The Aviator (2004) – Q&A with Cate Blanchett

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Cate Blanchett is Katharine Hepburn


How do you deal with the problem of portraying someone like Katharine Hepburn who is so well known?

I tried not to look at it like a problem. I tried to look at it as a challenge. But it was more than daunting, it was completely and utterly terrifying. I don’t know that I knew what I had agreed to do. When Martin Scorsese calls you just go into this reverie…I’m such a fan…and so when he asked of course I said yes. Then I realised the consequences but I had agreed to do it. You just have to get on. I find the technical work fascinating. You have to find a balance between paying a homage to her as an actress and being irreverent and serving the script and unlocking the private human being. She was enormously private.

There must have been tons of material…books, films, TV interviews…for your homework?

There is not a lot of newsreel footage actually. It’s not like now where there’s a lot of interviews with film actors outside the domain of the sound stage. The interview I found most helpful was one she gave in 1973 to Dick Cavet. I had read about that in a biography – and this is the great thing about working with Martin Scorsese, he is so into research and his research team found that TV interview for me. And that became my bible. It was listening to the woman herself, even though her voice had calcified, I think, as had her personality, as she approached or was in her seventies. But watching her be uncomfortable, it was like a gambler looking at another gambler – you could see where the ‘tell’ is. After watching that interview I went back and watched her films and tried to compare the awkward gestures with the gestures that she had as a young actress before she had really crystallised into Hepburn as we know her.

Was Dick Cavet pursuing personal things during that TV interview?

Yes. It was the first interview she had ever given on television. So the first 15 minutes she didn’t really know that she wanted to give the interview at all. Cavet invited her into the studio. He said…come out, see how you feel, we’ll just talk and if you are not interested or don’t like it then we won’t do it. Very fortuitously, they were rolling the cameras and she did not know they were on….she came in, re-arranged the furniture, criticised the carpet, changed the seating plan because she wasn’t being shot from the right angle, was talking about the theatre. And I thought it was interesting how her nerves were manifesting themselves. I tried to look into the behaviour behind the action and it was interesting to watch that many, many times. Then I turned off the visuals and just recorded the sound and listened to the way she breathed, what she chose to laugh at and when he would ask her more personal questions what she would do with that information. You can hear what someone thinks when you are not watching them. So the interface between that and the biographies was interesting.

What about getting to grips with her distinctive almost iconic voice?

It’s a bit like a language lab, if you want to get a feeling for an accent you have to immerse yourself in it. Someone said you can tell if someone has the feeling for an accent because they’ll be able to hesitate in the language. That became very important to me. You learn it technically and then you have to get fluid with it and forget the preparation.

Could you switch off?

She remained with me in the sense that I became very athletic during the course of the film. I had to play golf. Before this I was a complete stranger to golf. Which was probably good. I started off learning and I was brilliant! The golf instructor’s jaw dropped. But then I got progressively worse and realise why people break their sticks over their knees because it is such a frustrating game. You are competing with yourself. Then I thought that was interesting because that was Hepburn’s sport of choice…to compete with herself! I picked up tennis again and tried to take cold showers because she went swimming every day, even when she had to break the ice. I’m sure that’s why she lived as long as she did, genes as well. But I couldn’t do the cold shower thing. My husband gave me golf clubs that Christmas, but I was pregnant, now we are thinking of joining a club and taking it up. I understand what the challenge of golf is now and when you go back and read her biography and read how the family dealt with the death of her brother you see that there is a key there with the way Hepburn deals with emotion, frustration and anger. She just switches off. That’s why it is great to embark on something as challenging as this and fill your head with as much stuff and after several weeks things float to the surface.

A great scene is the lunch with the Hepburn family. Were they intellectual monsters?

I think they were voracious and very opinionated. Maybe it is me being protective of the Hepburns but what the scene doesn’t reveal is that Hughes would often come to lunch and take a business call. It wasn’t in the days of mobile phones. The phone was in the dining room and they’d be having lunch and he’d be on the phone for four hours. That is rude by anyone’s book but particularly before telephone culture came. It was unforgivable. So I don’t think he was ever embraced by the family.

What did they see in each other and need from each other?

I think the energy of them was very alike. They were both gripped by their own passage through life. It’s interesting that neither of them had conventional relationships. Even though Hepburn was connected to Spencer Tracy they never married. They never even lived together. They were very individual and very ambitious. By the time they met I’m sure it must have been a tension for Hepburn that Hughes’s celebrity was greater than hers. Hepburn said she went to Hollywood wanting to be famous and then decided she wanted to be an actor. They were both from money which gave them a freedom. Also they were both eccentric by anyone’s standard, even by today. When you consider what Hepburn achieved in changing what it meant to be female in Hollywood and also the longevity and diversity of her career – she must have been remarkably self-possessed as a young woman.

Did he ever stop loving her?

I wonder if anyone can connect with Hepburn and not be irrevocably connected. He used to call her at 3am at the latter stage of his life. Leo spoke to Terry Moore and she said he had a puppy dog quality that meant you couldn’t stay angry at him for long. I have the sense from Hepburn’s biography that it was mutual, so much was going on for both of them that they drifted apart. It wasn’t acrimonious. Then maybe at the time it was and time has softened that.

Was there a movie that was specially helpful to your research?

The most helpful thing was that I saw them on a cinema screen. It was the juxtaposition of the films I found most interesting. Juxtaposing ALICE ADAMS with THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, and CHRISTOPHER STRONG with WOMAN OF THE YEAR. There was a scene in WOMAN OF THE YEAR – the first film she made with Spencer Tracy – where it felt so intimate. I’d watched 20 films before I saw that and suddenly I felt this intimacy and thought I shouldn’t be watching it. It was the most relaxed I had seen Hepburn. I think she gave Spencer Tracy an enormous amount as an actor. She also talks about how much he gave her. In the scene she was playing drunk but there was a chemistry between them – it was like I was seeing someone falling in love.

What about getting the physical side of her?

It was painstaking putting the freckles on. It was a nightmare when I was wearing the dress in the Coconut Grove scene because my arms were bare and the freckles were individually put on. I felt most like her when it was just freckles and no make-up. People have said she was so scrubbed clean of any make-up that she shined. So that’s when I felt most like her.

Do you share her love of being in aeroplanes, particularly small ones?

I don’t think Hepburn would have flown as much as the average actress today. The more you fly the worse it gets. But as far as Hughes was concerned – the crashes he was in and getting straight back again! I’m not a great fan of heights. But I do switch off. It would have been exhilarating for her being in the plane with him. It was like flying to the moon because it was such a new frontier.

Did it make you understand more about Hughes?

I know more about him. He is one of those people the more you find out the less you know. That’s what makes him enigmatic and fascinating. It depends at which angle you look as to what is revealed. The map the film lays out of his life draws a very strong connection to his upbringing. The whole needing to be cleansed, re-born and clean and new.

What about her rapid speech pattern, was that difficult to get right?

It’s like playing a symphony. You learn it, play it slowly, gradually speed it up and then once with feeling. In the end you can only play it if you have all the technical stuff behind you. It really helped that Marty played BRINGING UP BABY and HIS GIRL FRIDAY – the speed and energy with which they spoke was incredible.

Was that period a golden age of Hollywood?

I think it is too easy to call it a golden age. That’s a way of justifying the fact that people don’t write for women in the same way that they did then. I find it inspiring that there were great films about women. Often I find today if an interesting woman lived they don’t unlock the story. In this so called golden age they unlocked the story of women which is why you remember all those actresses. They were given the opportunity. Yes it happens now. But given the amount of films made the proportion is not as great.

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