On the surface, Cate Blanchett would seem to be the least Chekhovian human being on the planet. No idle longing for Moscow for this international stage and screen star, whose frequent flier mileage must have broken the million mark since she and her husband, writer Andrew Upton, took over the Sydney Theatre Company in 2008 and became intercontinental barnstormers.
Yet there she is, this paragon of professional fulfillment, garnering raves at home and abroad for her performance in Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" as a trophy wife who has backed herself into a domestic corner by marrying a cranky codger professor.
The play, which opens July 21 at the Lincoln Center Festival in New York, is a symphony of unrequited love and unrealized dreams — a succulent irony given that the marquee name for this production is a woman who could easily be the model for a "having it all" campaign.
Schedule crammed to the breaking point, Blanchett discreetly insinuates herself into a backroom table at Gordon Ramsay in the London West Hollywood hotel for a late dinner interview after a long day's work on a new Terrence Malick project.
It's so late, in fact, that her assistant has already relayed to the wait staff Blanchett's order and mine before we have even been seated. The kitchen will soon be closing, but racing against the clock is just one of the many things this Oscar-winning actress, mother of three boys and cultural ambassador does well.
Given the hour, the demands of a Malick film set and the lingering jet lag imposed by a short and nearly completed L.A. trip, she should be dead on her feet, but she's actually quite revved for conversation. Being in the moment, the thespian's great secret, seems to come naturally to her, but wouldn't she rather just get into bed than chat about how she and Upton have transformed the STC into an international powerhouse?
"Don't you find that work, if you love it, is actually really invigorating?" she says. "It's the downtime that's difficult, although I'm quite good at downtime."
Good luck trying to imagine Blanchett in couch potato mode. Although she and Upton are looking forward to resuming their life as freelancers after they step down from their perch as co-artistic directors at the end of 2013, they're fully immersed at the moment in raising STC's international profile.
The couple have brought a global perspective to the company's stage offerings, importing auteurs (Hungarian director Tamas Ascher is the visionary behind this "Uncle Vanya") and touring the world with their stable of homegrown acting talent. For this Chekhovian enterprise, the cast (a "historic" one "in Australian terms," says Blanchett) includes John Bell, Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving and Jacki Weaver.
What possessed a star in the prime of her film career to take overAustralia'sprincipal theater, an opportunity that she says came out of left field?
"Andrew and I have a healthy lack of consequence," Blanchett answers drolly. She insists there is no master plan. "I'm scared of actors with a scheme," she says, later revealing that the roles she has done with the company weren't ones she was necessarily angling to play but were made exciting to her by a director's vision.
"It wasn't as though I was leafing through Shakespeare at home and decided that I must do Richard II," she says of her decision to play the effete king in "The War of the Roses" in 2009. Blanche DuBois, whom she sensationally portrayed under the direction of actress Liv Ullmann in the company's 2009 production of"A Streetcar Named Desire," troubled her as a character and daunted her as an acting challenge. Yelena in "Uncle Vanya," she notes, "isn't even onstage all that much."
"The role," she says, "is always the last point of attraction." It's the collaboration that's the real enticement. She would have been content, she says, to have been a fly on the wall for the vintage "Vanya" cast that has been assembled.
"If you only exercise your soloist muscles," she says, "the other muscles quickly atrophy."
"Theater was always the center of our artistic identity," says Upton, speaking by phone a few weeks later. "Coming from Sydney and having worked here originally, we knew many of the folks in the scene — knew the blood of it, if you like. A big attraction was to be a part of this groundswell of energy. I don't think we would have run a company anywhere else."
Upton, a director and playwright who has been focusing his writing efforts on translations and adaptations of classics while running STC, has supplied the version of "Vanya" that was prepared expressly for Ascher's production. But just as his wife didn't take on the administrative, fund-raising and lobbying burdens of being an artistic director to augment her acting opportunities, Upton has a larger mission in mind than his own advancement as a writer.
"We always felt that the work here in Sydney was of a very high quality and that it had an interesting perspective on the classics as an English language-based post-colonial colony," Upton says. "We thought we'd have a chance to get this work out internationally with Cate's connections and encouragement. And at the same time we'd have the nourishment of working with different traditions and approaches."