Elegance personified, Cate Blanchett sits calmly in a London hotel room wearing a pair of outsize black-rimmed glasses that only serve to accentuate those famous cheekbones. She looks like one of those women in a perfume ad, and come to think of it, she is one of those women in a perfume ad. But she doesn’t seem terribly excited about the fact that, only the night before, she won herself a Golden Globe.
Oh no,” she says, when I congratulate her, “it was nice, it was lovely. It was just unfortunate timing that we couldn’t be there, because Tár is premiering and we couldn’t be in two places at once.”
It must be a bit surreal though, when you’re not there to collect it in person — you must think, did they give it to me at all?
“Well maybe they didn’t,” she says laughing. “Are we sure?” Her Best Actress Globe for Tár is richly deserved, and surely makes her the runaway favourite to win Best Actress at the Oscars as well. A long time ago, I remind her, she said it was good for you, having been nominated, not to win these things — it was character-building. So what’s it like when you do win them?
“Well I mean if you put the applause before the process I think you’re in deep trouble,” she says. “And I wouldn’t be alone in thinking that, I think anyone who was there at the Globes last night would say the same thing. I mean you look at what Michelle Yeoh has done, what Charlotte Wells has done, they’ve just been immersed in making something that they’re very passionate about, and probably feeling like, this could fail.”
She must have had that feeling in spades with Tár, and if Blanchett likes to take risks with her acting — “what’s the point, otherwise,” she says — she certainly does in Todd Field’s arch and almost unbearably tense psychological drama charting the personal and professional implosion of a great conductor. Field wrote the part for Blanchett — “so he says,” she chuckles. When she first read it, did she know straight away that it was something special?
“I knew it was something,” she says, “I didn’t know quite what it was, and so I knew the process of making it would be incredibly rewarding. The only reason to say no to something like that would have been fear, and if you’re doing things out of fear, you’ve got to do it anyway, right? But I’ve wanted to work with Todd for a very long time, he doesn’t make a film unless he’s really passionate about them, unless he has something to say.”
In Tár, Field uses a scenario that feels compellingly real to explore fame, power, its abuse, and the judgmental free-for-all that is life in the social media era.
Blanchett is Lydia Tár, a megastar conductor who has made it to the top of a racket historically dominated by men. A protégée of Leonard Bernstein, celebrated for her interpretations of Mahler and Bach, she has risen through the echelons of American classical music and has landed the top job — principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic.
With patrician ease, Lydia has set up house in the German city with her collaborator and romantic partner Sharon (Nina Hoss): the couple share an adopted daughter. Things, in short, could not be better for Tár, who’s about to record Mahler’s Fifth Symphony for Deutsche Grammophon when the guano hits the fan in spectacular fashion.
When a former assistant accuses Lydia online of having groomed her sexually and destroyed her career, others follow, and as Lydia furiously rehearses her orchestra, external pressures begin to mount.
“One of the first plays I did when I came out of drama school was David Mamet’s Oleanna, and that hit an audience at the moment where the whole ‘political correctness’ thing was so hot,” she says.
Mamet’s play, written in 1992, presciently explored the story of a college professor whose career is thwarted when one of his female students accuses him of sexual harassment. “And you know at that point there were fisticuffs in the street over things that people could and shouldn’t say, the level of self-censorship and all of that. It felt really dangerous, and I hadn’t come across anything like that [since then] until I’d read Todd’s script.
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“But Todd’s story is very nuanced, and while there’s kind of a level of personal and societal tragedy at the centre of it, there’s a buoyancy to it too. Like people look at the running time [over two and a half hours] and they think, oooh, it’s set in the classical music world, it’s difficult, but the best thing is that people have come out and said I want to go back in and see it again. It’s hypnotic, I think.”
The culture wars are front and centre in Tár’s most famous scene, where Lydia is teaching a class at Juilliard and one of her students takes a pop at the centrepiece of the classical canon. After identifying himself as “BIPOC transgender”, the young man tells his teacher that he will not engage with the work of JS Bach because he was a straight white male who fathered 20 children, and must consequently have been a misogynist. Tár snaps, and metaphorically cleans his clock, but some sneak at the back of the class has recorded the whole thing, which will be cunningly edited to make her appear at her most awful.
“You know there are so many mitigating circumstances around why people behave in the way that they do, but the great thing about the screenplay is that no one is entirely guilty and no one is entirely innocent, and so there is no right or wrong way to approach it. I think that one’s sympathies are torn, and both Todd and I, Nina, everyone involved in it, we respect an audience enough to let them make up their own mind about it,” Blanchett says
Her portrayal of Tár is absolutely compelling, a thrilling example of total artistic commitment, but I mention that if I was her, the thing I would have been really terrified of doing was the actual conducting. Get that wrong, and you look like an idiot.
“That’s true! I said to Todd early on, ‘how are you going to shoot this?’, and he just said, ‘I’m going to shoot it, so you have to do it’.” In other words, she would have to stand on a podium and actually go through the motions of conducting a real orchestra, the Dresden Philharmonic.
“Because I was preparing for this during a pandemic, I couldn’t just sit in a room with conductors,” she explains, “and conducting is so much about breath, and presence. So I watched [conductor] Ilya Musin’s masterclasses, which were really illuminating. Also, I found footage of this amazing rehearsal where the great Bernstein loses his cool. I think it was with the BBC orchestra, or the London Philharmonic, when he’s working with the horn players, and they just don’t want to play the way he’s asking them to play, and it’s a real tussle.
“And I’ve been in rehearsal rooms where things get heated, they get impolite, and the challenge of the film is that you need to have robust discussions in order to try and approach anything that is remotely excellent, everyone needs to be pushed through to another level, but how do you do that respectfully and inclusively?
“But yes it was daunting, I had to stand on the podium and give the downbeat, and the first thing I said to the Dresdner Philharmonie, who were so generous, I said in my schoolgirl German, look I’m not a conductor, and you’re not actors, and we have to find our way together, and I think they were grateful for that acknowledgement.
“But I didn’t want to treat those conducting scenes like show-off moments, if you know what I mean. They were scenes, and in every one of them we chose different parts of the movements to show different dynamics, because there’s no point… it’s like a sex scene: how is that advancing the narrative? I mean it can’t just be titillation. How is it advancing the narrative, how is it revealing the characters, and the relationships? And Lydia Tár is really the architect of her own downfall, and I think that’s what I love about the film, is that it charts the destructive side of the creative process as much as the positive side.”
Playing Tár, she admits, was tough. “The hardest thing in a way was, she’s such a taut string, and so keep that tautness alive for, how long did we shoot for, nine weeks, to keep that tautness alive was a little bit exhausting, I couldn’t let that go.”
Was Lydia hard to shake, at the end of a day? “I had this one moment when we were rehearsing and performing the music. I was in bed, and I didn’t sleep very well during the course of the movie, and I woke up and my hand was doing this [she holds her right arm stiffly in the air by way of demonstration], and I thought, what am I doing? And then there was one scene in the studio, where Todd said, ‘what are you doing?’, and I said, ‘I’m having a work dream, you know’. And so I put it in the film. But I would come home at the end of each day and just play the piano as a way of not thinking.”
Blanchett learnt the piano as a child, but acting was her greatest passion. “I loved it. As a child, it was all I wanted to do. I danced, I played piano, but acting was the thing. I didn’t come from an acting family. My dad was in advertising, my mother was a teacher, I lived in deep suburbia [in Melbourne] and would float around on my bike pretending to be Nancy Drew, solving murders. I never once thought it was something you could do for a living, it didn’t cross my mind, it was just play.
“Then I went to drama school and then I realised that there’s a set of techniques and architecture you can use to problem-solve and deal with the anxiety that you feel, getting up in front of other people, and the biggest thing I learnt was just to focus on the other people, and the task at hand.”
The thing that strikes you most, talking to Blanchett, is her intelligence — quick and restless — which has helped her to create so many great performances, great films. “And so many terrible films too,” she says, laughing. One could spend a paragraph reciting her credits, but the film she’s best known for in these parts is of course Veronica Guerin, Joel Schumacher’s 2003 biopic of the trailblazing Sunday Independent crime journalist.
“I had just had a baby,” she recalls, “and Joel Schumacher, rest his soul, said, ‘are you still willing to do this?’, and because I was in the fug of just having given birth for the first time, I said, ‘yeah! That’ll be fine!’. But I Ioved that time playing that character — I remember all of it, and I worked with Colin! That was the only time I worked with Colin Farrell. We had one scene outside a store.”
She seems much more pleased about Farrell’s Golden Globes win than her own. “How fantastic for him, he’s so wonderful. He’s such a fine actor, such a generous human being.”