“Refreshingly Honest”: Cate Blanchett on Working with Woody Allen

The actress spoke to TIME about starring in 'Blue Jasmine'

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In Woody Allen‘s latest film Blue Jasmine—in theaters July 26—Cate Blanchett takes on the title role of Jasmine, a troubled woman forced by financial crisis to leave her lofty New York home for a San Francisco set-up with her sister (played by Sally Hawkins). This week’s issue of TIME features a look at where Blanchett fits into the pantheon of Woody Allen’s women—but that’s not all Blanchett discussed when she spoke to TIME.

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TIME: There was an item in the news in May where a journalist asked the author Claire Messud whether she would want to be friends with her character. Did you by any chance catch that?

CATE BLANCHETT: I didn’t, but I think there’s a version of that question that gets asked to actors as well, which is ‘do you like your character.’

Messud was upset because she said that nobody would ever ask a male writer that question. So I guess this is a two-part question. First, what are your feelings about Jasmine as a person, in terms of whether you sympathized with her?

Sympathy doesn’t really come into it. Perhaps empathy does. I think if you’re too embroiled in the need to relate too closely to the character then you start to judge the character for the audience rather than to present it to the audience for their enjoyment and them to mull over the questions that the characters present.

In your experience, is that question of likeability something that people are more interested in for women?

I think that that’s probably a pretty accurate assessment. Someone who’s attracted to a female character or finds them likeable is… well, it depends who the critic is, whether it be male or female, what their frame of reference is.

In terms of preparing for this role, what kind of research did you do?

Woody Allen is a great dramatist and a great comedian. So you are part of Woody Allen’s project, and that really is it, first and foremost. To be frank, I watched that brilliant documentary on him, repeatedly, to get a sense of who he might have been and who he is as a working artist and what other people’s experiences were like. But Jasmine’s experience is a quite common experience for people at the moment, certainly in the last five years—people who seem to have it all losing everything, and people who don’t seem to have much having much more than you think they do.

Do you mean specifically the financial side?

And in a social sense, and also in a moral sense. I think people have been confronted by all of those things in recent years, so it feels like a landscape that’s very current for a lot of people. But then there’s classic elements to Jasmine, like the delusion and the evasion, and who she perceives she is trumping who she actually is.

So it’s not really a period piece.

The wonderful thing about Woody, as a writer, is that he’s able to tap into things that are universal, almost archetypical, but then seem really current. I think there was a strong interest for him, in the film, in the fact that people in life are faced with choosing between reality and fantasy.

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You mentioned watching the Woody Allen documentary—what were your expectations going into filming, based on that? How did that compare to reality?

Well, it had been said that there wouldn’t be a lot of dialogue with him but I found him very forthcoming, incredibly frank, and really generous and refreshingly honest.

What was the atmosphere like on set?

Pretty buoyant, actually. I think place has a lot to do with the atmosphere in Woody’s pictures, but very collaborative. You always feel in a way that you have a hold of Woody’s interest and so it makes people leap into the project. There’s this great energy around it.

It sounds like the way people describe meeting politicians, the feeling of someone being really interested in you and what that does.

It’s sort of a terrifying thought, until you realize he isn’t that interested. And he just wants to get the work done. A lot of his direction happens in his writing and what he’s interested in is seeing what people do with it. If they don’t do something with it, he’s not that interested, and if they do do something then he is.

What initially drew you to the character when you read the script?

Well, obviously, if Woody Allen calls and says he wants you to read a script of course you read it. It was a fantastically well-drawn story that you don’t want to screw with. And then once I heard the cast that was being assembled, it was delicious. I’ve long admired Sally [Hawkins]. And Bobby [Cannavale]’s a great stage actor as well as on television and he’s extraordinary. And Peter [Sarsgaard], and then with Alec [Baldwin], all those key relationships, you could already taste them before you got there. I just adored them all. This is sounding a bit wet, isn’t it? The making of it was actually quite robust for quite a delicate, fragile set of relationships.

You’ve worked with several directors who are such personalities – like Woody Allen, Wes Anderson, Terence Malick – does that change the experience of making a movie?

I think the atmosphere on set really comes from the material, but also the director. And I think with those three directors you mentioned, who I’ve had the great good fortune to have worked with, when you work with them you do understand their body of work and their preoccupations—but you don’t want to presume their preoccupations. Because the reason that they’re brilliant and they keep doing what they do is that they keep stretching in new ways each time. Just like you don’t want to be boxed into a corner as an actor, you do want to box a director in and assume what they want. It’s a dialogue, and what great good fortune to be in dialogue with those gentlemen.

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What went into creating Jasmine’s voice? The way she spoke was so of a place and class.

She’s always been a fiction constantly rewriting herself, so in deciding how she spoke the most important thing was that she and [her sister] Ginger were very different. It depends at what moment you choose to crystalize your identity, and I think it was when she was at university and realized she wanted to move in a certain class of men and women. That’s sort of where her identity, her voice, her persona, her physique, started to sort of form itself.

Were there particular cultural references or people that you thought Jasmine would have based that persona on?

There are certainly many women who I’ve encountered over the last few years, that I’ve just thought “oh, that’s interesting.” They don’t necessarily have to live on the Upper East Side [of Manhattan] but, yes, there are certain sounds. I’m not from there so I listened to as many people as I could. Documentary is great; radio is great. It’s not based on any one particular person.

Do you have any interest in directing movies?

If the right project came along, absolutely. I’ve directed things in the theater but it’s very much based on the material. I’m not out there looking. I’m very happy working as an actor.

But never say never?

It seems like hubris when you’ve worked with Woody Allen and Terrence Malick and with Anderson and Scorsese, to say that.