Cate Blanchett: Finding your way

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Cate Blanchett is a great believer in fairy tales. She believes they teach children that the world can be a “nasty place” and that often in life one needs to overcome terrific obstacles and challenges before finding one’s way. That is part of the power of Cinderella, one of the classic fairy tales of all time. Beyond that, it’s a legendary Disney animated feature that is beloved by generations of children and adults.

With the new screen version of Cinderella, premiering at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival (aka Berlinale), director Kenneth Branagh has mastered the task of bringing both drama and enchantment to the timeless tale. With Lily James (Lady Rose in Downton Abbey) soaring in the title role, Cate Blanchett lends venomous depth to her portrayal of Lady Tremayne, the wicked stepmother. It’s a performance that once again serves notice that the Oscar-winning actress is capable of summoning the kind of magic that adds new layers to a generally despised character.

“It was interesting for me to try to explore what makes the stepmother so ugly and jealous because no one is born purely evil, there are circumstances behind what makes her so wicked,” Blanchett says. “The stepmother had tried to start a new life and then after her husband dies she sees in Cinderella as everything she is not – good, young, and more beautiful – and that’s why she becomes her nemesis.”

The interplay between James’ ethereal Cinderella and Blanchett’s harridan stepmother packs terrific intensity and pathos amid spectacularly beautiful sets that Blanchett herself said made her feel like she “was part of an MGM Technicolor production from the glory days of cinema.” The impressive cast also includes Helena Bonham-Carter as the Fairy Godmother, Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) as Prince Charming and Stellan Skarsgård as the Grand Duke.

In Berlin, critics and audiences alike were generally overjoyed by the way Branagh captured all the essential elements of the fairy tale and created the kind of glorious Disney spectacle that will undoubtedly make this one of the most popular films of the year.

Wearing a mosaic Givenchy dress, the 45-year-old Australian actress cast a stunning presence while being escorted by Branagh into the gleaming Berlinale Palace for the world premiere of Cinderella.

Blanchett also teased crowds and the army of photographers that lined the red carpet by mischievously removing her three-inch stilettos (an ironic tribute to Cinderella’s losing her glass slipper?) and bare-footing her way along the carpet and up the stairs into the theatre.

Cate Blanchett won an Oscar for best actress for her performance in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine last year. She and Andrew Upton, her writer/director husband of the past 17 years, make their home in Sydney, Australia together with their three boys, Dashiell, 13, Roman, 10, and Ignatius, 6. Last year she ended her term as joint artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company leaving her husband as the sole director.

Together:  Cate, you’ve been to Berlin several times before to present your films. Are you a fan of the city?

Cate Blanchett: I love Berlin. I love coming here as often as possible and this time I’m here with a very different and special kind of film. The Berlinale is a very diverse film festival and I feel very honoured to be part of it.

Do you enjoy travelling for your work even though it means often being away from your husband and children?
It’s the same as for any actor, male or female, or any working parent. I’m very fortunate to having a partner who is caring and supportive and engaged and who helps me with organizing everything.

It’s hardest when you’re away for three months at a time while the kids are in school and your husband is running a theatre company. You try to make the best of arrangements because you can never plan everything perfectly. There will always be many little compromises involved which working mothers and fathers and families always need to make.

Let’s talk about your new film, Cinderella. Do you see the character of Cinderella and her story as one which should inspire young women?
Most films often have male heroes and this is one of the rare times where Cinderella is a female-centric story and where, unlike male-driven superhero films, kindness and goodness are her superpowers.

Her story is that of a young woman who is able to withstand terrific abuse and the horrible behaviour of her stepmother and stepsisters.

Yet, Cinderella still retains her good nature and dignity and refuses to lower herself to their level. She’s a very noble and admirable figure and I think Lily does such a great job as the character… She glows in the role and was a breath of fresh air the moment she walked onto the set.

Can a story like Cinderella still have a huge impact on young audiences the way it has in earlier, less cynical eras?
Oh, I think so. I’ve always been a great lover of fairy tales and even though I have three boys I made it a point to read them stories like Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast and Snow White. These kinds of fairy tales contain many themes and messages that are a lot more complex than the kinds of stories most young people are used to today where these superheroes can pretty much overcome anything.

Cinderella explains that the world can be a nasty and dark place at times and if you want to make something of your life you need a lot of courage and resilience to overcome all the obstacles that lie in your path. Children need to learn how to face up to challenges because as they grow older things become more difficult and they need to fend for themselves more and more.

What was the challenge for you in playing the wicked stepmother?
She’s a very embittered woman who has had all the goodness ripped out of her spirit. She lashes out at Cinderella because she represents who she once was and no longer is and because she despises the kind of woman she has become. The stepmother is badly disillusioned by life and regards Cinderella with intense jealousy and resentment as someone whom she felt her husband loved more than he did her up until he died.

Was it at all hard at times not to give in to the natural tendency to turn the wicked stepmother into a drooling villain?
There is a fine line you have to observe especially in a film based on a fairy tale with an iconic kind of evil character like the stepmother. But in talking to Ken it was clear that he wanted to avoid the high camp and aim for the truth of the story while also respecting the theatricality of the story. It’s a balancing act to set the proper tone and I think Ken got it right.

Ken created an atmosphere that is sweet and enchanting but also has a dark and sinister side. It’s not easy to be able to take a legendary story that is a Disney classic and one of the most beloved animated films of all time and still give a unique take to it.

What was your favourite scene in the film?
I was overwhelmed when Richard (Madden) and Lily (James) were dancing in the ballroom scene. I know what it’s like to dance in a corset and it was an Olympic feat for her to be so graceful and effortless dancing in a dress that was four-feet wide. It was so beautiful to watch them play that scene that they worked very hard in preparing and then were so focused and into the moment. I was crying with joy while watching them.

Do you feel more relaxed since you’ve given up your position (as co-director) at the Sydney Theatre Company?
It’s much easier. I like being able to concentrate on my acting and I have more time now for my children. I find great comfort in being home with the kids and doing ordinary things like making school lunches, cooking dinner and walking the dog.

People might imagine that my life is far more glamorous than it actually is because there’s this image of actors that’s been created in the media. But apart from living in hotels and getting to travel a lot, my daily life with my family is very ordinary. There’s no driver or chef or nanny working for us. We like being able to manage our own house and be very much part of our children’s lives.

Do you feel happiest at home in Sydney?
I’m happiest wherever I’m with my husband and kids, although Australia is a very magnetic place to live. I appreciate everything I have in my life.