Hedda Steam

Photo: Frank Baurer; Camera Press/Retna

‘Was Heath nominated?!” Cate Blanchett asks excitedly. It’s been a good twelve hours since the Oscar nominations were announced, and you’d think that Blanchett—a winner last year for her sporty, bracing turn as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator, and Hollywood’s most acclaimed (and employed) female Aussie import this side of Nicole Kidman—would have heard by now.

But, speaking from her home in Sydney, Blanchett, informed that compatriot Heath Ledger did indeed receive a nomination, says simply, “Right, sorry. It was my husband’s birthday this morning and we’ve been opening tennis racquets and exchanging rings.”

By rights, Blanchett should be a presenter at this year’s Academy Awards. Instead, she’ll be in Brooklyn, where she’s playing Hedda Gabler for a monthlong run at BAM starting next week—her New York stage debut. “We’re really fascinated to see how it connects with a different audience,” she says of the Sydney Theatre Company production, which she first did a year and a half ago in Australia. “But I’m not brave enough to even have any expectations.”

Often called the female Hamlet, Hedda is a role beset with expectation (who dares to go where Ingrid Bergman, Diana Rigg, Fiona Shaw, and Glenda Jackson have already been?). Onstage for almost every moment of the play and fruitlessly directing the action around her in an attempt to garner some control over her own constrained life, Hedda is the archetypal trapped woman, a general’s daughter consigned by her own upper-middle-class domestic ambitions to marriage with a dull dud of an academic who’s nowhere near her equal in intensity, depth, intelligence, or nobility.

“There are so many clichés about her,” Blanchett says in her soft, low, more-British-than-Australian accent. “Henry James—what did he say? Something like, ‘It’s a study of an exasperated woman.’ And then Freud said she’s the true hysteric, with this enormous antipathy toward sex. And so you’re dealing with a series of clichés. But if you butt those up against one another, the friction that’s exerted is really exciting.”

Blanchett initially wanted nothing to do with Hedda. “There’s an assumption when one reaches a certain place in one’s career—whatever that place is—that this is a role one must play,” she says. “And I always walk in the opposite direction of those opportunities. I’m perverse, maybe. I sort of was dragged a bit kicking and screaming into it.”

One reason to do the play, though, was that her husband, Andrew Upton, wrote the adaptation. Blanchett says their work on the piece was limited to the rehearsal room and not a constant topic of disputation, or even conversation, at home. “My husband is one of those rare people who doesn’t mind uncomfortable silences. So he’s the perfect person to connect with Ibsen.”

She calls Upton’s adaptation of the 1890 play “very lean” and points to his reinvigoration of Hedda’s husband, the ineffectual George Tesman, as a key to the production. “If you don’t understand the choice that she’s made by marrying Tesman, then you don’t really understand Hedda. There’s a line where she actually has lofty ambitions to get Tesman into politics, and she says, ‘Do you think he could be the prime minister?’ And it’s absolutely ludicrous! But there’s something in Hedda where she thinks, If I pushed him and got him to work in the right way, then I could control this chess game.”

When she first took on the role, she’d only recently given birth to her second son, Roman (her oldest, Dashiell, is now 4). “I was still breast-feeding and was in a very maternal place,” she recalls. “I was actually very worried because I thought, This is the least maternal character ever!” But for Blanchett, the appeal of the play—and what makes it so tricky, from the start—ended up being its inexorable drive toward a tragic culmination, a forward motion that poses significant actorly difficulties in terms of pacing and modulation. “I don’t think Hedda’s tragedy is elicited if you know as soon as she enters the play what her end is. And the great thing is that it happens in such an incredibly short space of time. You’re witnessing someone’s last breath without her realizing that the life is being sucked out of her.”

It’s a uniquely theatrical process that Blanchett in some ways enjoys more than making movies. “In film, the challenge is to be able to shape a performance when the process is so piecemeal,” she says. “And the absolute joy of being onstage is you get to surf that wave. It’s a much more muscular experience.” Indeed, it comes as something of a surprise to learn of the extent of Blanchett’s theatrical background (she got her start as an actress in 1992 onstage), considering she’s known to Americans almost exclusively as a movie star. “It just feels like yesterday that my Australian agent was saying, ‘You really need to make a film. Otherwise you’re going to be too old.’ And I said, ‘Well, someone has to cast me in one!’ I always seemed quite displaced as an actor. Now, suddenly, I’m a film actor, and it’s, ‘Oh, and you’ve done theater?’ ”

As a bona fide Hollywood entity, Blanchett, now 36, professes disdain for gossip-driven journalism, calling it “a smoke screen to stop us thinking about other things. I think when people get depressed, they eat junk food. And when people get depressed, they consume junk ideas.” Scandal, she swears, bores her—except within the context of Hedda Gabler, where it becomes an interpretative problem.

“The notion of scandal for Hedda is almost beyond our understanding. It’s a feeling of her spirit, the very core of her being being exposed.” And conveying that is perhaps the greatest challenge of playing Hedda: “It’s like the Shakespearean ‘O’ that every actor struggles with. To invest that notion of scandal with as much weight and import when these days a scandal is actually welcomed by a lot of people for bumping up their careers to another level.”

Blanchett’s scandal-free career is largely where she’d like it. She stars as George Clooney’s lover in postwar Berlin in Steven Soderbergh’s forthcoming The Good German, and will appear in Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There, in which she and other actors of both genders play various incarnations of Bob Dylan. And she plays a recovering drug addict in Little Fish, in cinemas this week, along with her Lord of the Rings co-star Hugo Weaving, who’s also in the Gabler production as Hedda’s confidant, Judge Brack. (There are no trips down Lothlòrien lane with Weaving, however. Recently, before throwing a party with lots of kids in attendance, “I said to everyone, ‘Oh, we’re going to get a flower fairy and an elf!’ And I raised my eyes at Hugo when I said ‘elf,’ and he just looked at me blankly like, What are you talking about?”)

Blanchett’s role in Rings was small, which could be why it’s one of the few parts (onscreen or onstage) in which she doesn’t see flaws she’d like to fix. “As soon as you’re finished you think, Ah, now I understand it! If I could just start again! But that’s the seductive thing about being an actor—you think, Next time I won’t make that mistake. It’s all about rectifying what you’ve done.” And in the case of Hedda, she gets another chance to master (or submit to) the “wild ambiguities” of a woman she calls mythological, destructive, and “a time bomb.”

“I hope you enjoy it,” she says of her performance. “Well, enjoy is not really the right word.”

Hedda Steam