Cate Expectations

Cate Blanchett is everything you expected--and so much more bald. The actress recently shaved her head for a role, and when you first see her, emerging from a hotel elevator in Portland, Ore., she's got a shaggy red wig stuffed into her handbag and looks like someone trying to sneak a dog onto a plane. She greets you warmly, but warily. As you anticipated, Being Interviewed does not appear on her Top 10,000 List of Favorite Things. Blanchett is carrying half a dozen videos from Blockbuster--"Some Like It Hot," "Roman Holiday," etc.--and as an icebreaker you say, Do we have to watch all those? She smiles. "We could. It'd save us having to talk." Blanchett gets tongue-tied when forced to hold forth on the subject of Cate Blanchett. She'd rather discuss art, theater, Jane Fonda, the geological history of various continents--even the T shirt on that guy across the street. Before submitting to the interview, Blanchett transfers her wig to her assistant's handbag and deadpans, with a kind of deathbed gravitas, "I'm going to give you my hair."

Hair, no hair. Crown and robes or T shirt and jeans. Accent of any kind. Since her blazing breakthrough in 1998's "Elizabeth," Blanchett has proved herself to be an astonishing chameleon. This month she plays a small-town psychic in Sam Raimi's scary and touching supernatural thriller "The Gift." Raimi was working with a budget reportedly under $10 million. But he had no trouble getting people like Keanu Reeves to work cheap when they'd read the rich, layered script--and heard who'd be telling their fortunes. "Once they knew Cate Blanchett was starring in the piece," he says, "they knew they were going to be across from one of the best, if not the best, leading ladies in the world." The actress, who's married to screenwriter Andrew Upton, is reluctant to play the star game. She's always made idiosyncratic choices--she couldn't fit the Clarice Starling role in "Hannibal" into her schedule, but lobbied for a small part as the pointy-eared elf queen Galadriel in the upcoming film version of "The Lord of the Rings." How does she keep her agents from pushing her around? "Well, I'm an adult," says the Australian-born actress, 31. "It's very easy to revert to a second childhood in this business. If you allowed it to happen, you could have people literally telling you what to eat and what to wear. You know? It's kind of like, 'I can dress myself, thanks'."

"The Gift" looks great on her. Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson wrote the screenplay as a homage to Thornton's mother, who was the local psychic when Billy Bob was growing up in Arkansas. At the outset of the movie, the widowed Annie Wilson (Blanchett) is raising three boys and barely scraping by, giving readings in a back room. Buddy Cole (Giovanni Ribisi) comes because he's tortured by family secrets. Valerie Barksdale (Hilary Swank) comes because she's getting beaten by her redneck husband, Donnie (Reeves, in a great, menacing performance). Then, one night, the cops come. A woman named Jessica King (Katie Holmes) has disappeared--after sleeping with half the town--and her fiance, Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear), fears she's been murdered. The sheriff asks Annie if she can scare up some visions or sump'n. Unfortunately, once the terrifying visions get into Annie's head, they won't get out.

"The Gift" is clunky at times, and it lays the traumas on thick. Still, it's a deep, eerie movie that stays with you, thanks largely to Blanchett's extraordinarily raw and humane performance. Blanchett has gotten a lot of attention for the outward trappings of her work--the costumes in "Elizabeth," the Long Island accent in "Pushing Tin"--but she does a hell of a lot of acting with only her eyes. Early in "The Gift," Annie and the tormented Buddy are driving when he has a manic episode. Buddy bends down out of the frame and starts slamming his head against the steering wheel. Instead of following him, director Raimi lingers on Blanchett's face as conflicting emotions flash across it. Confusion. Kindness. Fear. First you think: what's the camera doing on Blanchett's face? Then you think: where else would it be?

In "The Gift," Annie can't control her powers, but the townspeople expect her to fix their lives at a moment's notice. Blanchett could relate. Actors are expected to be hilarious on demand and to bare their souls for reporters like you. "It's not something you can just turn on--I wish I could," says the actress. "I was so terrified when I left drama school. I thought, 'I can't be an actor--I don't think I can audition. I don't think I can bear getting up in front of people.' But something happened. I went into an audition and someone was being an a--hole, and I thought, 'I really don't want this job.' I wasn't working at the time, but I thought, 'I don't think I could bear to work for you'." The experience affected the way Blanchett approached her entire career, not to mention her next audition: "I didn't run at it saying, 'Like me! Want me!' "

Everyone did, anyway. Gillian Armstrong, who directed Blanchett in "Oscar and Lucinda," was so floored by the actress's warmth and class that she's reteaming with her on the World War II drama "Charlotte Gray." "I actually said yes to the project before I even read the script," says Armstrong. "Just knowing, in one line, that it was about a female secret-service agent who goes to France and that it was going to be played by Cate--I said, 'YES!' " Who could say no? Blanchett's got a gift.