Cate Blanchett – Rewrites the Book On Scandal
by Brad Balfour
Originally posted on February 21, 2007.
In Notes on a Scandal, a high-school teacher Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) starts a affair with one of her students, Steven (Andrew Simpson), and is discovered and emotionally blackmailed by her colleague Barbara (Judi Dench, receiving a Best Actress Oscar nomination for this film). As adapted by Patrick Marber – who garnered accolades over his previous screenplay Closer – Zoë Heller’s 2003 Booker-shortlisted novel becomes a Hitchcockian treatise on betrayal and obsession.
Blanchett has become a Hollywood institution without actually having become Hollywood, acting in such acclaimed films as Elizabeth, Charlotte Gray, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. This has been a particularly good year for Blanchett, having starred in three similarly-lauded films – The Good German, Babel and Notes – which landed her in the Best Supporting Actress category for this year’s Oscar.
Is it important to be inquisitive – as inquisitive as say, Barbara, while performing in or watching Notes on a Scandal?
I think it’s important to ask all the questions, but not necessarily to answer them. It’s important to let all of those ambiguities breathe because once [Sheba] dives in [the affair with Stephen], there’s no way back. The wound is open and there’s no way in closing in, no matter if the affair ends or not. Given the damage to her children, to her husband, to herself, she’s on the public hit-list, so to speak and will be forever so.
How did you get into this role?
Once I understood Sheba as being somebody who’s incredibly lost, enormously fragile – and a time bomb, there was a way “in” for me.
Did you use the novel when you prepared for your part?
The novel [of the same name by Zoë Heller] was a great source, but it was from a very unreliable narrator. It’s all from Barbara’s perspective. I think what Patrick [Marber, playwright and screenwriter of Notes and 2004’s Closer] did with the screenplay, which is fantastic, was to liberate Sheba from Barbara’s perspective. That enabled the film to become its own entity.
One review put forth the idea that while Sheba is in an incredibly lonely position, it’s not due to a lack of love in her life. How complicated was it to get that sort of nuance into the character?
Well anyone who embarks on a destructive relationship like that…. There’s an enormous cry for help in there. Sheba doesn’t actually know where to start. What I like about the film is that it doesn’t really attempt to justify or explain in simple terms why Sheba does what she does. If she sat down on the analyst’s couch and had about fifteen years to deconstruct it, she might find the language to explain it, but I like how fragile she was.
How do you think Sheba and Barbara ultimately felt toward one another?
I think that they both underestimated one another, Sheba to a fatal degree. Sheba feels quite sorry for Barbara in a lot of ways and has no idea of the lengths to which Barbara will go to attach herself to her. And I think Barbara completely underestimates how lonely Sheba actually is. I think she just sees the trappings of her life and how peopled it is.
So how tough was Judi Dench during the fight scene?
She can hold her own. We had to do that [scene] quite a lot and she had this, sort of, ninja turtle [thing] and I had to thrust her into the bookshelf. We were both dreading the scene, actually. Because it – it reaches a certain level of absurdity – the stuff that they’re saying to one another. It’s actually thrilling to hear the words that
Patrick put into the characters’ mouths because the stakes are so high and “Where did you get my hair? Did you pluck it from the bath with some special fucking tweezers?!” [laughs] It’s a pretty great line.