From Hedda to Streetcar to Vanya: The Many Colors of Cate Blanchett

By Harry Haun
July 15, 2012

Inching nearer to Broadway, Oscar winner Cate Blanchett plays Yelena in Sydney Theatre Company's Uncle Vanya for Lincoln Center Festival. She talks with Playbill about the tug-of-war between her stage and screen careers.



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Cate Blanchett is an enigmatic chameleon adept at crossing borders, adapting to the called-for international milieu and making herself right at home all over the globe.

All angular and incisive, she wafted through the life of Howard Hughes as the young Katharine Hepburn and, astonishingly, won an Academy Award for it. In 2006 — when Helen Mirren had all the award bases, from small screen to big, covered as Queen Elizabeth I and II — Blanchett still gave her a run for the Oscar gold and became the only actress ever to win a second Oscar nomination for playing the Tudor queen. She reigned over J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth for the entire "Lord of the Rings" trilogy as the elf queen with the cascading yellow curls, Galadriel — and she's coming back for seconds via its two-part prequel, "The Hobbit," due out this December and next.

She was Irina Spalko to Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones, Marian to Russell Crowe's Robin Hood and one of six Bob Dylans (the Oscar-nominated one) in "I'm Not There."

Simply put, she is an artist without boundaries — geographical or, as it turns out, gender — someone who can play anyone anytime anywhere. This gift comes from a fiercely focused talent and, just perhaps, an eclectic gene pool. It may surprise you to know that, in addition to being half-Australian, she is half-Texan. Yep, Robert DeWitt Blanchett, Jr., her dad, was a U.S. Navy officer whose ship dropped anchor in the late '60s in Melbourne where his bride-to-be, June Gamble, was a property developer. They evidently, in the words of one of Hepburn's latter-day queens, "shattered the commandments on the spot," and provided Blanchett with a vivid and colorfully varied pedigree.

Blanchett in A Streetcar Named Desire.
photo by Richard Termine

"Well, I had nothing to do with that," the actress admitted meekly over the phone from her home in Sydney, but she did like the idea of these two worlds colliding for her. "It does help when you're always pretending to be from some place else."

That trend will likely continue, at least in movies, for a spell. Woody Allen and Terrence Malick, who are poles apart as directors, snapped her up for their most recent "untitled projects" (Allen's is set in Manhattan, Malick's in Austin).

And Barbra Streisand is paging her for her next directorial effort, a bio film called "Skinny and Cat." It will examine the improbable, if not impossible, marriage (1939-1942) of Margaret Bourke-White, Life magazine's legendary Bronx-born photographer, and the Georgia cracker who wrote God's Little Acre and Tobacco Road, Erskine Caldwell (Colin Firth, sans his halting King's English, presumably).

These flick trips have been fast and furious for her ever since "Oscar and Lucinda" (1997). The two things that keep her anchored are centrally located Down Under: family and theatre. She and her husband, playwright Andrew Upton, are parents of three sons (and went to some trouble naming them: Ignatius Martin Upton, 4; Roman Robert Upton, 7; and Dashiell John Upton, 9). They're also, since 2009, artistic heads of the Sydney Theatre Company, but they are surrendering that co-title before 2013.

"You never really give it up, of course," she sighed helplessly. "I'll continue to act for the company. In fact, we just set our final season, and I'm going to be in one of the plays. I've been working with these actors so long there they're all like family now."

Blanchett in Hedda Gabler.
Photo by Richard Termine
During their three-year regime, the Uptons have worn their different hats with distinction, she acting and he adapting. Not only have they brought illuminating theatre to the locals, they have exported it as well. Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theatre hosted two of Blanchett's brilliant star turns for STC — her Hedda Gabler in March of 2006 and her Blanche DuBois in December of 2009. Last August, there was no room in the BAM inn for a third STC offering, Uncle Vanya, so its three-week stand at the Kennedy Center in Washington became its only U.S. gig.

Ben Brantley of The New York Times led the critical charge on the nation's capital and returned rhapsodizing about the production. "I consider the three hours I spent on Saturday night watching [the characters] complain about how bored they are among the happiest of my theatregoing life," he trilled. "This Uncle Vanya gets under your skin like no other I have seen." The Washington Post critic, Peter Marks, crowned the show D.C.'s top theatrical event of 2011, and that was seconded by two of the city's prestigious Helen Hayes Awards — a Best Actress prize for Blanchett's Yelena, the trophy wife of a pompous academician pursued by two wannabe suitors, and a Best Supporting Actor award for Hugo Weaving's Astrov, one of the unlucky smitten.

Blanchett in Uncle Vanya.
photo by Lisa Tomasetti

The critical commotion caused by that single American engagement led to some serious second-thoughts about the New York market — even with Annie Baker's colloquial Uncle Vanya playing simultaneously to appreciative, packed houses at Soho Rep through Aug. 26. Eventually, Lincoln Center Festival found a suitable slot at New York City Center (July 19-28) and crooked its finger, signaling the original Sydney cast to come a-running. They did, intact and en masse, and now Brantley can revise his valentine to "one of the best and bravest actresses on this planet." "Now, let's hope he remembers what he said," Blanchett cracked wisely. "I'm delighted it turned out this way. It was always about finding the right venue at the right time, synchronizing the tour with everybody's schedules. Last year we were very disappointed it couldn't be worked out because we love New York audiences."

The Sydney Theatre Company is a theatre-based launching pad that has sent more than Blanchett into the cinematic stratosphere. Weaving, who was Elrond to her Galadriel in the "Hobbit"/"Rings" cycles and Judge Brack to her Hedda Gabler, hit Hollywood pay-dirt with "Captain America" and the "Matrix" movies. Vanya's ancient nanny, Jacki Weaver, stepped out of nowhere into the Oscar running a few years back for her scene-stealing support in "Animal Kingdom." When Blanchett first hit her award-courting stride in the early '90s, it was on the stage in Sydney opposite Geoffrey Rush in Oleanna and as Ophelia to Richard Roxburgh's Hamlet.

"It was, really, a great Hamlet, and Richard has a solid theatre rep in Australia," she said of the actor known internationally for his Duke of Monroth in Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge." "In fact, our Vanya grew out of the idea of him playing the title role."

Tamás Ascher
To direct, the Uptons chose a renowned Chekhov scholar with no English skills whatsoever — the Hungarian theatre artist Tamás Ascher — basing that bizarre decision on his acclaimed production of Chekhov's Ivanov, which played Sydney (and the Lincoln Center Festival) in 2009. Just to be on the safe side, a translator was required at rehearsals to relay his thoughts to the nine Australians in the cast.

"Fine-tuning a play like Uncle Vanya, which is already well-known to the people playing it, is not so much a verbal exercise as it is a visceral one," Blanchett proffered. "It's always 'a little more of this'/'a little less of that' — finite adjusting and readjusting. We had no problem understanding what he wanted." And it also helped that Ascher was a man of many sounds and gestures to make his desires known.

Essentially, what we have here is the UN edition of Anton Chekhov's human comedy, a Russian classic translated into Aussie-accented English and helmed by a Hungarian. Alongside all that, Blanchett's Texas bloodline pales considerably.

Upton, who tailored the company's most recent Hedda Gabler to his wife's specifications, huddled with Ascher over revising Vanya. The director opted for a roughhouse, almost slapstick attack on the characters rather than the usual mopey simpatico. Also, the action of the play was moved forward 50 or so years, from a country estate at the turn of the 20th century to rural Russia in the 1950s.

Given her self-professed love of New York audiences and how she has been tippy-toeing around town with one movable feast after another that deserves much longer engagements, can she at 43 see herself making a late-blooming Broadway debut?

"I suppose I'll be on Broadway one of these days — it's something I really want — but I can't say when or where and even what that will be because of this regimented life I lead, trying to make a place for family and maintain a film career and still be relatively faithful to my first love, the theatre. It's a very tight tug-of-war."

Blanchett in A Streetcar Named Desire.
photo by Richard Termine

One suspects when that great day comes, Blanchett will have gotten her act together waaay out of town at the Sydney Theatre Company. "I would really have liked to have gone to Broadway with A Streetcar Named Desire. I was proud of that."

Again, the Uptons hired a director who was light years removed from Australia but dead-on right for the task: Liv Ullmann, the Ingmar Bergman actress and late-blooming director. "Liv," said the actress who went through the motions, "had never played Blanche DuBois before, but I like to think that she did with this production."

If you feel you've taken Streetcar more times than the subway, it's likely you've memorized the blocking as much as the words. Ullmann kicked down some longstanding traces and rearranged the actors on stage as she might roses in a vase. Her most powerful and poignant innovation was Blanche's exit. Instead of leaving with a measure of dignity on the arm of her hoped-for "kind stranger," she strikes out alone, wildly confused, moving offstage into a cruelly glaring spotlight that might be her growing madness.

A stunning fade-to-white! And Blanchett played it with heart-breaking aplomb. It makes you think Brantley might be right: she is among our best and bravest.