NEW YORK — When Cate Blanchett was last in New York, in between her nightly performances in the acclaimed touring production of Uncle Vanya, she would slip uptown, to the East Side, to stealthily research her role in Woody Allen’s latest, Blue Jasmine.
In it, Blanchett plays Jasmine, a socialite in breakdown, a modern Blanche DuBois (a role Blanchett played a few years ago on stage), distraught and destroyed by the betrayal of her Bernie Madoff-like financier husband (Alec Baldwin). On Jasmine’s stomping ground, the Upper East Side, Blanchett bent her ear to the neighborhood’s accents of affluence.
“I drank way too much wine sitting in restaurants by myself,” says Blanchett, today sitting in a midtown office.
The polished refinement, though, is only a small element to Blanchett’s enormously layered performance in Blue Jasmine. Her Jasmine is, as she says, “a fragile, combustible cocktail of rage and guilt and fear.” Penniless in San Francisco, where she’s forced to stay at the working class home of her sister (Sally Hawkins), Jasmine is a vodka-swilling, Xanax-popping mess of self-loathing, denial, and panic — a woman in free fall who can’t bear to face herself in the mirror.
Like many of the 44-year-old actress’ best performances, including her Oscar-nominated turn as Elizabeth I in 1998’s Elizabeth, Jasmine is a mix of ruthlessness (she’s brutal to those she considers inferior) and quaking vulnerability. The performance has been called a lock for an Academy Award nomination, which would be her sixth.
The role’s complexity is partly in the film’s A Streetcar Named Desire structure, toggling back and forth between before the downfall (in New York and the Hamptons) and after (San Francisco). Blanchett carefully charted Jasmine’s unraveling across the flashbacks. Jasmine is thus many people, radiantly elegant for some (Peter Sarsgaard, as a moneyed suitor) and condescendingly bitter to others (Bobby Cannavale, as her sister’s blue-collar boyfriend).
While Woody Allen is known for giving his actors wide berth, that such a powerhouse performance comes in a late film of his comes as a staggering surprise. Though Blanchett immediately committed after a brief phone call from Allen, she, too, wondered which direction the film might go.
“The challenge was one of tone, particularly when I began to hear what the casting was like,” she says, noting that comedians Andrew Dice Clay and Louis C.K. ended up giving unexpected, natural performances.
Allen had proclaimed his interest to work with Blanchett at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010. She was the obvious choice, he says, for the part he had written based on a ruined New York family his wife, Soon-Yi Previn, told him about. (Allen says Madoff “never figured remotely” into his thinking.)
“I needed a great actress and when you think of great actresses in the world, Cate comes into mind immediately,” Allen said in an e-mail from France, where he’s shooting his next film.
Blanchett knew not to expect a lot of feedback from Allen, “so I wanted to come in with enough to offer,” she says. Of the details of her character, she says: “None of this was discussed or seemed to be of interest to Woody.”
“I’m not particularly needy as an actor,” says Blanchett. “I’m not doing it because I want to be told that I’m good.”
“You have to find a point of connection, but I’m not interested in reducing the character to my set of experiences,” says Blanchett. “That’s the way, hopefully, you keep expanding as an actor, that you’re constantly challenging your understanding of how people think and behave.”
Her presence on screen, though, has been rarer in recent years. Five years ago, Blanchett and her playwright husband Andrew Upton, with whom she has three sons, began leading the Sydney Theatre Company. Their stewardship as artistic directors, has been roundly applauded, including those productions of Streetcar and Uncle Vanya.
“I hope I’ve become a better actress through simply concentrating on theater,” she says. “I went to a theater school with no hopes or particular aspirations to work in the cinema.”
Asked whether she missed the movies while focusing on work at the STC, she quickly answers, “No.” She acknowledges she was “a bit burned out” from back-to-back film work before taking over the theater.
Instead, she relished the chance to run the company where she started out after drama school.
Blanchett does, though, have a number of films lined up. She’s shot two Terrence Malick films, and stars in George Clooney’s historical thriller The Monuments of Men, due out in December.
“In a way, I’ve come back with renewed passion for it all,” she says before insisting: “I never want to work. Even when you’re presented with these great opportunities, I think, ‘I really love being in my pajamas with the kids.’”
So why does she keep saying yes?
“The offers!” she exclaims. “Woody Allen picks up the phone, what am I going to say? I’m not going to be that schmuck who says, “Mmmm, maybe not.’ I get out of my pajamas and I go to work.”