Full Interview Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh
JB--Jeffrey Brown, the Interviewer
JB: Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh, and welcome!
CB & RR: Thank you!
JB: Why Chekhov...Why Uncle Vanya? Do you remember the moment that you said to yourself: Yes, let's do this project.
CB: Well, Andrew Upton (i.e Cate's husband) and I who run the Sydney Theatre Company...the company has the long history of re-interpretating the classics as well as doing new Australian work. And when you come to the company, you think, you know, there's some great plays you'd like to do. And when you think about doing Chekhov's, you have to have actors, it's all actor-based. And...so, it's really arose out of a conversation with Richard, trying to lure him back on stage, 'cause he's one of the finest stage actors in the country. It's true. No, I'm not your agent, but it's true. And...and Vanya came up amongst whole of all other...
RR: Yeah...yeah...there were few ideas we were tossing around, but Vanya was the one that kinda of really picked our interest. Yeah...Chekhov's is kind of...I mean, Chekhov's is really tricky to do and I don't think Australians have particular happy relationship with it over time.
JB: What's the problem? What's the difficulty?
RR: Lot of the time, we've inherited a kind of Anglo tradition of doing which is...in which the pauses are sort of terribly leaden and it starts to feel like...Noel Coward without the jokes. To my mind, Chekhov's pretty funny. I mean he is full of Humanity, but he is also very funny, so it's important that we find a world where that was gonna happen.
JB: Well, do you as an actor, say, I can perhaps...I can bring something new to this?
CB: I think it begins with the adaptation, in the end, and Andrew Upton adapted and he is...you know, he is a fine adaptor of...um, as we've talked before in the recoding that, the difference between Translation of a foreign work and Adaptation. (LyridsMC Notes: This point was also highly emphasised by their director at the Q & A Session on the night of 13th, December in 2010, that Adaptation does not simply equal to Translation.)
An adaptation is done for a group of people with the director and trying to bring fresh life but together is close to the original as possible. And Thomas Asher, who is one the greatest interpretator of Chekhov and we were very fortunate that he's the director of the production, he gave directions to Andrew at the beginning, to say that the Chekhov's is Brutal, Funny, but Brutal. People say, you're fat, you're old, you're ugly, and we often inherit this very flawed English interpretations of...you know, his work. And he wanted to be, like a pappel thrown into a pond, and he said creates ripples, but the adaptation shouldn't be the ripples, it's you've got to write, the stone being dropped into the pond and the actors interpret the ripples. So it's a very plain, spare, brutal adaptation.
JB: And that means for you as an actor?
RR: It means that you...there's no kinda of distance in a way between the audience and what you were giving them. So I guess, the humanity of the thing is exposed and...it doesn't feel like that you're watching something of an antiquity or something of a museum piece. It's quite...it's a media production. And I think it is brutal, I mean, what's improtant is that the fun and vasty(?) of Chekhov...which is really strong and really evident, He's Russian and those people are fun, they're full of life. But what it means is that the highs are very high and then when it falls away in Act 3 and 4, there's a long way to go.
JB: You know, you can't help and say: this is not like the big sort of epic story that we used to in our entertainment world, it's a country estate, where they were sitting around moaning...moaning a lot of time, right?
CB: But it's very easy to make Chekhov's very small, and...it's Epic.
JB: You feel it's Epic?
CB: Well, it's...they are epic moment in people's very small domestic lives, and I think that's the balance, is opening up the time spent with those people. And having Thomas Asher directed, he is really encouragous to go into those silences, into what he calls "stupid pauses", in life where you...where we always want to fill moments and he wants to empty all of those moments out. So you get these moments where people...he loves the moments when...as actors, we are thinking "my God, these pauses are going on so long..." and we all start feeling incredibly awkwards.
RR: Yeah. And he loved that when we were kind of (?) with that and say "See, we were there, when you all felt the worst that you've ever felt. That was great!"
JB: He makes it...I mean he wanted it even be longer?
RR: Yeah. He said, you know, play with that staff. What's been really interesting about Thomas? And unlike a lot of directors, almost directors, in fact all the directors I've ever worked with, what is the odds with him, is that he loves getting rid of your favourite moments.
RR: And he will do this sagaciously, by coming and saying "that bit when you do this scene, that you love so much, I can tell you, love it, don't do that." And so, you know it's interesting because we did this production a year ago and now we have the chance to re-rehearse it. And he didn't see quite a bit of the whole production, he has to go back to Hungry. So he was watching us and he enjoyed it, but he said "you've developed all this things, and you love them, now it's the time to get rid of all those things you love and re-invest and re-invent it. It's very brave."
CB: I know he's a bugger. And as you suggest, Chekhov is tricky. As we saying in Australia, he is a bugger to preform. But it's a...I don't know, can I say that on American Television? It means...it's something slightly different in our culture. But it's very very exposing. And I found it's very...the process of rehearsing it...It's a bit like doing a clowning workshop, not the way we were trying to get up there and be funny, but the way that you've got to get up there with risk being and doing nothing. So in the re-rehearsal of it, it's been a really interesting process because...you know, he's asking (us) to pare back and be in a way more mysterious and not clean onto those things that you...a bag of tricks I guess, that you have as actors...but yet he's cast us all because of an intransigent quality that he feels we have.
JB: Is there an example of something that something from your bag of tricks that he said "you know what, that thing you love...(throw them away)"?
CB: There's a moment where Vanya walks in on Astrov and Yelena in an embrace. And we'd all feel the moment and he...
RR: I really feel that moment.
CB: (Laugh). It's actually Andrew's favourite moment.
RR: Was it?
CB: The way you're able to hover on that sort of terrible (?).
RR: Not there anymore.
CB: It's gone! We're all behind me, so I can't see it. But he wanted us to be very mysterious in that moment. And to not explain for the audience how the characters are feeling. And he said that 's when the audience wants to leap up to stage, because they interpret and explain the moment really and understand the moment through their own personal experience rather than what they're being...It's not described by the actors.
RR: So in a way, it's kind of, it's almost like...you know, when you read a book, you paint the character yourself, you picture everything yourself. So, I guess, in the history of watching...In my history of watching Chekhov's and interpretation of...in Australia, for instance, or even in the UK, a lot of the time when the pauses arrived, those famous Chekhov's in pauses, there's so much to talk about. There invests with solemnity or something that's (?) something that's just happend. And so their...they tend to be very brave. I'm thinking deeply about what's just occurred. While it's to Thomas, it's like "no, you just got to dumpling in the middle of something, and everybody forgot what's to talk about. See, just there."
JB: Which is more like real life.
RR: It's more like life. It's also I think...then it's the audience, you're called to (?) interpret yourself, to paint your own thing about what's that moment about. And so, you know, I love that about it.
JB: I saw you last year, in Streetcar Named Desire when you were here and Washington, and I'm thinking about that, thinking about Uncle Vanya, and about what you're doing with the company with classics. How do you...what's the trick for re-interpreting or re-presenting classics to an contemporary audience? To make them still have life?
CB: I think in the end, it has to be...they have to be the element of (?) in programming. But it can't be too fashionable, and I mean it's wonderful to have Andrew to help with the company because he is such a wonderful re-interpreter of it. I think what we've been very fortunate with saving Streetcar and Uncle Vanya is having 2 very distinct voices, directorial voices with both of these 2 productions. Liv Ullmann interpreting very...I mean obviously much loved Streetcar and now Thomas Asher doing Uncle Vanya. And I think it's through the connection between a foreign work and a foreign director and a wonderful Australian cast. And I think Australian actors are very...as if you can say anything about us really, I think we are very open as performers. And so I think we leap into that oppotunity. So it hasn't just been a dialogue with the classic work, the work has been re-interpreting through sort of external eye.
JB: But again, Streetcar, I mean I've seen that...everyone's seen it for so many times in movie, in productions of it, and now there you are. Or Uncle Vanya, or any of these. And then, you have to say, somehow, it's new.
CB: Well, you have to leave your preconceptions out the door, there's a lot baggage that comes with the certain roles, particularly in Blanche's, no exception. Less so with the Yelena, because it's not that iconic, but I'm sure with Vanya...Frankly I think part of the incredibly (?) in Vanya is that the productions I've seen, the actors always been too old to play the role, and there's a point that Richard and Hugo Weaving, who plays Astrov, are men of their prime.
RR: And they've already forgot them...that at the end of their lives in a sence...
CB: So you feel the loss, you feel the pass of...simply by your age. Or lack their of (?)...
RR: Thank you, darling.
JB: You both have very active film careers. Is there a difference in acting between the film and what you're doing now in Uncle Vanya? Filling the screen in the film and actual life person we see in front us on stage, is there a difference for you, in an approach?
RR: It's all really the same thing. I suppose you use different muscles in slightly different ways in across the media. For me, coming back in doing theatre is...I mean theatre is my great love, it's where I started, it's where I'll finish and I love it so much and I have such a profound sense of home coming every time I come back to it. What you find working in film is that you can spend a day doing some really menial, terribly dull activity. He scratches his head and yawns and gets out of bed. He walks to the shower. He closes the door. That's your...that's three quarters of a day in the film land. And, of course, that's...I mean, that's slightly reductive. All put together, it can be fantastic. But, in terms of acting itself, there's nothing for me that is as wonderful and as, frankly, as nourishing as doing theater. Theater gives back to you, because you get to do it, the big thing, every night, the Big thing, and all of it. And that's very good for your skills as well.
JB: I've seen you refer yourself as a Theatre Geek?
CB: (Laughter). I'm just a geek, generally. Look, we both went into the same drama school and obviously that's what we were trained to do. And we're in a country with 21 million people, but still, the film industry is poned as it is, it's a cottage industry. So I certainly didn't have any expectation that I would even make film, nor any ambition.
RR: Really? Not even ambition?
CB: No, no! I mean one of the first things I did when I got out of drama school was, I was working opposite Geoffrey Rush in a production of Oleanna, which is a play that hit an audience. I mean at the perfect timing, and it was one of the most powerful experiences that I have ever had with an audience. It was...and I thought, this is actually really important. It's a socially important enterprise, putting on a play. And that doesn't always happen, but that is what you're always trying to do. And it is very immediate. And I think that that is the addictive thing, is that the audience will get as much as they put into it, but also you're responsible for shaping their experience very very tangibly. And that is a...it's a very powerful experience to have. But in a (?) level, I've...I think I become...I hope I become a better film actor by working in the theatre and vice versa. When you work on the stage, particular (?) we doing with Chekhov, I think Chekhov is really designed to be performed in that frame. It helps you understanding a wide shot. You are able to feel that wide shot, and I think likewise having...I realized I've been on stage for about 60 years making film and I came back to do Hedda Gabler with the Sydney Theatre Company, which andrew also adapted and we took it to BAM (LyridsMC Notes: Brooklyn Academy of Music), in New York. And I realized that I got a great sense of intimacy with the audience through understanding what close-up is. So you're constantly shaping the audience's experience of that.
JB: I want to ask you about coming back to codirect with your husband the theater company. Why? Why do that? Because surely you don't need to do that, and surely there must be headaches that come with managing...
CB: Migraines, migraines. (Laughter)
RR: It's easy, isn't it?
CB: It's simple. Well, we were...we were asked to apply. And it was the most left of field thing that's ever been asked of us really. And we were...we were so shocked by the request to apply for the job, that it made us ask...we had the most fascinating discussion with each other that...we were up all night talking about the potential and what could be done. And then we got frightened. And we thought, well, if we don't apply it will just be cowardice. And then we got the job. And I think what was great, I hope was great, was that we've been outside the country for a decade, living in the UK, and so we have the sense of objectivity about the city of Sydney and the company's potential plays with the city and had been cut and drift somewhat. And so I think outside the respective was quite useful. And has been useful in our sort of approach to the way that the company might be placed nationally, locally and also internationally.
RR: What's been interesting since Cate and Andrew have taken over is that, to my mind the company has really opened up to the fact that we live...Australia lives in the world. And Australia, as beautiful as it is, can tend to be an extremely insular environment. And so what has happened is, you know, that it feels that the company has opened up and it's internationalized in a way, so that for the first time really...to my mind, people like Tamas Ascher can be invited into...to come and direct something. And it an acceptance of the fact that we are a global community. And there is no point in hiding from that anymore. It is what it is, and that's a good thing, and for the first time, it happens to Australia, I think it's really wonderful, because having a director like Thomas Asher come in...In Australia, directors can be very...kind of...We have some wonderful directors, but they really...you got (?) you're told "look, that was wonderful, that was terrific, but maybe could you think...trying like this...it's OK with you." When we having Thomas Asher, you know, he is a director from all sort of European tradition, who will stand and say to an older actor in the company, he will say "when you do this moment, you shouldn't do it like that, it looks stupid. Come on instead and..." You know, this is terribly challenging to actors, because that's just doesn't happen. But it's been so good for us, because, you know, it's a broom, it swipes staffs away.
JB: I have to ask you finally because you have talked so much about Australia, what is it about Australia that has generated so many wonderful actors? So many of our biggest stars...
RR: I think it's just that most people in Australia now are actors. (Laughter) So it's just...it's a numbers game. Most people are actors over there.
JB: Is that how it feels?
RR: Yeah. (Laughter)
CB: But the interesting thing about Australia is we...something that Andrew and I were very passionate about when we came to the company, was that in the performing arts, we explore a lot of individuals, for a lot of successful individuals, and we're very passionate about exploring ensembles, which is part of the endeavor of taking something like Streetcar to New York and Washington and bringing Uncle Vanya back over here. And we are part of the cultural Olympian in a production of Botho Strauss's Gross und Klein to Vienna, London and Paris next year, in a new adaption by Martin Crimp. So it's about getting that whole group out together, so you can get a sense of the whole, rather than individual achievement, which is fantastic, and should be celebrated and encouraged. But I think we're quite adventurous as performers. And I don't think we have a...we don't have a...we're not polite, I don't think. I don't think we have a...for better or for worse, we don't have a sense of boundaries or boxes that we should be in. And I think that's what makes I think people curious about Australian performers, is you're not able to pigeonhole people as clearly. We somehow sit between or understand American culture and English culture, but we're something other. So I think it's in that something other that provides that open space to become something unique.
JB: All right, Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh, thanks for talking to us.
CB & RR: Thank you!