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Cate Shines

From her acting choices to her red-carpet style, Cate Blanchett always gets it right. Here, she reveals her secrets  chic, why true beauty comes from within and how even a style icon can have a bad hair day

By Justine Picardie

Cate Blanchett has traveled a very long way to be here in the Moroccan desert, where she is currently filming Babel with Brad Pitt: through the night and past blurred sand dunes and Berber villages, over a dried-up riverbed and down a bumpy unmarked track that leads to a secluded hotel. It is late in the evening when we arrive, separately -- she after the first day of filming, having been up since dawn. I am led through a dark and winding labyrinth, lit by flickering red candles, into a casbah known as "the House of Dreams." And it does feel dreamlike as I approach the porcelain figure waiting for me on an outdoor terrace beneath the deep, velvety sky. Her skin is luminous, and her blonde hair is shining in the starlight, and she turns her blue eyes toward mine. "I'm so hungry," says the vision of pale perfection in an unabashedly Australian accent. "Let's order lots of food. And win, too. I need a drink , don't you?"

It's this odd mixture of ethereal looks and down-to-earth friendliness that makes Cate Blanchett so appealing -- that and a capacity for the unexpected. Thus, my conversation with her goes something like this: I ask her about an ice-blue Christian Lacroix couture dress she wore to the Directors Guild of America Awards, this past January, and she says, "Lacriox did the most beautiful collection 00 and I just bragged it off the runway." Then, nonchalantly, as a large beelte scuttles across the table in her direction: "Oh, what's that? It looks like a sunflower seed with wings."

Similarly, while we are chatting about her endorsement of SK-II skincare products -- 'it was a real word-of-mouth thing: they do these amazing makes as a pick-me-up. I'll give you one. You pop it on; it's fantastic if you're gong out" -- Cate  suddenly, seamlessly segues into a discussion about fake blood. Okay, it's not quite as odd as it sounds: She has been repeatedly spattered with gore on the film set this afternoon, as directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (who had previously made the harrowing 21 Grams). "It's the residue of te day," she says, rubbing at the red stains of her elegantly lean arms. As for her outfit tonight -- well, she has come straight from the set in a pair of functional black trousers by a little known label, Scandinavian Tourist, and a punky black T-shirt emblazoned with the message TURN UP THE VOLUME AND FEEL GLAMOUR. "I don't know hwo the T-shirt is by; it's so old," she says, peering at it distractedly. "It could be Japanese. I've had it for a few years. And I'm wearing set shoes from today's filming -- leather flip-flops., very comfortable -- though, earlier today, I had these really beautiful shoes by an Australian label, Easton Pearson, like Jelly Babies with diamante all over them. But there ended up being so much fake blood, I put the flip-flops on instead. And I haven't got any jewelry on, because of the blood, though I've got a beautiful birthday present from my husband, Andrew -- from an amazing jeweler in Paris .. Sorry, I can't concentrate; I've got terrible stomach cramps. Can you hear the rumbling?"

What's interesting, and endearing, about these scatterbrained narratives is how differently Cate in person comes across from her intensely focused onscreen performances (think of her phosphorescent queen in Elizabeth, for which she was first nominated for an Oscar, or as the self-possessed eponymous heroine of Charlotte Gray). But what her off-screen personality shares with the big-screen movie persona is openness and honestly. Not that she reveals everything: obvious, and understandable, that she tries hard to protect the privacy of her husband, Australian writer Andrew Upton, and their two sons, three-year-old Daniell and Roman, who is one. (The family lives in the British seaside town of Brighton, where the photographs for this story are taken.) But Cate is adept at making her feelings clear, from her choice of films to her wardrobe. "I have pretty direct relationships with designers," she says, explaining how she came to wear the stunning yellow Valentino dress when she won an Oscar this year for her performance as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator. "I already knew I wanted to wear Valentino -- I wanted something with a classicism to it, and he's the master of that. I'd seen a dress in yellow. I loved it; I thought iw as really striking. And when I tried it on, the sun was beaming through the windows, and the fabric was shot through with a pink and blue. Because the Oscars start out as a daytime event, I thought it would be amazing in the sunlight. " Having decided on the color she then talked to Valentino about adapting one of his original designs -- "It wasn't quite right on my body" -- until she was happy with the finished cut.

Clearly, she understands how to exemplify the iconic Hollywood look. "There is an incredible array of dresses out there, but they have to work on you, " she says, before speeding through the list of designers with whom she has a close working relationship: Martin Grant ("he's great at accentuating unusual points of interest on a woman's body"), John Galliano ("I've always had so much fun when I see him:), Dries Van Noten ("love his stuff"), Karl Lagerfeld ("remarkable"). She is happy to talk about her first foray into high fashion -- "this amazing pair of high-waited Gaultier pants and a velvet jacket, which I borrowed for the premiere of Elizabeth [in 1998]." And she is also confident enough to tell the story of how, having shaved off her hair for the 2002 crime drama Heaven, "I had to present an award to Bruce Willis. I was wearing this beautiful dress with a bald head, and I thought, This doesn't work. I was running late and didn't have time to change, so my friend whacked a five dollar nylon wig on my head. I probably looked horrendous, though I felt like Liza Minnelli!" But for Cate, bad hair days can come with the job: During the filming of Elizabeth, she recalls, "I shaved my hairline back and bleached my eyebrows and my eyelashes. That was a very sad look, let me tell you -- but I decided I was going to go natural afterward, and that was so liberating -- seeing the real color growing through. I felt great bout it until a friend said, 'Oh, I never knew you were a swamp-water blonde.' So I went back to bleaching it!"

She's equally straightforward when it comes to discussing the current trend for Botox and cosmetic surgery, in the film industry and elsewhere. It's simply inconceivable to her, though she expresses sympathy for women who feel pressured to change their faces to please their husbands. "It would be terrifying, I imagine, to be in a relationship in which your sense of our own worth had been so eroded that you thought that [Botox or surgery] was your only option," she says. She's also adamant that a woman's beauty comes from within: "It's their minds, in the end. It's what makes a woman beautiful when she's young, and it' what makes a woman beautiful when she's old." Quite aside from those issues, she says, a mask like face would make it impossible for her to do her job. "For an actor who wants to be flexible -- physically, spiritually, intellectually, emotionally -- the face is your tool," she says. "It's a strange thing, to want to entomb yourself when you're still living." and having reached 36 herself, she continues, "You've got to accept where you are and embrace it."

Talk of aging leads her to mention The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, with its observation that growing old should be enriching, as well as a natural experience. But Cate's fearless views about life and death -- the one leading inevitably to the other -- may have more to do with the early loss of her father: A Texan advertising executive who had settled in Melbourne with Cate' mother, An Australian teacher, he died suddenly of a heart attack when Cate was 10. Bereavement, she observes, is "a strange gift, in a way, though it certainly doesn't feel that way at the time...Children do assimilate things and move forward; that's their natural instinct. And I do have a heightened sense of how brief everything is. I don't think I take things for granted."

Her mother did not remarry but raised three children with the help of their maternal grandmother. (Cate' older brother, Bob, and her younger sister Genevieve, a theater set designer, still live in Australia, as does her mother; and it si the pull of moving closer to family, and to her husband's, that has prompted discussion of a possible return to the couple's home country from their current U.K. base.) "Self-respect was an enormous thing in my family, and respect for others, " she says. "Obviously, you go through a hideous adolescence -- awful! -- but hopefully you come out the other side with those values intact." She didn't like the way she looked as a teenager -- "what teenager does?" -- and she certainly wasn't planning a careered as an actress; in fact, she's gone to university to study economics and fine arts before switching to drama school. Yet her rise, after she graduated in 1992, was astonishingly rapid, with a variety of roles that would normally take a lifetime to span (from Southern psychic in The Gift to campaigning Irish journalist in Veronica Guerin to Middle-earth elf in all three Lord of the Rings films.)

So here she is, in the Moroccan night, on the edge of the Atlas Mountains, one of the most sought-after actresses in the world. After starring opposite Brad Pitt -- a partnership that she says is "great, easy, I just really get him. He makes me laugh; I make him laugh. He's open" -- she will be moving on to star in The Good German with George Clooney, directed by Steven Soderbergh. ("Gorgeous George, "I say to Cate, betraying my longtime crush; :Curious George," she laughs, while also acknowledging, "You feel tickled when you watch him.") After that, she'll be returning to her leading role in Hedda Gabler on the stage in New York -- an adoption by her husband that premiered in Sydney last year, just weeks after her second baby was born. It sounds like a whirlwind, which may explain why Cate describes her perfect Saturday night as being at home with her husband and children in Brighton: "The sun sets over the sea in the middle of the French doors, and the house is all white and it fills with the fading light of the sun, which is so beautiful. And then you watch the pier light up. I love that."

Her face softens as she speaks, and it would be tempting to pin her down as more of a homebody than her fashion-plate red-carpet appearances would suggest, but that might oversimplify this most intriguing of women. Not long afterward, I see another look on her face, one of unadulterated triumph, as she describes the thrill of winning her Oscar for The Aviator -- "The sheer pleasure of it."

All of which means that Cate Blanchett's journey isn't over yet. "I feel like I've been growing into myself," she says, stretching her long arms into the sky, unselfconscious, limber, like a dancer. "Not that I have now finally arrived... I hope I never do."