Cate Blanchett sits in her trailer, studying her scripts for the day's filming.
She has just 10 days in New Zealand to wrap her scenes as Elf Queen Galadriel--a small but pivotal part in Lord of the Rings (and one of only three major female characters in the trilogy)--and she's cramming hard before the afternoon cameras roll.
It's a familiar scenario for the 31-year-old Australian beauty. Since her Golden Globe-winning and Oscar-nominated performance in 1998's Elizabeth, she has become one of the world's most sought after actresses, stretching from Long Island housewife (Pushing Tin) to WASP heiress (The Talented Mr Ripley) to Elvish royalty.
Of course, Cate's more than just an actress. She's a movie star, with the kind of beauty and flair for fashion (remember the backless butterfly dress at last year's Academy Awards?) that make her a photographer's dream.
For now, though, the Vera Wangs and red carpets are on hold. It's on with the blond wig, pointy silicone Elf ears and flowing gowns to play Galadriel--prophetess, Ring bearer, gift giver and (possible) thief of the Ring.
But since she has some time before shooting resumes, she welcomes a visitor to talk about her character, working with director Peter Jackson and LOTR.
Is it daunting taking on a character from such a well-known story?
It's a challenge, in the best possible sense of the word.
How do you mean?
Well, you're dealing with so many millions of people who are connected to these stories, and you have a responsibility. But you also need to find a reason to turn it into a film. If you're simply wanting to give every single detail in the books, then go and buy the tapes of someone reading them, or go and read them yourself. It has to be a filmic experience, which is liberating for an actor.
How did you become involved in the project?
I heard on the grapevine that Peter [Jackson] and Fran [Walsh, Jackson's writing partner] were going to do it, and I'd long been a fan of their films.
Are you a big Tolkien fan?
I'd read The Hobbit, but I've only come to the book as an adult--since I've been involved in the project. There are so many people on this project who've known the books since their childhood--it's interwoven in their fantasies. I've come at it from a different way. But I think if anyone can realize the stories, Peter can.
What appeals to you about P.J.'s vision?
Like any form of magic or war story, the books are incredibly dark. They're primal as well as fantastical, so I think it's important to have a director who has his feet planted in gore and fantasy. Yet when we're doing the scenes, he's constantly saying it has to be real--even though we're playing Elves--and grounded in realism, or else people won't buy it. They have to be emotionally and psychologically, as well as visually, invested in the story.
How has filming been so far?
I've never done this before--I've come into this project with a group of people at the top of their field who've been going for eight months. It's a city within a city here. It's an industry--like Middle Earth, really! You come in and you're walking past people in Orc costumes, and you go to WETA and you see the extraordinary things they're doing there--they're geniuses! So, in a lot of ways I've taken the lead from them.
Is it intimidating to be one of the few women in this sea of men?
Not when you're Galadriel! I've got these glam-disco boots, which make me as tall as anyone! [Cate hikes up her costume to reveal a very cool pair of gold platforms.]
And, of course, Galadriel has a little bit of clout, too.
The spiritual power and the psychic power of the Elves is so intense. Like anyone in a position of power, Galadriel doesn't need to wield it. It's a quiet power. Peter wants to find that sense of Mother Earth and the physical glory that is Galadriel, but he's wanting to also find the darkness and the threat. She is a Ring bearer herself, as well as a queen. As there are so few female figures in the books, it's a bit like women everywhere--you want them to be able to be everything, because there's so few of them!
How are you putting the character together?
I look at Alan Lee's drawings, and I'm working with makeup artists and costume designers and WETA technicians, who've all grown up with the books. So, it's the perfect environment, really, because you're able to witness the physical expression of people's connection to the book and then mine that. Moment by moment, you're trying to make it as real as you can. Also, there's so much that will be done in postproduction. So far, I've been working with actors, so I haven't had to work with tennis balls....maybe that's still to come!
What appeals to you about Galadriel? What about her is yours?
I don't really look at characters that way. I don't claim them. They will mutate depending on the circumstances. Peter and I are interested in showing that when the Ring enters Lothlórien, it is a threat. Galadriel is traditionally a vessel of goodness and purity and white light, but she is tempted by the power of the Ring--as are most who come into contact with it.
What I've really connected to about the books is that there's an enormous sadness at the passing of time. Treebeard says the world is changing--he feels it in the water, he feels it in the air. I think that's something Galadriel feels. She's able to sense her position in the changing order of the world. There's a joy in the melancholy of what that means--that she can be released.
There's also a lot of gray area for Galadriel, right?
What's interesting is these debates about whether Galadriel was forced to stay in Middle Earth or whether she chose to stay. I hope we keep those ambiguities alive. When you're dealing with a figure like her, you don't want to be prescriptive--you want to be evocative. So, if I'm trying to do anything, I hope I can do that.
Galadriel speaks some of her dialogue in Old Elvish. How does speaking another language--especially a fictional one--open you to the character?
[Dialogue coaches] Roisin [Carty] and Andrew [Jack] have been very helpful to us. They both speak Elvish beautifully, and they're online to [becoming] Old Elvish experts. And that in itself really spins me out! That there's someone who devotes their time to speaking Elvish--it's just astonishing! It's like people speaking Klingon!
How does the language sound?
It's not like any I've attempted to speak before. It sounds familiar because of the Celtic influences, but it's completely unfamiliar at the same time.
So much of Elvish is very formal and ceremonial. Has that affected the way you move and deliver the lines?
It's very important that it's not bad Shakespearean, like [in bad Shakespearean voice], "My liege!...A-ha! The long, pointy-eared Elf people have just arrived!" We're trying to avoid that. But it's hard--the language is incredibly formal, as are the relationships and the hierarchy in the Elven community.
Plus, there are elements of Galadriel that keep her apart from other characters.
Galadriel doesn't really step down to the others. You never truly get to know her--she's an enigma, and that's part of her allure. The closest she gets to knowing anyone really is Frodo--or to Frodo knowing her. I think it's important to keep that sense of mystery.
How do you characterize Galadriel's prophetic powers? There's ambiguity as to whether it's a gift or a curse.
I think it's a gift. Something I've taken from the texts which really informs Galadriel's whole story is a passage where she says, "I will not counsel you to take..." this course or that course. The only way she can prevail is knowing what may come to pass. She doesn't try to pin down her visions and act upon them.
Why do you think Galadriel resists the power of the Ring?
I think the bringing of the Ring onto Lothlórien is part of her test. She says in the book, "I've passed my test." She knows Frodo won't leave without offering her the Ring. At one point we toyed with the idea of her trying to take the Ring.
She's rewarded in the end, being able to return to...
Yeah, but that's the ambiguous thing about whether she came to Middle Earth to set up a dominion of her own, or whether she wasn't allowed to return. I think when she says, "I will diminish," it's bittersweet.
This community is more of a matriarchy, and we follow the change from a matriarchy into the world of men, a patriarchy, where things will be structured differently. So, maybe we're seeing a matriarchy at the point where it's allowing itself to be overtaken by men. I don't know. And I find it interesting not to know!