Blanchett's Blanche, At The Heart Of A New 'Streetcar' You might think that the fluttery Southern belle with the trove of dark secrets would be one of the parts the Academy Award-winning actress has been dying to play. But Cate Blanchett says she tends to shrink from the big roles — until a director like Liv Ullmann makes the prospect an offer she can't refuse.
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Blanchett's Blanche, At The Heart Of A New 'Streetcar'

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Blanchett's Blanche, At The Heart Of A New 'Streetcar'

Blanchett's Blanche, At The Heart Of A New 'Streetcar'

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

The leading actress is a famous Australian film star, director a famous Scandinavian film star, play one of the classic American dramas of the 20th century. Cate Blanchett stars as Blanche DuBois in Tennessee William's �A Streetcar Named Desire,� directed by Liv Ullmann. Together they are creating stage magic in the hottest ticket in New York.

Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN: Cate Blanchett has played some pretty iconic roles over the years, like Queen Elizabeth I, twice, on-screen, and Ibsen's Hedda Gabler onstage. You'd think Blanche DuBois, the fluttery Southern belle with dark secrets, would be one of the parts this Academy Award-winning actress was dying to play. But you'd be wrong.

Ms. CATE BLANCHETT (Actor): It's one of those roles that one is expected to covet. But I think I always shy away from those opportunities, until, really, the play won't let you out of its grasp � it chooses you, rather than you choose it.

LUNDEN: Actually, Blanchett's husband, Andrew Upton, chose the play � or, rather, suggested it. He and Blanchett are co-artistic directors of the Sydney Theatre Company, and they were meeting with Liv Ullmann, star of numerous Ingmar Bergman films, to see if she'd like to direct something for their theater.

Ms. LIV ULLMANN (Actor): I always loved the play. And once when I was young, I thought, oh, I would really be happy to play it. And then Andrew said "Streetcar Named Desire," and I just died of happiness.

LUNDEN: And Blanchett says the opportunity to work with a great actress of a previous generation proved irresistible.

Ms. BLANCHETT: Every play and every director, I think, brings a certain atmosphere, and there was a very particular atmosphere in the room. It was sort of skinless in a way because it's a very robust play in a lot of ways. It's very muscular. But Liv brought this incredible fragility to the room.

LUNDEN: Blanchett says Ullmann helped her dig into the gray areas of Blanche's complex character � a woman who shows up in desperation on her sister's doorstep in New Orleans after some shadowy goings-on in Mississippi. Blanche has a complicated relationship with the truth � telling white lies, telling big lies, preferring fiction to fact, says Liv Ullmann.

Ms. ULLMANN: She is at times really truthful, but I feel when she's really truthful, it's mortal for her, because that's when she is really rejected. But I believe she's truthful also when she makes her storytelling, when she makes it better than it is. I think that is also a truth.

LUNDEN: Blanche DuBois' pretense of respectability gets chipped away over the course of the play, but Cate Blanchett says she admires a kind of resilience in the character, even as her life unravels.

Ms. BLANCHETT: There's this unformed 16-year-old girl in her and that's what she's trying to get back to. That place of purity where she can begin again and can be seen for who she ostensibly feels she is. I think her hopefulness and her desire to keep moving through these terrible set of circumstances � some of her own making and some just a terrible misfortune � I do find very noble. She doesn't give up.

LUNDEN: What ultimately derails Blanche is her sister's brutal � but sexy � husband, Stanley.

Ms. BLANCHETT: I'm always struck by when Blanche says, The first time I laid eyes on him, I said to myself that man is my executioner and he will destroy me. In the first instance you can see your fate, but it's inescapable.

LUNDEN: In the original production, the role made a star out of Marlon Brando. Blanchett notes that the cover of the published version of the play features a picture of Brando as Stanley, not a picture of Blanche. She says when Tennessee Williams wrote "Streetcar" in 1947, America was different � the industrialized, capitalist America where any man could be king. Now�

Ms. BLANCHETT: We can look at the play through a very different prism. And perhaps it's through Blanche's prism, because she represents in a way what we've lost. It's the death of poetry, the death of idealism, the death of that sort of reality � the validity that someone can actually create something ephemeral and beautiful that one can't touch and hold and has no monetary value. I mean they're very different sort of states that both exist within America, but maybe it's a time where we can re-evaluate what it is that we've -those fragile things that we've lost.

LUNDEN: Cate Blanchett will be offering her interpretation of Blanche DuBois in Liv Ullmann's production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through December 20th.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

SIMON: And to hear what Cate Blanchett - as Jeff calls her - he was lucky enough to meet her, I didn't - has to say about Blanche DuBois, come our Web site, NPR.org.

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