Cindy Sherman and Cate Blanchett had only met in passing, a few times. And yet there is an identifiable thread connecting the work of Sherman, the artist who (dis)appears, disguised in character, in her own photographs, and Blanchett, the protean and Oscar-winning Australian actress. On a gray morning in late April, the women, mutual admirers, convened at Hauser & Wirth gallery on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where a collection of Sherman’s critically acclaimed early work opened May 4, and where they quickly forged a connection.
“I’m a massive fan,” said Blanchett, proving her adulation with detailed questions, both technical (does Sherman use a timer?) and philosophical (“where does rhythm sit in photography?”). Blanchett had whisked into town to receive an award from Film at Lincoln Center, before heading back to London, where she is filming “Disclaimer,” an Apple TV+ series directed by Alfonso Cuarón.
Sherman was busy overseeing the exhibition, which includes all 70 of her untitled film stills, the black-and-white photos that put her on the map, and shook up the art world, starting in the late ’70s, as well as her subsequent rear screen projection and centerfold images, all in color and all starring her. Sherman, 68, and Blanchett, who turns 53 this month, toured the exhibition together, eagerly finding commonalities.
“She really takes on different personas,” Sherman said admiringly.
In 2015, Blanchett performed in “Manifesto,” a 13-channel video art installation by the German artist Julian Rosefeldt, in which she played at least a dozen different characters, from news anchor to homeless man, reciting various artistic and political manifestoes. (It was later released as a feature film.) “That was inspiring,” Sherman said, adding that she felt like she’d done some of those characters too. “It was a nice confirmation, of feeling like we’re on the same wavelength a little bit.”
In what was less a conversation than a cosmic matchup, they talked about getting into character, childhood play, the value of makeup, and the horror of clowns. These are edited excerpts.
How do you make use of each others’ work?
CATE BLANCHETT Filmmaking can be very literal. So, I find anything you can do to move yourself to a more abstract space. Sometimes it’s a piece of music. But invariably it’s an object. Oftentimes, I’ll make a whole tear sheet composition about the feeling around something I can’t articulate, images that had nothing to do on a conscious level with what I’m doing. Like the Clown series, for instance. I can’t even begin to express my revulsion and terror — the visceral feeling of seeing those works [Sherman’s series of lurid clowns]. I tore it out for [the Guillermo del Toro film] “Nightmare Alley” recently.
I find if you slam something left of field up against what you need to do as an actor, it can create something slightly more ambiguous. It doesn’t always work.
CINDY SHERMAN I don’t really get into the characters that way, but there’s a big difference between what I’m doing and acting. I’m just standing still, and because I’m also working alone, I can really mix it up, do the complete opposite of what I thought the character should do — and sometimes that works.
Did either of you grow up thinking that you had very malleable faces?
SHERMAN I didn’t.
BLANCHETT No. I used to do this thing with my sister where she would dress me up, stand me in front of the mirror and give me a name. Then I’d have to figure out that person. My favorite one — we kept saying we were going to make a movie about him — his name was Piggy Trucker. He was a little short guy, a bit like an Australian Wally Shawn [the actor and playwright Wallace Shawn], and he drove a pig truck. [I was] probably about 7, 8 years old.
SHERMAN It was playing dress-up. My mother would go to the local thrift store and for 10 cents buy these old prom dresses from the ’40s or ’50s. There was also, I think it was my great-grandmother’s clothes that were left in the basement. I discovered them, and it was like, wow. It looked like old lady clothes, but also the pinafore type of things. When I was 10 or 12, I would put them on, stuff socks to hang down to the waist to look like old lady [breasts], and walk around the block.
BLANCHETT [laughing, pretending to be Sherman] I knew then I wanted to be an artist!
Often, these things start as play and then the exploration becomes, I imagine, a seamless transition. It’s not conscious — some of these things, you’re doing without thinking.
SHERMAN Yeah. When I was in college, I was putting makeup on and transforming myself in my bedroom when I was studying painting. I think I was working out my frustration with whatever was going on in my life, and my boyfriend at the time finally just said, you know, maybe this is what you should be taking pictures of. And that seemed like a good idea.
Sometimes, I’ll be making up [a character] and look in the mirror as I pose, and I suddenly feel like I don’t recognize [myself]. Wow, where did she come from? It’s kind of spooky, kind of cool. [To Blanchett] How do you come up with characters? Like all those for Julian [Rosefeldt]?
BLANCHETT It was so fast. It was quite interesting for me actually, because you can get really hung up on your character’s back story, particularly in American acting culture. It’s all about your connection — if your mother died or father died, then use that. That is really alien to me anyway. I’ll talk to my therapist about that. What was really great about the Julian thing was, there was no psychology. It was just a series of actions. Most of the time, we’re not thinking about what makes us tick. You’re doing things. [To Sherman] You’ve done a few male incarnations too.
SHERMAN That was a lot harder. I had to just become confident in a way that I, as a woman, maybe am not. Once I relaxed into the character, I [sometimes] felt, this is a very sensitive guy.
Cindy, in the film stills, you’ve said you tried to have very little visible emotion, at least in your face. Why?
SHERMAN I didn’t want to be obviously happy or sad, tormented or angry. I did want it to seem like the moment right before that emotion, or right after. I realized it looked too corny, if I was overreacting. So it just brought a more neutral mystery to it, because you’re [wondering], what’s going on there?
BLANCHETT Often a smile is a defense. It’s actually a shut down rather than an invitation. When you smile with your eyes, that’s where the genuine thing comes from. One of the many things that’s so powerful about your work is creating that expectation [of emotion] but not delivering, so there’s an eerie sort of hollowness to it. It’s the disconnect from what we present to who we actually are, and that vacuum between the two. It’s often the space where all our personal horror sits.
[To Cindy]It’s interesting, you go through this process by yourself. I’m not a great fan of the monologue. I did a play once, a Botho Strauss play, where I had a monologue for 25 minutes. It was like, wow, this is lonely. Often on films, there’s zero rehearsal or even conversation about stuff. You’re just meant to walk on and deliver. You’re thinking about the result, and I find that a pretty deathly way to work.
I’ve realized over the years that my relationship with the costume designer and the hair and makeup people is really profound. It’s profound to see what the character looks like, and therefore how a character might move or project. Those departments — so-called “female guilds” — are often things that male directors profess to know nothing about. “I’ll just leave that bit to you.”
I played Elizabeth I years ago and the director, whom l love and respect, was always, I just want the hair down, flowing in the wind. I said, have you seen the pictures of Elizabeth I? There weren’t that many like that.
But it’s because [some male directors] need to feel attracted. They can’t see that there are other ways — and not even in a sexual way — you can be alluring. You can draw an audience into a character’s experience in many different ways. I keep going back to the clown images — you can tell I’m really disturbed by them. When you’re taking them, do you think: I want people to feel repulsed by this?
SHERMAN Even the repulsive things I’ve done — grotesque things with rotten food — I want people to feel kind of repulsed, but attracted and laughing at it, all at once. I don’t want people to take it too seriously.
I’ve always been attracted to horror movies, and I equate that to the feeling of being on a roller coaster. You know you’re not going to fall out, but you can still be terrified. And then it’s all over. I think that’s how fairy tales functioned way back when. I was trying to do that with my work, to make it seem from a distance like, oh, pretty colors! And up close — oh, it’s a little awful. But then you get the joke.
In the mid-80s, this company in Paris asked me if I would make some ads for French Vogue. That’s when I started playing with fake blood and fake noses. They hated it, of course. That inspired me to make it much more dark. I got fake scar tissue and fake body parts. Eventually I found these prosthetics — fake [breasts and butts] was the perfect way to start playing with nudity, partly because I think I’ve been hiding in the work. The idea of revealing any part of myself literally was never the point.
BLANCHETT I’m quite kinesthetic — that’s why I love being onstage, I feel like I’m always better in movement. You’re so incredible, there’s so much movement, and then, it’s all captured in this vibrating, still image.
It’s like when you go and see dance. It’s that moment of [sharp inhale] suspension before someone lands that’s so thrilling. And so great that [your photographs] are not titled. You’re not led to make any particular sense of them. These works, it’s like a litmus test. Thank you.