The Kindness of Strangers

Photo: Brigitte Lacombe. Hair and makeup by Donald Mikula/Bryan Bantry (Ullmann). Hair by Mark Townsend/The Magnet Agency (Blanchett). Makeup by Jo Strettell/The Magnet Agency (Blanchett).

‘She’s not a great actress,” Liv Ullmann says, explaining why the Blanche DuBois in her production of A Streetcar Named Desire seems so shaky from the moment she arrives at her sister’s French Quarter apartment. A trembling shambles with shot nerves, this Blanche can’t fool anyone into thinking she’s the southern belle she pretends to be—except, for a while, herself.

Ullmann herself is a great actress, and so is the woman playing Blanche, Cate Blanchett. It was Blanchett and her husband, Andrew Upton, who lured Ullmann to Australia to direct Streetcar for the Sydney Theatre Company, where the couple are co–artistic directors and CEOs. Their production comes to BAM November 27.

“Obviously I’m an enormous, slobbering admirer of hers,” says Blanchett with a laugh. And yet, she and Ullmann seem in some ways an unlikely match: Ullmann made her name as Ingmar Bergman’s go-to muse, digging deep within for raw, emotional performances. Blanchett’s peripatetic career often involves her using rigorous technique to transform into other people: Katharine Hepburn, Bob Dylan, Elizabeth I. One might call Ullmann an archaeologist and Blanchett an architect. In her role as DuBois, Blanchett’s actorly precision is underlined with deep desperation, and so a peerless actress gives a great performance as a not-great actress who thinks she’s peerless.

Ullmann, loquacious in life, is more reticent as a director. “You learn a lot from bad directors,” she says. “And I know how some directors, they talk and talk, and they trample right on your fantasy, and you can never do it again. Good directors are a wonderful audience.” And, says Blanchett, there are other ways to communicate, “through what’s going on in their eyes, the gestures that they use. Liv has quite an unexpected and disarming emotional life.” Blanchett notes impishly that she stole a few things from her director. “A few of Blanche’s gestures,” she says, letting her hands float dreamily before her in DuBois-ian splendor, “are Liv’s.”

The actress believes it is the Norwegian director’s foreignness with the material that makes her interpretation so liberating: “In the English-speaking world, we think we know the play better than we do—which is viewed through the prism of the film, and through clichés that we have about what it means to be southern.”

Music was Ullmann’s passport into Tennessee Williams’s world. “It was very clear when I started to read the play that I had to know more about the blues,” she says. “Because the truth of the play is the avoidance of truth, and the blues is how you say what you don’t have words for. I also know that Williams, while he wrote the play, was all the time listening to gramophones. Very much the Ink Spots.”

Ullmann’s affection for DuBois extends back to a time when she wanted to play her. “This is a part that I could have done when I was young. But to be honest, as good an actress as I think I was at times, I could never have done it to the brilliance that Cate’s doing it.” And it is, paradoxically, Blanchett’s reserve that Ullmann believes makes her so gifted at playing a woman who holds nothing back. “Cate is so vulnerable, but she doesn’t give it to you immediately,” says Ullmann. “I’m already out with some of the goodies. All her goodies are within her.”

A Streetcar Named Desire
By Tennessee Williams.
BAM Harvey Theater.
November 27–December 20.

The Kindness of Strangers