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Profile of Cate Blanchett, star of 'A Streetcar Named Desire' at Kennedy Center

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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 1, 2009

It was a theatrical convergence of three continents. Over lunch in London, the actress from Australia and the actress from Norway decided they had to find a way under the skin of the neurotic belle from the American South.

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At that meal, Cate Blanchett and Liv Ullmann sketched out the beginnings of their assault on Blanche DuBois, the high-strung butterfly of "A Streetcar Named Desire." Ullmann, ethereal star of Ingmar Bergman's "Scenes From a Marriage" and "Cries and Whispers," by now a director, had wanted Oscar-winner Blanchett for the role of Nora in a film version of Ibsen's "A Doll's House."

But the money could not be raised and now, puzzling over what else they might do together, the duo turned their thoughts to Tennessee Williams and the stage. Which was fortunate, because Blanchett was running a major theater company full-time back in Sydney with her husband, writer-director Andrew Upton.

"Liv got really excited about that," Blanchett is recalling, as she munches on a salad of greens and chicken one day last week at the Kennedy Center, where the U.S. premiere of Sydney Theatre Company's "Streetcar," directed by Ullmann and starring Blanchett, began performances on Thursday. "I think it's really great when an idea creeps up on you from behind, and particularly with a play like this."

Ullmann, in a separate conversation at the center, concurs with Blanchett's characterization, and not only because she loves what the play has to say. At some point in her career, Ullmann says, "I would have loved to have played Blanche."

Haughty, needy, broken Blanche is one of those potentially breath-stopping career markers for a great actress, a role that originally belonged on Broadway to Jessica Tandy and in film to Vivien Leigh, and has been assayed to positive and not so positive effect by star actresses in every generation since "Streetcar's" 1947 debut. Uta Hagen, Blythe Danner, Jessica Lange and Natasha Richardson all gave Blanche a go on Broadway; five years ago, Patricia Clarkson played her at the Kennedy Center in Garry Hynes's uneven production. This summer, Rachel Weisz slipped into the role, to favorable critical reaction, at London's Donmar Warehouse.

And now Blanchett, supermodel-svelte and creamily complected, is taking her turn, a not-so-unexpected development for an actress whose adventurous range has been on display for moviegoers since the late '90s with her breakout turns in "Oscar and Lucinda" and "Elizabeth." That audiences are eager to see what stops she pulls out is borne out by the box office. With Blanchett as the only marquee name in the Australian cast, the entire 24-performance run of "Streetcar" in the center's Eisenhower Theater sold out weeks ago. At the end of November, the production heads to New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music, where it runs for an additional month.

* * *

For all her cerebral glamour, her renown for roles in movies as varied as "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy and "The Aviator" -- the last one earning her an Academy Award -- the 40-year-old Blanchett is actually a theater kid. Maybe even a theater nerd. From the time she left Sydney's National Institute of Dramatic Art and was cast in the Sydney Theatre Company production of David Mamet's "Oleanna" opposite Geoffrey Rush, she has maintained a stage life. Of her wildly provocative 2006 portrayal of the title character in "Hedda Gabler" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which prompted both critical plaudits and finger-wagging, Ben Brantley wrote in an appreciatively amused New York Times review: "Ms. Blanchett is giving roughly a dozen of the liveliest performances to be seen this year, all at the same time."

Now, to that voracious metabolism she has added the role of co-artistic director of Australia's largest theater company, whose 2010 season, formulated with Upton, includes a whopping 15 productions in three theaters. "Uncle Vanya," "Long Day's Journey Into Night," "Our Town," "The Oresteia" and the Broadway musical "Spring Awakening" are just a few of the enormous heaves in an eye-popping lineup. "Streetcar" closed there a week and a half ago, giving Blanchett, a mother of three young sons, barely time to catch her breath. (With Upton still working in Australia, two of her boys are set to join her in Washington next week.)

"We're now commuters; we leave home and drop our kids at school," Blanchett says of her life as that rarest breed, an actor with an office to go to. She banished the desk, though: "I thought it was too pretentious." And as she is allowed three months away each year for other projects, she can still make movies, such as the new "Robin Hood" flick she recently completed with Russell Crowe in which she plays Maid Marian.

"Andrew had a very close relationship with the company, and was approached and said to me, 'Why don't we do this together?' " she says of their three-year contract with the Sydney institution. "My response was probably his response: I sort of said, 'We have to.' . . . I feel a bit presumptuous, saying it's about giving back. That assumes I have something to give back. I mean, that's for the audiences to decide."


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