Cate Blanchett – who looks gorgeous from any angle – swanned into a press conference at the Waldorf Astoria earlier in the week to talk about her starring role in Woody Allen’s new comedy-drama, “Blue Jasmine.” She plays a Park Avenue socialite whose life takes a dramatic downturn after the deceptions of her Bernie Madoff-like huckster husband Hal (Alec Baldwin).
The Academy Award-winning actress – who may collect another little gold man for this role – arrived with cast members Andrew Dice Clay, Louis C.K. and Peter Sarsgaard. Missing was the press shy director, who’s shooting a movie in the South of France with Colin Firth and Emma Stone.
In her white Chanel-style jacket, her blond hair elegantly swept back, the statuesque actress could have just stepped out of the movie, but unlike Jasmine, she’s down to earth and funny and even drops the occasional f-word, all in an Aussie accent.
Blanchett plays a woman who teeters back and forth on the edge of hysteria, who self-medicates on Stoli and Xanax. After her money dries up, she’s forced to crash with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a grocery-store clerk, and her two raucous sons in their cramped San Francisco apartment. In flashbacks that are almost unbearably cruel, Jasmine’s past life as a Hermès-loving East Side matron are contrasted with her current humbled situation.
Making things worse, Jasmine looks down on her sister’s Stanley Kowalski-like boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale), who detests her because she threatens his relationship with Ginger. Andrew Dice Clay plays Augie, Ginger’s former husband, a construction worker who holds a grudge against Jasmine because her husband Hal swindled him out of his life’s savings of $200,000.
At the press conference, everyone wanted a piece of Blanchett; questions ranged from how she was cast, what working with Woody Allen was like, and how the themes of greed and deception played out in the film.
Variety film critic Scott Foundas, who moderated the discussion, began by commenting that this was one of the rare cases in which Woody Allen wrote a part with a specific actor in mind.
“Did he?” Blanchett asked. “But is it true?” (Laughter)
Here are highlights from the press conference:
How did she find out Woody wanted her for this movie, and then how did she talk to him about how to approach the role?
“I got a call from my agent saying that Woody had a script he’d like me to read and then we spoke for about three and a half minutes, and he said, ‘Can I send it to you’? I said, ‘I’d love to read it,’ and he said, ‘Well, call me when you are finished,’ and I read it straightaway. That’s a script that you do read straightaway. It’s brilliant, because he’s a brilliant dramatist, apart from being a big filmmaker. Then we spoke for another 45 seconds, when we agreed to do the film together, and I saw him at the camera tests in San Francisco. I don’t know what you guys think, but so much of Woody’s direction is in the script itself, and then he says he likes to get out of the way.”
The film was inspired by a story Woody Allen’s wife, Soon-Yi, told him about a woman who was a friend of a friend who had a similar catastrophe to Jasmine’s occur in her life. Did Blanchett immerse herself in these kinds of stories to prepare for the role?
“Yes. Look, it’s a very contemporary, apt fable for the moment. And that’s the thing with Woody. He’s not only keyed into the Zeitgeist – who hasn’t followed the Madoff affair and the epic nature of that catastrophe? – but also catastrophes like it, thousands of them, thousands of stories.
But also, there’s a strong line in American drama of women who walk the borderline between fantasy and reality: Blanche Dubois in “Streetcar” and Mary Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” But in the end, those are reference points to be drawn upon, which I absolutely did, but Woody has such a particular rhythm and take on the universe, that in the end, you are in a Woody Allen film, and he’s created some of the most iconic characters on screen, so you just have to play that. And he casts it so weirdly … (Laughter) but these casts are always so interesting, and in the end, you have just got to play and bounce off the other actors.
The film has obvious parallels and references to Blanche DuBois and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which she performed at BAM in a critically acclaimed production directed by Liv Ullmann in 2009. Did she think that went into Woody Allen’s decision to cast her?
“We didn’t ever discuss that … the other actors on set, a lot of whom have worked in theater, were talking about the set up of the film being similar to ‘Streetcar.’ Obviously, the payoff isn’t. And in the end, it’s a Woody Allen film … the the text, the tone, the rhythm, the character portrayals and the details of them are quintessentially Woody Allen and not Tennessee Williams.”
When she read the script for the first time, and then played the role, how sympathetic or protective was she of her character, and did she feel she deserved her comeuppance, at least to a certain point?
“I don’t find it particularly useful to fall in love with or detest a character. I think it’s a bit sentimental to like them or dislike them, because you are then not going to send them warts and all. And there are plenty of warts to be presented with Jasmine … She is sort of the unwitting agent of her own downfall in a way. And what I found most interesting was to delve into her; she’s on a cocktail of various different things. When is she not on Xanax? When has she not had a drink?
“But in the end, I think it was the eternal cocktail that was interesting to play. She’s so riddled with guilt and rage and fear. And then you overlay all the situational aspects of it that Woody has placed the characters in often absurd situations … But, you have to play it for, the stakes are high, and the situation is real, and then the absurdity and whether the characters are likable or dislikable in that moment, is thrown back to the audience.”
Is the movie more about deception or being deceived?
“This is what the film actually delves into quite deeply … it’s what you choose not to see. So it’s not just people on the Upper East Side or people with political aspirations, it’s also Ginger … she chooses not to see certain aspects of who Jasmine is. So back to the question … about whether she is sympathetic or not, it’s very dissimilar in a lot of ways to ‘Streetcar,’ but it’s a way of looking at ‘Streetcar Named Desire’ where you could say, is Blanche a compulsive liar, or is the world just set out to stamp out the poetry in her soul?
“I mean there’s something intensely dysfunctional about the world in which she finds herself. And Jasmine doesn’t land in San Francisco with a bunch of people who have got their s…t together. Everyone has issues. And everyone is deluding themselves to some degree, or wanting to live a fantasy that is other than their daily existence. It’s just that Jasmine does it to a spectacular extent.”
What was working with Sally Hawkins like?
“I love her, I absolutely love Sally. She was an absolute ally, and for the first week, we cried into our beers together … because we thought, we are really screwing this up. But she’s a wonderful, wonderful actress and one of the kindest, most generous actresses I have ever worked with. I don’t know if I would like to take her to a hotel and have sex with her (Laughter) but many would.” (Blanchett was referring to a comment earlier by Louis C.K., who plays one of Sally Hawkins’ lovers, who described his own character as he “just wants to eke out this little place where he gets to go to hotels and have romantic sex with Sally Hawkins, which, I would like to do.”)
If this film were recast with actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood, who did she imagine in the title role?
“So who could have done it better?” (Laughter) “Many could have done it better. I was going to say I was optimistic, but now I am probably pessimistic.” The roomful of journalists broke out laughing.
What was working with Woody Allen like?
“The thing he always used to say to me was, ‘The audience has already left the theater.’ (Laughs) That first day, it was awful, it was just awful. (Laughter) It bonded us. (Laughs) It made us want to do better the next day. But I actually found him really forthcoming in the end. There’s an obvious reverence for Woody and his body of work, and I think the danger of that is the set can become a sacred place where people are sort of laying their offerings at his feet. When you ask him a question, he will give you an answer, and so when you set up that dialogue, then it became really enjoyable and he felt free to say, ‘That was awful,’ and then I felt free to say, ‘Okay, well what are you after then? I could do this or that or this or that,’ and he said, ‘We will try that,’ so he was forced to direct me!” (Laughs)
Woody Allen’s had the propensity to fire people. Did that worry her?
“You just assume it’s going to happen, and you make day 13 and you are doing well, and you make day 20 and you make the end of the movie. It’s disabled Olympics.” (Laughter)
Can she talk about the fantasy and delusion with her character?
“I think the interesting thing about the level of delusion of fantasy that exists with Ginger as well as Jasmine, is that they are both adopted into a pretty lower middle class family. Jeanette changed her name to Jasmine, and there began the fiction. And so she set about creating a fantasy world and inhabiting that idea of the princess.”
How did she think the film would play to a slightly younger demographic, and what does she think about other recent works like “Frances Ha” and HBO’s “Girls,” which feature somewhat similar but younger anti-heroines?
“Younger than me, so to say … (laughter) Thanks, just rub it in. ‘Girls’ is one of my all-time favorite shows, so even though I am a geriatric, I still can connect to a younger crowd. I think that’s Woody’s genius, is that even though he seems to be writing about a particular set of people from a very particular socio-economic background, intellectual backgrounds, he somehow writes them as everymen and women. Even though it’s really personal and specific from a world that he knows or as heard of, it resonates to a much broader audience.
“That’s why he’s been making films and so many people have loved them for so many decades, because they are archetypical as well as being utterly unique and specific. So yeah, I think there’s a lot of people doing it pretty tough, not only in this country, but globally, and even though it can seem like the demise or a fall from grace for a privileged little rich girl, there’s a lot of people who have had a fantasy of what it means to live in America, and that has been blown apart in the last couple of years.
“So I think that there’s a lot to relate to for people of all ages, to have to reshape their economic circumstance that’s been forced upon them, they have had to really look at who they are and what their aspirations are and what they want and how are they going to pit themselves against the world now?”
“Blue Jasmine” opened in U.S. theaters in limited release on July 26, 2013. It’s rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, language and sexual content.