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Cate the Great

On the eve of a new creative direction, the word's a stage for Cate Blanchett. Clare Press meets the illustrious leading lady and style icon

"It's about the melancholia that is at the centre of us all, the search for the perfect moment, and always feeling like those things are eluding us. When is life actually happening, is it happening while we are imagining tomorrow?" Cate Blanchett is two-thirds of the way through a double-shot decaf latte, as well as an explanation of the themes explored in her latest big-screen romance with a certain Mr. Brad Pitt, a man who is regularly voted World's Sexiest Star.

Cate, of course, has her romantic sights set firmly elsewhere, on her celebrated playwright husband, Andrew Upton. It was his arm that she clung to last week in London, where his reinterpretation of the Maxim Gorky play The Philistines scored a standing ovation after a preview performance at the National Theatre. "It's unheard of!" grins Blanchett, her eyes flashing. "The company is wonderful, [director] Howard Davies is brilliant; it was a rare and extraordinary moment, a piece of theatre history."

Blanchett has had her own share of extraordinary moments, too many to list here although the Oscar for her electric Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator demands mention). Her stage record is exemplary, from playing Ophelia as a rookie, to Hedda Gabler on Broadway last year. In January, for the Sydney Theatre Company, she directed her first play, Harold Pinter's A Kind of Alaska, at which the critics lobbed the words "consistently powerful" and "striking"; not a one sinking to the tall-poppy skullduggery that might have been expected. Now Upton and Blanchett are about to make theatre history together, when they take the reins as joint creative directors of the STC next year.

So there is this new role, to be shared with the man she loves, there are two children of the human variety -- Dashiell, five, and Roman, three -- and five more box-office babies: the Pitt film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Todd Haynes's take on the creative life of Bob Dylan, I'm Not There; a Spieldberg moment, in the fourth installment of Indiana Jones; a reprisal of her Elizabeth I, in Shekhar Kapur's The Golden Age; and an animated romp with George Clooney; The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Then there is the glamour side of things. Blanchett has a close friendship with Giorgio Armani, and often glitters in his clothes. In May, she stepped into a grand confection of golden Balenciaga fringes, to join that spectacular dress's designer Nicolas Ghesquiere and US Vogue's Anna Wintour in hosting the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute Gala Ball, which this year was in honour of the revolutionary couturier Paul Poiret. Forget those 'World's Sexiest' lists; Cate has been crowned the unofficial Style Icon of Our Times. Does life get any better?

"Andrew and I do cling to one another at three o'clock in the morning, having those moments, you know, 'Oh God! Lucifer is going to call! We must have made a deal [with the devil] somewhere.' I mean you work at it, you do work terribly hard, but we are also very lucky," she says, wiping a fantasy cold sweat from her petal soft brow. Who has time to imagine tomorrow? Blanchett's perfect moment is now.

The thing about true star power is that it sets the handful of people how drip with it apart. Should you have encountered Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford or Marilyn Monroe in their prime, there would have been no mistaking it. Same goes for Cat Blanchett, who is one of the most significant modern leading ladies. However she makes her entrance she turns heads -- be it in the gold Balenciaga, violet Yves Saint Laurent ruffles at the Berlin premiere of Notes on a Scandal or, as she is today, in a three-piece tweed Dolce & Gabbana suit with loud leopard lining at the STC's Walsh Bay home.

Her flaxen is hair pulled back into a simple, even rather scruffy, ponytail, and she seemingly wears in not a skerrick, of make-up, save, perhaps, for a smidgen of brown mascara. But Blanchett exudes that radiance the beauty companies so often talk of from her every tiny pore. All thanks to SK-II, she is quick to point out.

She says the cult Japanese skincare brand, for which she is spokesperson, is a great help with it comes to being magnified a zillion times on cinema screens. "It is a deeply unnatural thing to be seen that large," she laughs, "and, yes, your skin, as with other externals, becomes something you think about." That sounds like a terrible pressure? "I don't know if I feel pressured by it," she muses. "There are days when I feel more self-conscious than others, but I try not to feel too preoccupied with it. Of course, there are pressures on women, both on and off the screen, adn on men too. I haven't been to a Botox party, have you?" I know they exist!"

"It's a choice you make. I don't want t o let myself go, I want to look the best I possibly can, but I feel very secure in myself and in my beauty regime. I feel like I've found a balance. Anyway, acting as we know it may be on the way out," she explains, veering off the subject. "Have you seen what they are doing digitally now?"

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald and tells the tale of a man (Pitt) who is born old and as he ages, gets physically younger and younger, until he ends up a baby. Blanchett plays his lover, Daisy. "It's a real star-crossed lovers story. There is a point where they are both at a suitable age when they can connect, where things are perfect," explains Blanchett, implying that elsewhere heartache lies, "You feel you have spent a lifetime with these characters. I don't want to gives away the end image but I find it utterly heartbreaking."

What she does reveal is what director David Fincher and scriptwriter Eric Roth had been waiting "something lie 15 years" for the technology to catch up with their ideas for the film. We can expect some major digital trickery to render Pitt's Benjamin as old as the hills then baby-faced as the story progresses. Blanchett too gets to play all ages.

"Even though it's not for the shallow reasons, you still think, 'Wow am I partaking in the technology that is heralding the end of my craft?'" she muses, as we discuss the possibility of a wholly digital avatar one day taking over entirely from the flesh and blood Blanchett. "You can't stop it, you can't change it, humans evolve and often in directions I abhor, but that's evolution." She pauses. "It is fascinating. I think fantasy is interesting as a departure from reality. Mind you, reality isn't a  concrete concept anyway, so..."

The complex little conversation offers a telling snapshot of Blanchett. Her mind is every bit as lively as her wardrobe. As Hollywood courts the Lindsay Lohans of this world, Blanchett is the grown-up, classically trained antidote. The craftswoman who questions things, who can leap mentally from storytelling to fashion speak to philosophy in the blink of any eye. She is possessed of a fierce intellect, something she admits -- when talking about Abbie Cornish, her young Australian co-star in The Golden Age -- is an essential component of The Serious Actor.

"I think it's important that an actor has a strong moral backbone and a deep intelligence," she says, "but Abbie is also a free spirit, she doesn't plan things. She has a lack of consequence about her, which I think if it's harnessed could work really well for her."

Blanchett her self mores more of a planner, someone famously fond of a list. When we discussed her beauty regimen, I asked if she goes to the gym. She yanked her bulging Filofax out of her ostrich skin YSL bag and showed me her week-at-a-glance. The word exercise was written daily and underlined. "So you see, I am serious about trying to do it this time," she said.

Of course, what she is even more serious about is her commitment to theatre, and in particular, her new job at the STC. "I love this theater," she says. "I got my first job here, after NIDA, as an understudy for a production fo Top Girls. I went on for the last three weeks." She was 23. "It's the same with Andrew, the turning point job for him as a writer came here, so we both feel very connected to the STC."

The duo takes over in 2008, and their season's programme will be announced in November. Until then, Blanchett is keeping mum about what's in store. "It is still [current artistic director] Robyn [Nevin]'s company. We are not at the helm, not riding the horse yet," she says, refusing to be drawn on what the Blanchett-Upton regime might look like.

There has been a lot of speculation about the caliber of sponsorship they may pull in: an Oscar in tow surely helps with these things, and the pair certainly has some stellar international contacts. Upton certainly has lured Capote's Philip Seymour Hoffman to direct Hugo Weaving his play Rifelmind in October. The 2007 season also saw Upton direct the David Mamet play Reunion, along with Blanchett's Pinter moment, in a very starry double bill at the start of the year.

In December, Blanchett directs again, this time taking on a supremely controversial Edinburgh Festival hit, Blackbird, in which a 27-year-old woman confronts the now middle aged man who abused her when she was 12. "We are used to dealing wit these sorts of stories when they hit the media," says Blanchett. "But I think it is really fantastic [for] a creative work [to] present you with the frayed edges of a taboo."

Does she see a parallel with the film Notes on a Scandal, in which she played a schoolteacher who has an affair with a pupil? "I do think when you tread the waters of both those stories, it is very murky. They become quite absurd, you are laughing in spite of yourself, because you've been pushed beyond what seems acceptable morally. .. you are forced to ask deeper questions, see it from another perspective." In terms of material, then, it seems safe to assume that she and Upton will make some brave choices.

But will Blanchett, who has repeatedly said that they come to the job, humbly, as an actor and a writer, continue to direct? "I am not trying to reinvent myself as a director," she says firmly. "It has only ever been a handful of plays that I have ever thought: 'I would really love to be on the other side of this.'"

She does admit it was "a huge relief" to sit in the audience during A Kind of Alaska. "I have a clear memory of opening night, when the actors walked left, backstage, and I walked out into the foyer. I had no desire to follow them. I was so relieved that I was not going out there." Then she shrugs, laughs. "It was like watching a car crash, actually! Not that the actors weren't wonderful, and I knew they were going to Be alright, but I mean it in the sense that I was totally out of control at that point." And that was enjoyable? "Well, I always look at every project as an actor, no matter where I fit into it, so yes, it was a nice change."

Her other major recent film role saw her similarly out of control. She joins the lines of Richard Gere and Christian Bale playing incarnations of Bob Dylan in Haynes's film due out later this year. "It's a very strange film, and I think if people are expecting a biopic they are going to be disappointed. It's a very fragmented, fractured rendition of a persona," she confides. "I find it fascinating, but prepare yourself it's tricky."

You get the sense that it doesn't really matter which role Blanchett plays, on stage or off it, as long as she stays challenged. She says some of those challenges will always reside in theatre. It is her first love, where she began, and what keeps her motivated.

"I saw someone walking up through those double doors," she says, gesturing towards the rehearsal rooms backstage, "clutching their script for an audition, and I felt for them because I can still remember that feeling of awe". Indeed, she still feels it herself when dealing with the stage.

"Somehow we see film as being more permanent," she tells me, "whereas theater [can] feel ephemeral. But there is a real transience to the film industry in that people get together for three  months or three weeks, and then they dissipate and go off to other jobs. [In fact] there is something really tangible about what happens in a theatre. Even once the set is dismantled, the space remembers. I think that theatres hold the sense of a production for along time afterwards. At its best, [theatre] sinks into people's consciousness in a very profound way, because at base you are implicated as an audience member. You complete the circle, you are partly responsible for the evening, whereas if you leave the cinema no-one is going to notice."

That's why, says Blanchett, so many Hollywood stars take on, or maybe just dream of taking on, the stage. It's no doubt why another giant film presence, Kevin Spacey, was driven to take the top job at London's Old Vic. Why Blanchett come back to the STC when, as playwright David Williamson told The Australian, "she could have lived the rest of her life in Majorca if she'd wanted to".

"A lot of so-called film actors do work in theatre because there is something fundamental about being accountable, and about using every single aspect of your being in order to communicate with people," concludes our cover girl. "[On stage] all your sense are alive, you are acutely aware of every shift and murmur, every noise that the audience makes as well as being aware of the other actors. But then again I think people are often terrified ... "

Because there are no second chances? She looks at me and smiles the smile of someone who has all the answers. "Oh, but there are. There is always the next night."