Cate Blanchett on Mrs America, feminism and the challenges of playing a historical figure
Cate Blanchett plays Phyllis Schlafly in the series Mrs America. It tells the story of the movement for the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, and the backlash led by the conservative Schlafly.
"Being a feminist meant that you were anti-family and that is just an anathema to me. I think feminism, at its base, is about equality but it also means that someone who is holding all the power has to share and that is a fearful thing for a lot of people. True power is about self-respect and respect for others," says the 51-year-old.
Let’s talk about Mrs America, the story of the feminist movement. Tell us a little bit about how you got involved?
Cate: It’s also about the drive to ratify the ERA and the second-wave feminism but it’s also about the equal and opposite women’s movement which was the movement of traditional and homemakers who felt marginalized by the feminist movement and threatened by the notion of equality. And for me, that was the point at wanting to play Phyllis Schlafly who at base value seems so opposite to me even though she was a mother of six, I am a mother of four, working from home, she worked from home. There was so much in common and I wanted to know what was so terrifying for her about the notion of equality.
You played the woman from our mother’s generation. Did you speak to your mom about it?
Cate: So when I was growing up, I identified as a feminist in the backlash. So during my childhood, feminists were those who were men-hating, anti-family and I thought that all feminism means to me is equality. Yet my mother who had come out of that era, even though she was a single working parent, didn’t identify as a feminist in the sense that I described. But of course, she would now. So it was a very interesting conversation to have with her and particularly also because I grew up with my grandmother. So there were a lot of different feelings about what a woman’s role was, which is fascinating to me.
So when you played the role of Phyllis Schlafly, was it daunting to play a real-life person, a
Cate: There’s another trait that I share with Phyllis Schlafly and that is that I am quite bossy, and opinionated. I also feel that I kind of also share a strong work ethic. And I love a challenge. To answer your question, yes it was daunting, absolutely. For a couple of reasons – she is not as well-known as say, Gloria Steinem, played by Rose Byrne who is brilliant by the way. But to play Phyllis, it was fleshing out somebody who had such a particular and polarizing national identity, to have to look behind and beyond that, without any sense of judgement or presupposing what she truly thought inside.
A lot of powerful women playing powerful women. How was the atmosphere like on the set?
Cate: Loud, noisy, and very fun.
Tell us a little bit about your views on feminism and working with women directors on Mrs America.
I’ve always identified as a feminist but I was also a part of the anti-wave in the mid-80s and during the 90s. Feminism was a dirty word. The conversation that was going around in the 70s and I think it continued negatively into the 80s and 90s. Being a feminist meant that you were anti-family and that is just an anathema to me. I think feminism, at its base, is about equality but it also means that someone who is holding all the power has to share and that is a fearful thing for a lot of people. True power is about self-respect and respect for others. I think if we survive into the next century, it will be about collaboration. It will involve deep listening, it will involve doubt, it will involve humility. Women who I greatly admire, who’ve done extraordinary things across industries, I’ll ask them a question hoping that they’re going to solve the problem and they take the time and have the courage to say ‘I don’t know, what do you think.’ So suddenly, you’re in dialogue. Real power is bringing up other people with you and women are by and large great doing that. I am really excited about the generations who are coming up behind my generation. It feels now like there are a lot of growing examples of women who are finding their own voice. Have a more secure and broad platform to be seen by audiences. I thought Alma Har' el's work was amazing in Honey Boy. And Mariel Heller and Claire Denis – all of these people whose work is so fascinating. I am working on Stateless and finally got to work with the wonderful JocelynMorehouse and Emma Freeman who are great TV directors. And apart from Ryan Fleck, all of the directors on Mrs America were women.
Q: You have in the past also portrayed real-life person, in the film, ‘I’m not there’ you played Bob
Dylan. How do you access or inhibit characters that you play, particularly those that are based on a real person?
Cate: For that film, it was Todd Haynes who approached me. It wasn’t like I was sitting in my bedroom thinking, God, I’d love to play Bob Dylan. So I said to Todd, what are you talking about. And I so respond and talk to directors like these. Todd is a quintessential one. He came with a huge mood board and a playlist, and I understood the cinematic endeavour and how I could fit into it. So it was an ask from the outside. But I had a very strange time and pretty close to a panic attack, actually. And I was almost not going to do the film because I was in the middle of playing Elizabeth I and I knew I had to lose quite a lot of weight for playing Dylan. So I was a bit out of my head. But I was playing Elizabeth I, and I remember one Saturday morning, walking off the set of The Golden Age, flew with my kids and husband to Montreal and started working filming on the Monday with Bob Dylan, and I thought “I can’t do this’. So every lunchtime, I was going through the outtakes from the Pennebaker documentary, to try and understand his energy. Yeah, so it was quite obsessive and I am obsessed with him in a lot of ways.