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Cate Blanchett, the 37 year-old mother-of-two with an Oscar for playing Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator, is arguably at the peak of her powers, ably demonstrated by her work in Richard Eyre’s adaptation of Zoë Heller’s novel Notes on a Scandal. She plays Sheba, a London art teacher who enters into an illicit affair with a pupil, only to be discovered by a jealous colleague (Judi Dench). Alongside her work in Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German, it demonstrates a remarkable maturity, says James Mottram.

Why did you take the role of Sheba in Notes on a Scandal?
t was the package really. My first connection was to the book, which was a fantastic read. It was all from Barbara’s (Judi Dench) perspective. The character of Sheba was hard to extricate from Barbara’s judgement and I liked that Patrick (Marber, writer) really liberated her. He gave her her own voice. And obviously working with Judi and Bill (Nighy) was a fantastic experience.

Were you nervous about working with Judi? She’s obviously so highly regarded…
Well, that’s easy. She’s so unbelievably generous and puts people at ease in a second. And she’s infinitely curious about what makes other people tick. She’s also incredibly humble, enormously talented and wickedly funny. It was an absolute pleasure.

How difficult was the (sex) scene by the railway yard with young Andrew Simpson?
I can’t say I was looking forward to it! But the scene has its own anxiety – where they are and what they’re doing. I’m glad it was dark because I was blushing! Whenever you have physical scenes like that with an actor…I remember on the first day on a film with Sally Potter with the gorgeous John Turturro, and John and I had never met and we didn’t have any rehearsal time, because he had come from the set of one film onto the set of that. And we had to be in bed together! It was ‘Hi John, let’s take our clothes off!’ I mean, you often find yourself in those situations as an actor, so you get a little bit used to it, but this involved a sixteen year-old boy. And although the actor was above the age of consent, he was still very young, so we had to tread very delicately and I’m the adult in that situation…

Were you worried about Andrew’s parents?
Of course! I didn’t have to worry about Bill Nighy’s parents! But you do have to make sure what the entirety of the script is, and that they’re fine and have talked to him, because I don’t know Andrew and what makes him tick. Not that he’s a child but he’s a young man – and film sets are very adult places.

Do you lean towards younger or older men?
I’d be veering towards Bill before Andrew, personally! But I’m not interested in playing characters that think the same way as me. So ultimately my judgement was something I had to suspend entirely and try and work out the headspace that someone could be in to embark upon such a destructive – ultimately – relationship.

Did the paparazzi sequence in the film make you consider media intrusions in your own life?
Well, I only deal with things like that in very controlled circumstances. Cannes can be very noisy! But the notion of scandal is very interesting these days. Sheba is not Mary Kay Letourneau. She’s not about to write a memoir and go on talk shows about her experience. She’s very private. When I open the paper, and invariably there is some article about a teacher having sex with a student, beyond reading the title I tend to close the paper. I think it’s devastating for every single person involved in that, and incredibly private and I don’t want to be part of this spectator sport. But I don’t feel harangued or harassed [by the press]. These days, if you have a scandal around you, it can boost your career!

You often play strong women. How did you perceive Sheba? Is she strong?
I think anyone who has a large hand in the construction of a narrative as a character has a strong presence. There is a great fragility to Sheba, a very unformed gossamer quality to her. She’s actually described in the book – which I think Patrick [Marber] kept in the screenplay – as a fey sort of person and I like that. There’s almost an adolescent, girlish quality to her. She’s not predatory. It’s not about a serial paedophile. That’s not what the film’s about. What I like about the film is that it doesn’t justify in any way the transgression, and it doesn’t seek to explain why she did what she did. She transgressed in a massive, major, foolish way. If you want to destroy your life, there are other ways of doing it, other than having sex in the summerhouse at the back of your garden where your husband can look down from the window. There’s a Peter Pan quality to her, where she doesn’t really want to grow up. The limp justifications that she has – ‘He’s sixteen in May’ and ‘I love him’. She knows that those are no justifications but she can’t help herself.

Do you analyse your characters or do you just dive in?
Every character is different but, yes, of course. You put them on the psychiatrist’s couch and ask them all the questions. But I don’t seek to answer all the questions necessarily. Particularly in film. The rehearsal turns into a take and hopefully you get a few takes and you get to rehearse in different ways. But the rehearsal is the starting point, and the lift-off, the invention, has to happen when you’re in front of the camera. Nobody is interested in seeing my preparation.

So what did you do for this role?
Well, I did the opposite of what I do as a citizen and I trawled the Internet for cases of women who had been involved in such sex scandals, to see what they looked like, how they dealt with the press…but in the end what you see is the media’s interpretation of why they did what they did. You really get to know people. So in the end it was from the script. And because the women are thrust into this agonising, but delicious and fatally flawed friendship…it was in the playing.

There’s a punk-ish New Wave picture of you in the film. Was that real?
It was photoshopped, but I went through it as well. I went through a big Goth and then punk period – shaved my head, blah blah blah! I had to dress up like that.

How do you define your style now?
Eclectic. Maybe I have internalised my man. I don’t like shopping but that doesn’t mean I don’t like fashion. The Internet is very handy, isn’t it? I know what I like and there are usually one or two amazing dresses every season and it’s a thrill if you get to wear them. It was fun dressing up as Sheba – thinking of someone who had gone from a punk period to being floaty and soft. And I think it’s interesting when you look at photos of people and see how their taste evolved.

Do you think you know anyone like Barbara?
I don’t think you necessarily know people like Barbara because the thing with her is…I don’t think anyone knows until they read her diary the depth of her venom, so I hope I don’t know anyone like Barbara or I’m in trouble!

Tell me about your role in The Good German…
It’s a high style piece, which I think is absolutely brilliantly. It’s a synthesis of archival footage, shot in black-and-white on the back-lot. It’s set in post-war Berlin, told from the perspective of the vanquished rather than the victors. And the performance style is a very high, front-footed, melodramatic, unabashedly theatrical performance style. I think the sense of cinematic truth was very different to what we know post-Method now. It’s not about subtext. It’s about what characters do or say and the narrative actually propels them forward.

So did you re-watch a lot of old Michael Curtiz films then?
I watched a lot of different films actually. Soderbergh had a viewing list of things that he wanted us to see. Even though I went very rapidly between films – I finished Notes on a Scandal on a Friday, and I flew to LA with my boys and was on set by Monday – it was pleasurable. I was watching all these great films. Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce to Ingrid Bergman in Notorious and Casablanca, and early Dietrich films. I watched a lot of Hildegaard Knef’s films, a German actress who I didn’t know. I saw Germany Year Zero…a variety of different things. Basically, this was to absorb the acting style, but also to see how they were lit and how the camera was moving.

How did you prepare for playing a German woman?

It felt like an old-fashioned studio picture. I assumed when I read the script that we’d be shooting in Romania, and there’d be lots of blood and guts. But then I heard we were shooting on the back-lot on L.A. and it was in high style, so it became a different endeavour. So the preparation became … of course internal and emotional and psychological …. but also stylistic. I’m eternally grateful that when it reaches Germany it will be dubbed!

Do you want to play a villain?
I don’t know if I ever put those labels on a character. I just think this is what they do, and what do they think they’re doing…

Published July 26, 2007

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Cate Blanchett
... in Notes on a Scandal

Australian release: February 15, 2006
Australian DVD release: July 26, 2007

... in The Good German

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