Cate Blanchett is watching herself on screen. More accurately, she’s trying her hardest not to watch—covering her eyes, cracking jokes, and eventually retreating to the back of the room. “It’s a train wreck”, she mutters, which officially makes Cate Blanchett her own harshest critic.
We’ve been smuggled into a dark room that overlooks the theater where Blanchett’s Manifesto is making its Tribeca Film Festival debut. The lights are off, so as not to interfere with the viewing experience of the audience down below. Our surreal vantage point creates a Cate Blanchett sandwich: Blanchett and Manifesto director/visual artist Julian Rosefeldt are watching the audience as they watch Cate Blanchett, who commands the entire screen for 90 minutes, playing thirteen different roles. While Blanchett is fascinating in each and every one of these parts—a homeless man, a single mom, and a drugged-out punk, to name just a few—her and Rosefeldt’s fascination lies with the audience. Manifesto, which lived a past life as an art installation at New York’s Park Avenue Armory, is an experimental project that deals in interactions; not between Cate Blanchett and her co-stars (of which there are few), but between the work and the people who are engaging with it, whether they’re physically wandering between different Cate’s or taking in her performances via the linear film.
As a film that pilfers its dialogue from a wide range of artistic and political manifestos, Manifesto is as exhaustive as it is exhausting. Rosefeldt had to meticulously research, filter through, and piece together his sources. Blanchett was given twelve days to perform thirteen distinct characters to perfection—a production experience that she alternately recalls as “fast and furious” and “an absurd undertaking.” Now, audiences will have 90 minutes to contend with some of the biggest ideas and wackiest declarations of the last century. It’s taken Rosefeldt and Blanchett six years to get to where they are today—a dark room above an even darker theater, as Blanchett’s grief-stricken eulogist delivers the Dada Manifesto to an audience of rapt funeral-goers. Blanchett is tired—from the long day, the excitement of the festival, and the nerve-wracking experience of bearing witness to her thirteen other selves. She asks for chocolate, which causes a little flurry of excitement amongst onlookers and assistants who don’t know if they’re being given an errand or told a joke.
Blanchett is well-spoken and wry, but extremely deliberate with her words. At first, she strikes me as withdrawn, at least in comparison to the fiery actress who turned a promotional appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon last January into an opportunity to slam Donald Trump, mocking his four bankruptcy filings and calling him “absurd” and “ridiculous.” Over three months and infinite anti-Trump op-eds and SNL cold opens later, Blanchett doesn’t feel the same pressing need to go after 45. But don’t worry—a few minutes into our conversation, she stops to ask the room what’s happened with the French election while she’s been in her Tribeca bubble. When is the next round of voting? Has anyone heard anything? Blanchett’s quiet demeanor is quickly replaced with something more frenetic and anxious—a relatable undertone of “is this really all happening again?”
Rosefeldt and Blanchett talk back and forth about politics, art, and the state of the world—a brief respite from watching Blanchett watch herself. Comparing and contrasting the self-assured, Oscar-winning actress with her larger-than-life avatars reinforces Blanchett’s conviction that Manifesto is “full of drag.” She calls her roles, which range drastically in age, demeanor, and gender, “masks” or “conduits” as opposed to characters. Love it, hate it, or barely understand it, Manifesto is a fitting entry into Blanchett’s oeuvre of daring, gender-bending, unabashedly challenging roles. In the past, she’s flouted entertainment industry conventions by playing, among other roles, a mid-20s Bob Dylan and a glamorous lesbian who doesn’t die. Next up, she’ll be part of a girl gang in Ocean’s Eight, and starring as Marvel’s first female supervillain Hela in Thor: Ragnarok.
While Blanchett has undoubtedly spent her career in roles that span spectrums and challenge Hollywood conventions, in Manifesto, she takes this ethos a step forward by playing thirteen such characters back to back. So as not to get confused while jumping from conduit to conduit, Blanchett refused to abandon her characters during meal breaks on set, which Rosefeldt says created “funny situations.” “We had about ten hours per day to shoot, and starting very early in the morning in the makeup van Cate would be there rehearsing the text and training the accent, and stuffing raisins in her homeless man nose,” he explains. “During lunch, she wouldn’t go back to real Cate because that would lose an important 45 minutes or hour of rehearsal time to get that character.” Blanchett interjects, “I just couldn’t take the beard off, so I got a lot of food in my beard. Which doesn’t happen often in my everyday life. But I took the boogers out.”
The dedicated actress and her adoring director spoke with The Daily Beast about creating Manifesto, as well as the myriad joys and challenges of making art—not to mention political art—in 2017.
Could you tell me a little bit about your collaboration, and how Manifesto came about?
Julian: We met six years ago in Berlin in an exhibition of my work. We wanted to do something together, and then it took about three years for me to finally come up with the idea for Manifesto. And during those three years we had maintained contact a little bit, but nothing was clear. From the moment we talked about Manifesto to the beginning of production was probably a year and a half or something. It evolved over quite a long time. It was even in danger, the project, because you won the Oscar.
Cate: Yes, and then my price went from $2.50 to $3.00 an hour.
You couldn’t afford her anymore?
Cate: In order to work as quickly as we did, there was a lot of rigorous and meticulous preparation that Julian had to do, and then it was just carving out the time to do it consecutively. But as you can imagine there was a long postproduction process, figuring out how voiceover was going to be treated—and then of course there was another layer, because there was always the possibility of turning it into a linear work. But then seeing how this evolved, it ended up being another thing entirely. So it’s had several different lives.
Julian: And it’s a still ongoing process, because now you have the audience today.
Cate: Well, are they still there? [laughs]
Julian: But two years ago, we had an audience that still believed in politics. It’s really amazing, if I think about it, what happened during the past two years in this country but also in European countries, in Turkey and the Philippines and Brazil—
Cate: Do we know what’s happened in France? Was the election today?
Julian: It was Sunday!
Cate: Oh, but I thought they were voting now, again. When are the actual votes cast?
Julian: Between the two, not for a few weeks, I think.
But back to the politics of the piece, I think it’s interesting that you feature all of these political statements, but they’re stripped of their contexts in a way that makes them less urgent, more playful, sometimes even silly.
Julian: Well I think it was more innocent two years ago when we started thinking about it. Yes, we did feel when we were working on the text collage that many of these texts are highly actual, and it interested me which of them are still actual today, or are applicable today. But I of course couldn’t foresee what happened. And so it became in the eyes of the audience, the installation and the film now, I think kind of a call for action, and an encouragement for a lot of creative people. Art was always political, but all of a sudden there’s this immediate urge to use it as a tool, almost as a weapon again, which I find very exciting.
Do you feel an increased responsibility as artists to be political in your work, and focus on political projects?
Cate: I think that that’s also supposing that an artist is entirely responsible for a work’s meaning. I’m acutely aware of that working in the theater, that you don’t fully understand the meaning of a work until the audience responds to it. Because the audience completes the circle, and adds a whole other shade of meaning. Whenever you view something, and this is why great works of art survive decades and centuries, is because there’s a door within the work that allows the audience to walk through and complete the meaning of the work. An audience isn’t passive, nor are they unintelligent. I think the exciting thing about making a work, especially something like this, is that we couldn’t have foreseen what would happen in the world, and where the ripples of response would be. Even in that first opening manifesto, you know, “What is the responsibility of the artist in the wake of capitalism exploding?”
Julian: That’s a text from 1996.
Cate: Yes, and I had certain responses to the historic nature of the text even in the time that we made it, but two or three years on, it has a whole other, more acute layer of meaning.
Julian: And now what I find interesting is this ricochet effect, and with this work I can observe it very well, that the audience perceives the work and then does something with it, throws it back to the world, and there’s an ongoing interaction between work and audience, which doesn’t belong to the artist anymore—from the moment you release it, it doesn’t belong to anybody.
Cate: And I think that it’s interesting because with a work like this, but also in general, artists absorb influences and are constantly referring to the historic connection that their work has or is breaking with as these manifestos do. But I think part of the disappointing failure of the political process today is that it’s asking us to forget countries’ historic connections to other countries, or to the laws that have been made. They’re willfully asking people to forget their country’s history, and focus only on the present. It’s bizarre.
Hearing you say that, it’s interesting that these manifestos are presented in the film deliberately stripped of their context. But I’m assuming that as the creators, you both did a lot of research into those historic specificities?
Julian: I’ve never worked so intensely on text as I did for this project, certainly, but I don’t know if I got…
Cate: Me neither!
Julian: I don’t know if I ever can “get something” I read. But it was very fascinating to start collaging these texts, and making the contributors talk with each other, that’s how I saw it. An ongoing discussion with voices that don’t necessarily agree, but they sympathize with each other.
Cate: But it’s not a history lesson or an art history lesson. I think particularly in the linear context where you search for a narrative, you search for meaning, you attend to the words—and I think there’s a kind of a panic that the audience might feel initially: “I’ve somehow got to have an intellectual response to this.” But I think because of the barrage of words, the words in a kind of a flow make sense and nonsense and you give up trying to make sense, so you end up making a different kind of sense out of it; a rhythmic sense or an emotional sense as much as an intellectual sense.
There’s a lot of drag in this film—not just because you play male and female characters, but also these vivid, flamboyant, larger than life characters. Which I found interesting, especially in light of your recent drag performance that you did at Stonewall.
Julian: You did what?
Cate: Jason Hayes, he’s been very active in the Newtown Action Alliance, for Sandy Hook families, and they’re a complete and true charity, they have no money. So he was throwing a benefit at Stonewall and he said would I do something. And a whole lot of his friends were flying in who are incredible drag performers, so I was terrified, and I said, “Oh god, I’ll try.” And he said what about a Dusty Springfield? And so in the taxi on the way there I was listening on my iPod to the song…it was so fun.
But yes, there’s lot of drag in this film. It will be interesting to see the audience’s response to this tonight; certainly in the museum context, in the multi-channel work, I think the sense of masking and de-masking, there’s a kind of ironic playfulness with the ridiculous notion of someone inhabiting thirteen characters. Whereas I think people…I’m hoping they’re not seeing these as performances—they’re not characters, they don’t have backstories. There’s a sort of a self-conscious construction and masking that goes on, that’s different to a conventional feature film. But you just need to see if an audience responds to that or whether they’re looking to be transported by a performance.
Julian: The installation’s probably much more performance, more like a set of performances…but here, I think this is a trip. It’s a very trippy experience.
Cate: I guess it’s a trip that I’ll never have. That’s pure torture—that’s waterboarding in there.
You can’t watch it?
Cate: No, never.
Julian: When I sit next to Cate…I could feel it now, down there, and also when we watched it on my laptop a few months ago. She’s so self-critical, so she would never enjoy it. And then eventually I don’t enjoy it either anymore, because I see it through her eyes.
Cate: I ruin it for everybody.