The Chameleon: Cate Blanchett

The versatile Australian actress is famous for morphing into her roles, but tells Lesley Stahl that each time she worries she won’t pull it off

The following is a script from "Cate Blanchett" which aired on Feb. 16, 2014. Lesley Stahl is the correspondent. Rich Bonin, producer.

The Oscars are just two weeks from now and a lot of people think Cate Blanchett has a lock on winning best actress for her leading role in Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine."

Blanchet grew up in Australia where she started her career in the theater. She's a movie star who does Shakespeare. She's first and foremost a theater actor, winning wild praise for her Hedda Gabler and Blanche Dubois on the stage.

This doesn't mean she can't take a joke...or a fun role in blockbusters like Indiana Jones. It seems she can do it all, Playing Americans, Russians, Germans, skinheads, albinos and men! Vanity Fair called her "a character actress in a leading woman's body."

Lesley Stahl: So you've played the queen of England, you've played an elf, you played an Italian immigrant--

Cate Blanchett: Albino.

Lesley Stahl: Albino-

Cate Blanchett: And that's just before breakfast this morning.

[Clip as albino: I have pink eyes. Like a putano, huh? Like the devil, eh?]

Lesley Stahl: The range is extraordinary.

Cate Blanchett: I guess I've got one of those faces that's not particularly beautiful, not too ugly, you know. I can look--

Lesley Stahl: Come on--

Cate Blanchett: --a bit masculine, I can look a bit feminine depending on how you're lit, how you're shot. I don't mind not looking conventionally-- you know, attractive if that's what the part requires.

So she can be gorgeous and regal as the elf queen in "Lord of the Rings." Not so much when she played Bob Dylan.

[Cate as Dylan: You just want me to say what you want me to say.]

Cate Blanchett: I don't feel like, now I'm a great actress. I never feel that. You always think, "OK, I've learned that. Well, now what if I did that?"

They call her a chameleon - the way she almost molts into her characters, as when she played Katharine Hepburn in "The Aviator," for which she won an Oscar for best supporting actress.

[Cate as Katharine Hepburn: You're not extending enough on your follow-through. Follow-through is everything in golf, just like life. Hahaha, don't you find?!]

"I don't feel like, now I'm a great actress. I never feel that. You always think, 'OK, I've learned that. Well, now what if I did that?'"

She spent weeks with a voice coach perfecting Hepburn's distinctive accent.

Lesley Stahl: Can you speak Katharine Hepburn?

Cate Blanchett: No, I can't do anything. I'm terrible. I'm the worst dinner party guest in the world. People say, "Oh, do-- do your Scottish," and I'll go, "Okee. I'll do me--" I sound like I'm a cross between sort of from New Delhi, and-- Boston. It's terrible.

In "Blue Jasmine" she plays a desperate Park Avenue socialite who loses her life of status and luxury when her husband turns out to be a swindler like Bernie Madoff.

[Clip from "Blue Jasmine": Uh, I was forced to take a job selling shoes on Madison Avenue. Ugh, so humiliating. Friends I'd had at dinner parties at our apartment came in and I waited on them. I mean, do you have any idea what that's like?]

Cate Blanchett: She was monumentally deluded. And like a lot of us, I mean, we - we-- our lives are built on a fictionalized sense of self. Who we would - who we aspire to be, rather than perhaps who we actually are.

Lesley Stahl: You do a lot of research. You're known for reading, watching videos, getting--

Cate Blanchett: It's enjoyable. It's enjoyable.

Lesley Stahl: Is it true that you watched the 60 Minutes Morley Safer interview of Ruth Madoff?

[Ruth Madoff on 60 Minutes: If I could change things, at least if I had tried, I would have felt a little better.]

Lesley Stahl: Bernie Madoff's wife--

Cate Blanchett: Yes, absolutely--

Lesley Stahl: Did that help you? Did it?

Cate Blanchett: It did. I think that what I really got from them, that Madoff interview, was the sense of shame. And I found that very useful.

One critic called it "the most complicated and demanding performance of her movie career."

Clip from "Blue Jasmine": You know, someday when you come into great wealth, you must remember to be generous.

But for Blanchett, Woody Allen's notoriously minimal direction was unnerving.

Lesley Stahl: You really love to talk things out. And as I understand it, that's not his style.

Cate Blanchett: No. He's monosyllabic at best. I don't know how to do this thing unless it's in conversation with somebody else. I can't--monologue is - terrifies me.

Lesley Stahl: But that's what you got.

Cate Blanchett: First day he said, "It's awful. You're awful."

Lesley Stahl: To you?

Cate Blanchett: Yeah.

Lesley Stahl: He said "awful"?

Cate Blanchett: "It's awful."

Lesley Stahl: But he didn't say what to do? He just said, "It's awful"?

Cate Blanchett: No. No.

Lesley Stahl: So then you did it again--

Cate Blanchett: And it was still awful. But --

Lesley Stahl: It was still awful?

Cate Blanchett: Well, obviously, it got a bit better because it didn't-- you know, people have gone to see it.

Her breakthrough role came in 1998 as the queen of England in "Elizabeth."

[Cate in "Elizabeth": I am married to England.]

After that performance, she was offered other big parts, but went for characters who stretched her, rather than ones that would make her famous.

Even though she's often on the red carpet these days, Blanchett never sought to be a movie star, nor did she think she'd ever be one.

She's the middle child of a school teacher mother and transplanted Texan father, who died when she was 10. She dropped out of college to study theater.

What she wanted was to be was a great stage actress and got her first major role in a play here at the Sydney Theater Company.

Cate Blanchett: There's a photo over here--

In 1993, she co-starred with fellow Aussie Geoffrey Rush in David Mamet's "Oleanna."

Lesley Stahl: Look how into it you are. You are so inside.

Cate Blanchett: It was one of those plays.

["Oleanna" clip, Australian TV - Cate: You can look at yourself and you can see those things that I see. And you can find revulsion equal to my own. Good day!]

Lesley Stahl: You were a triumph in it. People were dazzled.

Cate Blanchett: Yeah, the director actually almost sacked me. And that was probably a big motivator for me to do a better job--

Lesley Stahl: Are you one of those people-- are you one of those people that--

Cate Blanchett: Likes to be terrified.

Lesley Stahl: Likes to be terrified?

Cate Blanchett: I think it's the only way to work for me--

Lesley Stahl: It motivates you?

Cate Blanchett: Yeah. I'm much better with truth.

Lesley Stahl: Even if it hurts?

Cate Blanchett: Even if it hurts.

Lesley Stahl: Well, I think you've talked about the whole process as the trapeze effect. You're flying up there, and you could fall.

Cate Blanchett: Yes--

Lesley Stahl: It's fear.

Cate Blanchett: When you're stretching yourself, as a role like "Blue Jasmine" did for me, you risk falling flat on your face.

She applies that same risk-taking to her personal life, like when she and Andrew Upton, a playwright and director, decided to get married on a whim. They were both part of the Sydney Theater crowd.

"When you're stretching yourself, as a role like "Blue Jasmine" did for me, you risk falling flat on your face."

Lesley Stahl: How did you meet? How did the sparks start?

Andrew Upton: The sparks started slowly, I think, personally.

Cate Blanchett: We didn't like each other.

Andrew Upton: We didn't get on at all at first sight--

Lesley Stahl: Really?

Cate Blanchett: And then all of a sudden, we played poker one night and you were telling me about how you were in love with a friend of mine, and then we kissed.

Lesley Stahl: And, all of a sudden, you're asking her to marry you, real fast as I understand it.

Andrew Upton: I think it was about 21 days.

Lesley Stahl: And you said yes right away? Three weeks?

Cate Blanchett: Yeah. You leap off at the same time. And I think it's all about timing.

Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett CBS News

She says their marriage is a partnership in the raising of their three sons, ages 5, 9 and 12 and in their careers. Upton has been her collaborator and sounding board. And they share a love of their country. She's Australian through and through, down-to-earth and happy to be 18 time zones away from Hollywood.

Cate Blanchett: I adore Australia. I mean, I live and work here. And I'm buoyed up by it. I'm inspired by it.

As she took us for a walk along the Sydney coast, she talked about her private life. Except for her husband, the only member of the family we'd be allowed to film would be the dog Fletcher. Her home and her children were off limits.

In the late 90s, she and Upton moved to England and her movie career took off. But in 2006, the Sydney Theater Company invited them to come back and take over as co-artistic directors and they jumped at it.

Cate Blanchett: It was one of the quickest decisions I think we made once the offer had come our way, apart from how quickly we got married. Maybe in the same spirit, strangely.

Andrew Upton: Yeah, I think it was in the same spirit of adventure.

It's a job they shared for six years. It kept Cate in Sydney, allowing her to spend more time with their children, and to return to her first love, theater.

Lesley Stahl: So this is wardrobe.

While she acted in some of the productions, she also became an administrator, overseeing things like wardrobe and props. She and Upton hired big name directors - and brought the company international acclaim with ambitious productions like "Streetcar Named Desire," which they took to New York in 2009, with Cate as Blanche Dubois.

Lesley Stahl: It is so intense. It was so intense. How long does it take you to come down from an experience on the stage like that?

Cate Blanchett: At the time you just -- you do eight shows a week, my hair was falling out by the end, and I mean--

Lesley Stahl: Your-- is that true?

Cate Blanchett: Yeah. It was not--

Lesley Stahl: Your hair was falling out 'cause you put so much into it--

Cate Blanchett: But I think I was just so exhausted by, by it.

She's known for being low maintenance, her drama's strictly onscreen or on stage. When we met her before a performance of Uncle Vanya, she was doing her own makeup.

[Clip from Uncle Vanya: Your life should not be to grumble and moan.]

Well, what's she like after a performance?

Lesley Stahl: Does she stay in the role?

Andrew Upton: No.

Lesley Stahl: She comes home and she's still Blanche DuBois that night--

Cate Blanchett: Don't answer that, Andrew.

Lesley Stahl: She comes home and she's Cate?

Andrew Upton: Yeah--

Lesley Stahl: After these emotional, powerful--

Andrew Upton:: Yeah. Quite calm and chirpy.

She says she's not a "method" actor who "mines" her inner-self to unlock a character.

Cate Blanchett: It has nothing to do with me and the fact that my dog died or my father died with my-- when I was 10, and making the grief small and personal and inward. And so therefore you don't carry it home because you're not going through some personal, inward self-analysis every night that could eat you away. You're giving it away to the audience and hopefully, if it works, then, it's their-- they have-- it's their problem--

Lesley Stahl: They take it in. Well, yeah--

Cate Blanchett: They can take it home.

In December, Cate decided to leave the Sydney Theater Company and a job she loved.

Lesley Stahl: What went into that decision?

Cate Blanchett: The children. You could feel their school needs beginning to grow. They actually need that attention and, at a certain point, you have to make a decision about that, and that's not something we want to outsource.

Now her decisions about what roles to take in movies include how long she'd have to be away from home or whether she can take the boys with her on location, as she did with "Blue Jasmine" - her comeback to the movies, which she has done with a roar.

Lesley Stahl: You're 44 years old.

Cate Blanchett: Am I? We don't need to discuss that.

Lesley Stahl: Yeah, you are--

Cate Blanchett: We don't need to rub that in. Let's not--

Lesley Stahl: I'm not rubbing it in. I think it's great to be 44, frankly. But it can be a tough age for an actress. At least, that's the myth, I guess. Because for you, it's been a fabulous age.

Cate Blanchett: Well, I came to the film industry-- I mean, in actress years, I was pushing 80. Because I was in my mid-20s when I made my first film.

Now her movie career is so hot, she's already signed up for seven films. She's booked solid through at least 2015.

Lesley Stahl: What is the hardest part of your job? The thing you struggle with the most?

Cate Blanchett: Oh, look. Is it hard? I don't know that it's hard. I'm an actress. I think the most complicated thing - it's the military maneuver of getting two careers, three children, but that's a working mother's problem, working parents' problem - that's not the challenge of work. I think in relation to the work, the trickiest thing is beginning. I think it's quite a tricky neuro-linguistic process actually to try and make something that another, that a character said, to make it come out through your body and make it seem like that's natural. It's kind of tricking yourself; the confidence trick. Like an athlete does, you have to just say: "I'm just going to start. I'm ready. I'm open. Let's go."

  • Lesley Stahl
    Lesley Stahl

    One of America's most recognized and experienced broadcast journalists, Lesley Stahl has been a 60 Minutes correspondent since 1991.