If Cate Blanchett remembers correctly, her first meeting with the filmmaker Todd Field could not have gone worse. "I maintain that we met in the foyer of the Four Seasons in Los Angeles," she says, "and I remember it being one of the most uncomfortable meetings of my entire life. I was meeting a director who clearly didn't want to meet me, about a project that he was never going to cast me in."
"He insists that wasn't him and that I just have early onset dementia," Blanchett deadpans. "We have a bit of a dispute about this."
That was 10 years ago, when Field was co-writing a political thriller with Joan Didion which the actress would have starred in. (For what it's worth, Field recalls his first meeting with Blanchett being "actually really lovely.") That movie never came to be, but, years later, he sent her a script for another project which he'd written with her in mind. If Blanchett had said no, Field has claimed, he simply wouldn't have made it. None of which she knew until after they'd wrapped. "That would be an incredibly pressuring thing to hear before you step on set."
"It was just an undeniable opportunity," she tells A.frame. "He hasn't made a film for upward of 15, 16 years. And it's not because he's lazy. It's because he wants to make sure that he can make something which is going to have fully expressed what he wants to say. I think this is definitely that."
The film is TÁR. It's about power, its shifting transactional nature, and how it corrupts those in dangerous proximity to systems of power. It's about culture and cancel culture, celebrity and #MeToo. Blanchett stars as Lydia Tár, a polymath, EGOT winner, renowned composer, and the first maestra of the Berlin Philharmonic, considered the world's greatest orchestra. We meet her at the height of her career. And, over the course of the film, we watch as she conducts her own downfall.
TÁR marks Field's first film since 2006's Little Children, which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. That same year, Blanchett earned her third Oscar nomination for Notes on a Scandal. In the 16 years since, she has had a film come out nearly every single year, sometimes more than one film in a year, and earned her fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh nominations along the way for I'm Not There (2007), Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), Blue Jasmine (2013) and Carol (2015). (Her two Oscar wins are for Best Supporting Actress in The Aviator and Best Actress in Blue Jasmine.)
"I look for the great noble failure, I think, at this point in my life," says Blanchett. "When I began reading the script [for TÁR], I fortunately have a 26-volume edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. And I had to look up every term until, after about the third page, I put it away, and I went, 'There's an incredible rhythm happening here. And, in fact, I don't need to know any of this.' I found a subterranean connection that I still don't understand fully. Maybe I don't ever want to understand it; I just want the reverberations to be with me forever."
"But I thought, 'I am going to have to do a lot of work in order to get the audience to feel the same way,' to understand that this woman knows her onions. Which I found thrilling and terrifying at the same time."
"If the process of preparing this was a slow and steady one, the experience of making the film was an explosion."
Blanchett began with a to-do list and started working her way through it: Learn how to play the piano. Learn to speak German. When the film was pushed back a year due to the pandemic, she suddenly had more time to study the skills she would need to embody Lydia Tár. "No one wants to see my homework! Nothing could be less boring," Blanchett baulks modestly. But she loves the homework. She studied with the conductor Natalie Murray Beale and learned to conduct herself, and then, did so with the Dresdner Philharmonie, the German symphony orchestra that appears in the film.
"I've spent many, many decades on stage, so I felt strangely most at home when I was on stage with the orchestra," she says. "And I said to them in my terrible German, I said, 'I am not a conductor. And you are not actors. So, somewhere in that liminal space between the two of us, we will find our way together.' They laughed, and then, we just got on. And I knew I couldn't apologize for what I needed to do to get there."
Still, the night before Blanchett would arrive on set and be Lydia Tár for the first time, she couldn't be sure that she'd gotten there.
"I always ask my husband the night before I start shooting, 'What's my process?! What do I— what's my process?'" she recounts, feigning mock panic. "And he said, 'Don't worry.' He said, 'You'll find it. Just stop thinking about yourself and your process and get to work.'" She laughs, "And if the process of preparing this was a slow and steady one, the experience of making the film was an explosion."
TÁR had its world premiere at this year's Venice Film Festival, where Blanchett won the Coppa Volpi for Best Actress. At the 95th Oscars, the film received six nominations in total, including Best Actress — a far cry from failure of any sort, no matter how great or noble. Which isn't to say that Blanchett didn't risk her all and come away with a valuable learning experience.
"I don't want to sound too mauve, but I feel very changed by it," she says. "Because I felt in a really brave — I hate the word 'brave' — in a really potent way, shall we say, that we knew where we needed to get. But the process of making it shifted both of us somewhere slightly unexpected. Which was really, really exciting. In a way, no matter what the outcome was, I felt so grateful for that, because I felt shifted as a performer, which doesn't happen all the time."
In the end, Blanchett measures the success of a film like TÁR by how it connects with an audience.
"I mean, that is everything, right? I learnt a lot as an actor, and I'm grateful for that, but who cares about that, apart from me?! My mother, maybe." she guffaws. "I look to be in dialogue with people who are able to move the needle. Whether it ultimately works or not — you always hope it does — the process, I know, will be really fascinating. So, I can't be objective about myself — who cares? — but from that perspective, I think it's a success."
By John Boone
A.frame, the digital magazine of the Academy, is excited to celebrate and honor the nominees of the 95th Oscars across several branches by spotlighting their nominated films, craftsmanship, and personal stories. For more on this year's nominees, take a look at our Oscars hub.
Editor's Note: For parity, A.frame reached out to every nominee in the Best Actress in a Leading Role category for an interview.