Cate Blanchett stars in Notes on a Scandal as Sheba (Cate Blanchett), a high school teacher who confides in Barbara (Judi Dench), a colleague and neighbor who witnesses her secret affair with one of her students, Steven (Andrew Simpson). Based on the novel by Zoe Heller. Cate Blanchett has acted in such films as Elizabeth, The Talented Mr.Ripley, Charlotte Gray, Lord of the Rings, The Aviator, Little Fish and, most recently, in The Good German and Babel. I had the privilege to interview her.
Fox Searchlight Pictures will release Notes on a Scandal on December 27th, 2006.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you think it’s important to be inquisitive while watching Notes on a Scandal?
CB: I think it’s important to ask all the questions, but not necessarily to answer them. It’s important to let all of those ambiguities breathe because once [Sheba] dives in, there’s no way back. The wound is open and there’s no way in closing in, no matter if the affair ends or not. [Given] the damage to her children, to her husband, to herself, [she’s] on the public hit-list, so-to-speak and [she] will be forever so.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you get into the role of Sheba?
CB: Once I understood Sheba as being somebody who’s incredibly lost, enormously fragile and a time bomb, then there was a way [into the character] for me.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you incorporate the novel when you prepared for your role?
CB: The novel was a great source, but it was from a very unreliable narrator—it’s all from Barbara’s perspective. I think what Patrick [Marber] did with the screenplay, which is fantastic, was to liberate Sheba from Barbara’s perspective. That [has] enabled the film to become its own entity.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What do you think is implied by Sheba and Steven’s destructive relationship?
CB: Anyone who embarks on a destructive relationship [gives] an enormous cry for help. Sheba doesn’t know where to start [looking for help]. What I like about the film is that it doesn’t really attempt to justify or explain in simple terms why [Sheba] does what she does. If she sat down on the analyst’s couch and had about 15 years to deconstruct it, she might find the language to explain it, but I like how fragile she was.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How do Sheba and Barbara feel toward one another?
CB: I think that they both underestimate one another. Sheba [feels] quite sorry for Barbara in a lot of ways and has no idea of the lengths to which Barbara will go to attach herself to [her]. I think Barbara completely underestimates how lonely Sheba actually is. She just sees the trappings of her life and how peopled [it] is.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Is there universality to Barbara’s self-involvement?
CB: We’re all absorbed in our own lives and we’re the heroes of our own narratives.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How tough was Judi Dench during the fighting scene?
CB: She can hold her own. We had to do that quite a lot and she had this, sort of, ninja turtle hag and I had to thrust her into the bookshelf. We were both dreading the scene, actually. It reaches a level of absurdity—the stuff that they’re saying to one another. It’s actually thrilling to hear the words that [writer] Patrick [Marber] put into the characters’ mouths because the stakes are so high.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Did you ever consider what would happen if Barbara didn’t expose the secret?
CB: Sheba’s not someone who’s going to write her life story—she’s not Mary Kay Letourneau [or] somebody who stayed with the boy. We did talk a lot about what would happen if Barbara didn’t expose the secret and I, sort of, feel like it would peter out. It’s interesting that it doesn’t. There’s a desire to blow apart her world. She describes herself as a good wife and a good mother. There’s a sense that she just wants to fuck it all up. I think that there’s a lot of people who feel that way. The more happy people perceive them, the more they want to destroy it all and almost start again and have an adolescence that she never had. Sheba herself married her teacher, so there’s an echo, there’s a mirror up there held to herself.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Were you able to suspend your moral judgment?
CB: Yes, absolutely. 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. I don’t think that this film intends to do that at all. The main thing is that the relationship with [Steven] is the catalyst which propels her into Barbara’s arms and there lies the true drama and [its] delicious and thrilling side.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you feel about the way that Zoe Heller imagined Barbara in the book?
CB: It was an interesting description because it was all from Barbara’s perspective. Barbara never struck me as somebody who had an enormous fashion sense. She describes [her] as being fay and I found that quite helpful. She describes her dress as being floaty. The costume designer and I talked about fabric that floated. Given the hard edge of the punk of her adolescence, I had met several English women like that—they all had bangs and there’s a, sort of, gossamer quality to them.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What’s the difference between actors in plays and actors in films?
CB: People who primarily work in film can be very private about their process. There’s something about being in a theater rehearsal room where people just go for it and they’re not embarrassed to make mistakes because they realize that it’s just a rehearsal. So, it’s a much more open process, so, [therefore], it was a very open set. That comes from the director, Richard Eyre, who run the National [Theater] and is an extraordinary producer, but also, as a director, [he] is a very great lover of actors. It was certainly enjoyable from the perspective. You could just feel like you could muck it in and throw it all around and there wasn’t really any judgment.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How do you feel about all the press you’re doing for The Good German,
CB: I’m certainly sick of talking about them [laughs]—proud as I am of them. But they’re all very different. Years like [this] don’t come very often—to have gone from Notes on a Scandal to The Good German and to be part of an endeavor like Babel. They are 3 things that I am very proud of.