Like most of us, Cate Blanchett grew up on Disney cartoons. But the Melbourne, Australia native — and two-time Oscar winner (The Aviator, Blue Jasmine) — says she never identified with the Mouse House’s belle of the ball, Cinderella, calling her “a bit of a doormat.”
Now Blanchett, 45, gets to antagonize the iconic glass slipper-wearing, will-be princess as the wickedest stepmother of them all, Lady Tremaine, in Disney’s new live-action Cinderella (in theaters Friday). The actress doesn’t just relish the role of the rogue, she also loves how much the film has evolved “Ella” (played by Downton Abbey’s Lily James) into a free-thinking and free-spirited young woman. In other words, no longer a doormat.
We talked to the actress about bringing her own spin to Cinderella’s arch nemesis.
It looks like you’re having a lot of fun in the movie. What do you enjoy about being the baddie?
There was a buoyancy to it — the experience of being on set and also the jaunt of the narrative… The message of the film [revolves around] her courage: Be kind, be generous, be open-hearted, be resilient. So to get to not do that, and to be in every measure the opposite, is really fun.
How do you look at Lady Tremaine? Do you think she’s purely wicked, or is it more complicated than that?
She’s a survivor, I think. She exists in a world where women don’t have financial independence, where the way to survive is through marriage. She’s had two husbands die on her. She hasn’t had it easy. She’s got two rather unfortunate daughters. And she knows the only forward is for them to marry. So when her husband dies again it’s like, ‘Oh bloody hell.’ And every day she has to look upon this girl who has this natural grace and dignity.
Do you think Tremaine ruined it for stepmothers everywhere?
Look, they’ve always had a bad rap, in all these fairytales with wicked stepmothers. But fairytales are really interested in transformation. And there’s something about the archetypical mother who is meant to be nurturing and kind and good, and the inverse side, the flip side.
I used to have one of these dolls that had Red Riding Hood’s beautiful little happy face [on it], and then you flipped her up and she became The Wolf. So it’s a little bit like that. It’s every child’s nightmare that the mother who nurtures them is one day going to turn around and reject them. And so the stepmother has had a bad rap for thousands of years.
Watch a clip of Cate Blanchett in Cinderella:
What’s your personal relationship with Cinderella? It seems like you’ve brought your own touch to the role, but did you take any cues from the animated classic?
I watched everything from Disney growing up. The Wonderful World of Disney was the thing I looked forward to every Sunday at 6 o’clock. So I’ve seen it hundreds of times. But I was never really drawn to the story of Cinderella. I found the stepsisters hilarious as a child. But I didn’t identify with Cinderella at all. Because in that version, as great as it is, she’s a bit of a doormat. I didn’t in any way understand why she put up with it, except the door was locked. She was saved because she was beautiful.
Whereas, in this version, I think that you really get a sense of the spirit of the girl, and you understand why she puts up with it, because of her mother’s legacy, and her refusal for her spirit to be broken. And that’s a really courageous thing for any child who’s been bullied. So I didn’t really consciously reference [the original] at all. I didn’t have that gray stripe in my hair. I went in a completely different direction.
Right, she’s a redhead now, as are both of the stepsisters, whereas only one was in the 1950 version. As if redheads didn’t already have it hard enough already.
Yes, I know. But it’s such a passionate color. I’ve been a redhead. I love being a redhead. But they do get a bit of a bad rap.
The idea of young girls idolizing Disney princesses has long been a hot topic. How do you feel about it? Do you think it’s fine and healthy?
Well, I suppose I’m a little bit more concerned about boys or girls picking up guns, frankly, and that being normalized for them. Although, that said, we have a very hard-and-fast gun rule in our house. So they pick up sticks and turn them into [guns].
Also the whole social media thing for young girls, and for boys, about having an identity that isn’t who you actually are. That fantasy is a really dangerous fantasy, I think, psychologically, in terms of our evolution as a species. And for [Cinderella] to walk in and say, ‘Well, I have to be who I am.’ To be seen for who you are, and not who you’re pretending to be. She doesn’t enter into a fantasy, she enters into a very real relationship on her own terms. So I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all.
You have three young sons – will you show them Cinderella? Are they open to princess stories?
Yeah. I think boys get socialized out of a lot of the fairytale stories, [in terms of] identifying with the female characters, quite early. But certainly, when we read [my sons] fairytales, [we looked at them as] everyman stories. Whether you’re Hansel or Gretel, it’s sort of the same character. In some versions you read, it’s Hansel who’s down at the bottom, and Grensel does the saving; and in some versions, it’s inverted.
But [boys in general] somehow get told that Cinderella is not for them. And I think it’s because the version that we all know, visually, is the ’50s version, which is full of ’50s morality and ’50s social mores. And of course, this is not that, and I think there’s a great everyman quality to Cinderella.
Speaking of something young boys are encouraged to love: Indiana Jones. How do you feel about the buzz that Disney is looking to bring on Chris Pratt to be the next Indy?
Yeah, I won a few brownie points for that one… It will be all about how [the filmmakers] do it. And [Pratt has] got such a unique quality. If they harness his unique quality, then it could be something. But you wouldn’t want to be filling those shoes. You wouldn’t want to be filling Harrison Ford’s shoes. You’d want to be redesigning the shoe.
Watch the trailer for Cinderella: