Mrs. America: Cate Blanchette as Sweetheart of the Silent Majority

Mrs. America: Cate Blanchett’s New Acting and Political Challenge

Two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett, one of the most accomplished actors of her (or any) generation, is very enthusiastic about her upcoming television series, “Mrs. America,” in which she not only stars but also executive produced. Created by Dahvi Waller, the show has taken years to materialize, and it’s obviously timed for a year that celebrates a century of women’s rights to vote. Hulu’s nine-episode series begins streaming in the U.S. on April 15.

Blanchett (who will be 51 next month) has left her mark on every medium of entertainment, stage (both Australian and American), television, and of course, cinema.

Among many theatrical credits, in 2017, Blanchett starred in the Sydney Theatre Company play The Present, Andrew Upton’s adaption of Anton Chekhov’s play Platonov, directed by John Crowley. The production debuted in Sydney in 2015, to critical acclaim, and transferred to Broadway in 2017, marking Blanchett’s Broadway debut.  She received a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress in a Play, Drama Desk Award nomination, and a Drama League Award nomination for the Distinguished Performance Award.

She’s one of the few actors to be nominated for six Oscars, winning two, Best Supporting Actress (“The Aviator,” in which she embodied Katharine Hepburn) and Best Actress (Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine”). I recall how she promoted with equal passion at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival her small part as one facet of Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes’ “I am Not There,” and her titular part in “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” the sequel to the 1998 movie that had catapulted her to international stardom.

One of the most versatile and busies actors working today, Blanchett has navigated smoothly from American indies to foreign art films to mainstream blockbusters, Unlike other actors, has gone out of her way not to be narrowly typecast. She cherished her “mean roles” and “elegant villainesses,” as in Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella,” alongside her parts in global actioners like “Thor: Ragnarok,” in which she appeared with her compatriot, Chris Hemsworth.

But “Mrs. America” is different from other projects: “I felt that each day as we were filming, the show became more relevant. The language of how we discuss women in the world, whether we spend our time primarily in the home, or whether we try and work and also have a family, or whether we devote ourselves entirely to our career, or any combination thereof, there is still a sense that we have to make this work alone, and that if we fail it is our responsibility.”  Taking place between 1971-1980, the series relates history in a way that doesn’t feel superfluous or didactic.  Each episode is titled after the woman who is its primary figure.  The first chapter revolves around the face of the conservative women’s movement, Phyllis Schlafly, the “perfect” embodiment of the happy housewife, raising six children with husband Frank (John Slattery of “Mad Men” fame).

 

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Photo: Rose Byrne (Gloria Steinem) and Cate Blanchett

Waller and the other directors interweave the ERA fight with various dimensions of feminism that have kept women divided. Over the span of a decade, Schlafly is presented as a complex woman whose mean-spirited personality and hypocrisy are conscious strategies for being accepted by men. Introduced prancing around in bathing suit at a political rally, Schlafly promotes herself as the perfect wife and mother, a woman that men can easily support.  That image might involve light physical touch or dirty joke told in her presence, but Schlafly believes it’s worth it.  She realizes the only way to be taken seriously is to stay in her place and feed on men’s fear–that one day their wives might turn against them.
Blanchett plays Schlafly as a loud and brash woman, engaged in a misinformation campaign. When she’s called out for lack of factuality, she doesn’t back down but keeps talking and preaching.  But she is not a one-dimensional character, we observe her struggles with her son being gay and its effect on her personal status and political crusade.
Focusing on the women of that era–Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug–the series explores how one battleground in the culture wars helped bring the Moral Majority, changing forever the political landscape. For Blanchett, it’s a multi-faceted story about the numerous ways to be a woman, and the creation of the political divide.
Jumping into the heart of the show, Blanchett observes: “Gloria Steinem said something fascinating, that she has yet to hear a man ask her advice on how to combine marriage and a career, and here we are in 2020, and we are still asking those same questions that my male counterparts just do not get asked.” Blanchett thinks “there’s something wrong with that system,” and holds that “not much has really changed in the conversation around that since 1971, which is when our series starts.”
Blanchett had heard “tangentially” about her character: “I had seen this little old lady in her late 90s, being trucked out at the tail end of Trump’s campaign.  There was a standing ovation for her, and she seemed to be important and treated with profound respect by the Republican Party. I found out that that person was Phyllis Schlafly, and then I saw Trump attending her funeral, and I thought, ‘who is this woman?’ why was she so internally important to the Republican Party and yet not so widely known outside of circles.'”
She elaborates: “A lot of her achievements–some might say dubious achievements–are that she has a past on preventing the ERA from being modified, she has singlehandedly embedded into the spine of the Republican Party, the notions of pro-life, pro-family and pro-American.”  For Blanchett, it was  personal journey “to try to understand what was so abhorrent about Phyllis and the people who were like-minded around her, what was so terrifying for them about the notion of equality.”
Blanchett had heard “tangentially” about her character: “I had seen this little old lady in her late 90s, being trucked out at the tail end of Trump’s campaign.  There was a standing ovation for her, and she seemed to be important and treated with profound respect by the Republican Party. I found out that that person was Phyllis Schlafly, and then I saw Trump attending her funeral, and I thought, ‘who is this woman?’ why was she so internally important to the Republican Party and yet not so widely known outside of circles.'”
Blanchett realizes the importance of entertainment values for such series to reach wider audiences, and so for her, “first and foremost, it’s an irreverent human drama, and it speaks to a point in history, but one that we haven’t learned much from.  The conversations and the dialectic that the women experience in the series are very current.”  During the process, there were many times when she would turn to her female mates and say, “Oh my God, haven’t you had this conversation at home? Don’t you feel like you are back in our time, and yet we are saying we are in 1974? Has anything changed for you?”
The show is really “a reverse-engineering process of how did we get to where we are now? I think that very little has changed, and it would be quite shocking to audiences to watch the series and feel like they are back in the 1970s, but totally in the time in which we are living right now.”
The show also bears personal meanings for Blanchett, hailing from Australia and being raised by a single parent (her father died when she was ten). She recalls: “In my high school years, there was a big question whether you identified as a feminist or not.  I was raised by a single mother, and my grandmother was in the house. My mother had to work, but she didn’t identify as a feminist, based on the notion then that if you were feminist, you were anti-family.”
“We all understand that the family is society’s basic building block,” she says, ” but totalitarian regimes are trying to destroy this and to claim that the main loyalty has to be the state. As a result, for many, feminism was anti-American and anti-family. My mother grew up with that sensibility, even though she was a single working parent with many challenges. I, her daughter, identified as a feminist, but she didn’t.”  There was a real stigma identifying as a self-actualized woman who could achieve anything in line with male counterparts. that stigma came off the movement because of its branding. Interestingly, it was women themselves who helped kill the notion of equal rights, and that influenced the way future generations of women picked it up.”
Acting has always been a central force in her life. Having worked with the best directors in the world, Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu (“Babel”) Fincher (“Curious Case on Benjamin Button”) Scorsese (“The Aviator”), Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings,” “The Hobbit”), Haynes (“Carol”), she is now involved in “Nightmare Alley,” directed by recent Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toro (“The Shape of Water”): Guillermo and I had been talking for years about working together, and when ‘Nightmare Alley’ came up I just jumped at the opportunity.  I learned so much from him, as a filmmaker he’s very muscular, absolutely brilliant, and as a person, he is so generous and transparent. I immediately warmed to him, because Australian filmmaking is by and large non-hierarchal, and he is non-hierarchal, creating a warm and inclusive set, with profound respect for every member of cast and crew.”
Blanchett has high expectations for the political goals of “Mrs. America”: “The systems we live in are very fragile, and our show points out the cracks in those systems.  We need to work together with our governments to make sure those systems are fixed so that their citizens are well served should this happen again.”  “If we have learned anything from the fights around the ERA,” she claims, “it’s that fear-based language and polarizing attacks don’t really progress the conversation at all.” Ultimately she hopes that “viewers will see the connective tissue between the desires of traditional women and women who are feminist, that there is lot more that unites us and separates us.  What happened in the 1970s was this profound schism between women of different ambitions.  I hope that ‘Mrs. America’ will be a place where a conversation can be reignited around the points of intersections, rather than the points of division.”

 

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Happily married for 23 years, she and Aussie playwright and screenwriter Andrew Upton have raised three biological sons (born in 2001, 2004, and 2008), and a baby girl, adopted in 2015.  After years of living n Australia, they are back in England, living in a countryside of East Essex. “Living with Coronavirus, we are self-isolating, like everybody, and it’s very difficult.  We are all in it together, and some of us are in more perilous positions than others.”  She acknowledges her privileged position–Blanchett is one of Hollywood’s highest paid actors–but it’s revealing to all of us that viruses don’t recognize international borders, and for me the notion of nation-building is spurious in the wake of such a pandemic.” Blanchett is “in awe of the nurses and doctors on the front lines and it’s terrifying for them, they have got families of their own but they are so committed and I have profound respect and empathy for the position they are in and gratitude for their service.”
Blanchett admits to being “a binge watcher, getting obsessed with certain series, especially limited series.  Recently, because their youngest son (Ignatius) hadn’t seen it, “we went back to reverse engineer the seminal days of “The Sopranos.” That was really exciting to re-experience that with him, because as a viewer, you absorb these influences, but then you don’t realize how.”  Foreign films are also high on her menu these days.  She watched Lars von Trier’s “The Kingdom” with their oldest son (Dashiell John), and she re-visited with her husband Kieslowaski’s “Dekalog,” which is “one of my all-time favorite pieces of television.”
She prefers to view “things uninterrupted, and having only one big screen in the house facilitates that. We sit down and attend to what’s on, I don’t like sort of watching these things on my phone or my I-Pad.  We are really trying to make the most of that opportunity right now–sort of elegant family viewing.  We watch them as a communal experience, based on my fond childhood memories, when there were only terrestrial channels, so you tuned in at a certain time and you watched with the entire family.”

 

 

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