CATE BLANCHETT, THEATRE BOSS

Since 2008 Cate Blanchett has been running a theatre in Sydney with her husband, Andrew Upton. Now she is returning to Europe in an Australian production of a German play. She and Upton talk to Jo Lennan

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2012

Sydney, mid-November. A slice of harbour shows through the window of the converted wharf, but no one is admiring the view. Within this office, the pressing question is whether to banish two yapping puppies, a black Labrador and a mix-breed blonde.

“Maybe it’s punishment,” says Cate Blanchett. Her tone is dry, her garb unassuming, and she is wearing horn-rimmed glasses. There’s no trace of celebrity gloss, but Blanchett is striking without it—five foot eight, and slender. Turning to her husband, the playwright Andrew Upton, she speaks above the din the dogs are making. “You got Dorothy when I went into ‘Uncle Vanya’ rehearsal last year, and then Fletcher arrived as soon as we started ‘Gross und Klein’.”

“That’s it,” Upton says. To those who know him—not the public at large, but people in theatre circles—his defining feature is his impish grin. Today, however, he has a more sober air. “It’s a way of stopping you doing plays,” he says, deadpan.

We’re in the office the two of them share as joint artistic directors of the Sydney Theatre Company. If you’ve seen Blanchett on fewer screens of late, this is the reason why. Alongside raising a young family—three sons, aged between ten and three—the job has been Blanchett’s and Upton’s life since late 2007, when they moved from Britain to take it on. 

In the end the puppies are led out by a personal assistant, and we get down to business. This is the largest theatre company in Australia: it has a turnover of A$30m (around £20m), stages over 1,000 performances a year and gets 300,000 people through its doors. 

Quite a few actors have made the jump to running a theatre, from Shakespeare and Molière to John Malkovich and Kevin Spacey. Blanchett’s and Upton’s predecessor, Robyn Nevin, had long been a fixture on Australian stages. But unlike her, Blanchett leapt into management from the heights of a prolific career in Hollywood. It was a dramatic shift, possibly unprecedented for a female star who is also a young parent: Kevin Spacey doesn’t have three small sons to deal with. She hasn’t cut back on acting: while her film credits have thinned out, she has been busy on stage in Sydney, Washington and New York. This afternoon, she has a day to go till the opening of her latest play.

“It’s going to be something,” she says. You would know the voice; it has a distinctive timbre, deep and airy at the same time. As she talks she moves about, re-tying her platinum hair, or shifting to sit on the floor when lunch is set on a coffee table. This brings me to one revision: her outfit is not entirely unassuming. As she folds her feet beneath her, she exposes a pair of glitter-encrusted brogues.

In person, she is engaging, earnest, unmistakably smart. The room is cluttered, with a Newell Harry artwork on the wall that says, “No point being king shit of turd island”. Below, on a low green couch, Upton follows keenly as his wife gives an answer, and sometimes interjects. At times they sound like characters in a play: something sparse and modern.

“When you say it’s going to be something,” Upton says, “you mean it’s not going to be nothing.”

“Yes,” says Blanchett. “That’s what I mean.”

Picture: Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton at the wharf where they run the Sydney Theatre Company. Photograph by Steve Forrest

 

They’re getting at the fact that “Gross und Klein” is not an easy play to stage. Written in the 1970s by the Berlin playwright Botho Strauss, it is often described as episodic—meaning that the story exists, but is somewhat skittish. Blanchett thinks of it as a quest, with her character, Lotte Kotte, setting out “to be useful, to do good works, to find communion with people”. Though, as Upton adds, “it could also just be a woman who’s grieving.” Either way, doing the play was one of the first ideas they had in the job, and they commissioned a new translation from the British playwright Martin Crimp. After its season in Sydney, the production will tour Europe: from March to June, it goes to the Barbican in London, the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris, the Vienna Festival and the Ruhrfestspiele in Recklinghausen—so this remade German play will not escape the eyes of the German public.

It’s an audacious venture. The question is, will it work? It’s striking that neither Blanchett nor Upton is willing to say if the play is good. Blanchett is even briefly deflated to hear that I am going to the opening night—“I was hoping you’d come later in the week.” It’s a curious thing to hear from someone who has five Academy Award nominations, and who took an Oscar home for playing Katharine Hepburn in “The Aviator”. But this is theatre, and Blanchett, like any stage actor before press night, doesn’t quite know how it will go.

“It’s the interesting thing about theatre that gets neglected,” says Upton. “Everyone remembers that it’s live, which is a good thing, because it is live and it happens before your eyes, unlike television, YouTube and films. But it’s the importance of the audience in the actual making of the work [that tends to be forgotten]. The moment an audience joins a work, it starts to become a play. Until then, it could be anything, it could be nothing.” He seems the more vulnerable of the two, though it may be his mood, which he later describes as “stinky”.

Asked why audiences in Europe should turn out to see this Anglo-Aussie take on a German play, Blanchett’s pitch is modest. “Well, they haven’t seen it for a really long time.” 

Upton is more expansive. “It’s like taking ‘Streetcar’ to America, which was also a kind of hubris,” he says. (They did that in 2009.) He could have added that Americans were fine about it; the play sold out in Washington and New York. Instead he says, “There is a possibility that we will lend a new perspective to it.”

I had assumed that Blanchett would feel at ease appearing in Sydney. Her career began on the stage here, including one of the two at the wharf. But home crowds can be hard to please. “Look, we love working here,” she says. “But often what happens is that work isn’t valued until it has an international pedigree.” 

“It is an Australian thing,” says Upton. “But it’s not just an Australian thing. I think everyone’s nervous about what strangers think of them.”

 

Catherine Blanchett met Andrew Upton some time in the mid-1990s. Neither of them now remembers the date, though Blanchett did retain one impression of the man she later married. “The first part of your body that I actually met,” she says, “was your bottom.” The way she tells it, both were at the house of a friend, helping on a short film, and Upton had his head in the oven. Upton neither confirms nor denies the story, but says it was on an Adelaide set in 1996 that they “got on”. So well did they get on, they married before the next year ended.

Their backgrounds were not dissimilar. “Dead middle class” is how Upton puts it. Blanchett, born in 1969, grew up in an art-deco suburb of Melbourne. “A lot of hidden communal spaces,” she says. “My childhood was basically me trying to be Trixie Belden or Nancy Drew on my bike, dropping notes that I would then kid myself I hadn’t dropped, treating them as clues.” Upton, born in 1966, grew up in suburban Sydney and had his own outdoor exploits. He and his brother used to build sleds and test them on the hills, adding a slick of kerosene to make them go faster. 

In the background for both were outsider fathers, men who had made good. John Upton, raised by his sister above a Derbyshire pub, became a doctor. Robert DeWitt Blanchett junior, known as Bob, rose from poor beginnings in Texas to become first a sailor and then a successful ad man. “I don’t know how he survived his childhood, to be honest,” Blanchett says. What Bob did not survive were his middle years; he died of a heart attack when Cate was ten. From then on, things were up to her mother June, a schoolteacher, and her grandmother, who had Depression-era habits (“not wasting things”). Her mother, Blanchett says, “was quite provocative as a parent, always questioning the banal assumptions I’d make about things”.

That influence mattered, because the Australia they grew up in knew how to do banality. Asked about the era, Upton points to the poem “Australia” by A.D. Hope, which depicts “a vast parasite robber-state/Where second-hand Europeans pullulate/Timidly on the edge of alien shores”. Both of their schools had something of that tone—Blanchett graduated from the Methodist Ladies’ College, Upton from the King’s School, the oldest grammar in the country. Looking for reinvention, they both switched cities: Upton went to the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne, and Blanchett chucked in her course on economics and fine arts at Melbourne University to enrol at the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney.

So far, so like many a twentysomething. That changed with what came next: in Blanchett’s first year on the professional stage, critics handed her not only the best newcomer award (for playing a bride in Timothy Daly’s musical, “Kafka Dances”), but also the one for best lead actress (as the student in David Mamet’s searing “Oleanna”). That brought a swag of roles for stage and screen, then her first feature film, “Paradise Road”. And the year that film came out, 1997, was Blanchett’s annus mirabilis. She married Upton, made the offbeat romance “Oscar and Lucinda” (opposite Ralph Fiennes) and was spotted for the part that would propel her to international fame, the title role of the young queen in Shekhar Kapur’s “Elizabeth”. Kapur got hold of one of her films, having heard people rave about “this girl they’d seen on a stage in Sydney”. He told a reporter later that it was “like the first time I saw Meryl Streep in ‘The Deer Hunter’. Then, I said, what a star, someone fascinating to watch.”

Picture: Blanchett in "Gross und Klein", the post-modern German play she will bring to Europe in the spring

 

Cut to nearly a decade later, and Upton and Blanchett are living in a Georgian home in Brighton with their two sons. Blanchett, at 37, has since appeared in more than two dozen films. She has built a film career that seems to let her do as she pleases. She has played some standout leads, ranging from her reprisal of Elizabeth to a very modern woman in “Notes on a Scandal”, a schoolteacher come unstuck, and she has won an Oscar for a supporting role. She has shown an eye for a good small part, from the gullible socialite Meredith in “The Talented Mr Ripley” to a jittery Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There”. Even the mishits have been interesting, from “The Shipping News” to “The Life Aquatic”. She manages to take roles in blockbusters—the elf queen Galadriel in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, a KGB villain in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”—without denting her status as a serious actor. She promotes a skincare brand, like so many actresses, but at least chooses an interesting one, SK-II.

She kept her hand in on stage by playing Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” in Sydney and New York—adapted by Upton. His career, during Blanchett’s rise and rise, had been building too, in a back-of-house kind of way. While writing original works for theatre and screen, he also found success adapting classic plays. 

In November 2006, Blanchett and Upton were back in Sydney, directing a bill. At a press conference at the wharf, they announced that they would be staying, and taking up the running of the Sydney Theatre Company. Surprising news, even to insiders (or especially to insiders, since the job had not been advertised). They were widely praised for their commitment, but there was some carping, too. “Luvvies at ten paces”, one headline ran, as an actor, Colin Moody, cast doubt on whether an Oscar was a sufficient qualification for running a theatre company. 

Others took aim at Upton, accusing him of riding on his wife’s coat-tails. Self-deprecating by nature, he wasn’t likely to argue. (“You don’t want to know about me,” he tells me at one point. He has also been known to refer to himself as “the hand”—the one bit of him that tends not to be cropped out when he and Blanchett are photographed on the red carpet.) So why, exactly, did they make the decision to upend themselves? And why did Blanchett, at the height of her prowess as an actress, remake herself as a manager? 

Half a decade on, surrounded by the keepsakes and detritus from dozens of shows, the two give different answers, at least at first. Blanchett talks of the inspiration that comes from the country you grow up in, a sense of creative challenge. “It’s important to dislocate yourself, to go outside your comfort zone, which includes coming back.”

Upton starts by saying it was good for their sons—the weather, a familiar school system—before veering into what sounds like a case for not taking on the job. “This work is hard. Not the kind of hard that grazes your knuckles or breaks your back, but it’s still hard. And our audience doesn’t really give  a shit, when it comes down to it. The standard of critical conversation is low. I’m not just saying that as a whinge. It is.”

Blanchett, rationalising: “That’s because elsewhere you get seven or eight reviews...It’s important to look at the drawbacks of what you’re embarked on, too.”

Upton has his head in his hands as he speaks, lost in concentration. “But despite all that, or because of it, there is this urge to create. And it goes back to what you were saying before.” 

Lifting his head, he looks to Blanchett. “This is the only country we owe anything to. So we came back.”

“To answer the call,” says Blanchett.

Upton is more blunt. “To pay the debt.”

Picture: Blanchett's and Upton's office at the Sydney Theatre Company. Photograph by Steve Forrest

 

In gauging what the two have made of their tenure, we may as well start with the books. Theatre is not about profit, but this company depends on selling tickets—it gets less than 10% of its budget from government funding. So the finances offer a rough guide to backsides on theatre seats. First, plays starring Blanchett herself have had the biggest takings. When she played Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire”, directed by Liv Ullmann, it was a sell-out both in Sydney and on tour, taking A$2.7m (about £1.8m). The papers hailed that year’s results as a “Streetcar-led recovery”. Her starring role the following season, as Yelena in “Uncle Vanya” with Richard Roxburgh and Hugo Weaving, did even better—ticket sales nearly tipped A$3m (£2m). Blanchett and Upton have also worked to woo corporate sponsors and boost private bequests; donors have ranged from Giorgio Armani, who became the company’s patron, to old boys from Upton’s school. After four years of losses, the company has had two surpluses in a row, and the board has extended their contracts until the end of 2013.

They could not have had these results without succeeding in the crux of the role—the task of putting together a 12-play season every year. Theirs is mostly a curatorial function, more to do with ideas and collaboration than a focus on one major show. And they have been able to pull in big-name directors—not just Ullmann, but Steven Soderbergh and Philip Seymour Hoffman. “She caught me at a good moment,” Soderbergh says of Blanchett, with a laugh. “I was so happy with her performance in ‘The Good German’ that I was inclined to say yes to anything.” When he got to the wharf, he liked the vibe: “very collegial, very open, fun”. 

The money has also provided a buffer for riskier plays, such as “Bloodland”, premiered in October 2011. Staged without surtitles in the Aboriginal language of Yolngu, it received a standing ovation on opening night. “It doesn’t involve making money,” Upton says, “and it does involve making the enemy of the odd subscriber.” 

“Cate and Andrew have come to the party on commissioning Aboriginal work,” says Wayne Blair, who wrote “Bloodland”. “They’re risk takers. I feel like they’re leading the way a little bit with the way theatre is run in this country.”

The inevitable doubt when a star becomes a boss is whether they will have much appetite for the detail. Blanchett passes the test: she is ready to talk you through the numbers, the ways they are rejigging the internal workings, right down to the transport arrangements—when a former premier of New South Wales, Kristina Keneally, told her the wharf was to get a late-night bus route, Blanchett hugged her, saying it was the best news she’d had all year. 

When they announced their plans in 2006, Blanchett told the press, “We’re a team.” And that much is obvious from seeing them together. They work closely, too, with the company staff; employees speak of both with irreverent affection. 

Upton’s own work hit a glitch when his play “Riflemind” misfired in London in 2008 and closed early, sunk by poor reviews and the financial crisis. His adaptations, however, have had dream runs—“The White Guard”, which he also directed, met acclaim, as did his “Uncle Vanya”: Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times that the three hours he spent watching it were among the happiest of his theatregoing life. 

The fiercest criticism has come offstage, where Blanchett and Upton have tried to take a lead in cutting carbon emissions. They “greened” the wharf, installing one of Australia’s largest arrays of rooftop solar, plus water recycling and harvesting systems. It was no easy feat for a heritage building. In 2011 Blanchett weighed in on the debate about the Labor government’s plan for a carbon tax, joining other prominent figures in a television campaign that backed the measure. She copped some vitriol from Rupert Murdoch’s papers, and a swipe from the floor of Parliament. “People who live in eco-mansions have a right to be heard,” said Tony Abbott, the opposition leader. “But their voice should not be heard ahead of the ordinary working people of this country.”

Someone who is happy to defend Blanchett’s position is the Labor minister Peter Garrett. As the former frontman of a rock band, Midnight Oil, Garrett knows what it’s like to make the leap from artist to advocate. “The fact is you can be a first-class actor,” he tells me, “and also have a mind and a view about one of the most important issues in front of us.” He points out that Blanchett hasn’t come out of nowhere on this. He first came across her working on environmental campaigns—he was president of the Australian Conservation Foundation from 1989-93 and again from 1998-2004. With climate change, he says, “Cate had been one of those people who was prepared to stand up and be counted on that issue quite early.”

This time around, Blanchett knew what she was in for. “I happen to be an actor,” she says. “I happened to be perhaps the most recognisable face, and so the easiest target for people who wanted to take a negative spin. You’re pretty naive if you think that’s not going to happen.”

Will the criticism keep her from sticking her neck out again? Now and again, a question gets short shrift from Blanchett. A firm “No.” 

“It was a media beat-up”, Upton says, “that was following a very clear editorial line. It’s fine that there be an editorial line. It’s a pity that there’s so few other editorial lines, but that’s just what it’s like living in the world.”

 

The opening night comes on the heels of a hot, bright day. The dark of the theatre is delicious, as is the sight, on stage, of a single cocktail on a spot-lit bench. When the lights come up on Blanchett, she is seated and straining away, as if to listen. “Hear that?” she says. “Outside. Two men, pacing up and down, endlessly.”

Her tone is hammy, almost conspiratorial. The audience laughs and she keeps it up, getting four more laughs in the first minute, then a fifth for the rapturous way she goes at the drink. The comedy comes as a surprise, although it shouldn’t: this is the actress Geoffrey Rush once called a “toothy clown”. Here she plays Strauss’s Lotte as a captivating dag, to use an Australian term—a dork, hooking the audience in before there is any sense of the trials in store. 

“We have to do something very tricky,” says the director, Benedict Andrews. “You’ve got 800 audience members, some of whom are here because it’s Blanchett, being taken through this unusual example of European post-modern writing, but laughing and crying and following her all the way through.” Andrews signed on late when the original director, Luc Bondy, pulled out to have surgery. Andrews didn’t walk in cold; he is a regular guest director at the Schaubühne, the Berlin theatre where “Gross und Klein” first played in 1978. And he had directed Blanchett before. “She has the most extraordinary access to her emotions that I’ve come across in an actor,” he says. In rehearsal she is “always on the tips of her toes, always very alert”—and, usually, the last of the actors to leave. The previous time Andrews directed Blanchett, in 2009, she was playing Richard II in a mash-up of Shakespeare’s history plays—“there were a lot of other kings demanding attention.” This time, it’s Blanchett who has to carry the audience with her, and she does.

“She’s as good as anybody I’ve seen,” Steven Soderbergh says, “and I’ve seen a lot of people.” He remembers a moment on the set of “The Good German” when he asked her to deliver a line not as an observation but as an accusation. “That’s literally the only instance I can think of where I said ‘Tilt it this way’,” he adds. “She understood it completely.” 

Upton says how much he likes the physicality of “Gross und Klein”, the amount of movement that Andrews has worked in. It’s a good decision, because Blanchett is a terrific mover. This was surely why Martin Scorsese had her play Katharine Hepburn, a woman raised to ride and wrestle and play golf. At times in “Gross und Klein”, Blanchett does slapstick and bad dancing. At other moments, she moves like a sorrowful mime. In all, it’s a tour de force.

 

Three days and three shows later, Blanchett and Upton are at their regular lunch place, a café behind the wharf. It is noon on a nondescript Tuesday. Back to being an ordinary mortal, Blanchett chats with the waitress. No one else pays attention, except for a passing colleague who offers congratulations on Saturday night’s performance. “Oh, you came,” says Blanchett, sounding grateful. Today she and Upton are both a little faded. Their youngest son, Iggy, got them up at four this morning—and that on the back of a show night.

“It’s not a job that’s ideally suited to a young family,” Blanchett says. They make it work by alternating as parent-on-duty. “I think the cost really has not, in the end, been the children, because they’ve always got one of us. It’s that we don’t see each other very often, unless we are in the green room.”

The other sacrifice has been on the film front. “I haven’t really been able to make any films,” she says. Well, I say, she has made some—“I could make ‘Hanna’ [a Euro-thriller] because they could squeeze me into three weeks over the school holidays, and we had some relationships that we wanted to forge and foster in Berlin.” So she was still doing the day job. “Then the volcano erupted in Iceland and I got an extra week. But it’s not really possible. It’s complicated, because I’m committed to acting on stage and have done it at least once a year, and that means on a very prosaic level not putting the children to bed for six weeks, so then I don’t really want to go off and make another film.”

From the age of 38 to 42, her film work has been mostly cameos. Asked if she is sad to let parts go by, Blanchett replies with what sounds like a yes and a no. “You are very acutely aware that you’ve only got one life, but maybe I’m just slow in that realisation.”

Upton, for his part, says he’s only just grasped this fact. Working at the theatre company, he hasn’t had time to write new plays. So what will he write when he’s done? “Something other than opening-night speech cards,” he says, grinning. And both he and Blanchett perk up when they talk about the future. Suddenly the ideas are firing: things they want to do, things they want to see at the wharf, everything from a stronger engagement with Asia to urban regeneration on their doorstep—far too much for one story. “Write another!” Blanchett says. She’s an enthusiast, really. “You do all this, and you think—you hope—it’s really important.” 

At the café, lunch is done, and ahead is an afternoon of meetings, then the next show. “But you know, yesterday afternoon I took the kids to a shopping centre out in Woop-Woop”—Australian for Nowheresville —“where usually they say, ‘You look like that actress.’ Or ‘I loved you in “Titanic”.’ Yesterday a woman said, ‘What are you doing in Sydney?’ ‘I live here,’ I said. ‘I run the Sydney Theatre Company.’ ‘Oh do you?’”

Blanchett says it with a stress on the “do” and a rising inflection, deftly catching the shopper’s surprise. Then, with a glance at Upton, she is herself. “But,” she says, “we love it.” 

"Gross und Klein" runs at the Barbican in London from April 13th-29th

Jo Lennan is a contributor to The Economist and Time