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  • Cate Blanchett relishes fiendishly good role in Cinderella

    2018 - 07.03

    Lily James is Cinderella and Cate Blanchett is the Stepmother in Disney’s “Cinderella”. Photo: Jonathan Olley Lily James is Cinderella and Cate Blanchett is the Stepmother in Disney’s “Cinderella”. Photo: Jonathan Olley
    Nanjing Night Net

    Lily James is Cinderella and Richard Madden is the Prince “Cinderella”, directed by Kenneth Branagh. Photo: Jonathan Olley

    Lily James is Cinderella and Cate Blanchett is the Stepmother in Disney’s “Cinderella”. Photo: Jonathan Olley

    Lily James is Cinderella and Cate Blanchett is the Stepmother in Disney’s “Cinderella”. Photo: Jonathan Olley

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    The first thing that would strike any woman looking at the drawings and mood boards in costume designer Sandy Powell’s heavingly busy studio on Disney’s Cinderella set is the corsetry. Here is a drawing of the sweeping stone staircase where Lily James will drop her glass slipper. There is one of her dresses. Its tiny waist seems to emulate, as far as is possible in the real world of flesh and blood, the ethereal figures in Disney’s first Cinderella: the animation made in 1950.

    Even reed-like women are chunkier than a cartoon, however. “I don’t really have organs any more,” says James, lifting the wired layers of her ball-dress behind her like a peacock’s tail to lower herself gingerly on to a stool. “They’re squeezed in and then pulled down on my kidneys. It’s worth it though.”

    Isn’t it difficult to dance? “Really difficult. I have to take lots of breathers. And I can only eat soup.”

    This Cinderella is relatively empowered – she’s not counting on a prince coming – but not so much as to be able to breathe.

    Fast forward more than a year to the film’s grand premiere at the Berlin Film Festival. Against the odds, all the film’s female stars are still alive and full of praise for costume designer Powell, who has won three Oscars and is universally regarded as one of the best in the world. Cate Blanchett, who plays the wicked stepmother Lady Tremaine, says she worked out much of her character during costume consultations. “Inspiration comes off people you’re working with. That’s where you have those girlie conversations: what if I wore that in that scene?”

    In many ways, director Kenneth Branagh and writer Chris Weitz have dragged the story up to date. Nobody is actually ugly, which was one of the reasons Blanchett wanted to do it. “We get so obsessed with the externals, but it’s all about the internal stuff,” she says. “Lady Tremaine is withered from the inside out, so she masks herself up with this exquisite exterior. Hopefully, as the story progresses … [her] luscious red lips become really hideous! I hope those little things come across.”

    Her wickedness is also more complicated in this version, as our minder explains on set. “Ken has given her more of a backstory so you feel she has her reasons: she has two dead husbands and no money,” she says.

    Despite her splendid viciousness, Blanchett does hint at a vulnerability, even fear, in the jealous glances she gives her unwanted step-daughter. “Cate gives every character she plays great depths of humanity and humour,” says producer David Barron between scenes. “She was the right person. With both her and Helena Bonham-Carter, who plays the fairy godmother, there was only ever a list of one.”

    On set, it feels as if the legacy of the 65-year-old animation loomed very large. Of course, the production was larger still. According to industry websites, the production cost $US95 million; the glass slipper alone came in eight versions, ranging from acrylic to a crystal-encrusted version made by Swarovski that could only be handled with gloves. We sweep through the ballroom, 12 weeks in construction, where 350 extras are on hand to swirl about and 500,000 little crystals stud the sets. There are real candles in the chandeliers – 2500 of them – and a team of people to change them every few hours.

    However, Blanchett says she didn’t think about the animated film when she was preparing for her role. She grew up with Cinderella in a story book. She watched the film to see if there was anything in the stepmother’s character worth taking – “because I’m a bower bird; if there is something worth stealing, I will steal it” – but decided there wasn’t. The magnificent sets and costumes outshone any drawing, as far as she could see. “And there are real, breathing actors. I think you always feel more deeply for them, because a cartoon risks less.”

    Has she ever encountered a real-life Lady Tremaine? “I don’t know,” she muses. “I have only had one bad experience with an actress. It was quite early on and you know, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Also, you can’t hold it against anyone because sometimes they are just having a really bad time in their relationship or they are going through menopause, whatever it is. When people are unhappy, they do cruel things: the stepmother is a case in point.”

    It is only a year since Blanchett won her Oscar as Best Actress for a very different film: Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. It seems a long time ago now, she says, even though she still feels surprised. “I didn’t expect to be there,” she insists. “I thought it was the end of my career. That’s what you think – you put yourself out on a limb and it can go either way. You can fall flat on your face; I ended up the opposite. But then you do have to say, ‘What is the next challenge?’ “

    She has pulled back from directing the Sydney Theatre Company with her husband Andrew Upton; this year she will do one play but no films. Her biggest challenge, she says, is doing nothing. “But that is what I plan to do this year,” she says flatly. “Absolutely f— all.” There is a ripple of delighted shock; foreign journalists do not expect stars to swear, especially with such relish. She may have played queens and collected statuettes, but there are times when Cate Blanchett is very Australian.

    Cinderella is out now. 

    This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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