It's Friday evening in Savannah, and rehearsals have just finished; the production
office is shutting down for the weekend, before the start of principal photography (as
American filmmakers put it) on The Gift, directed by Sam Raimi, and starring Cate
Blanchett and Keanu Reeves. Downstairs, a salsa club is about to fire up for the night.
Blanchett, incredibly punctual for this interview, is sitting by a desk with a phone in
one of several abandoned buildings - some have been taken over by the School of Art and
Design. This one by the film crew from Lakeshore Entertainment, which is producing The
Gift for Paramount's Classics division.
"I almost don't know what a character is until six
months after I finish playing it."
Blanchett plays Ms Annie Wilson from a rural town in Georgia, who has psychic
abilities: The Gift. Beyond that, Blanchett is not ready to describe her character as yet.
"Gosh, I find it incredibly difficult to …I almost don't know what a character
is until six months after I finish playing it. All I can tell you is that before the film
begins, Ms Annie's husband's died, and she has three kids and she gets embroiled in a
murder case. The police can't solve a murder. . . she starts being haunted by the murder
and gets involved in trying to solve it."
Sam Raimi is "the king of suspense and horror," says Blanchett, "so I
think it's going to be pretty creepy." There is also the wicked and creepy wit of
Billy Bob Thornton who co-wrote the screenplay. Reeves plays Donnie Barksdale, a redneck
wife beater. Blanchett's Ms Annie is stoic, doing a lot of psychic readings and
counselling. And vastly different to Meredith, the character she plays in The Talented Mr
Ripley. "And that's what I love about this . . . going from one extreme to the other.
Annie is a world away from the dizziness that characterises Meredith."
Written and directed by Anthony Minghella, the film opens in Australia on February 24 -
just nine days after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces this year's
Oscar nominations, in which the film is expected to receive several mentions, not the
least for John Seale's cinematography.
"accents are a part of the formation of character"
Adapted from Patricia Highsmith's 1955 novel, the film is a twist on the American
dream, in which Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), a nobody in 1950s New York, turns a chance
encounter into an opportunity: millionaire Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn), commissions
Tom with $1,000 to retrieve his playboy son, Dickie (Jude Law) from Tuscany, where Dickie
is frolicking with his fiancé Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow). Tom takes to the task with zeal,
and begins to assume Dickie's very persona, ultimately succumbing to the desire to be a
fake somebody, instead of a real nobody. The film looks seductively, glamorously beautiful
- but has a foreboding and even sinister undertow as Ripley becomes obsessed with the cult
of personality - someone else's. It's a deceptively dark film; it appears to be a romance
of sorts, an adventure even, but is in fact a deadly morality tale with much to think
about. But Blanchett's character, Meredith, is unaware of what really goes on.
Meredith comes from a very specific American milieu, the equivalent of Britain's upper
class. She has to sound like the heiress she is. "And accents are a part of the
formation of character," says Blanchett, whose father is American. "I love that
way of finding someone's internal psychology . . . through external things like vocal
patterns. It's amazing once you begin to research … well, the history of the English
language I suppose, what actually forms a Southern accent. What we've found - we're
working with the dialogue coach I worked with on Pushing Tin - is that with the poverty in
the rural South, people move about, so there isn't the consistency that there would have
been in the 1950s; so there's a lot more licence than in the world of Ripley. We had to
place Meredith very specifically: they were monied, horsey people who had that languid way
they spoke, that whole outdoorsy thing, which is incredibly different."
Blanchett's Meredith Logue is a young innocent American heiress travelling in Europe.
She bumps into Ripley - who passes himself off as the young American heir Dickie Greenleaf
- one of her own class. He passes in and out of her life quite quickly. "The time she
spends with Ripley," says Blanchett, "is probably the most wonderful week in her
life. . .she feels he's the man she's been waiting to meet, and is unaware of his
"I've been surprised people have not been talking about
the role but about the size of the role"
Meredith is not a big role, but to Blanchett, size does not matter. "I've been
surprised that people have not been talking about the role but about the size of the role
- which I find such a bizarre concept. I think Anthony (Minghella) is an astonishingly
humane and succinct writer; it's rare that you read scripts where every single word is as
carefully chosen as is every single image. You jump at the opportunity to be part of a
film like that."
Minghella, who enlarged the role especially for her, also uses the word
"astonishing" to describe Blanchett as an actress. But while keen on the script,
Blanchett says she wasn't in pursuit of it. "I don't think I've ever pursued
anything, to be perfectly frank. I've been lucky . . . often decisions I make are not
necessarily the right ones. I've been in the right place at the right time, or unable to
avoid something. I happened to be in England shooting Elisabeth and heard that Anthony
wanted to meet me and I wanted to meet him, irrespective of whether he was making a film
or not. And then I read the script and he said would I do it and I said yes. It was very
And great fun. "Oh, I had an absolute ball. And I worked with Phil Hoffman (who
plays the eccentric Freddie Miles) who is a dear friend and an astonishing actor. For me
he shines like a beacon in every film he's in. I made some firm friends and I saw another
side of Italy."
A beautiful side: the locations were spectacular. Ischia is a volcanic island in the
Bay of Naples, a popular holiday destination. Tuscany is renowned for it beauty; Venice,
too. Then there was Rome, "where a whole day's shoot inside a palazzo was completely
out of focus - and the focus puller's wonderful. It was very strange," Blanchett
says, "We had to reshoot it - and apparently the same thing happened again. I think
the same thing happened on the shoot of Portrait of a Lady - in the same room. I wouldn't
have thought anything of it until coming down here to do The Gift…it's all a
"Oh, the place was crawling with us
Blanchett and cinematographer John Seale were only two of the Australians on the shoot.
"Oh, the place was crawling with us!" she says. "Like Steve Andrews, one of
the world's most astonishingly calm First Assistant Directors . . .he and John and Anthony
all just created this sense of calm." Blanchett's mobile phone rings (a second time);
"Oh, I'm so sorry about this…I just got a mobile two days ago. And it's
hell." She fumbles for the off button and returns to talk about calm. She certainly
sounds calm, and sincere and genuinely modest. Does she stay calm on set?
"Yeah," she says after a short pause to consider this. "Yes, I like to
get on with the job. I don't think I need to be in a state to represent a state," she
says neatly. "But it really depends on the material. In my very limited experience
I've found that the innate qualities of the story reflect the way that it's shot. So I was
in that euphoric state that Meredith was - I was having a ball."
Indeed, it was not such a leap of imagination for Blanchett. She was 18 when she did
the Australian rites of passage between high school and university of seeing the world:
"I went and fell in love in Italy, and I think Italy opened the world for me."
She found Italy exuberant and that experience informed her character as Meredith.
"Absolutely - and I think you're more aware of a sense of theatre when you travel
like that. I mean, I was brought up in Melbourne, and yet I hadn't once been inside St
Patrick's Cathedral. Yet I was in Italy in seven months wandering around and went to every
single cathedral, church and had these momentous spiritual moments with myself. It's
humbling and when you return it make you look at your own environment in different ways.
"Yeah, I have a strong relationship to the place"
And while catapulted around the world again, this time professionally, Blanchett refers
to Australia as home. "When I think of educating children I think of educating them
in Australia. And the way I talk about Australia I should get a commission from the
tourist board. Yeah, I have a strong relationship to the place and of course it's where my
dearest and oldest friends are." She would like to make a film in Australia again,
"as soon as possible."
But perhaps Australian producers are reluctant to approach the Oscar nominated star of
international pictures, afraid she may be too pricey for them. She laughs. "Oh that's
hilarious. Um, I don't know. Gawd, I hope not. They'd be so wrong. Frankly, when I left
drama school I gave myself five years to see if this would work out for me. And look, I'm
not averse to a big pay cheque like anyone, but it's not the reason why you do it. If you
get a good script, you do it for the love of it."
Proud of the "density of talent" in Australia, Blanchett feels it's important
that Australian writers, actors and directors get to work with bigger budgets in
Australia. And I don't think there's anything wrong - and I'm doing it myself - to go away
and work, come back and work…I don't think you have to always make films in Australia
to prove you're an Australian. But I think it's so important that Government isn't short
sighted about support. We can't rest on our laurels."
As Friday evening becomes Friday night, Blanchett (whose husband Andrew Upton is back
in Australia) is preparing for a night of grisly research for her role, reading about
murders of children for her role in The Gift. Then in June, she heads to New Zealand for
her role as Galadriel in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings. She can hardly wait: "I
think Peter Jackson's a genius."
"You can always have dreams"
Of the more distant future, she is uncertain, though she has a notion that she'd like
to direct. "I'm not ready to yet, and I may never….but you can always have
dreams, I guess."
This interview also appears in The Bulletin on sale 9/2/2000.