It was the very large, very flamboyant character actor Frank Thring who inspired a young Cate Blanchett to take up acting. Aged nine, she had accompanied her mother to a school production of The Mikado, in which Thring had a starring role. During the performance his moustache fell off, but he didn’t miss a beat.
“Damn this Japanese merchandise!” the actor thundered, carrying on with his lines. Blanchett was enthralled. “There was something going on there that was unpredictable and dangerous, and I wanted a bit of that,” she said.
Blanchett related this story to a packed audience in Sydney last night, there to hear her in conversation with author and journalist Anne Summers. Blanchett, who has appeared in 47 movies and countless plays, is also the cover story for the latest edition of Summers’ magazine, Anne Summers Reports, in which she has spoken frankly about feminism, the film industry, acting and her family. The 45-year-old actor/director recently won her second Academy Award, for the film Blue Jasmine, making her Australia’s most-awarded thespian.
Asked about her career, she said that after graduating from the National Institute of Dramatic Art, her only intention was to act on stage and work alongside people she respected. Her work progression had been totally “random” she said, adding that most careers “aren’t linear any more”.
The actor said she maintained her creative energies during a long-running play by staying in the moment. Every night before going on stage, she tries not to think about anything beyond the first entrance, and tells herself that “we don’t know what’s going to happen tonight, we don’t know how the play ends”. And because she loves “the potency of language”, she will often go back to the dictionary and look up a word. “What does the word ‘must’ actually mean? This re-activates my connection to that line. And each night I’m trying to perfect that.”
Summers reminded us that last night was the first anniversary of the sacking of former Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her replacement with Kevin Rudd.
Blanchett said she had been backstage at the theatre when she heard the news.“I almost didn’t go back on stage. I was horrified by the way she was treated as a woman, the way she was treated purely because of her gender. That was a moment when a lot of people had to take a pause.”
In 2008, Blanchett and her husband, writer/director Andrew Upton, shocked the acting world by announcing that they would return to Australia from England, where they had lived for a decade, to take the helm of the Sydney Theatre Company. They made the decision after seeing a production of STC play Victory, starring Judy Davis, while visiting Australia.
“We knew everyone on stage and we had a relationship with all of these people,” she said. While working in England for 10 years, the pair had become “cultural tourists”. “We didn’t respond with anger or passion to things; we had no responsibility to that community.”
They took the job to be co-artistic directors and co-chief executives of the STC because it was “an opportunity to bring to life important stories about Australia that we wanted to be told”.
In the magazine article Blanchett talks about the reaction to her appointment, which was quite critical. She was surprised and upset about not being taken seriously — by the media, some parts of the STC and the “big end of town”, where the money was.
“Initially I thought, ‘Oh is there a prejudice against what I may bring to the table because I’m an actress? Or is it a generational prejudice? Or is it simply because I am a co-CEO of a $32 million organisation and it’s an arts organisation? Is that what’s making me a lightweight?’”
“She concluded that ‘it’s an intersection of all three; it’s my gender, it’s my age and it’s my profession’.”
The couple’s role at the theatre — Upton remains in the job after Blanchett stepped down at the end of last year — has been a critical and financial success, with record audiences and revenue. In the four years before their arrival, the STC had run at a loss. But in the five years of their joint tenure the theatre company has recorded a surplus, apart from 2012, when the company spent large sums on upgrading its IT systems.
Much of this is due to the hard work of Blanchett and the STC chairman, the well-connected David Gonski. Soon after she was appointed, Georgio Armani came on board as a sponsor, and others soon followed. Last year the Packer family announced a $15 million donation, to be paid over 10 years.
Blanchett is very philanthropic and appeared on stage with Gonski at the launch of the Salvation Army’s Red Shield Appeal a few weeks ago. There, the chairman told the story of inviting a few of Australia’s most senior businessmen to an STC fundraising dinner at his house. All of them accepted the invitation on the condition they could sit next to Blanchett, he said, necessitating a bit of place-swapping between courses. Afterwards, they all paid up. At the end of the dinner, Gonski asked her where her driver was, and was astonished to learn that she had driven herself to the dinner and parked her “little white car” around the corner.
At the lunch, one of the Salvos’ clients gave a short speech about her former life on the streets and how she was trying to turn her life around. At the end of the proceedings, I noticed Blanchett seek out the girl and exchange a few private words with her, pressing on her the beautiful bunch of flowers she’d been given as thanks. The woman’s a class act.