Apart from Tilda Swinton, there is really no other instantly recognizable, Oscar-winning actress who can shift so easily from tentpole Marvel blockbusters to avant garde experimental cinema like Cate Blanchett.
Manifesto (now in theaters) is most definitely the latter — an operatic 94-minute movie version of a gallery installation by German artist Julian Rosefeldt. It’s the only Blanchett that audiences are going to see onscreen until Thor: Ragnarok (out in November) and Ocean’s Eight (next year), but luckily it’s a lot of her. She plays 13 characters, in fact, all speaking different manifestos, from Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” up to Lars von Trier’s “Dogme 95.”
The art installation was a sensation when it played at New York’s Park Avenue Armory. The film is a different but unexpectedly robust experience, with some segments that are hilariously droll. In the funniest one, Blanchett plays a newscaster named Cate speaking via satellite to a weather person, also played by Blanchett, also named Cate. It might not be for all tastes — as Blanchett and Rosefeldt admitted when they sat down with EW last week — but those who casually dismiss a challenging and unique project like Manifesto probably shouldn’t consider themselves real fans of the actress.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Cate, when I was watching Manifesto, I thought about Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, where you play Bob Dylan, and Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, where you’re yourself and your punk, lower-class cousin.
CATE BLANCHETT: Yeah, for me, this is probably akin to those experiences.
JULIAN ROSEFELDT: I’m Not There actually plays a really important role in the genesis of this project. Cate and I first met three years ago at an exhibition of mine.
BLANCHETT: We were looking for something to do together.
ROSEFELDT: We talked and talked. I remember we talked about Andrei Tarkovsky films. And she was so sweet and started to compliment my work.
BLANCHETT: It was all bulls—. I just wanted to work with you and I’d say whatever it took.
ROSEFELDT: [Laughs] But I felt like a little boy. I’m being complimented by Cate Blanchett! So I brought up that scene at the end of I’m Not There, when Cate as Bob Dylan looks right into the camera. I was talking to [I’m Not There cinematographer] Ed Lachman last night and he said that it was you who decided to do that, not Todd Haynes.
BLANCHETT: Oh, really. I can’t remember.
Also there’s the ending of the other Todd Haynes film that Cate starred in. She look right into the camera in the last seconds of Carol too.
ROSEFELDT: Ah, that’s true.
BLANCHETT: Nah, I’m not looking into the camera there. I’m looking at Rooney [Mara].
ROSEFELDT: But that glance in I’m Not There for me is one of the strongest moments of anything Cate has ever done. Amazing, amazing. You can feel it’s not overly scripted, it feels like it’s just happening. So I mentioned to Cate that I found that moment to be particularly extraordinary. But, of course, right away she started talking about Todd’s earlier film.
BLANCHETT: Superstar? The Karen Carpenter film. It’s brilliant.
ROSEFELDT: Yes, which I hadn’t seen at the time. And so she was telling me all about it.
Cate, how much do you love the opportunity to play more than one character?
BLANCHETT: Oh, I love doubling. And when you’re working in cinema, you rarely get to double. It’s often done on stage but much more rarely on screen. On film, you’re usually inviting an audience into a very literal narrative experience. So to allow an audience to free associate and find points of common reference is very exciting.
There’s that one sequence in Manifesto when you’re the news reporter and the weather person.
ROSEFELDT: That maybe reminded you of Coffee and Cigarettes.
Yes, I loved it. And it’s really hilarious. How much did you both allow yourselves to have fun with all this heavy material?
BLANCHETT: The material is absurd. And actually we laughed a lot. It’s also slightly hysterical because of the pace we were working at. For me, doing it all in 11 days was quite hysterical and instinctual. So there was that natural absurdity that was built-in.
ROSEFELDT: Sometimes I’m asked if I’m making fun of those certain manifestos where there is comedy. It is not mockery, because I do love all these texts. But the humor does help discover that some of these texts were not written with 100 percent total sincerity. I mean, the guys writing “Dogme 95” were, of course, having a big laugh. Or at least an amazing fun time.
BLANCHETT: Oh, for sure. They are provocations. As in, ‘What are you gonna make of this, huh? I’m gonna blow it all up!’ But now most of these artists — and of course most of them are male — are part of what we perceive to be the establishment. But at the time they were outsiders, which is always the place of an artist. So they can be outside and look in, challenging us to look at the way we live and breathe and work and think.
Cate, you play 13 different people, including a homeless man. But were there any ideas that you considered but decided against because they were too gonzo? Like playing different ethnicities, for example.
ROSEFELDT: We had a post-coital scene at one point, with a man falling asleep while the woman is still talking.
BLANCHETT: We talked about having me speak different languages. It would have been great if I could’ve spoken Mandarin, but then there is a cultural sensitivity to crossing those lines. Art still needs to be liberated from notions of bureaucratized thinking. I mean, look at the work of Cindy Sherman. She crosses ethnicity boundaries and that’s part of the provocation.
ROSEFELDT: Let me actually ask you a question. You say you liked the “news show” scene, where the text is very comprehensible. But in some of the other scenes, where the material is much more dense, were these texts understandable for you?
No, to be honest. But I thought the experience was more about sinking into those worlds and not paying attention to every word.
BLANCHETT: I know I didn’t! [laughs]
You weren’t paying attention to every word?
BLANCHETT: I couldn’t. But each of them has a particular energy, so it made much more musical sense to me than intellectual sense. It’s like a ballet of words.
Cate, you mentioned how quickly you filmed this. I’m curious about when you’re playing all of these characters, what do you dream about at night?
BLANCHETT: My dreams tend to be like dog dreams. I’m usually so tired that I hardly dream at all. In a way, I do think that the zone one performs in — without getting too ooga-booga about it — it’s like that moment when you wake up in the morning and you’re emerging from a dream state but you’re not quite up. Where are you? Can you hear the birds? Or is that the traffic? It’s that zone in which I perform. It’s like one foot in reality and one foot in a dream state. I spend most of my life in that state!
Do either of you think that events in the world have changed this picture? Do I, seeing it for the first time now, have to interpret it somewhat differently?
ROSEFELDT: You have to.
BLANCHETT: Just by force of circumstances you do. That’s what art does. It has very specific meaning at the time that it’s made. But a great work of art mutates and it’s meaning is porous enough to allow an audience to place themselves in it.
ROSEFELDT: And now after every Q&A for the film, I’m asked about populism. In Turkey, in France, in Sundance, in New York. When Cate as the newscaster says “All current art is fake,” everybody laughs because you think about “fake news” now.
BLANCHETT: Of course you do. Language is so powerful. Artists are like temperature takers of their time. And we need them more than ever.