I'm sitting down with Cate Blanchett when a star-struck guy comes up, handshake at the ready: "You're fabulous," he says. (He's talking to Cate, obviously).
“You mean in general?” she nods. “Well, that’s a relief.”
In life, as on Fashion Police, the award-winning star of The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies is so strikingly self-assured and elegant – she's makes for a reliably porcelain presence on most red carpets – that one is consistently surprised by her capacity for humour.
As I turn on my recorder, she warms to the theme with more faux hauteur: “Yeah, let’s talk some more about me.”
This afternoon, Australia's finest-boned acting export is wearing a black Givenchy dress with a delicate multi-coloured print and a front ruffle over its fastenings: "Good for a quickie," she smirks, in plummy rounded vowels, not normally associated with that word. "Not that that will be happening today."
I assume not. As we meet, she's awaiting the arrival of her theatre director husband Andrew Upton and their three sons, Dashiell (12), Roman (9) and Ignatius (5). When the family touches down in London tomorrow – a few miles down the road from our current location – she won't have seen them for four days.
“If I’m making a film, I bring them with me,” she says. “But for most of the six years, I’ve been making theatre. So I take my kids to school every day. I love them too much to be away from them for longer than four days. And I’m in a very fortunate position. I can choose to work or not to work. My maternal guilt is of the high class and expensive variety. Think about those mothers whose kids are living in Mexico City while they’re working as a nanny in the States.”
But there’s maternal guilt just the same?
“Oh yes. Isn’t that true of all working mothers? I’m very proud of my relationship and our children – who are very grounded. But, like any parent, I’m filled with guilt and remorse. I lie awake thinking: ‘Why did I say that to him when we moved house when he was two-and-a-half. You’re always thinking about the things you’ve done wrong rather than the things you’ve done right. Maybe that’s what keeps us going: the hope that we’ll do better.”
She takes a similar approach to her craft. She didn’t always read reviews. But since she and her husband became artistic directors at the Sydney Theatre Company – a troupe of players she’s been attached to since 1992 – she feels obliged to suffer the slings and arrows just a little.
“As an actor, you can ignore reviews, whether they’re coming from blogs or from trained, professional critics. As a producer, you can’t. Positive criticism can be just as detrimental to the ongoing health of a production. Actors can play to positive criticism and it can affect a production in negative ways.”
And when she’s acting?
“I just ask: are they good or are they bad? And in the end, I’ll always search out the bad. My husband is always telling me off for that saying: ‘You found that one bad review and now it’s all you’re talking about’.”
She must have to search pretty darned hard. For more than two decades, Blanchett has been attracting rave notices as she effortlessly bourrées between blockbusters (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Peter Jackson's Tolkien cycles) and name directors (Alejandro González Iñárritu on Babel, David Fincher on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). A gifted chameleon, she can be galumphing (Oscar and Lucinda) or willowy (The Good German), earthy (Pushing Tin) or ephemeral (I'm Not There), butch (the Crystal Skull) or delicately feminine (The Aviator).
For her troubles, she can boast a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, two BAFTAs, two SAG awards, two Golden Globes and an Oscar. Her latest role in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine – a comedic, contemporary riff on Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire – suggests that Blanchett will soon be needing a bigger mantelpiece.
The director’s best-reviewed film of recent years casts the Melbourne-raised thespian as a trophy wife fallen on hard times. As the film opens, titular heroine Jasmine has lost her swindling millionaire husband (Alec Baldwin), her Park-Avenue lifestyle and many attendant rich-bitch chums. Reduced to living with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in one of San Francisco’s less salubrious boroughs, Jasmine resolves to find gainful employment and computer skills. Now if only she could stop swilling martinis and Xanax for five minutes.
"It was such an incredible opportunity," says Blanchett. "She was so complicated. There was so much to do and so many avenues to explore. I had to consider her physical as well as her mental state. What happens when you take that many Xanax and alcohol? I did a little vodka but no Xanax. That's where YouTube comes in handy. There's a lot of stuff that wasn't necessarily written on the page that I wanted to bring. It was terrifying and exciting."
Did she like her character?
“You can’t like your character,” Blanchett says. “You have to be compassionate toward your character. You have to have a forensic understanding of them. But you have to remain detached. You can’t judge them in any way. Because then you’re telling the audience what to think. And that’s not my job.”
In 2009, Blanchett took the lead in Liv Ullman's highly praised Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Did she think about Blanche DuBois, Jasmine's spiritual sister, for this slanted version of Williams' best-loved creation? Or did she stick religiously to Woody Allen's screenplay?
"Yes and no. I think the parallels are delicious. But Woody wasn't interested in discussing them at all. The very first time I read the script, I was sitting on the kitchen bench and I turned to my husband and said: "I wonder if Woody saw me in Streetcar?"
"But the film pays off in a very different way to Streetcar. And Woody's sensibility as a writer is entirely different to Williams's. He's much more urban and neurotic and 21st century. He doesn't have that same lyricism and ephemeral nostalgia that Williams does."
But both authors have created women that are more tragi-comic than tragic. That’s where the lines between Blanche and Jasmine get blurry.
"I completely agree. Ben Stiller came to see Streetcar in New York and he was so surprised afterwards. He said he had never realised how funny it is. And I said: 'I know! It's completely absurd!' But I think even when you're playing something like Hedda Gabler, when you're on an immensely tragic arc, you have to find the ridiculous. If you can't find the absurdity you won't earn the tragic. That's one of Woody's great strengths as a dramatist. He understands the ridiculous. He understands that we always yearn for the wrong person and the wrong things and that we're all deluded about who we actually are."
It’s a remarkably intense performance, one that consistently teeters on the edge of hysteria. Blanchett describes her day-to-day duties on set as “breaking, then breaking again”. Was it tricky going home to the school run?
“No. My three sons are great levellers. You go home at the end of the day – and there’s a lot of talk in Woody’s film, so there’s a lot to get your head around – but the boys just want you to give them a bath, put them to bed and watch a movie with them. They’re not interested in that scene in the pizzeria tomorrow. So you recharge your batteries being with them and doing those things.”
She laughs: “And then you lay awake all night worrying how you’re going to do that scene in the pizzeria. I didn’t sleep much on this film.”
So she couldn’t switch Jasmine off entirely, then?
"I'm sure it affected me in ways that I wasn't necessarily conscious of. I had a very particular relationship with San Francisco. But after Blue Jasmine, everywhere I turned I would see a homeless person or a crazy person. That radar wasn't on before. As a positive, those kinds of roles – the kind that keep you awake – expand your sense of what it is to be human."
We've repeatedly been told that Allen, in common with Clint Eastwood, maintains a laissez-faire policy on set. In a recent documentary, Allen described his sets as boring, adding that: "Nothing exciting ever happens, and I barely talk to the actors." Blanchett, who has taken direction from film-makers as diverse as Martin Scorsese, David Fincher and Jim Jarmusch, insists that Allen's alleged aloofness hardly marks him out as an exception.
“I think it’s a myth that actors get told what to do and where to move and how to say things. You’re employed to invent. And to react to the script and the other actors around you. To bring your ideas and sensibilities to it. That’s your job. With Woody, most of his direction happens in the writing. All of his suggestions are already there in the dialogue and the situations on the page. He doesn’t tell you exactly how to do it.”
She smiles: “It’s not a prison camp.”