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Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor
for Radio Free Entertainment

September 15, 2007

In the wake of its 1998 release, Elizabeth rocked the movie awards scene, scoring a slew of nominations across the board for both its performances and its myriad of technical achievements. Ultimately, Cate Blanchett walked away with several Best Actress recognitions for her role as the title ruler, including a Golden Globe and BAFTA Film Award, and sparked an international film career for herself in the process. Since then, she has starred in everything from independent features to epic blockbusters like the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the upcoming Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Now, nearly ten years later, award-winning director Shekhar Kapur and stars Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush have reunited for an uncharacteristic sequel, Elizabeth: The Golden Age. This historical thriller focuses on the later years of the Queen's reign and England's conflict with King Philip II of Spain, and zeroes in on the contrast between Elizabeth's seemingly empty personal life and her attempts to use marriage as a political tool. Caught in a love triangle with her trusted lady-in-waiting Bess (Abbie Cornish) and adventurous explorer Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), Elizabeth sees her own private affairs becoming twisted and entangled, even as she deals with conspirators who would threaten her sovereignty.

The scope and tone of Elizabeth: The Golden Age is markedly different from its predecessor, and with the exception of the returning cast and crew and the overall setting, it doesn't feel like a sequel at all. For audiences needing more than personal relationships gone awry and 16th century political intrigue, the movie also features an unexpected amount of action: Elizabeth herself rallies the troops Braveheart style, while the navies of England and Spain clash on the high seas in a sequence that could have been out of Pirates of the Caribbean.

In this interview, the smart and classy Cate Blanchett talks about working on the project, including returning to a role that she was hesitant to revisit.

The Interview

CATE: [marvels at recorders in front of her] I guess you're all expecting me to say something interesting. [laughs, moves microphone] I'm just going to move this back a little bit, otherwise I'm going to have nowhere to put my elbows. I shall promise I'm not going to turn any of them off. Although I'd like to. [laughs]

MEDIA: You were initially reluctant to do this movie. What changed your mind?

I think what convinced me was time, really. Shekhar, the minute we finished the first one, was talking about not only my playing Elizabeth again, but hundreds of other ideas. And we've remained friends and have talked about various projects, and [producer] Tim Bevan from Working Title just said, "Look, let us just work a script up, and if it doesn't work, it doesn't work." And I found the notion of the love triangle, the very structure of the narrative, was quite different. Because I had always said that if they did another one, that Elizabeth shouldn't be the central character. And the structure of the romance--because it's an unabashedly romantic film--I think was quite different, and so it didn't feel like treading the same ground. So yeah: time, I think, in the end. And also, then, knowing Geoffrey and Clive were onboard, and that [cinematographer Remi Adefarasin] was going to shoot, and working with Alexandra Byrne who did the costumes again, who is a dear friend, and a genius, I think.

Congratulations on your recent win at the Venice Film Festival for your performance as Bob Dylan in I'm Not There...

It was cool, wasn't it? [laughs] I was very surprised and pleased.

What attracted you to the daunting roles of Bob Dylan in that film and Elizabeth in this one--both iconic figures in their own right?

Look, I think I run a hundred miles an hour away from projects every single time, and in the end, the ones that stick are the ones that sort of pursue you and you can't say no to. And the idea of playing Bob Dylan was just so utterly ludicrous that of course I had to say yes. [laughs] And it was very daunting. And yeah, I was a bit nervous about returning to a character, I suppose, that had allowed me to walk into a door to an international film career. You don't ever want to feel like you're going backwards. So once I perceived that I could actually progress forwards through playing it, then it became exciting to me.

What do you like about Elizabeth as a character?

There's a long and glorious legacy of actresses who have played Elizabeth I, from Flora Robson and Bette Davis and Glenda Jackson, Helen Mirren, Anne-Marie Duff...I mean, she's constantly reinvented. One of my favorite plays is a [Friedrich] Schiller play, Mary Stuart, about a fictitious meeting between Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I. She's ripe for reinvention because she's such an enigma. And also, if you think about the Elizabethan age, when the English culture as we know it was crystalized, it's a fascinating period of history. So I think there'll be many more Elizabeths long after this film, because I think she's a fantastic--particularly for a director like Shekhar--point on which to leap off for a story.

It would have been interesting to see a similar fictional scene between your Elizabeth and Samantha Morton's Mary, Queen of Scots...

I would have loved to. I think Samantha Morton's incredible. She's such a dangerous, exciting, unusual, unpredictable presence on screen. I so admire her work. But maybe if anyone's going to ever do the Schiller, I'd be there with her, absolutely. [laughs]

What was it like on your first day of returning to the character of Elizabeth and getting back into her skin through the costumes and make-up?

It was quite organic. Obviously I started [with] Morag Ross, who did the hair and make-up, and Alex Byrne. We had long, long discussions about where to start. And obviously, in the end, no matter how much research you do, you're telling the particular story that the script and the director prescribe. And I think the great thing about Shekhar and I working together is that I'm fascinated by history, and he's utterly disinterested. [laughs] So I think we temper one another really well. We did a lot of research, but in the end, you have to say she's starting off at a point where we kind of left her in the last film, except she was at a point of utter rigidity in the end of the last film. And so how does one exist within that rigid place? So we had to sort of open that up a little bit. But it felt strange. It was like there was an echo in the room, but yet it felt very fresh. And Shekhar and I and Abbie (because I don't think she had seen the first one) watched it just before we started to film. And I was incredibly uncomfortable with the notion of...You know, I was thinking, "Oh God, it's ten years later. Have I aged that much?" Being an actress in film is a bit like you're aging in dog years. [laughs] It's quite confronting. But I was surprised at how well it stood up. And I thought, "Well that's that. It is its own thing." And I was excited by the fact that this film was at once an echo in that you've got the same sort of creative team, a few of the same characters, but it was its own creature. It's a much more internal film, I think, despite the kind of epic backdrop. So it was a bit like a homecoming. But I think I was uncomfortable in a healthy, useful way.

One of the interesting things about your performance is the subtle changes in your face that convey Elizabeth's moods...

You can say "age." [laughs]

What did you do to distinguish each little look?

I think it's tricky but vital, as an actor working in film, that you have a sense of the third eye, in that you can be aware of what you're projecting, but not in a self-conscious way. So I think if you're internally engaged with the set of feelings and emotions, and also the actions that you're trying to play on the other actor (because it always has to be active), then that will externally take care of itself. I mean, I hope I wasn't mugging too much. But I didn't think about that on the day very much. I mean, obviously, when you're getting into hair and make-up, like you were suggesting before, it is a form of masking up. But even when you're in your Elizabethan warpaint, you don't want that mask to be opaque. [laughs] It has to be transparent. So hopefully, there was a transparency to it.

What quality do you think you possess that makes you so believable in your roles?

Oh, God, I am utterly the wrong person to answer that question. I have no idea. Hopefully, a rich set of life experiences that I'm able to draw on. But at the same time, I'm not at all interested in playing myself or imposing my own value system onto a character. It's like having conversations continually with like-minded people. You get a very skewed perception of the way the world works. So I like having conversations with characters who think in very different ways to me about very different sets of experiences.

Elizabeth and Raleigh have a strong romantic chemistry, but their timing seems to be off...

Oh, but timing's everything, isn't it? What interested me about the relationship between Raleigh and Elizabeth in this particular incarnation of the set of events was that there was a vicariousness to it. And I think that happens in a lot of so-called love relationships where you almost want to be the person as much as you want to possess the person. And I think that there was a lot of male courtiers that Elizabeth over the years had strong connections with. And I think she was probably fascinated by the freedom that was afforded not only an adventurer like Raleigh, but also the men in the court who could travel a lot more freely than she could. I mean, she never left the shores of England.

You also have good chemistry with Clive...

I think every woman who works with Clive has incredible romantic chemistry. [laughs]

Do you perceive this film as fictionalized history, historical fantasy, or the exploration of a legend?

I think it's all three. I don't know quite how many minutes and seconds the film is, but when you have a couple of hours to tell an incredibly dense period of history, by the process of selection, you're automatically telescoping the events, and you're automatically saying, "This event has more significance to the one that's been omitted." So it's never going to be like reading the letters and the court documents, or reading Alison Weir's biography of Elizabeth. It's not the same experience. But then, going to see a film shouldn't be. You are being told a fable, and a fable through the eyes of that director. And it's very temporal, too, filming. So hopefully the film has a contemporary quality, I think like all good stories, that they're able to sort of connect to the current collective unconscious, what we're all thinking about, and what it means to be female now as much as what it means to be female then.

Is being an international movie star the modern day equivalent of being a 16th century queen?

No. Anyone who says this is insane. [laughs]

Do you think women in power today have an easier time finding happiness in a relationship?

I was reading Joan Didion's book The Year of Magical Thinking again the other day, and she referred to various psychologists who were analyzing the notion of grief and the grieving process, and saying that somewhere along the way, in the last century, there became this notion that we all need to be happy. And so nobody fully grieves any more because we can't be seen to be unhappy. So the notion of happiness, I think, for someone in Elizabeth's position is sort of a strange one. I think it's a very modern concept that happiness is something that we not only have to strive for, but can achieve in this lifetime. And I think Elizabeth's situation was entirely different. And in relation to what you're saying about finding a companion, I mean, the reasons for getting married were then deeply unromantic. It was to do with securing a nation, and it was a political tool. Women were used as part of the political negotiation process between countries. And the fact that Elizabeth claimed that political mechanism for herself and was able to use it herself meant that the prospect of finding love for her was very elusive. I mean, I think the history books say (you know, the history books were written by courtiers at the time) that the closest she came was the Duke of Anjou. But in Shekhar's first film, the Duke of Anjou was a raving transvestite. [laughs] So everything's up for grabs in these films.

It seems Elizabeth teeters on madness as she watches the relationship between Raleigh and Bess develop. How much did you play with the idea that she suffered from physiological problems?

It's interesting, yeah...I don't think I thought about it a lot. I did it in about three or four scenes, one of which was cut because it was talking about Mary Stuart, and I think they decided there was a bit too much discussion about Mary Stuart. But I tried to see through--and of course it's not in it at all--her self-medicating with herbs and being physically unstable. Because I thought at the time that I'm playing her, she would have been quite menopausal--that she was going through "the change." I think at the time, I kept telling Remi, who shot it, to take off the 12 denier stockings that he was shooting me through to show a few more wrinkles. [laughs] But, you know, Shekhar likes women to look beautiful. So yeah, in terms of that madness, it was what was not only going on for her psychologically, but what was going on for her physically. So I think that's great that you got a little texture of that, but I think the whole complexity of what I was trying to do maybe wasn't in the film.

Do you think if it wasn't for Elizabeth, England would be speaking Spanish today?

Quite possibly. But it's a really interesting thing to look at the history of failure. I mean, if we analyzed history by the failures that took place rather than the victories, [we would see that they] have influenced us incredibly, the way we've ended up where we are today. But absolutely, it would have been a very different place.

Thanks for your time.

See you, guys! Thanks!

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