Credit: 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…. 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. 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. Six years after that red-carpet odyssey, Kapur wanted to tell the story of Elizabeth’s middle years, when she was firmly ensconced in power. 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? 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. 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).

One of Blanchett and Kapur’s most frequent points of discussion was how much to fictionalize Elizabethan details. ”I’m very engaged in adhering to the actual events,” says Blanchett, ”whereas he’s kind of playing loose and fast with history.” Indeed, Kapur used the facts of Elizabeth’s life merely for inspiration. 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.”

Additional reporting by Jeff Labreque

This is an online-only excerpt from the EW Fall Movie Preview issue. Click to read the full feature on Elizabeth: The Golden Age.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 114 minutes
  • Shekhar Kapur