The Australian
February 20, 2000

Queen Wishes to Dance
Lynden Barber

CATE Blanchett has only just finished apologising for her melancholy mood when she quietly lets drop her bombshell. "I don't know that I want to act forever.''

Maybe, she says, her mood comes from her speaking in the early hours of the morning from a strange town -- Savannah, Georgia, where she is starring in The Gift for movie director Sam Raimi. Perhaps it's the macabre documentary she's just been watching, about American boys accused of a satanic murder.

But the Australian actor, and this newspaper's Australian of the Year, is quick to point out that her feelings about acting are not from "any sense of being dissatisfied''. It's just that there are aspects of life other than acting that she would like to explore. Directing theatre, for one thing, and maybe "dance installations, hybrids and other things.

"I'm not as obsessed with film as everyone else seems to be,'' admits the woman who was last year nominated for an Academy Award in her first leading film role, as the 17th-century queen in Elizabeth.

Despite having scarcely stopped working since -- her more recent films include Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband, the comedy Pushing Tin and the thriller The Talented Mr Ripley -- she says movie acting is not her raison d'etre. If she had her life over again it would be as a dancer with Pina Bausch, she says, and indeed she hopes that "things will continue to be unpredictable''.

Cinema is all-consuming and powerful in our globalised culture and Australia's latest international movie star finds it odd that people overseas either forget, or don't know about, her theatrical background. Here we are less ready to forget she trained with NIDA and spent several years on the Australian stage before appearing in such local movies as Paradise Road (Bruce Beresford), Oscar and Lucinda (Gillian Armstrong) and Thank God He Met Lizzie (Cherie Nowlan). After Elizabeth, Blanchett found herself splashed across the covers of glossy magazines the world over, but she still views herself as an actor first, a star second.

Ripley's English writer-director, Anthony Minghella, told The Australian he was "amazed'' by her readiness to play second fiddle to Gwyneth Paltrow in his film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel.

"I thought that her agent had decided to talk to her about Gwyneth' s part and hope that that part was still open. Obviously she was only in the process of filming Elizabeth at that time, but nevertheless, quite clearly her card was marked for big things. I thought it was a very interesting index of who she is that you can see she's looking for films rather than parts. I think that really defines her.''

When Blanchett appeared on the London stage last year in the lead role in David Hare's Plenty, she was bemused to discover that the UK media saw her as a film star setting out to prove herself in the theatre. No one realised, she says, that she had been there three years earlier in Michael Gow's Sweet Phoebe at the Croydon Warehouse.

Though she feels like going home and having a bath when she sees disappointing theatre, what she likes about live performance is that "as an audience member I feel implicated''.

She continues: "When I see wonderful theatre, it stays with me for years and years. I don't have the same visceral experience, that I keep for years, with film. There's something about things that are alive.'' This does not necessarily mean three act plays, she adds. Even Jerry Springer's tabloid talk show or World Championship Wrestling have a vital live element -- "it's basically the same thing. People [audiences] want to see people [performers] moving through space."

Another advantage theatre has over film is that it gives actors the chance to reinterpret. Plenty, for which she was roundly applauded by the UK critics, "was an extraordinary experience, but one I would probably do completely differently if I did it again'', on account of the density and complexity of the role. The same goes for David Mamet's Oleanna, a Sydney Theatre Company production in which she played a student who makes bogus complaints about sexual assault by her professor, played by Geoffrey Rush.

Blanchett's musings on creativity reveal, perhaps, a temperamental or existential frustration with the film industry. Her celebrity has happened so swiftly that she can sometimes appear contradictory: how else to explain her appearance at the Oscars last year in a dress clearly designed to create a sensation, followed by comments belittling media interest in movie star fashion.

Being under constant media scrutiny is "a necessary by-product'' of success, she says. "It's incredible being flattered, to be liked, but the challenge remains to be imaginative and creative under that scrutiny.''

You might imagine Blanchett to be so inundated with scripts that it would be hard to decide what to do next, but those worth doing are few. "I was spoiled early on with Bruce [Beresford] and Oscar and Lucinda with Gill [Armstrong]. My standards on how a script could be were incredibly high. It's been quite an extraordinary experience this year, the amount of scripts I have read, and [then] watching them being made.''

Ridley Scott recently talked to her about taking the lead role of Clarice Starling in Hannibal, the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, but as much as she admires Scott, it wasn't for her. Yes, she says, in retrospect she has made mistakes in turning down certain roles. "Sometimes you're right and sometimes you're wrong.'' Nonetheless the films she rejected "can look pretty good with someone else in it. I'm not particularly greedy.''

Sadly, Australian producers appear shy about approaching her these days. "I think people make assumptions, hilariously enough, about what is termed one's price. It's kind of not the point.'' Money, she says, is secondary. "It's about doing things that are well-written."

Producing material herself is the next likely move: she would like to get up a couple of self-produced projects for 2001. But first she has to finish The Gift -- in which she co-stars with Keanu Reeves as a woman with psychic powers -- before flying to New Zealand to play elf queen Galadriel in Peter Jackson's version of J.R.R Tolkien' s The Lord of the Rings. The latter role turns out to be poetically apt: her first theatrical experience came when, aged 10, she played a dragon slayer in her school play -- an adaptation of Tolkien's The Hobbit.

The Talented Mr Ripley opens next Thursday.