In Richard Eyre's Notes on a Scandal, consummate actress Cate Blanchett plays Sheba, a middle-aged, middle-class art teacher who crosses a moral line when she sleeps with a fifteen-year-old student. The illicit affair becomes all the more complicated when fellow teacher Barbara (Judi Dench) becomes the untrustworthy keeper of her secret.
At New York's Regency Hotel, Marcy talked with Cate Blanchett about her fight scene with Dame Judi, moral choices, and her incredible year.
Q: Do you see the characters of Sheba and Barbara as extensions of one another?
CATE: I think they both underestimate one another, Sheba to a fatal degree. She probably feels quite sorry for Barbara, in a lot of ways, to begin with, and has no idea of the lengths Barbara will go to attach herself to Sheba. And I think Barbara completely underestimates how lonely Sheba actually is. She just sees the trappings of her life and how peopled her life is and doesn't realize how isolated she is.
Q: Because Barbara is absorbed in her own loneliness?
CATE: Look, were all absorbed in our own lies. Were the heroes of our own narratives.
Q: Is Judi stronger than she looks?
CATE: She can hold her own. We had to do that quite a lot and she had this Ninja Turtle hair, I had to thrust her into the bookshelf. And we were both dreading the scene, actually, because it reaches a level of absurdity, the stuff that theyre saying to one another, its kind of thrilling to hear the words that Patrick has put into the characters mouths, the stakes are so high, where did you get my hair, did you pluck it from the bath with some special fucking tweezers? I mean its a pretty great line.
Q: Shebas loneliness is not for lack of love?
CATE: Well thats a common problem, isnt it. Anyone who embarks on a destructive relationship theres an enormous cry for help in there. And Sheba doesnt actually know where to start. But in terms of her justifying it to herself, what I like about the film is that it doesnt really attempt or set out to justify or explain in simple terms why she does what she does. She says I love him, if she sat down on the analysts couch in 15 years she might find the language to explain it, but I liked how fragile she was.
Q: Did you that you had to justify it for yourself?
CATE: I think its important to ask all the questions but not necessarily to answer them. I think its important to let all those ambiguities breathe because once she dives in why do we decide to embark on any relationship? You jump off a cliff. And once shes done that there is no way back. The wound is opened and there is no closing it, whether the affair stops or not. The damage to her children, to her husband, to herself, youre on the public hit list and will be forever so.
Q: Did you have a hard time relating to a character who would sleep with her student?
CATE: Yes, absolutely. And I think it was very important for me to suspend my own moral judgment. Because there is no way to defend what Sheba has done, and I dont think the film attempts to do that at all, thats not the question. The main thing is that the relationship with the boy is the catalyst that propels her into Barbaras arms, and there lies the drama, the true drama. And the delicious and thrilling side of the drama. And how did I prepare for it... once I understood Sheba as being someone who was incredibly lost, enormously fragile and a time bomb, then there was a way in for me.
Q: Did you look for backstory in the book to guide your performance?
CATE: The novel was all from Barbaras perspective. And Barbara never struck me as someone who had an enormous fashion sense. She described Sheba as being fey and I find that quite helpful, its a kind of floaty, she described one of her dresses as being floaty so the costume designer and I talked about fabric that floated and I think given the hard edge that the punk of her adolescence Ive met several English women like that, who all have bangs, and theres sort of a gossamer quality to them. And shes described as having a dancers body, so that sort of presentation that some women have, chest bone forward thats a little bit, Im dashed against the rocks, its the journey of that Fey women finding her spine and running out onto the street screaming into the face of the paparazzi. Thats a fantastic bookend to have.
Q: How does it feel to have three films out at the same time?
CATE: Im certainly sick of talking about them. Proud as I am of them. But I think theyre all very different years like that do not come along very often, to have gone from Notes on a Scandal to The Good German, and to be part of an endeavor like Babel, theyre three things Im very proud of.