"I suppose I'd have a shot at most films I'd like to make," Cate Blanchett says with a shrug. "But you can pick and choose as much as a mother can pick and choose. I have a few months off a year, and films can't always wait."
If Blanchett really is throttling back, at least she's capping an amazing, Oscar-winning run with a bang. Not only did she make a childhood dream come true with the fourth Indiana Jones movie, but she also co-stars in one of the major releases of the prestige picture season, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," which opened Thursday.
Freely adapted and greatly expanded from F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story, the film charts the life of a man who is born with the constitution of an 80-year-old and ages backward as he grows through the 20th century. Brad Pitt plays Benjamin from his 60s on down (or is it his 20s and up?); breakthrough CGI processes created the incredibly lifelike Ben of the 1920s and '30s. And Blanchett is his true love, Daisy, a modern dancer fated to grow older as her life partner becomes younger and younger.
Directed by David Fincher, whose "Seven" and "Fight Club" were as diametrically different from the tender and nostalgic "Button" as movies can get, this film offered the classically trained Blanchett the interesting challenges she seems to crave. But they weren't necessarily the high-tech ones you'd presume.
"There are ways that you can light people to make them look younger and ways to light them that make them look older," says the 39-year-old actress, who plays Daisy from her late teens until her death more than six decades later, as the rains of Hurricane Katrina pelt her hospital window. "Because digital effects are so readily accessible, people forget the actual power of cinematography, which David really harnessed.
"There's a close-up of me when Daisy's 17, and that's obviously had some digital enhancement -- because I'm a long way from 17! But also, they did light it so they had to do the bare minimum with CG."
Not the case with Pitt's character, whose early incarnations were designed from video maps of all the actor's expressions, which were then digitized into the wizened child's face. Computers also made Pitt look much younger than he really is toward the end of the movie.
Which is when Daisy is showing her years. This is the second time Blanchett has co-starred with Pitt; in "Babel," they were a bickering couple whose love was revived when she got shot in Morocco. Of course, that meant the actress spent most of that movie looking as if she was at death's door.
Does Blanchett resent Pitt being prettier whenever they work together? "He's not too pretty in the beginning of this one!" she says with a laugh.
"I think Brad's got really good taste, very interesting taste," she adds. "And my taste is probably akin to his, given that we've both been attracted to the same projects. Like-minded people end up circling the same material, often. And the benefit is that you develop a shorthand with people."
A "very physical year"
Blanchett also did most of her own dancing in the film, but is quick not to take credit for others' work. "I obviously didn't do the big series of pirouettes, and there's one leg lift which is not me, but the rest is me. And I went right from that to the Indiana Jones movie, so it was a very physical year. And then I got pregnant! That was surreal.
"Look, I never thought ... I lived and breathed those and the 'Star Wars' films when I was growing up," says the Australia native, who played wicked Soviet operative Irina Spalko in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." "So to be on set with Spielberg and Lucas and Harrison Ford was strange, like revisiting my childhood. But it was fantastic."
As for that unexpected third baby ...
"Ignatius, Iggy," Mom tells us. "He is 8 months. He was a surprise. But they've all been surprises. Three boys; that's a lot of adrenaline."
Blanchett and her husband, Andrew Upton, recently moved the family from England back to their home country when the couple were appointed joint artistic directors of the Sydney Theatre Company. It's a three-year commitment with an option to extend, and Blanchett will soon appear onstage there in Shakespeare's "Richard II."
Although she's done voice work for an upcoming animated film and may do another, there are no live movie jobs on Blanchett's horizon -- which may be just as well.
"Look, it's hard at the moment," this most artistically dedicated of actresses explains. "One of the biggest-grossing films in America recently was about a talking Chihuahua. But there are also a lot of really great films coming out this year. If you look at 'Doubt,' if you look at 'Revolutionary Road,' you've got 'Milk,' you've got 'Slumdog Millionaire.' There are so many films that I would be running to the cinema to see."
Asked about her own movie's chances in the current awards race, Blanchett preferred to focus pragmatically on box office.
"You can't predict that stuff," the perennial nominee says. "Who knows? You can't expect that stuff. But what I pray is that, because it often gets top-heavy at this time of the year with so much great stuff, a film like 'Benjamin Button' has a chance to find its audience. That's all we can hope for."