By David Canfield
April 29, 2019 at 02:00 PM EDT
Wilson Webb/Annapurna Pictures
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Figuring out Bernadette Fox wasn’t easy for Cate Blanchett. “It wasn’t just how complex and painfully absurd her life is, but the brittle way she pits herself against the world,” the actress, 49, says. “In the end, the trickiest thing was tone. It’s one thing to listen to an unrelenting sardonic inner voice in a novel, and another thing entirely to hear it on screen.”

Fans of Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette should know what she’s talking about. The 2012 novel, which spent more than a year on the New York Times best-seller list, presents significant challenges for a big-screen adaptation, particularly Semple’s uniquely sarcastic voice and her use of catty emails, phone transcripts, and police reports to drive the narrative. A once-renowned architect, Bernadette retreats into a shell of her former self after she gets married and has children. And then she vanishes to Antarctica(!), leaving her plucky 14-year-old daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), to solve the mystery of what happened, and why.

All involved with the adaptation immediately connected with the book upon reading it. Blanchett, particularly, vividly recounts her first experience with it: “It was the first of Maria’s books I read and I ate it alive — I was unprepared and embarrassingly, I read it on a plane. Weeping and laughing and nearly peeing my pants in public. But I couldn’t put it down.” Nelson, making her feature-film debut in Bernadette, read Semple’s novel after getting a callback for the part, but before reading the script. “Especially for someone my age, [Bee] is not a character you usually see in books: I think I appreciated that aspect,” she says. “It showed her as not somebody that was in the way of things or acting childish, but rather, somebody driving the story and driving her own determination.”

As for the vision of director Richard Linklater (Boyhood)? “I concentrated on what I felt the book was really about at its emotional core, which was an intense portrait of motherhood,” he says. “For someone else who loves the book, their favorite part might be something else. You’ve got to jump in as a storyteller and say, ‘Well, this is my version.’ There’s no one version of any book or story. [It’s] what you’re moved by and what you personally want to explore via this story and these characters.” Linklater believes, for instance, that another filmmaker might have leaned more heavily into the broad comedy of Semple’s work. Linklater, conversely, was attracted to its humanity.

This meant working closely with Blanchett and Nelson during an entire month of rehearsals. “We talked through everything,” Nelson says. “‘Is this part of my character? Would I say this? Is this how the conversation would really go?'” Blanchett has nothing but praise for the process: “[Richard Linklater] sits and chats and reads with the actors as he writes…It was a hilarious and touching process. I adore him.”

Blanchett describes the collaboration as a “fascinating challenge,” but always felt intimately connected to her character. “I think so many women relate to Bernadette: She’s someone who has been eaten alive by failure and buried her creative identity in child-rearing,” she says. “Haven’t we all thought at one point, ‘Oh, s—, this mess is all too much. [Wouldn’t it] just be easiest to disappear?'”

The film opens in theaters on Aug. 16.

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