LOS ANGELES (KGET) – Cate Blanchett was only a child growing up in Australia when the battle to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was going on in the United States. Her unfamiliarity with the period was one of the reasons she signed on to be both an executive producer and actor in the new FX on Hulu short-run series “Mrs. America.”
It tells the story of the unexpected backlash in the ‘70s led by a conservative woman named Phyllis Schlafly (played by Blanchett) to block the amendment supported by feminists Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug and Jill Ruckelshaus. This battle gave rise to the Moral Majority and forever shifted the political landscape.
“It is a gift as an actor to get the opportunity to play roles and characters who outside your frame of reference,” Blanchett says. “I think every time you do that your world view gets expanded.
“At the time Phyllis Schlafly was alive and incredibly active and influential, she was speaking to a whole group of people who felt their voices weren’t being heard. I found the investigation of her home life, her political views, what she said to be incredibly eye opening.”
Blanchet’s not alone in telling this story of political change in America. She’s joined by: Emmy Award nominated Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem; Emmy Award winner Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug; Emmy and Golden Globe Award winner Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm; Emmy Award nominated Elizabeth Banks as Jill Ruckelshaus; and Emmy and Golden Globe Award winner Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan.
The focus of all the actors was to make “Mrs. America” feel more like a documentary and that meant trying to stay away from a liberal or conservative bias. It was important to Blanchett that the production felt like it was channeling the “noise of the public discourse” that was going on at the time.
Series creator Dahvi Waller echoes those comments explain it was very intentional to create a series with shades of gray. No one saw any advantage from painting either side as monsters or as trying to make them come across as being perfect. What struck Waller about all the women from this period was how mess, complex and contradictory in nature they were and that was what needed to be shown.
Researching a role is a joy for Blanchett because she is such a passionate lover of history.
“I don’t think we can in any way understand the present unless you look into the past, and really, we often just don’t learn very much and just make the same mistakes,” Blanchett says. “I’m interested in always that drama is a place to explore gray areas but it’s also it’s a nonjudgmental series that asks a myriad of generations.”
One thing Blanchett found in her research of Schlafly was that she was a person who believed in order whether it be in her family life, the way she dressed or her political views. That became a key factor in how the stories were told.
“The thing that the series really does describe is change and how different people respond different to change,” Blanchett says. “Phyllis was someone who was very much a believer in the status quo.”
Schlafly’s unyielding approach often had her butting heads especially with feminists. It was not unusual for her to start a speech by making comments she knew would antagonize the liberals in the room. In her research, Blanchett found an interview where Schlafly said if you can’t handle controversy and are in the political arena, you are in the wrong field.
When asked if she liked Schlafly, Blanchett says whether she approves or disapproves of a character is completely irrelevant.
“That’s not my place,” Blanchett says. “My place is to present a character – warts and all. You have to – a little bit like a therapist – reach a point of understanding. You have to understand from their perspective what they think they’re doing.”
Taking on the role of Phyllis Schlafly isn’t the first time Blanchet has portrayed a real person. Her portrayal of Elizabeth I in the 1998 theatrical release “Elizabeth” earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination.
Once production begins again in Hollywood, Blanchett is scheduled to star in a biopic based on the life of Lucille Ball. She finds there’s a certain level of responsibility to the real person at the beginning and that’s why she does so much research.
“In the end, and much of this comes from my years in the theater, no one wants to see your homework and you just have to play the scene,” Blanchett says.
“Mrs. America” will be available through FX on Hulu starting April 15.