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In The Talented Mr Ripley, Cate Blanchett plays American heiress Meredith Logue, in asupporting role with Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law; but in film roles, it's not size that matters, she tells ANDREW L. URBAN, but quality.

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 duplicity."

"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 simple."

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 bit…boogha boogha."

"Oh, the place was crawling with us (Australians)!"

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. More closely."

"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.

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