Black Book magazine October 2003
An Interview with Cate Blanchett NY
There isn’t really a name for this part of London. For
the cognoscenti, it’s north of Bond Street, approaching
Marlybone. The restaurant is called Defune. In the taxi
over I’ve been persuading myself that the name,
conceivably, signifies a French cuisine. Green salad,
lemon-grilled fish – all very stylish, grand even, but
at least familiar to me, with a homely, if heavy,
A glance through Defune’s window gives the lie to that.
Japanese. Sushi. Chopsticks.
I’m early, but this isn’t politeness, it’s nerves. I
pass the restaurant and find a wall in the shade, there
to sit and smoke. Pigeons eye me cagily, wondering is it
worth their while approaching. It’s too hot for pigeons.
It’s too hot for me. London is suffering a heatwave,
highest temperatures on record. Sweat drips on my good
pink t-shirt. What on earth possessed me to bring a
I’m meeting Cate Blanchett. Cate Blanchett, elf-queen,
surely the world’s most beautiful woman. In my satchel I
have her press pack, delivered to me that morning. And
it’s some press pack, I tell you. Cover of Vogue,
Harper’s, Vanity Fair, the list goes on. The photographs
describe an epitome of chic; but the gaze is aloof,
unapproachable. At the back of my mind there’s a notion
not too far from sympathy: it’ll be hard on anyone being
chic in this weather.
My opening gambit rehearses. Ms Blanchett, my name is
Jamie O’Neill. I’m a novelist and I live in Galway on
the west coast of Ireland. It’s so kind of me to be
interviewed by you ...
What it is, I passed through Dublin the night before.
You can’t visit Dublin without a few jars of the black
stuff, it wouldn’t be human. Now, in consequence, I have
the hangover of the world. Raw fish, anyone?
Even the condemned man’s cigarette must eventually smoke
out. I loaf into the restaurant, plunge down the stairs.
To find – dear joy, there really is a god! – the
restaurant is air-conditioned. They bow me to my seat in
a half-screened corner. Things are looking up. The menus
arrive and I reach for my glasses. But my hand comes
away empty. Sweat chills on my spine. Could things get
any worse? I’m hung over. I’ve never eaten sushi. I
don’t know how to order it. I can’t use chopsticks. I’ve
never conducted an interview before. And I’ve come away
without my bloody glasses.
For one mad minute I’m tempted to dash out the kitchen
door and join a Buddhist monastery. But it’s not to be.
For now, here she comes, tipping down the stairs, ladies
and gentlemen, a warm welcome please, for my guest this
evening ... Cate Blanchett.
Or is it she? I had been concerned that I wouldn’t
recognize her. There’s a notion abroad that film stars
don’t look like themselves: that they hardly have a self
to look like. The closest they come to it is their next
role. In person, however, she’s unmistakable. There’s an
essence of Cate about her, a sort of Blanchettness,
which I can’t immediately put my finger on: something to
do with the way she moves. She glances round the room,
spies me in my corner: and smiles.
I’m touched by the smile. It carries exactly the right
measures of uncertainty, welcome, common feeling even,
that this odd forced uphill situation requires. Either
she’s supremely professional, our Cate, or she’s a very
natural person. Or even both. It crosses my mind how
unfair it is, really, that reputation should precede
She takes her seat. For all the weather outside, there
isn’t one liquid ounce of sweat on her face. It’s as
though, for some people, the entire world has been
‘Oh good,’ she says, ‘you’ve ordered water.’
But I’ve neglected – could there be a more boorish oaf?
– neglected to arrange a glass for my guest.
It’s no problem. She’s sure the waiters will bring one.
She wants to know have I looked at the menu. I mumble
something about my glasses.
But again, it’s not a problem. ‘It’s all in Japanese
anyway,’ she says. It’s a humorous thing to say and I
relax a tad in my seat. She looks up. ‘Unless of course
you read Japanese?’ Not so much humour now, as amusement
in her eyes. ‘It’s simple,’ she decides: ‘I’ll order for
both of us. What sushi do you like?’
‘Actually, I’ve never eaten sushi before.’
The smile remains, but it travels her face, uncertain
where to fit. ‘Never?’ I shake my head. Concern creases
the smile. ‘I wish I’d thought,’ she says.
My turn now, and I say, ‘No no, I’ve always wanted to
try.’ It’s a bit like being at Confession. I decide to
make a clean breast of it. ‘To tell the truth, I don’t
even know how to use chopsticks.’
Even this is not a problem. She shrugs. ‘A lot of people
use their fingers.’
One last hurdle and my sins are thoroughly confessed.
‘And, this must sound awful, but I have a bit of a
Something canny in her glance this time. She leans her
head on her palm, her elbow angled to the table. Her
eyes are glinting, collusive. ‘Miso,’ she says, ‘miso
soup. It’s the only thing for a hangover.’
It seems nothing will faze this woman. I’ve got
everything off my chest now, and my soul soars with
sanctifying grace. Saki has arrived and I sip the
grateful liquid. This is not an interview. Most
certainly it is not. It’s dinner at eight, in
fashionable London, with a charming and surprisingly
The odd thing is, this resolution has hardly formed when
I feel a presence beside me, a lumbering pompous
presence, who introduces himself now as The Interviewer.
‘The what?’ I say.
‘The Interviewer,’ he repeats.
He’s fiddling with some contraption in my bag. Oh no,
he’s going to produce the tape-recorder. I grab the bag
and leave it out of harm’s way. The Interviewer,
undeterred, finds notebook and pen. He leans closer over
‘Now then, Ms Blanchett,’ he says, ‘would you care to
describe what you’re wearing for our readers? That
blouse, for instance, would I be right in thinking it
The inanity of the question is breath-taking. Thankfully
Cate seems not to have heard. She’s busy with the
waitress. I snatch the notebook from his hands.
‘This is not an interview,’ I hiss.
‘It most certainly is,’ he replies. ‘And your hair, Ms
Blanchett – how would you describe your current
The food ordered, the waitress departs; Cate turns her
attention to me. Immediately I glance away. My god, she
is beautiful. Far too beautiful to stare at. I have to
keep reminding myself, she’s a person, not a picture.
And she really isn’t a picture. While we talk I see the
photographs have, unavoidably, lied – for there’s
nothing static about her at all. She’s amazingly mobile
in fact, both in body and facial expression. She doesn’t
sit in a chair, so much as inhabit its space. Words
animate her. In some way she seems to become what she
says. So that in each flicker of your eyes is revealed a
perfect snapshot, rather poised than posed, and you
think to yourself, ‘Oh, that’s what the word
“consequence” looks like.’
The Interviewer hurrumphs. ‘That’s enough about
mobility,’ he says to me. ‘Now, Ms Blanchett,’ he
continues, ‘can we talk about your films? You’ve been
quoted as saying that the work should speak for itself.
What does that mean exactly?’
Well, we do talk. Ireland is common ground: her latest
film is set there: so we chat about the place, its
scenery, its ridiculously windy roads. It’s always
pleasant when a visitor can talk intelligently about
your home country. She has the one-street towns off pat,
with their seven pubs, seven hair salons, inevitable
Chinese takeaway. Not that the film, Veronica Guerin,
reflects any of this. There’s none of your usual Emerald
Isle stuff, and I doubt the Irish Tourist Board will be
plugging it in the States. Drugs – gang wars – official
incompetence – brave reporter – she’s murdered – things
get better. It’s a true story, and as such, the film can
be said to suffer from truth. But the climactic scene –
under the troubled treble of a street-kid’s singing –
quite blew me away when I saw it in Galway.
In Ireland the film was hugely well-received. We like
our heroes, and Veronica Guerin had the true strain of
wilful strong-headedness. Cate plays her supremely. It’s
the accent that gets you. Film stars’ approximations of
Irish accents are a reliable source of fun at home. I
went to the film intending to check for the usual
Hollywood Oirishness. Half-way through and I realized
I’d forgotten to listen for it. That’s how good she is.
Spot on. In consequence Cate has herself been raised to
a class of honorary Irishwoman. Yes, we like our heroes:
particularly when they’re beautiful, talented, charming
‘Ms Blanchett, could you tell our readers how you set
about realizing the role of a murdered Irish press
But the food has arrived and I’m looking at my
chopsticks. ‘How do you use them?’ I ask.
Again that glint of amusement. ‘All those Chinese
takeaways in Ireland – didn’t you ever go to one?’
‘But you don’t usually get chopsticks,’ I say, trying to
imagine a farmer’s son in Ballydehob chopsticking his
way through curry and chips.
‘I’m a hopeless teacher,’ she says. But she thinks a
minute, and you can see the ideas sorting through her
mind. When she begins, it’s as though she’s been
scanning a script. ‘You smoke? Well, you hold one like
you’re smoking.’ She demonstrates. ‘The other one, well,
it’s like you’re playing pool. Bring them together, and
look, you’re more or less writing with them.’
The little boy in me is smugly pleased. This is a good
dinner-party tale. The day Cate Blanchett taught me to
use chopsticks. But in fact Cate didn’t teach me at all.
What happened was that she became a teacher. And I was
watching her in her latest starring role. Miss
Blanchett, elementary schoolteacher, resourceful but
kind, brings table etiquette to Irish gaum.
This comes across in all her films. She subsumes the
role so thoroughly that in the end it seems merely a
convenience that they have her name on the credits. Some
people find this annoying, and you hear them complain,
‘But where’s Cate Blanchett in all of this?’ As though
the purpose of a film were to be a vehicle for its star.
Cate might be a star, but beforemost she’s an actor, so
brilliant at her craft you forget there’s an actor on
the screen at all – which, you’d have thought, was
exactly what actors were supposed to do.
But there’s no pleasing some people, and one of these
people is The Interviewer who now primly inquires, ‘Ms
Blanchett, how in your opinion will the film play to
The impression you get is that she doesn’t know, and
she’s not going to worry herself into a tizzy over it.
What we forget with film actors is that the current film
is rarely their latest project. They’ve already gone on
to other things. They’ve pushed themselves further,
elsewhere. She’s interesting about reviews, though. ‘If
you believe the good ones, in all fairness you have to
believe the bad ones. So where does that leave you?’
Personally, I couldn’t agree more. I tell her about
Salvador Dali. He didn’t read his press, he weighed it.
If it weighed sufficient, Dali was happy. She’s tickled
At this point, we’re interrupted by a passing tabulator
who asks me politely to list the films of Cate Blanchett
that I have not seen, giving in each case the year of US
release. ‘Remember now,’ the passing tabulator warns,
his finger raised: ‘only the films you have not seen.’
It’s a slightly odd request, but I comply. The list goes
something like this:
Oscar and Lucinda, 1997.
Pushing Tin, 1999.
An Ideal Husband, 1999.
The Man Who Cried, 2000.
The Gift, 2000.
Charlotte Gray, 2001.
The Shipping News, 2001.
‘Impressive,’ says the passing tabulator. ‘Now, please
list the films of Cate Blanchett, again giving the years
of US release, but this time state only the films that
you have seen. I repeat, that you have seen.’
The Talented Mr. Ripley, 1999.
Lord of the Rings, Parts 1 and 2, 2001, 2002.
Veronica Guerin, 2003.
‘Oh dear, not quite so impressive,’ says the passing
tabulator. ‘Now, let A be the first table and B be the
second table. If A+B=C, can we say that C equals Cate
Blanchett’s filmography to date?’
‘I suppose we could. If you allowed for some early films
that didn’t make the US box office.’
‘Thank you very much,’ says the passing tabulator, and
he departs, tipping his hat to Cate.
Cate looks mildly amused. The Interviewer looks shocked.
He turns on me. ‘What class of interview is this
supposed to be?’ he demands.
‘It’s not an interview,’ I remind him.
He hems. He haws. He coughs. ‘Ms Blanchett,’ he says,
‘we were talking about Salvador Dali. On the subject of
art, my editor has some questions he’d like me to put to
you. What, in your opinion, is the happening, the
important, development in current art?’
We both burst out laughing. ‘It’s the vocabulary that
gets me,’ she says. ‘As soon as the subject of art pops
up, out come all these strange words.’
‘Amorphous,’ I offer.
‘Exactly. It’s like theory has taken over from
I posit the view that we’ve made a mistake about art.
We’ve made it a noun, when in fact it should be a verb.
‘Interesting’ – but she’s not immediately convinced.
‘Well,’ I expand, ‘instead of saying This is art, or
That is art, just say, This arts me or That arts me; or
Yesterday it arted me, but today, in this light, it
doesn’t art me half as much. It takes the pomposity, the
judgmentalism out of it all.’
We’re chatting away and we’re getting quite animated,
when suddenly a writerly man in jeans has appeared at
‘Ah, there you are,’ says the writerly man in jeans.
‘Just popped in to see how you were getting on.’
‘God, you’re sweating,’ says Cate, and she takes her
napkin to mop his forehead.
‘Hold on now,’ The Interviewer interrupts. ‘We’ve had a
passing tabulator. Now we’re getting a writerly man in
jeans? Who’s he supposed to be?’
‘It’s her husband,’ I answer. ‘Andrew Upton.’
‘Husband? You mean the screenwriter?’
‘Yes. And playwright.’ I’m sounding rather sad.
‘Does this mean ... ?’
I fear it does: my time with Cate is drawing to a close.
It’s a touching gesture – husband rescues wife – and
executed with a considerable grace. I’m looking about
for the cheque. But it seems nothing with this evening
is going to be entirely straightforward.
‘We were talking about art,’ Cate says.
‘Ah,’ says Andrew, ‘art.’ He looks round the table,
takes a chair. ‘And?’
‘Jamie was saying it should be a verb.’
And we’re off again. Art, what is it about, what is it
for, its effect on the beholder, capacity to bridge the
gaping inches. It really does sink in now. This truly is
not an interview. It’s conversation: that old simple
human thing: what dinner, in the end, was made for.
There’s a freedom to it, and an art all its own. And
anyway, is there anything ruder, more calculating than
an interview? Question, answer, question, answer. All
prepared and pokey-nosey. The sheer presumption of it
all. As though, given half an hour with a tape-recorder,
some inner self will be revealed, a personal truth
The ideas are flying, and I hardly notice that the
restaurant has emptied around us. ‘Let’s continue down
the pub,’ suggests Andrew.
‘Yes, let’s,’ says Cate. ‘You’ll join us, won’t you?’
But The Interviewer isn’t too sure about this. He’s gone
all sheepish since Husband has arrived. ‘We’re
overstaying our welcome,’ he mutters in my ear.
‘Oh, we’ll risk it,’ I tell him: ‘I’m having fun.’
Outside the heat at last is bearable. It’s even pleasant
as we amble up the road. ‘It’s so nice to get out,’ says
Cate. ‘We don’t get much opportunity. With Dashiell, I
Her baby son. ‘How’s he putting up with the weather?’
‘Oh, hot. We couldn’t get the fan to work. We’ve been
blowing over him all day.’
She and Andrew pantomime blowing wind from their mouths.
My mind jumps crazily to a nativity scene, wherein the
holy couple and the shepherds and angels are all fussily
wafting mouthy breaths over a slumbering babe in his
We’ve taken pavement seats outside the Tudor Rose pub.
Andrew has got the drinks in. Talk passes on to
politics. The usual suspects, I suppose. Bush, Iraq,
Bush, globalization, Bush. But, as Shakespeare said,
good wine needs no bush; and we sip our chardonnay.
Their hands are joined across the table. They pull
forward and back as minor points are argued.
I watch the passing concourse. The eyes of all are drawn
to Cate. Well, we’re all of us drawn to beauty. Plato
founded an entire philosophy on the principle. Himeros,
he called it: the desire that strikes the soul through
the eyes. She’s conscious of the people looking, she’ll
often smile in return. The smile says, Yes, isn’t it
strange, meeting you here.
‘You’ve grown rather fond of Ms Blanchett, haven’t you?’
The Interviewer murmurs in my ear.
‘Yes, I think I have.’
‘She is lovely,’ he allows.
Yes, lovely. And that mobility. Somehow it forgives her
face its perfection. In movement her beauty is made
I’m not struck on fame. For six years I lived with a TV
talk-show host in England, and in that time I had my
fill of the strops and idiocies of passing stars.
There’s none of that with Cate. Fame is little more than
a humorous anecdote.
She tells the funniest story about meeting the Queen of
England’s husband – Mr Queen, as we decide to call him,
or Prince Philip to give him his due. The man is an old
fogey, notorious for his gaffes. Anyway, she’s in some
line-up awaiting the royal progress. There’s a flunkey
making introductions. And when it comes to Cate’s turn
he whispers in the royal ear, ‘This is Cate Blanchett.
She’s in the movies.’ ‘Ah,’ says Prince Philip, suddenly
wide awake. ‘Movies, you say? Only we have one of those
DVD things at home. There’s a wire sticking out at the
back. Don’t suppose you could tell me where it goes?’
It’s time I made to go. Andrew hails a taxi, while Cate
kisses me goodbye. In the taxi after, The Interviewer
asks why I didn’t buy another round of drinks. ‘I forgot
to bring any English money with me,’ I tell him.
‘You’re not very good at this,’ he says.
No, I’m not really.
‘Still,’ he continues, ‘you were kissed by the Elf-queen
Galadriel. That’s something.’
It’s not true. I was kissed by a very beautiful, very
natural person. But it feels like it’s true.
On the flight home, Cate is staring out at me from the
in-flight magazine. Yet another interview. The woman
beside me says, ‘I wonder what she’s really like.’
Well, she’s not like the girl next door. She’s like a
woman who works in the same building as you, but several
floors up. You always thought she was unapproachable.
Then one day you share the elevator. The rest, really,
is up to you.