Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly. CR: Sabrina Lantos/FX
Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly. CR: Sabrina Lantos/FX

The women who inspire Cate Blanchett

Like most parents living in lockdown right now, Cate Blanchett has grand plans for her time in isolation.

Speaking from her home in East Sussex, an hour south of London, the Oscar winner tells News Corp Australia: "every day I think, 'I'm going to get up and read, I'm going to get up and exercise,' but in the end, like today, I'm making foil unicorns with my daughter," she laughs.

Ensconced in her $9 million manor house with her playwright-director husband Andrew Upton, their sons Dashiell, 19, Roman, 16, Ignatius, 11 and adopted daughter, Edith, 5, Blanchett is mostly thrilled to be surrounded by her loved ones.

"Yes, we're all together, other than my mother, who's stuck in Australia, which is quite painful," she explains.

Settling into the role of house wife and home maker doesn't appear to fit the feminist brief we've come to expect of Blanchett, but it does of her latest biographical role in new Foxtel mini-series, Mrs America.

 

Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly. Picture: Sabrina Lantos/FX
Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly. Picture: Sabrina Lantos/FX

 

A conservative Republican, who believed a woman's raison d'être was simply to support the patriarchy, Phyllis Schlafly has the "dubious honour" of being credited for playing a part in preventing the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment] from being ratified, and in turn part of the US Constitution.

Taking on the women's movement of her time, Schlafly ruffled feathers aplenty in her heyday, and is still hailed a heroine by the Republican Party.

Blanchett's introduction to Schlafly paints a curious picture.

"I remember seeing 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. She seemed to be very, very important and was treated with profound respect by members of the Republican Party. I found out later that person was Phyllis Schlafly."

Blanchett continues: "She single-handedly, I think, embedded herself into the spine of the Republican Party, the notion of pro-life and being pro-American. And feminism was regarded as anti-American and anti-family."

As a women's rights activist and UNHCR ambassador, whose political views couldn't be further from Schlafly, Blanchett was intrigued to dive deep into the psyche of such a woman.

"I wanted to understand what was so terrifying and abhorrent about the notion of equality to Phyllis Schlafly and those like-minded [women] around her, and that was the reason I wanted to make it.

 

Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly in a scene from the TV series Mrs America. Picture: Supplied by Foxtel.
Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly in a scene from the TV series Mrs America. Picture: Supplied by Foxtel.

 

But first and foremost, Mrs. America is an irreverent human drama. It speaks to a point in history, but one that we haven't learned that much from," she argues.

Created by veteran TV writer Dahvi Waller (Mad Men, Desperate Housewives), the series is a fascinating contrast in the age of #MeToo and Time's Up.

"It's quite shocking for an audience, I think, to watch the series and feel like they are back in the 1970s, " Blanchett notes, "but at the same time, it's totally in the era in which we're living right now. The show is a reverse- engineering process, of how did we get to where we are?"

Blanchett says her own journey as a feminist was inspired by her school teacher mother, June.

"You know, there was a stigma around identifying as a self-actualised woman who felt like she could achieve anything in line with her male counterparts. My mother grew up with that sensibility, even though she was a single working parent [Blanchett's father died of a heart attack when she was 10 years old], with all of the challenges that entails. And as her daughter, I identified as a feminist, but she didn't."

There were many aspects of gender inequality that didn't sit well with the much younger Blanchett.

"When I was at university there was this subject called Women's Studies, and even then I thought, 'It's such a shame that we have to call it Women's Studies. We can't just say 'the stuff of interesting people'? I mean, it's simply a facet of being human," she says, clearly still irritated by the rubric. "And women are human beings, the last time I looked."

She says the first woman who influenced her in a meaningful way was close to home.

"For me personally, being Australian, I was so profoundly rocked by Germaine Greer," she says. "I haven't always agreed with what she says over the years but she's always worth listening to."

 

Cate Blanchett is one of Hollywood’s leading ladies in strong female roles.
Cate Blanchett is one of Hollywood’s leading ladies in strong female roles.

 

And these days?

"I think what [Westworld star] Evan Rachel Wood is doing through her platform, and the way she's connecting younger women to the notion of domestic violence, I find her really inspiring.

In Mrs. America, Schlafly goes toe-to-toe with feminist titans including Gloria Steinem (played by Rose Byrne); Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale); Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks), and Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba).

The stacked cast is rounded out by Sarah Paulson, Melanie Lynskey, and Mad Men's John Slattery, who plays Blanchett's husband.

The mini-series will no doubt prove vastly educational for younger generations quite unaware of what their female forebears went through.

"I hope Mrs. America can do that for families watching it now, because I think there's a lot of girls and boys from younger generations who think they might know about the plight of their mothers and grandmothers, but in fact, they don't."

With an estimated net worth of $180 million, Blanchett has clearly conveyed to her three sons that her rarefied position allows her to work for creative satisfaction rather than any financial incentive.

"I've always tried to tell my boys that my situation and having the ability to work, or not, is not the case for all women. But I hope my boys can see there is a lot of connective tissue weaving together the desires of traditional women, though some of them [resist doctrinaire feminism] almost as an act of defiance to the concept of the #metoo movement, and the desires of women who are in the feminist camp," she says. "In reality, there's a lot more that unites us than separates us."

The US has, of course, never elected a female president, nor a vice president, a fact Blanchett ponders.

 

Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly. Picture: Sabrina Lantos/FX
Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly. Picture: Sabrina Lantos/FX

 

"It's interesting the way Hillary Clinton was talked about, and the way various First Ladies are talked about," she notes, connecting the conversation to former Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

"If you look up her misogyny speech [in 2012], it's extraordinary. She really did speak for a lot of women in politics who had to put up with this low-level boys' club misogyny. She called it out."

Blanchett is also drawing accolades for her ABC refugee drama, Stateless, a project she co-created and stars.

"It was a labour of love that took six years to happen," she says. "It asks a basic human question, which is, 'At what cost are we maintaining our borders?' To see children in detention, my heart breaks and I just do not understand how we can allow that to happen."

It's dinner time in England as we come to the end of the interview, and there's some background noise on Blanchett's end of the phone.

Yet another night in front of the television is looming for the Blanchett-Upton clan.

"I tend to be a bit of a binge-watcher, getting obsessed with certain programs. And recently, because our youngest son hadn't seen it, we went back to the seminal days of The Sopranos to reverse-engineer that experience. It was really exciting to re-experience that with him."

Of course, living in such close quarters presents many challenges for parents, including Blanchett.

"You want your kids to taste life and want to think that anything is possible for them, but they're stuck by these profound limitations of mobility and opportunity, and it seems endless to them," she says.

"I'm very sad that they have to deal with what a generation of schoolgoers are dealing with right now because of the pandemic. It will alter their sense of themselves, and their sense of themselves in the world."

If there's an upside, she says: "in our family we've been talking a lot about how connected we all are and how responsible we are for each other's wellbeing," she says. "At this point in time, and as a mother, I'm just quite grateful that, touch wood, my children are very healthy."

 

* Mrs America, 8.30pm, Tuesday, Fox Showcase and streaming, Foxtel Now

Originally published as The women who inspire Cate Blanchett