A suburban American mother struck by random gunfire in a remote Moroccan village. A North London art teacher swept into an affair with a 15-year-old boy. A married German woman in 1945 Berlin who's romantically entangled with an American war correspondent. In a string of films that open before the end of the year, Cate Blanchett inhabits a collection of characters offering a strong sampling of her range.
"She's clearly interested in trying a lot of different things, and she isn't concerned about the size of the part," says Steven Soderbergh, who directed her in "The Good German," opening Dec. 15 in Los Angeles and New York. "She's very director-driven and content-driven, so she gives herself more options than a lot of people might have ordinarily."
With "Babel" now in theaters, and "The Good German" followed Dec. 22 by "Notes on a Scandal," audiences (and Oscar voters) will have a chance to size up her choices, projects that seem more the mark of an artist than a movie star.
And while she'll be highly visible on-screen, she's relatively absent from the blaring forums of celebrity mania. The Australian-born actress has been married to fellow Aussie and theater director Andrew Upton for almost nine years. And days spent making and promoting her films are punctuated by real-life concerns such as picking up her sons Dashiell, almost 5, and Roman, 2, from school.
All of which makes Blanchett a rare breed of star: She is, to her public, tabula rasa, a blank slate upon which a filmmaker's dreams can be projected and believed.
The performer who leaves no footprints on her audience's preconceptions greets a visitor on a recent afternoon in bare feet at the top of a driveway in Los Feliz. She apologizes profusely for the steep walk up to the classic Mediterranean home she has been renting for a couple of weeks, and leads the way to a couch in the cavernous living room.
A devotee of fashion who wears it well, Blanchett has appeared on numerous fashion magazine covers, but today she's simply dressed in jeans and a loose-fitting, striped Comme des Garcons top. She's wearing no makeup over her luminous complexion and her hair is tied back, more an afterthought than a ponytail. At a Screen Actors Guild screening the night before of "Notes on a Scandal," she'd shown herself to be funny, self-deprecating and thoughtful. And she still talks about the best supporting actress Oscar she won last year for playing Katharine Hepburn in Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator" with all the gee-whizness of the Sydney drama school student she once was.
"I thought I was going to demurely place it in the loo," she says with a laugh. "But when I got it, it was so beautiful.... I polished up the grand piano and plunked it in the middle, right where people could see it when they walked in the front door. Your family, your friends want to see the thing. It's fantastic."
Soderbergh says Blanchett was the first actress who came to mind when he discussed casting "The Good German" with George Clooney, his frequent collaborator. "She's a real thoroughbred," he says. "All of us on the movie walked away feeling, 'Well, that's about as good as it gets.' "
Blanchett wanted to play Lena Brandt because she was impressed by the complexity of Soderbergh's vision. The film is a homage to Hollywood's Golden Age shot in black and white on Warner Bros.' back lot. While contemporary films set in Eastern Europe go for the authenticity supplied by a location shoot, Soderbergh was going after a different kind of authenticity -- one that persuasively resurrected vintage movies. At the outset of production, he handed the actors a one-page manifesto as well as DVDs of film classics such as "Casablanca" and "Humoresque" so they could study the presentational performance style of the '40s. But the film is actually a hybrid of old and new because the actors' faces as well as the swearing and sex scenes are the stuff of present-day moviemaking.
For Blanchett, a chance like that, to tread on new territory, is professional catnip. "The things I end up taking are things where I think, 'Wow, I never thought of that. That's a crazy idea. I have no idea how to do that.' Because I think the journey of trying to find out how to do it keeps you on your toes."
PATH TO DISCOVERY
BLANCHETT says there's no single road map for her to find the truth of a character. "Sometimes the process is quite messy, and sometimes it's very simple," she says, fiddling with her coiled wedding ring. "It depends on the role and also the director and the way the other actors like to work. And it's that dynamic that I find interesting, because it's an exchange. I've been incredibly fortunate to be exchanging ideas with people of remarkable intellect and talent. And so their points of reference have continually been expansive on a selfish level."