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A Royal Presence

Movies: Australian actress Cate Blanchett made the leap from stage to film just a year ago. Now she ascends to leading lady in the period drama 'Elizabeth.'

November 06, 1998|SCARLET CHENG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The noise level of the Los Angeles premiere party for "Elizabeth," in which luminous Australian actress Cate Blanchett assumes the lofty title role of the 16th century British queen, is nearly deafening. Waiters are self-consciously parading about in velvet Elizabethan costumes, and Blanchett is lodged in a semicircular booth with her own protective ladies-in-waiting--publicists--forming a cordon to keep trespassers out.

The queen they shield is still rather a radiant princess, wearing a strapless, body-hugging black dress with her high-blond hair slicked back. She has a dreamy, faraway gaze in her sky-blue eyes as she says, "It's so much a matter of timing, being in the right place at the right time, meeting the right people."

Blanchett was conveniently in Sydney when Fox was casting "Paradise Road," the Bruce Beresford film about European women thrown into Japanese concentration camps during World War II, and got the part of a sympathetic young nurse. Director Gillian Armstrong saw her on stage and, when the time came to cast "Oscar and Lucinda," she insisted on using the Australian actress, despite pressures to cast a known, bankable star. As a result, Blanchett got her first major film role, opposite Ralph Fiennes, just off "The English Patient."

A promo reel for "Oscar and Lucinda" captivated director Shekhar Kapur, and he immediately decided that Blanchett was the perfect Elizabeth for the film that opens Friday about Queen Elizabeth I and how she grew into greatness.

Amid the chaos of the party, it is clear Blanchett has the gift of focus, a kind of gyroscopic balance that affords inner calm and bearing, a gift that must serve her well playing the part of a queen.

In a brief, breathless year, this actress, only in her late 20s, has shot out from Down Under obscurity, first with Armstrong's memorable if uncommercial "Oscar and Lucinda" and now, if "Elizabeth" has the effect Gramercy Pictures is banking on, into possible Oscar-nomination country.

It cannot be all circumstance and serendipity. "There was a buzz about Cate even when she was in drama school," says Geoffrey Rush, Oscar winner for "Shine" who co-stars as a key advisor, Sir Francis Walsingham, in "Elizabeth." Around the time she was finishing her degree at Australia's National Institute of Dramatic Art in 1992, she appeared in an electrifying production of the Greek tragedy "Electra." Rush was one of the electrified. "There was always just something special about Cate, an excitement, an aura," he says.

A year later, they trod the boards together in David Mamet's "Oleanna," for which Blanchett won the Sydney Theatre Critics Circle Rosemount Award for best actress.

Blanchett's powerful presence in this and subsequent theatrical roles attracted the notice of many, and soon the movie offers began tumbling her way: first a supporting part in "Paradise Road," then a lead in a local film, "Thank God He Met Lizzie," then the leap to international star in "Oscar and Lucinda." In the latter, she gave a charismatic portrayal of Lucinda, a fearless 19th century Australian heiress who shares gambling fever with Oscar (Fiennes), a fearful Anglican priest she meets on an ocean voyage.

In the new jet-set world the actress finds herself in, she is taking a short break from shooting "The Talented Mr. Ripley," directed by Anthony Minghella ("The English Patient'), to do publicity in Los Angeles for 'Elizabeth.'

In Blanchett's incarnation of Elizabeth, she maintains an erect, imperious carriage (well, all those corsets might have something to do with it) and speaks in plummy, highbred High English. Blanchett herself, model-thin and beautiful, moves fluidly, and talks with a slight but discernible Australian twang. That twang is the key to some basic down-to-earth aspect of her nature.

She says she often feels homesick. She is thankful to have grown up in Australia's strange remoteness. "We're such a hybrid because we're part of Asia, most of our television is American, and then we're living in this desert with unreconciled relations with indigenous Australians," she observes wryly. "I think the way we pit ourselves against the world is quite unique."

Though "Elizabeth" is a full-scale period costumer shot in sumptuous Elizabethan dress and the cold, dank interiors of English castles and churches, Blanchett believes that the story has modern resonance. Otherwise why bother?

"I'm not interested in telling stories that are quaint and irrelevant," she insists. "I think parts of history are retold because they probably deal with something universal that taps into those preoccupations that really haven't changed that much.

*

"What Shekhar was exploring is what happens to the private recesses of yourself when you're thrust into the public eye," she says. "That is one of the central curiosities and preoccupations when they discuss Diana [the late Princess of Wales].

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