Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine" is the darkest, toughest, grimmest film the prolific writer-director has made in years. Where his Oscar-winning "Midnight in Paris" two years ago was light on its feet, "Blue Jasmine" trudges through the emotional wreckage left behind as a self-centered Upper East Side society wife loses everything when her Bernie Madoff-style husband is sent to prison for defrauding his investors.
The film is unsettling, unflinching and at times uncomfortably funny, with strong performances from a cast that includes Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, Peter Sarsgaard and, strangely but effectively, comics Louis C.K. and Andrew Dice Clay. But the heart of "Blue Jasmine" is a savage, scary performance from Cate Blanchett as the title character, who flees her old haunts in New York and moves in with her working-class sister (Hawkins) in San Francisco.
"Blue Jasmine" seems likely to win the 44-year-old Australian actress, who has devoted much of her time in recent years to running the Sydney Theatre Company with husband Andrew Upton, her sixth Oscar nomination. She spoke to TheWrap at the Beverly Hills headquarters of the Motion Picture Academy, while her film's Los Angeles premiere was taking place in the Samuel Goldwyn Theater downstairs.
The audience laughs throughout "Blue Jasmine," but the heart of the film is this incredibly damaged woman.
It's an unraveling, a downfall. A portrait of a fall from grace. I watched a lot of Woody's films before I made this, and one of my all-time favorites from his pantheon is "Crimes and Misdemeanors." All of that stuff with Anjelica Huston is really painful and raw and brutal. Unlike any other filmmaker that I can think of, he's able to walk that line between absurdity and horror.
When you're playing a character who lies or exaggerates almost every time she opens her mouth, do you have to figure out for yourself what the truth really is?
Yeah, there's an exercise you can do as an actor in order to try to get a three-dimensional sense of who a character is and how they're perceived. You write down the things that other people say about them, and then you write down what the character says about themselves.
And if you do that with Jasmine, it's like a roller-coaster ride, depending on whether she's taken her pills, or how many Stoli martinis she's had, or how close she is to achieving her dream, which is finally latching onto another man.
Had you ever spoken with Woody about working together before?
I'd given up hope. So many people I'd known had worked with him, and I thought, Well, not every filmmaker's interested in every actress, so I kind of accepted it. I was very surprised when I got the call.
[laughs] It was a very short call – about two-and-a-half minutes. He said he was interested in sending me a script, and was I interested in reading it? And I said, "Yes, of course, Mr. Allen." He sent it and asked me to give him a call when I read it. I read it straight away, of course, and it was an incredible opportunity, of course. So I called him back and we spoke for about 45 seconds. I said, "I'd like to do it," and he said, "Great, I'll see you in San Francisco."
I'm sure you talked to other actors who worked with him, all of whom tend to say, "You get very little feedback, he doesn't talk to you much … "
I had also seen the brilliant documentary about him [American Masters' "Woody Allen: A Documentary"], so you go in expecting that. But I don't know how to do this unless you're in dialogue with the director. So I'd ask him questions, and he'd answer them. Sometimes he'd think the questions were stupid and useless, so he'd give a short answer. And sometimes he'd indulge me.
The wonderful, refreshing thing about working with him is that there's not an ounce of preciousness. He simultaneously cares deeply and doesn't care at all. He's making his summer movie, and next year he'll make another summer movie. So there's a kind of restlessness and impatience to the atmosphere on set, which means that the actors haven't got any time to be navel-gazing or to be too precious.
But a number of his actors have said that they sometimes are convinced he hates what they're doing.
Oh! My first day, first scene! Peter Sarsgaard and I. I knew that you only get one or two takes – but eight takes later, I looked over at the monitor and he was smacking his head. And he came over and said to me, "It's awful. It's awful. You look like an actor saying my lines, I don't believe a thing you're saying, it's awful." He was shaking his head in disbelief, like a rabbi. And Peter and I just burst out laughing.
Did you fix it?
Ultimately, we cut that scene. He rewrote it and made it much shorter in a different location. So it was partly he didn't like what we were doing, and partly he didn't like the location and he felt the scene was too labored. So you can't take it personally.
In a way, that made me feel very safe. He'll absolutely come and say, in the most brutal, frank, direct way, when something's not working. So when he didn't say anything, you knew that either he had to go to dinner, or you were doing OK.
And you hoped that it was the latter in most cases.
Not all. [laughs] It wasn't always, but most of the time it was.
Did you study the specifics of women who'd been in Jasmine's situation?
I did a lot of people watching. I drank my fair share of rosé. In the end I had to play the anti-heroine that Woody's written, but of course I thought about the Madoff scandal, because that's the holocaust of the financial crisis. And there are many, many women like that. I followed them like everybody else did, but as an actress you go back and you're slightly more forensic about those relationships. So yeah, I hoovered up all those stories.
Also, I wanted to chart out her course. She breaks so many times, but I wanted her to break in different ways depending on what particular cocktail she was on or what was the specific fear or moment of guilt that was spiking up.
Do you think there's any hope for Jasmine?
I don't know. Woody didn't discuss it at all, but I did think of the likes of Blanche DuBois [from "A Streetcar Named Desire"], Mary Tyrone [from "Long Day's Journey Into Night"], Richard II, those people who have fallen from grace. They've been denuded of their role and their place, and they've chosen fantasy over reality. If she was having a breakdown in a supportive marriage with financial security and without that sense of social shame, then perhaps she could re-find herself. But she's already had a breakdown, and I wonder whether there is any hope.
There are a lot of women out there like her, whether they're from the Upper East Side or not. You often see people on park benches, and you think, "How did they get there? That's someone's son or someone's daughter, and how did they end up there in that Chanel jacket?" That's why I said to Woody, "Maybe she should walk out there [in the final scene] with her hair wet." And I chose not to wear any makeup. [laughs] When I saw the film I thought, "Maybe that was a mistake."
Do you pay any attention to Oscar buzz?
It's July! The movie opens on Friday, and then next Wednesday they'll be saying to someone else, "Oscar buzz!" I suppose it's a shorthand way of saying that people think that the character you played and the film that you're in is worth seeing. And that's a nice thing. It's better than people saying, "What are you wearing?"