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Inside ''Elizabeth: The Golden Age''

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Laurie Sparham

History often repeats itself. Especially in the movie business, where sequels, remakes, prequels, and threequels have lately defined the zeitgeist. But that incessant parade of things revisited doesn’t hold much allure for Cate Blanchett. Or at least it didn’t one fateful night in January 2005, when director Shekhar Kapur and actor Geoffrey Rush, two of Blanchett’s chief collaborators on the 1998 art-house crossover hit Elizabeth, met her for dinner at the swanky Hotel Bel-Air in L.A. Their mission: persuading the actress to don the royal raiment again for a follow-up, Elizabeth: The Golden Age. ”They came very, very fueled with excitement,” Blanchett remembers. ”And alcohol, probably. And they said, ‘Cate, you’ve got to do this, it’s so exciting.”’ But Blanchett, then heading into the climactic weeks of the awards season and flying high on her turn as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator, wasn’t keen on a reprise. Impersonating England’s indomitable 16th-century monarch alongside her old Aussie pal Rush had been great fun once — and once was enough. ”I pooh-poohed the idea,” she says. ”I thought, ‘I’ve done that. Why would I want to come back and retell the same story?”’

The original Elizabeth turned Blanchett from a promising talent only dimly known outside her native Australia into a shiny new global star. Made for a modest $20 million or so, the film grossed a surprising $82 million worldwide, largely on the strength of Blanchett’s astonishing portrait of a royal in the making. She pulled off an unforgettable transformation from randy young palace terror into stuffy head of state, her face powdered a ghastly white as she forged a newly virginal image. Blanchett copped a Golden Globe for Best Actress, and an Oscar nomination, too. (She lost that race to Gwyneth Paltrow for Shakespeare in Love, a more crowd-pleasing evocation of the Elizabethan Age.)

Six years after that red-carpet odyssey, Kapur and Rush sat across from Blanchett at dinner and made their case. Kapur wanted to tell the story of Elizabeth’s middle years, when she was firmly ensconced in power. And he didn’t want it to be a sequel. ”A sequel to me is something that takes the first film and builds on that,” he explains. ”If you’d never heard of the first film, you would see this totally as a stand-alone.”

For months, Blanchett remained skeptical. Would audiences truly be able to judge Golden Age independently? And why should she risk tarnishing the first film’s perfectly good legacy? ”I felt like I didn’t really have anything else to offer,” she says.

In the end, some blunt talk from Rush finally swayed her. His pitch? You’re getting older — don’t be so picky. (She was 35 at the time; she’s now 38.) ”I remember saying, ‘You’re moving into that traditionally difficult phase where mainstream Hollywood is going to possibly pass you by,”’ says Rush. ”’Roles like these, that require someone of your capability and daring, don’t come along that often.”’

And so, in April 2006, Blanchett found herself back in regal harness, her brows and lashes once again bleached to match the queen’s ultra-plucked aesthetic. Amazingly, considering the gap between films, virtually the same key team from the first movie signed on, including costume designer Alexandra Byrne (an Oscar nominee), screenwriter Michael Hirst (alongside William Nicholson), and cinematographer Remi Adefarasin.

There were a few new faces as well, notably Clive Owen, Kapur’s first choice to play adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh. As Golden Age portrays things, Elizabeth falls hard for the rugged explorer — but loses him to her favorite female companion from the royal court, Bess Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish). Owen has worked with some strong-minded auteurs, including Robert Altman (Gosford Park) and Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men). He soon discovered Kapur has a quirky methodology all his own. ”He’s one of those directors who’s after something intangible and elusive,” says Owen. ”He’ll never shoot a scene straight. Whatever happens, you know it’s going to have a very strong angle. His compositions tell as much as anything we do within them, really.”

On top of that, Kapur says he deliberately created an unpredictable environment on the set. Nobody knew when he’d change a close-up to an up-in-the-rafters shot, or choose to stage an entire scene with one character’s eyes barely showing over another’s shoulder, or photograph the actors through a grate or a screen or a scrim. ”I plan to the hilt,” he says. ”Then I go to the set every morning and completely throw myself into panic. All your preparation, all your logic disappears into thin air, and you hope that something more pure will emerge…. You have to get comfortable with the idea of chaos.”

NEXT PAGE: ”He’s addicted to surprise. Sometimes I’d have to say to him, ‘I can get there without being tricked into it.”’

Kapur encouraged Blanchett to debate his approach to every scene, every line, treating her more as a collaborator than a star. She even weighed in on the final edit, at one point advising Kapur to make clearer the connection between Elizabeth and her devious chief counselor, Sir Francis Walsingham (played by Rush). ”Shekhar and I would thrash things out,” she says cheerfully. ”Often what happens is through trying two different ways, a third and better way is found. So he’s very open. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know what he’s doing.” As an actress, however, she clearly felt his shake-up-everything-all-the-time approach wasn’t always the way to go. ”He’s addicted to surprise,” she says. ”Sometimes I’d have to say to him, ‘I can get there without being tricked into it.”’

One of Blanchett and Kapur’s most frequent points of discussion was how much to fictionalize Elizabethan details. ”We temper one another,” says Blanchett. ”I’m very engaged in adhering to the actual events, whereas he’s kind of playing loose and fast with history.” Indeed, Kapur used the facts of Elizabeth’s life merely for inspiration. Sample flight of invention: Golden Age has Owen’s Raleigh steering a burning ship directly into the Spanish Armada, but historians believe Raleigh only supervised from shore. (Not nearly as visually exciting, of course.) The first Elizabeth took considerable flak from reviewers for its factual liberties — one of the boldest being the idea that the queen in fact romped in bed with any number of men before officially reinventing herself as a virgin. This time, Kapur could get slammed for portraying King Philip II of Spain as a far more megalomaniacal religious crusader than records suggest — which plays into the movie’s pointed contemporary overtones about the dangers of intolerance in an age of jihad.

Blanchett worries less about fine points of history in the film than whether the general public wants to see more Tudor happenings at all, following Helen Mirren’s award-winning turns in 2006’s The Queen and HBO’s miniseries Elizabeth I. ”You hope that people don’t tire of it,” she says. ”Or think, ‘Oh, here it comes again.”’ But Kapur feels emboldened by early positive feedback, and he’s anxious to plan yet a third Elizabeth movie. ”At first you just hope people won’t laugh at your film, or boo it out of the theater,” he says. ”Then you hear people are liking it, and you get greedy.” Will he wait another nine years to tackle Elizabeth’s final days as a ruler in her 60s, when she’d outlived all her advisers and felt, in his view, completely isolated and alone and perhaps regretful? No way, he says. He wants to do it sooner rather than later, and Blanchett better not hold him up, or it might be off with her head and on to some other actress. ”If Cate so much as hesitates,” he says playfully, ”she’s had it.”

Additional reporting by Jeff Labreque

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