Cate Blanchett: The Academy Award-Winning Actress Talks About Playing a Trump-Loving, Anti-Feminist
There is a woman who is somewhat forgotten in America and little known in Britain, but, goes a thesis, is the key to where we are in this riven moment in 2020. Phyllis Schlafly was a Catholic anti-feminist firebrand from St. Louis, Missouri, who began her series of barnstorming speeches in the 1970s by thanking her husband for his permission to speak: “I like to say that because it irritates the women’s libbers more than anything.”
Schlafly’s style — angry, combative, uncompromising and at times, surprisingly playful — was effective in tying Republicans into a close marriage with the religious right. No prizes for guessing who took notice; the day after she died in 2016, her book, making the case for Donald Trump, was published. Trump, on the presidential campaign trail at the time, paid tribute when speaking at her funeral: “A movement has lost its hero.”
Who to play this polarising, mysterious woman? No one could do it better than Cate Blanchett, the star of Mrs. America, the new mini-series about Schlafly and her mighty legacy. For while Blanchett, at 51, is undoubtedly one of the most talented actors of her generation, in none of her 70-odd films does she play the girl next door. She is Katharine Hepburn — and won an Oscar for it in The Aviator — never Audrey. Sure, she plays an elf in The Lord of the Rings films, but it is the regal Galadriel, “the mightiest elf.”
Even directors realized that they had to ignore matters of sex and cast her as Bob Dylan to find the necessary quantities of forbidding aloofness. She has joked about playing the U.S. president — “I would play Donald Trump in a heartbeat. The comb over? I’m there.” — but the casting would be terrible; the inscrutable Melania or Barack Obama would be better. And, of course, no other actress has been Oscarnominated twice for playing the same role in two films nearly a decade apart. Queen Elizabeth I is the part of Blanchett’s life; the solitary mask of power, the brittle hauteur of the undemocratic leader. Great writers may have a splinter of ice in their hearts, but there is ice in the eyes of this great actress. In short, for an Australian in the entertainment industry, she is the least Australian and least “luvvie” you could expect to meet.
The snag: a life’s work in unknowability makes it hard to get to know her. The director Anthony Minghella once said, “Though I have worked with her, I barely know her. I would be hard pressed to say more than three things about her with any confidence.”
Blanchett suffers media appearances like a Special Operations Executive expert at resistance to interrogation (a part she played in Charlotte Gray). She grew up in Melbourne, the middle of three children. Her father, Bob, was a former naval officer from Texas; he died when she was ten, from a heart attack in a cinema. He was a figure of mystique for her. She once said that she fantasized for a while that he had not died. “I somehow thought the CIA had taken him; that one day he would just turn up,” she said, although she later retracted that thought.
It has become commonly known that this economics undergraduate got her first taste for acting when appearing in a boxing movie in Cairo, while traveling there. “Nooo,” she groaned when someone asked her about it. “But say that if you want. Print the legend of the boxing movie.” In a press conference to publicize Carol, in which she plays a lesbian, she said she had had “many” past relationships with women, which the world took as a revelation of bisexuality. She later said that this was misconstrued and that none of those relationships were sexual. You can imagine the response when one journalist found out she had a tattoo in an intimate place and asked her if she would identify what it depicted; never has the word “no” carried more froideur.
In a series of retreats from the glare of being one of Hollywood’s highest-paid, most garlanded actors, Blanchett spent ten years living in Brighton, then a five-year stint as joint-artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company with her husband of 23 years, the Australian playwright Andrew Upton. Shortly after adopting a baby girl in 2015, a dream she has said they had since the birth of their first child, the couple moved back to a house in the East Sussex countryside to bring up the baby and their three older sons.
This is well known, but when I start the threeway phone call with Blanchett and Stacey Sher, the executive producer on Mrs. America, my first chatty question is: where is everyone calling from? Sher says, “My home in Los Angeles,” and Blanchett says, “The UK.” I ask roughly where in the UK and she repeats, after a pause that is far longer than the time lag on our international line, “The UK.”
This series was finished in lockdown —Blanchett says she was “sitting inside my closet to finish off the sound”— and Blanchett is doing the publicity for it while homeschooling her children, the eldest of whom is 18, among their pigs and chickens. Schlafly was also an early champion of phonics and has inspired Blanchett to do some phonics-based reading with her 5-year-old girl, but as she said on an American news show, “a teacher I ain’t.” For Sher, who worked on the prescient pandemic film Contagion, this period has “felt like my dreams on that set turned into reality.”
Mrs. America, though, is a passion project for Blanchett, precisely because of her political antipathy to Schlafly. She had spotted Schlafly, then a frail 92, being brought on at the tail-end of Trump’s campaign events and given standing ovations, then had seen Trump eulogizing his guru at her funeral. She thought, “Who is this woman?”
In the early 1970s, the American government was on the brink of ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. constitution, explicitly giving men and women equal status, with wide bipartisan support across nearly all states. With her campaigning, Schlafly pretty much derailed it single-handedly. In demeanour and hairdo, she was a figure as queenly as Margaret Thatcher and just as polarizing, although in her antichange politics not similar at all.
“It felt like with every passing week [of filming], issues that even two years ago would have been seen as tangential to the concerns of women and men today were profoundly and increasingly relevant,” says Blanchett says. Except, I say, it feels like the culture wars of the 1970s are back; Betty Friedan et al didn’t have to reckon with a “pussy-grabber” in the White House. “I think there have always been pussy-grabbers in the White House,” Blanchett says. “They perhaps weren’t rewarded for that.”
Blanchett is drawn to elegant villainesses, literally playing the wicked stepmother in Cinderella. Yet, as Sher says, the way out of polarization is not to demonize, “and a corollary of that is it doesn’t serve us to only canonize people that we agree with.”
Blanchett takes on this theme. “We’re so used to our algorithm delivering us the news that makes us feel better or speaks to our points of view.” To “unlock Phyllis and what motivated her” felt like a vital act of understanding. “It’s very easy to say she was a crackpot,” says Blanchett. “But look at the way people are responding differently to the virus. I’m an American citizen, but I don’t live there, so I’m one step removed from it, but there is a profound thread in America of the rights of the individual, rather than who they are as a society. Phyllis was an individualist who prized hierarchy over change.”
Blanchett’s mother was unwittingly affected by Schlafly, thousands of miles away in Australia. After the death of her husband, June Blanchett gave up her job as a teacher and became a property developer to support three children through private school. Blanchett has said she developed an “enormously empathetic” connection with the sacrifices and strength of her mother. “Yet,” as Blanchett told the Sydney Morning Herald, her mother “didn’t really identify as a feminist because...Phyllis Schlafly was very adept at suggesting that if you were a feminist you were anti-family.” Blanchett’s mother was nervous about her revisiting this on screen.
“I mean,” Blanchett says to me, “we’re living through that backlash right now, another sort of backlash. I was very interested in my mother’s response to my being part of this series, trying to look at the women’s movement and the equal and opposite traditionalist movement. It was trepidation because I feel that there are battle scars.”
Yet, she says, “There are battle scars for men, too.” The success of feminism depends almost as much on men’s attitudes as women’s. Those in power have to share.”
Interesting point, I say. Would your fathers have supported women’s rights? Sher says that “there was no one who was more proud of my accomplishments” than her late father. Blanchett, after a long pause, says, “I hope so. He died when I was ten, so I can’t give you an answer.” What about your husbands, do they identify as feminists? “100%,” Sher says. I direct the question at Blanchett. There is an even longer pause. “I think we lost her,” Sher says of our crackly phone line, but then Blanchett talks. “Well, yeah, I’m just wondering what you’re seeking.”
What will success look like for the next generation in terms of relations between the sexes? Sher says: “I have a 16-year-old daughter and I have an 18-year-old son. I guess maybe not having to answer that question anymore?”
Blanchett laughs. “Yeah.” Then continues. She is worried about her little girl growing up and being vulnerable in the world because she is a woman. “I’ve got three boys and a girl and there is something that I do worry profoundly about. When there’s a growing fear about so much economic uncertainty, the people who always get to bear the brunt are women. The increasing domestic violence I find incredibly worrying. I hope my daughter does not worry about walking out at night or what she wears. You know, basic questions. I’m really saddened that I’m even thinking these thoughts in 2020. I’m sure women who were part of the women’s movements in the 1970s would have thought that we would have evolved to the point where we didn’t have to have that growing level of concern.”
Then, it’s the end of our short time together and Blanchett gets demob happy, suddenly very friendly and apologetic about the quality of the line. Her last point lingers in my head. Her best roles are about armor and its weight. She is a powerful woman who so often plays powerful women, but still can never be armored enough to protect those she loves.
Mrs. America is available on Hulu as a part of “FX on Hulu.” To learn more visit, https://www.fxnetworks.com/shows/mrs-america.