next November, in this same conversation.”

To Brown’s observation that 2015 was being touted as “the year of the woman” in film, Blanchett responded bluntly: “Of, for f—‘s sake, every year is the year of the woman!”

“It’s totally getting old,” agreed Brown, laughing sympathetically. “So old.”

Turning the interviewing tables on Brown, Blanchett asked what she thought the future of forums to discuss women’s issues is: might a point be reached where there was no call for them?

Brown responded that she finds hope in the younger generation who “find it cool to be a feminist,” and the reactivation of feminism in the West as a result of exposure to the stories of enormous challenge that are faced by women from elsewhere in the world. “But here’s the thing: I do actually think that the co-opting men and bringing men into the conversation is entirely the next big wave of feminism,” Brown said. “We’ve really got to stop just talking to ourselves.”

Working together can present its challenges though, and Blanchett’s decision to formally collaborate professionally with her husband was clearly intriguing to Brown. “[As a creative person], the place that one works from is often deeply private,” explained Blanchett. “And so to find someone who’s sympatico, a soul mate, someone you can have an open, constructively critical dialogue with? You hold them with both hands!

“And then you sleep with them and have children with them! Or at least that’s what I did.”

Sharing the artistic-directorship of the theater was a challenge they couldn’t decline. “The only reason not to do it would have been fear,” she said.

As the role was beginning to wind down, early this year, the couple adopted a daughter, naming her Edith Vivian Patricia Upton. With three boys already (Dashiell, 13, Roman, 10, and Ignatius, 6), Brown asked Blanchett why she and Upton felt moved to raise another child from infancy. “We actually began the conversation a very long time ago, after our first son was born and he’s about to turn 14, and then we just had two other children and it sort of dropped off the radar,” Blanchett said. “But I felt we had space, enough emotional room in our hearts and we’re privileged enough to have the capacity to have another child, so it wasn’t about biology.”

Nor was it about feeling they had missed out on having a girl, although Blanchett observed it has been wonderful to see her sons’ evolving relationships with a sister. “There wasn’t a desire to have a girl necessarily — gender of the children has never been particularly important to me, it’s more about their spirits — but it’s been a remarkable thing watching them welcome her and become a little troupe.”

Beyond the demands parenting brings, Blanchett has of late been turning her attention toward the refugee crisis and reflecting on her country’s changed and vexing attitude toward immigration, which had formerly been more generous. “When I grew up in Australia, ‘Brand Australia’ was multiculturalism,” she recalled. “Somehow we’re forgetting that recent relationship and all the wonderful things migrants have done and refugees have given our country.”

“Maybe there’s something more valuable I can be doing,” she said.

In July, the Guardian reported Blanchett had signed on to direct a television series based on the story of a German-Australian woman who was wrongly detained as an illegal immigrant. “She suffered mental illness and used to go wandering and she found herself falling through cracks in Australia between the mental health system, the immigration system and the criminal justice system, and because she went walkabout without her papers she ended up in at that time the most brutal detention center in Australia … so we’re working on that.”

“I value cultural product,” Blanchett said. “I think it humanizes — telling stories, retelling stories. It reconnects us all if we find the commonality in those stories.”

Additional reporting by Pip Cummings.

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