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Elle December 2003

Modern Classic

She has three Oscar-caliber movies on screens nationwide. She's filming two more, with Wes Anderson and martin Scorsese. And she has a baby on the way. Karen Durbin Checks out how Cate Blanchett does it all -- and with such grace.

While being fitted last summer with a prosthetic belly for her role as a pregnant journalist in Wes Anderson's next film, The Life Aquatic, Cate Blanchett passed out. "It was in a makeup room in a London television studio, so I woke up on the floor," she says. "Black plastic was all around me. I could see these feet -- I didn't know where I was -- and I was naked. I thought, There's something really weird going on here." Blanchett laughs at the memory. But what really threw her was that, except for a case of food poisoning as a teenager, the only other time she'd fainted was shortly before she had her son, Dashiell, two years ago. Sure enough, a few weeks after the fitting she discovered she was pregnant again. When Anderson heard the news, he promptly fired off a note saying he never knew she was such a Method actor.

Blanchett's theater training in her native Australia was more classical than psycho-dramatic. But she's long been noted for a gravity beyond her years, both on-screen and off (even her beauty is dignified). It's why her star making performance as England's indomitable virgin queen in the 1998 Elizabeth feels epic even when said queen is being young and wild ad about as virginal as Britney Spears. It also accounts for they way she gives characters that could easily be caricatures a convincing inner life, like the sexy Long Island housewife in Pushing Tin (1999) or the Southern clairvoyant in The Gift (2000). Now 34, Blanchett has 20 movies behind her, another handful in the works, and in her dealings with the media, a reputation for a courteous but unyielding reserve that trails from story to story like the train on a royal wedding dress.

Not this night, however. She's flown to New York City from the Montreal set of Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, a biopic about the eccentric billionaire and Hollywood producing legend Howard Hughes starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes and Blanchett as the young Katharine Hepburn, who had a romance with Hughes before she met Spencer Tracy. We share a long evening car ride to the Hamptons - her only block of free time until she grabs some sleep, does an all-day photo shoot, and then heads back to Montreal, where workdays can last until 3 A.M. Given her schedule, I'm prepared not only for the famous reserve but for fatigue and even a frayed nerve or two.

Instead I get joy. Piling into the car in faded jeans and a shapely little Martine Sitbon jacket, Cate the cool isn't just warm, she's ebullient. With her reddish blond hair and Pre-Raphaelite skin, she reminds me of one of those alabaster votives - pale, even marmoreal, but lit from within. These days, she has a lot to be radiant about. There's the pregnancy, which, like the first, was a surprise, and all the sweeter for it. "I think that's what I love about my life," she says. "There's no maniacal master plan. It's just unfolding before me." What's unfolding now is a powerful harmonic convergence of the personal and professional. Six and a half years ago, Blanchett married the Australian playwright and screenwriter Andrew Upton, remarking at one point that she hoped someday to have a family. As we speak, he's in Montreal with Dash (named for Dashiell Hammett, one of Upton's favorite writers). Although their home base is England, like true theatrical vagabonds they follow the work, both his and hers, and hers is going like a rocket.

With Veronica Guerin and The Missing in theaters and the third The Lord of the Rings installment opening this month, Blanchett will have three Oscar-contending films in release that showcase her range. It's hard to imagine anyone else playing, respectively: a crusading Irish journalist with a daredevil streak; a late-nineteenth century southwestern homesteader and healer whose daughter is kidnapped by a ring of white and Apache thugs; and Galadriel, Queen of the Elves. Not that it can't be done, but Blanchett always brings a present to the part. The Missing - directed by Ron Howard, whose film A Beautiful Mind swept the 2002 Academy Awards - is a powerful melding of suspense thriller and tense family drama set in New Mexico at a time when, as one character notes, "whites ad Indians are all mixed up together." Blanchett plays Maggie Gilkeson, a flinty young widow estranged from her father (Tommy Lee Jones), who abandoned his family years earlier and went to live with an Apache people called the Chiricahua. When her daughter is kidnapped, in order to rescue her Maggie must make common cause with a man she bitterly hates. Howard credits Blanchett with suggesting a change to her character that enriched the film.

"Cate wanted to underline the emotional journey Maggie must make to accept her father," he says, "by giving her a disdain for the Indian life he embraced. It's a defense mechanism, this prejudice, a wall that has to come down as she comes to terms with this culture that took him away from her. I thought it was great. But of course it makes the character less likeable and conventionally heroic." It also makes her real, and by heightening the racial tensions implicit in the movie's plot, helps make The Missing an ambitious update of the classic Western. "It's almost a study in fear," says Howard, sounding like a happy man.

"That was very intelligent on her part," Tommy Lee Jones says. This is gushing praise from a man hw famously does not suffer fools, journalists, or even some colleagues gladly. Jones is eighth-generation Texan and a quarter Cherokee, a natural for the role of Maggie's father, but he also took the part for a chance to work with Blanchett. "I don't have a lot of doubts about her," he says, citing the originality of her work. Then in true Jones-ian fashion, he adds, "She's very professional, not spiteful or paranoid. She doesn't respond to the fears that often plague actresses." Hardly the most gracious compliment, but it gets at something central about Blanchett, namely that she seems remarkably free of the fears that plague - never mind actresses - most of us. Last year, just before the premiere of his play Hanging Man her husband was asked how he felt. "It's very difficult sometimes to tell between fear and excitement, isn't it?" he replied. "I'm in there somewhere between [them]." Blanchett would recognize the description. When the offer came to play Katharine Hepburn, one of film's most adored icons, she says, "I was really excited, and then completely and utterly terrified." Not that this stopped her. "I told my agent, 'Well, I wouldn't attempt this for anyone other than Martin Scorcese.'"

"There's a concept I find completely inspiring," Blanchett says, "to be brought up with freedom from fear. And I think, you know, I really have been brought up that way." If Blanchett appears undaunted and open to life's surprises, she learned early on that they will find you whether you want them to or not. Her father, Robert, was an American sailor from Texas docked in Melbourne when he met her mother, June, a teacher, at a dance and fell in love. When Cate was 10, he suffered a fatal heart attack, just as he was about to take his young family to see his home country for the first time. A few months later, June Blanchett, who never remarried, took the children on the trip as planned.

"I ad a great childhood," Blanchett says, describing growing up in Melbourne with her brother and sister and enrolling at 11 at Methodist Ladies' College, a more spirited girls' school than the name suggests. "They were really into drama," she says, " and adamant about nor having boys in the plays, because most plays we wanted to do would have great male character and females weren't as interesting. So we got to direct and play all the parts." Blanchett eventually trained at Australia's prestigious National Institute of Dramatic Art, but this early work was the seedbed of her versatility and a career that is usually described as meteoric, although Blanchett begs to differ. "When I came out of drama school, nobody knew what to do with me," she says. They learned, and within a couple of years she had won both an award and critical praise for her role opposite Geoffrey Rush in Sydney production of David Mamet's Oleanna.

Now Blanchett works with many of the biggest and best directors around, and she doesn't have to seek them out - they come to her. Joel Schumacher wanted to cast Blanchett in 1997 after seeing her star with Ralph Fiennes in Oscar and Lucinda; the chance came with Veronica Guerin. A driven, tabloid-style writer whose investigative exposÚs made her a star in Ireland, Guerin was the object of intense professional jealousy 0 until she was murdered by the drug lords she'd pursued in print, at which point she became a saint. "I knew I could count on Cate to make her fallible flesh and blood," says Schumacher. Citing Blanchett's lack of vanity and appetite for challenging roles, he gives her his highest accolade: "I think of Cate a a character actress who accidentally became a movie star."

Being serious about her work doesn't' mean Blanchett is a puritan. She loves clothes ad has fun with the glamour that comes with being a celebrity, turning up at parties and awards ceremonies in cutting-edge designs by Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. But home based isn't Brentwood or Beverly Hills; it's an English costal town with a view of France across the water. And next year, after the baby is born, she and Upton will return to Australia to see family. While there, she'll make a film with a talented but little-known Australian director and star in Upton's adaptation of Hedda Gabler on the Sydney stage, where her career began. After that, who knows? She quotes something her husband said early in their relationship: "It's so much more exciting to be on the verge. Why do you ever want to arrive?"