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'Carol' Star Cate Blanchett On The 'Empathetic Connection' Of Acting


The new movie "Carol" is a love story between two women set in 1952. It stars Cate Blanchett as society woman Carol Aird and Rooney Mara as department store saleswoman Therese Belivet.

It's based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, originally published as "The Price Of Salt." Cate Blanchett told me she read it years ago when she was working on the thriller "The Talented Mr. Ripley," based on another of Highsmith's novels.

CATE BLANCHETT: And the interesting thing, I think, about "Price Of Salt" is that it was a very personal novel for her. It was obviously written when she was quite young under a pseudonym, so it's - if you can imagine Patricia Highsmith writing a romance, this is it.

MCEVERS: I mean, the book basically happens because, you know, Highsmith was working at a toy counter, and she sees this blonde woman in a fur coat walk into the store and just the sight of this woman immediately makes her feel something. That scene, of course, is the scene in the movie the first time we see you as Carol. You're shopping for a Christmas present for your daughter, and your character meets Therese, the young salesman who's played by Rooney Mara.


MCEVERS: Let's listen to that scene just for a second.


BLANCHETT: (As Carol) I love Christmas, wrapping presents and all that. And then somehow you wind up overcooking the turkey anyway. Where'd you learn so much about train sets?

ROONEY MARA: (As Therese) Oh, I read - too much, probably.

BLANCHETT: (As Carol) That's refreshing.

MARA: (As Therese) Thank you.

BLANCHETT: (As Carol) Merry Christmas.

MARA: (As Therese) Merry Christmas.

MCEVERS: It's basically just this small talk between these two women, but there is clearly an electricity already between the two of them.

BLANCHETT: I mean, that's where it was, as an actor, it was such a blessing to sort of sit halfway between the screenplay and the novel. Because there's so many - in the novel, there's so many observations that Therese makes about Carol - the way she seems preternaturally preoccupied and the way she flicks her hair, the way she'll suddenly, midsentence, gaze off into something other outside the room that is away from Therese.

And she's constantly grasping for this almost unattainable creature. And the challenge for me - the joy for me, I think - was to try and play that ambiguity and that elusive quality that Carol has but also ground her in a reality. And this scene was one of those

MCEVERS: Carol is married to a man but is in the process of separating from him. And there are a lot of conversations right now about who should play lesbian, gay, bi and trans characters. You, yourself - you're married to a man, but you've also said that you've had relationships with women.

BLANCHETT: (Laughter) Who cares?

MCEVERS: I know - well, right. I mean, that's...

BLANCHETT: Really? I mean, what century are we in? I find it so fascinating. I mean, I just played a journalist Mary Mapes. Not one person asked me how many years of journalism school I'd undertaken or how many articles I'd written or whether you play a mother - had you actually been a mother? The whole process of being an actor is one of - it's an empathetic connection. And so you have to place yourself in someone else's shoes. And there seems to be an increasing obsession, which perhaps says a lot about the age we're in...


BLANCHETT: ...That one can only portray what one has experienced. And certainly, I'm not at all interested in putting my life, my experience, my ideas, my politics up on the screen.


BLANCHETT: It's about, you know, the joy of living many, many different lives.

BLANCHETT: Does one need to be - have murdered to play a murderer? I mean, we all have fantasies, don't we?


One of the reasons this story has such resonance in the LGBT community is that the characters aren't portrayed as disturbed or deranged. They're not, you know, stuck in their straight relationships as other stories from this period have done.


MCEVERS: Is that one thing that attracted you to the story?

BLANCHETT: Yes, I mean, I - it's the slippery sexuality and morality that Patricia Highsmith writes about that is so attractive, I think. Because it's - I mean, if you look at, say, Carol's relationship with her husband, it's not clear-cut. They have been in love. They have had a child together. The relationship is complicated. You see the men as entrapped by their 1950s identities and the cookie-cutter figures they're meant to inhabit as much as the women are.

MCEVERS: Eventually, it becomes clear that Carol's husband is going to fight her for custody of their young daughter Rindy, in part because of Carol's sexuality.

Let's listen to a scene between you as Carol and her lawyer.


BLANCHETT: (As Carol) Can he do this? Is it right?

JOHN CROWLEY: (As Fred) I don't know if it's right, but it's legal.

BLANCHETT: (As Carol) On what grounds?

CROWLEY: (As Fred) Listen, let's wait till after Christmas to...

BLANCHETT: (As Carol) Fred, on what grounds?

CROWLEY: (As Fred) They're petitioning the judge to consider a morality clause.

BLANCHETT: (As Carol) A morality - what the hell does that mean?

MCEVERS: It's this moment where he says that and then you - it slowly starts to dawn on you. I mean you're keeping your composure while you also fall apart at the same time. That must have been so - I know that must be much harder to do than just totally falling apart.

BLANCHETT: (Laughter) Well, I mean, we do it on a daily bases. But it's - the interesting thing - and I think the important thing - people have often asked - had there been any discussion about contemporizing the setting of the film? But I think it's really important that it takes place in the 1950s because there's a sense of propriety. And not only is the love between the two women considered a criminal act, but it's also a time where one's emotions are not front and center. You don't have the right or the space to discuss or express those things. So the volcanic emotions that the women are experiencing - the rage and the injustice but also that incredible desire for one another - has no outlet.

MCEVERS: And the ending of the film is surprising. I mean, we're not going to give it away.

BLANCHETT: (Laughter).

MCEVERS: But it's one of these moments where you're not saying anything. And your face - there's a lot of different choices you could make. You could do a - you know, leave us with a lot of ambiguity or you could sort of give us a more definitive this-is-how-it-ends face.

And I feel like you went with the slightly more definitive version. How did you make that decision? Again, did you go back to the novel?

BLANCHETT: Oh, it's interesting because some lesbian friends of mine and have said, oh, this is going to be rocky.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

BLANCHETT: And then another lesbian friend of mine said that was great that it had a happy ending. I think I wanted to keep it as open as possible, you know, so that people could read it whichever way, you know.

MCEVERS: (Laughter) That funny because after some of the storms that I had seen pass on your face before, this would - this was a moment...

BLANCHETT: Relatively pleasant (laughter).

MCEVERS: Right. Where this is a moment where Carol seems just a little more settled into at least something, at least this is the next chapter.

BLANCHETT: Yes. I mean, I think I wanted to create a sense of - are you ready? - whether that's ready for - well, the challenge, really. And just to remember what Rooney has done throughout the whole film and then to see this very subtle process of maturing - it is an astonishing walk that she makes towards Carol. Did I just give that away?

MCEVERS: No, I don't think so. She makes a walk.

BLANCHETT: OK. Positively or - who knows what's going to happen?


MCEVERS: Exactly. And we don't know.

BLANCHETT: It's a tricky thing, isn't it? Talking about a film or a book or an exhibition is that it's so personal, isn't it? And I'm always cautious to not sort of interfere too much with an audience's experience.

MCEVERS: Well, thank you very much a Cate Blanchett.

BLANCHETT: Thank you.

MCEVERS: Cate Blanchett stars in the new film "Carol." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.