Film

Cate Blanchett on religion, powerful drama The New Boy and why politics is 'incredibly shameless'

Her new film is about the Stolen Generations, and comes at a time when reparations for Australia's Indigenous people seem to be going backwards

Cate Blanchett and Aswan Reid in The New Boy. Image: Ben King (Signature-Entertainment)

“It’s very, very volatile at the moment,” says Cate Blanchett. We are talking, as you do, about religious and political dogma, colonialism and white supremacy, misogyny and the perilous state of democracy.  

This time last year, Blanchett was at the Oscars, where Tár was nominated in six categories. Her latest venture is altogether different. In The New Boy, a film by Warwick Thornton, Blanchett plays a conflicted nun in a story of colonialism and Christianity in 1940s rural Australia. 

The film opens by spelling out the context in brutal black and white: “For most of the 20th century, it was Australian government policy to breed out the black. This involved separating Indigenous children from their parents and their culture. The church and its missions were integral to much of this policy enactment.” 

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This is a film that looks exquisite and centres on a simple story. A young boy, played beautifully by Aswan Reid, arrives at the orphanage Sister Eileen (Blanchett) runs in the absence of the priest in charge. But this is also a film with something serious to say about this country’s colonial past, about the politics of today, and about so much more in its exploration of Indigenous spirituality coming into contact with unbending organised Christianity. 

The New Boy grew out of lockdown. And out of a need to connect that so many of us felt. Blanchett heard that Thornton was considering his next project after the success of 2018’s Sweet Country, and before that, 2009’s award-winning Samson and Delilah. With more time than usual on her hands, she made contact. 

Cate Blanchett and Aswan Reid in The New Boy. Image: Ben King (Signature-Entertainment)

“Like everybody, we were un-moored during the pandemic,” she says. “And it felt that there was a kind of a radical openness to a lot of those conversations. We went right back to our childhoods. I didn’t realise he’d been educated by monks after being sent away to Catholic boarding school to ‘straighten him out’. 

“So the film came out of a very personal, angry place, I think, for Warwick. When we were filming it, he was wrestling with that young Black man’s anger that is totally justifiable and understandable and is still inside him. But he was also wanting to make a film with a great deal of curiosity and tenderness. That wrestle was really complicated for him.” 

While Thornton was forced into it, Cate Blanchett grew up fascinated by the Catholic Church. “Not being raised at all religiously, I had such a desire to be part of the Catholic Church. I would go along with my best friend from primary school on Sundays – and just the smells of it, and the smutty jokes that were said under people’s breath, the profound ritual…” she says.  

“And also the way none of them wanted to go, but they went anyway. It was rife with conflict, highly theatrical, fraught with mystery. You just knew there was a lot of subterranean stuff going on. If anything is going to teach you subtext, it’s going to Catholic mass! So we connected over this fascination – but also the deep wound we both sort of felt. Mine of longing and yearning and his as a deep experience with organised religion versus Indigenous spirituality, which is such an ongoing conflict in Australia.” 

Who could have imagined such an overwhelmingly negative, backward-looking result? Which I can’t really talk about or I’ll weep

Cate Blanchett

The film began showing at film festivals around the time of the referendum in Australia – which resulted in a vote of 60% against the proposal to “recognise the First People of Australia”.  

“Who could have imagined such an overwhelmingly negative, backward-looking result?” says Blanchett. “Which I can’t really talk about or I’ll weep, for a whole host of reasons. 

“There’s so many failures going on with us as a species at the moment. But a big failure is a failure of imagination. To imagine that this is not about you, this is not a negative for you. Actually, in someone else’s opportunity is also an opportunity for you.” 

While The New Boy was born out of anger, it retains a beguiling warmth. The film comes in the wake of The Woman In The Wall on television and new Cillian Murphy film Small Things Like These in examining how the state and state sponsored religion treats people society seeks to lock out, to correct, to change, to hide away. 

If a reckoning is happening, it’s long overdue. 

Because there are New Boys everywhere. Displaced and vulnerable people, arriving in new, unfamiliar spaces. Fast forward 80 years from this fictional film and they are too often received with no more empathy, understanding, warmth or welcome.  

“Exactly. We have to respect vulnerable people’s resilience and place ourselves in their shoes. I’m not remotely religious, but isn’t that what Jesus said? We forget the basic tenets,” says Blanchett.  

“But it is interesting, what you’re saying about New Boys being everywhere. How people on the so-called inside have a terrible fear of being on the outside, so when someone comes in from outside, they assume predatory motives, that they’re there to break apart the community. 

“All people I’ve spoken to on the outside, who are displaced, who are without a home, who have been ousted from their family circle or community, they look at the community with intense curiosity. How can I contribute? What can I do? Dogma can lead to an incurious response to people. Even the notion of being observed by an outsider can seem like a threat they have to smother. So rather than a community, it becomes a citadel very quickly.” 

Last year Cate Blanchett was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Tár. Image: BFA / Alamy Stock Photo

There are vital elections coming soon, including in the US, where the fundamentalist Christian right is becoming increasingly blurred with white supremacy in Donald Trump’s bid to return to the White House.

Having played one of the architects of the US Christian Right, Phyllis Schlafly, in TV’s Mrs America, what does Blanchett think? 

“Politics seems incredibly shameless. And reprehensibly so. Talking about white supremacy, I think there’s also a deep a misogyny that is rampant. It goes hand in hand, which is extremely worrying.”  

“The old ways of working and behaving, the so-called mainstream, is such a default setting that we need to constantly remind ourselves of all these massive, vitally important movements that have erupted. Black Lives Matter was so recent – and we have to remind ourselves why it happened in the first place.” 

Faith and facts come into direct conflict in The New Boy. It is such fertile ground. Blanchett sees it these days in discussions around the environment. 

“When you walk into a cathedral, even if you’re not religious – or an empty theatre that’s been around for hundreds of years – you can feel the echoes and the resonances of the congregations, whether they be theatrical or spiritual, that had been there before,” she begins.  

“There’s a quietude but also a space to sit with unanswerable questions. And there’s a humility in the acceptance that our climate is changing. There’s an opportunity in it. I always thought religion was about asking big questions. 

“But it turns out those people think no, no, no, it’s about finding the answer and sticking to it. Because in the end, it’s not a comfort, it’s a locked door for those people. And it’s too terrifying. So again, it’s that failure of imagination, to realise it does involve a bit of sharing, it will involve a bit of sacrifice. But as we try and teach our children, there’s no gains without sacrifice. And that’s what religion teaches us. 

“But somehow along the way these tomes have been interpreted, like the Originalists in America with the
Constitution, which has become a religious document. And once a democracy calcifies, it’s a dead organism. It has to be a living, breathing, inclusive thing through which ideas move as cultures change and evolve. You must feel that every day in terms of what comes through your doors.” 

I’m not there, 2007, starring Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan. Image: Collection Christophel / Alamy Stock Photo

Blanchett knows and buys The Big Issue, and is curious about our history, how we survived lockdown, what was in the first edition.  

It’s a curiosity that also fuels her work. Few actors have Blanchett’s range. Who else could find the hidden depths and quiet, queer longing of Carol in Todd Haynes’s masterpiece and also produce the stunning unravelling of Lydia Tár? Who else could hope to play both Elizabeth I and Bob Dylan – two icons, two astonishing transformations.  

But this is not the acting career Cate Blanchett imagined. 

“I didn’t necessarily imagine ever making anything approximating a moving picture,” Blanchett says. I was working in the theatre and certainly didn’t see myself as – and wasn’t seen to be – someone who would have a film career. I was Australian. And I was strange looking. You know, I wasn’t that girl.” 

Cate Blanchett in Carol. Image: AJ Pics / Alamy Stock Photo

If she found her feet on the stage, Blanchett has soared since transferring the bulk of her work to the screen. Now, as a producer as well as an actor on The New Boy, she is creating the culture she wants to see, asking the big questions.  

But she baulks at the idea that her choices of film project are driven by her personal politics. “I’m drawn to things, ideas, moments in time, filmmakers, or stories that I don’t know anything about or that challenge or shift the way that I look at things,” she says, reflecting on a career that has so far won her two Oscars, four Baftas and universal acclaim.  

“You feel like if you talk about politics at the moment, people are about to punch one another. But I think there’s a storytelling space that can hold people together if you don’t tell them what to think. 

“I suppose I just wanted to have as many different experiences and live as many different lives as I can.”  

She grins broadly. “I want to live all these different lives to stave off the inevitable, which is one’s mortality. But it’s not working very well. I’m still gonna die. I haven’t solved that one…” 

The New Boy starring Cate Blanchett and Aswan Reid is in cinemas across the UK from 15 March.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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