I met Cate Blanchett in 2021, on the set of Todd Field’s movie “Tár,” in which she was playing Lydia Tár, an apparently formidable orchestra conductor, and I had been cast as a highly scripted and agreeably heightened version of myself. Field had reached out to me months before to say, startlingly, that he had written a movie for Blanchett that also had a character within it bearing my name. Would I play this dubious role? I’d been impressed by Field’s earlier work, and was easily persuaded to trot out my best self-impersonation for reasons partly Goffmanite (like the sociologist Erving Goffman, I’m fascinated by how we all play ourselves as a part) and partly Grouchoite (I am a ham who likes acting in things).
Mostly, though, I was intrigued by the idea of working—even on a pro-am basis—with Cate Blanchett. Like everyone else, I had been watching her in movies for years and had been enthralled by her seemingly limitless gift at impersonation in the elevated, theatrical sense. She’d been effortlessly credible playing any woman, from an elven queen (in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy) to a disturbed New Yorker (in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine”)—and not just women, come to think of it, since she’d also had a memorable turn as Bob Dylan, in Todd Haynes’s “I’m Not There.” Over the many hours of filming our scene together—a staged interview at a fictional version of the annual New Yorker Festival—I was struck not by Blanchett’s self-evident virtuosity but by her professionalism, which, of course, is the pragmatic form that virtuosity takes. Take after take, she found new things in our very discursive material that somehow added to the whole without ever breaking the continuity of the past take’s work. Meanwhile, in the predictably endless pauses between takes, we conducted a long sotto-voce conversation about Samuel Beckett, Australian theatre, eating in Berlin, and, above all, our children (she has four) and the pleasures and predicaments of raising them.
The other evening, we met for another conversation, at my apartment in New York, for which she’d agreed to play Cate Blanchett while I would continue to play myself. “I was having this sort of inverted stage fright coming,” she told me when she arrived. “It’s like we’re going to rehearse for a scene from a film that we’ve already shot.” But we quickly settled in to talk about listening to music, going before audiences, and the art of acting, seen from both her Olympian height and my Lilliputian lowlands.
This is the most meta occasion that I have ever taken part in. We are redoing, for The New Yorker, a conversation that we simulated in Berlin, pretending to be—
Where you were playing yourself.
Well, I was playing a version of myself. I was playing a part that, in fact, I often play in life, which is . . . the conversationalist, right? But it is a part I play. It is not who I am in any sense. So I was playing that part, but I was also playing myself, as a person in Berlin. So I was playing myself, playing myself, playing myself.
I know. Charlie Kaufman’s going to call.
The first two sentences are my performance. But then you realize that Cate Blanchett is actually giving a performance because she’s playing Lydia, and it’s Lydia who is having difficulty because she is playing herself. That’s Lydia’s predicament: playing herself. Did you have any expectations when Todd Field sent you the script?
No, I don’t know what you felt, but it seemed to arrive fully formed. It’s a bit like “Mork & Mindy.” So, you had to reverse engineer how you got there. And I think that it’s a very challenging film, but ultimately a very rewarding film as a result. Todd’s and my conversations were intensely practical. It was this constantly evolving tsunami of a thing. The process of making it was to try and get as close to the fire as we possibly could and understand what it was, because I think that this erupted out of Todd and that it made complete sense to him on one level. But then he had to deconstruct it in order to actually make it reconstructed.
Todd is not a programmatic artist. He didn’t have an editorial idea that he wanted to execute with this. He had a vision of a particular person navigating her way through the world. Did you feel, when you read it at first, that it didn’t have a program? That it’s genuinely emotionally ambivalent and complex?
And very ambiguous.
Maybe that’s what I was trying to say, and I don’t know where you sit as a writer: it’s very hard to not lock down that ambiguity very early on in the process and start to say, “I understand what this is, and I’m going to lean into what I perceive it is,” but allow it to continually evolve and change and grow.
I’ve had it in the theatre. I’ve had a very deep relationship with the director Benedict Andrews. I can see him in my peripheral vision, almost sort of conducting as if I were a silent-movie actress.
And so, [Todd and I], we have this symbiotic relationship. And I can feel that. He’s like Martin Scorsese. He sits not behind the monitor but by the camera. And you can feel the energy. He wouldn’t give line readings, per se, but I could almost feel that I was channelling something through him.
And Todd was not programmatic. He’s also not prescriptive. Normally, when someone has written something as refined and deep and dangerous as the script was when I first read it, you would then think that he would have a scalpel-like approach to the type of performance, which he did not.
Todd has said that he didn’t write it with you as his first choice. He wrote it for you, and if you had not wanted to do it he would not have been able to do it at all. Did you know that when he sent it to you? And what was your first response to the script? Did you hesitate at all?
No, I didn’t hesitate. My agent, Hylda, has known Todd for a long time. And I met Todd ten years ago, when he was working with Joan Didion on a screenplay. I’d obviously seen his films and loved them, and I knew his work as an actor and then discovered he was a musician, so we got on incredibly well. We didn’t stay in contact, but my agent said, “You’ve got to read the script.” And she’s only said that to me one other time, and that was when Todd—the other Todd, Todd Haynes—had sent the script for “I’m Not There.”
I will add that when Todd first got in touch with me, I thought it was Todd Haynes.
So you didn’t know him?
I didn’t. He reached out to me out of the blue and said, “There’s a character in this movie who has your name. Would you be interested in playing him?”
When I read it, I said, “You better call Adam Gopnik.”
Laurence Olivier famously said that he loved to work from the outside in—from costume and makeup and all that. And I was so stunned when we saw images of what you were going to wear. How did you arrive at that? We won’t say the Annie Leibovitz look, but . . .
I watched everyone. It was watching conductors talk about conducting and watching concert musicians and how they presented themselves. And there are many, many documentaries that were hagiographies, really, visual hagiographies that talk about Herbert von Karajan and the persona—