NEW YORK — When Cate Blanchett was last in New York, in between her nightly performances in the acclaimed touring production of "Uncle Vanya," she would slip uptown, to the East Side, to stealthily research her role in Woody Allen's latest, "Blue Jasmine."
In it, Blanchett plays Jasmine, a socialite in breakdown, a modern Blanche DuBois (a role Blanchett played a few years ago on stage, the "detritus" of which she says stays with her), distraught and destroyed by the betrayal of her Bernie Madoff-like financier husband (Alec Baldwin). On Jasmine's stomping ground, the Upper East Side, Blanchett bent her ear to the neighborhood's accents of affluence.
"I drank way too much wine sitting in restaurants by myself," says Blanchett, today sitting in a midtown office in a sleeveless emerald green top and skirt.
The polished refinement, though, is only a small element — a surface that cracks — to Blanchett's enormously layered performance in "Blue Jasmine." Her Jasmine is, as she says, "a fragile, combustible cocktail of rage and guilt and fear." Penniless in San Francisco, where she's forced to stay at the working class home of her sister (Sally Hawkins), Jasmine is a vodka-swilling, Xanax-popping mess of self-loathing, denial and panic — a woman in free fall who can't bear to face herself in the mirror.
Like many of the 44-year-old actress' best performances, including her Oscar-nominated turn as Elizabeth I in 1998's "Elizabeth," Jasmine is a mix of ruthlessness (she's brutal to those she considers inferior) and quaking vulnerability. The performance has been called a lock for an Academy Award nomination, which would be her sixth.
The role's complexity is partly in the film's "A Streetcar Named Desire" structure, toggling back and forth between before the downfall (in New York and the Hamptons) and after (San Francisco). Blanchett carefully charted Jasmine's unraveling across the flashbacks: "You don't want to flat line," she says. Jasmine is thus many people, radiantly elegant for some (Peter Sarsgaard, as a moneyed suitor) and condescendingly bitter to others (Bobby Cannavale, as her sister's blue-collar boyfriend).
"People talk about actors pretending, but you watch people and a certain person walks into a room, that person who's speaking to you one minute completely changes," says Blanchett. "We're constantly morphing into different outward manifestations of ourselves. That's what I find curious about people. It's just that as Jasmine progress through the story and her situation becomes increasingly desperate, those social identities become increasingly fractured and they're not able to be a cohesive, functioning person."
While Woody Allen is known for giving his actors wide berth, that such a powerhouse performance comes in a late film of his — a period mostly defined by lightness and international settings — comes as a staggering surprise. Though Blanchett immediately committed after a brief phone call from Allen, she, too, wondered which direction the film might go.
"The challenge was one of tone, particularly when I began to hear what the casting was like," she says, noting that comedians Andrew Dice Clay and Louis C.K. ended up giving unexpected, natural performances. "I did think: Is this more in the line of 'Bananas' or 'Interiors'? Which way is it going to swing? He did say to me three weeks in, 'You know, this is a serious movie.'"
Allen had proclaimed his interest to work with Blanchett at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010. She was the obvious choice, he says, for the part he had written based on a ruined New York family his wife, Soon-Yi Previn, told him about. (Allen says Madoff "never figured remotely" into his thinking.)
"I needed a great actress and when you think of great actresses in the world, Cate comes into mind immediately," Allen said in an e-mail from France, where he's shooting his next film. "Cate is one of those people that are great, she was great before she met me and she will be great after. I really have very little to say to her."
Blanchett knew not to expect a lot of feedback from Allen, "so I wanted to come in with enough to offer," she says. Of the details of her character, she says: "None of this was discussed or seemed to be of interest to Woody."
"I'm not particularly needy as an actor," says Blanchett. "I'm not doing it because I want to be told that I'm good."
Other directors and actors have confirmed that. Anthony Minghella, who directed her in "The Talented Mr. Ripley," once swooned over her in an essay, calling her "a natural comedienne, a whole body actor." Geoffrey Rush, an Australian countryman and frequent co-star, has said she "has a constant amorphous physicality."
Many have rhapsodized over her phosphorescent skin (as Galadriel in the "Lord of the Rings" films she literally glows) which slights her fiercely observant eyes. Her shape-shifting, from Bob Dylan in "I'm Not There" to Katharine Hepburn in "The Aviator" (which won her sole Oscar), is legendary.
"You have to find a point of connection, but I'm not interested in reducing the character to my set of experiences," says Blanchett. "That's the way, hopefully, you keep expanding as an actor, that you're constantly challenging your understanding of how people think and behave."
Her presence on screen, though, has been rarer in recent years. Five years ago, Blanchett and her playwright husband Andrew Upton, with whom she has three sons, began leading the Sydney Theatre Company. Their stewardship as artistic directors, which Upton will continue solo for several more seasons, has been roundly applauded, including those productions of "Streetcar" and "Uncle Vanya." She on Saturday finished a run of Jean Genet's "The Maids" before flying from Sydney to the U.S. to promote "Blue Jasmine."
"I hope I've become a better actress through simply concentrating on theater," she says. "I went to a theater school with no hopes or particular aspirations to work in the cinema. It's a small industry and I'm a bit peculiar looking. I didn't think I was that girl."
Asked whether she missed the movies while focusing on work at the STC, she quickly answers, "No." She acknowledges she was "a bit burned out" from back-to-back film work before taking over the theater: "I was so bored with myself, which is a frequent feeling I have."
Instead, she relished the chance to run the company where she started out after drama school: programming a year of plays, tackling major roles, giving young playwrights a showcase and being part of a country's cultural discourse.
"People talk about it like it's a great sacrifice," she says. "Are you kidding me?"
Blanchett does, though, have a number of films lined up. She's shot two Terrence Malick films, and stars in George Clooney's historical thriller "The Monuments of Men," due out in December. She's also signed up for a movie with David Mamet and another with Todd Haynes.
"In a way, I've come back with renewed passion for it all," she says before insisting: "I never want to work. Even when you're presented with these great opportunities, I think, 'I really love being in my pajamas with the kids.'"
So why does she keep saying yes?
"The offers!" she exclaims. "Woody Allen picks up the phone, what am I going to say? I'm not going to be that schmuck who says, "Mmmm, maybe not.' I get out of my pajamas and I go to work."