Given the remarkable array of characters Cate Blanchett has portrayed – from Elizabeth I to Bob Dylan in I'm Not There – it's no surprise that when the two-time Oscar-winner approaches a fairy tale, she doesn't ham it up. The Australian actress stars in Walt Disney's live-action version of the classic tale Cinderella, playing Lady Tremaine, the wicked stepmother to the orphaned heroine. "I think it's easy to play someone who's evil," says Blanchett. "I think it's more interesting to try to find out why they're cruel, why they're wicked, why they're ugly." It's a typically thoughtful statement from the actress, who last won a Best Actress Oscar for her role as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine (2013).
Cinderella's stepmother may not be her first time playing a baddy – see her Russian KGB agent in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – but Blanchett didn't simply want to create a pantomime villain.
“There’s a bit of moustache-twirling, which is always fun to do,” she says. “But I think the challenge was to try to flesh her out.”
Blanchett, 45, was among the first actors attached to the project, even before director Kenneth Branagh came on board, and she was keen to explore the dynamic between the good-hearted Cinderella (played by Lily James) and the embittered Lady Tremaine.
“Cinderella is a very confronting mirror held up on a daily basis to the stepmother,” she says. “In every measure, she is kind and good and the stepmother feels judged by that … women often compare themselves unfavourably to one another.”
Having won her first Oscar for playing Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator (2004), Blanchett turned to other stars from Hollywood's Golden age when it came to preparing for her role in Cinderella.
“We talked a lot about the wonderful roles that Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck had played,” she says. “I think about those women all the time, every waking moment the legacy of their work is constantly inspiring to me. I think it’s the deliciousness, the relish that they had, the wonderful attack they had on the characters they play on screen.”
Growing up in Melbourne as the middle child of three children, Blanchett was no stranger to fairy tales. Her mother, June, was an Australian property developer and teacher and her father, Robert, was a Texas-born petty officer in the United States navy, who later went into advertising. "My parents read me oodles of fairy tales and every Sunday night, our family would sit down at 6 o'clock to watch The Wonderful World of Disney, so I think I've seen every single Disney property – animated or otherwise."
Even so, Cinderella was not a story Blanchett "gravitated" towards. "I think because the character of Cinderella was a beautiful victim," she says. "And that wasn't something my mother wanted to use as a role model. It was always the ugly, dangerous, horrible things as a child that I gravitated towards."
Rather like Cinderella, Blanchett's early years were also marred by tragedy – her father died of a heart attack when she was 10. She later described her teenage self as "part extrovert, part wallflower".
It's a little different now, with Blanchett one of Hollywood's unparalleled actors. She has just completed Todd Haynes's Carol, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel; acted opposite Robert Redford in the newsroom drama Truth; and will soon voice the snake Kaa in a new version of The Jungle Book.
Somehow, she juggles it with being a mother of four: she has three sons and a newly adopted daughter with her playwright husband Andrew Upton. At least she can keep them quiet by showing them Cinderella. "I'm really looking forward to taking them," she says.