Like so many people during the pandemic, Cate Blanchett used the time to nurture some new skills. She took piano lessons. She picked up some German. She learned how to conduct a top-tier symphony orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.
The two-time Oscar winner developed these chops for her performance in the new film “Tár,” which has the actress in virtually every scene. It’s a portrait of the fictional Lydia Tár, a highflying orchestra leader whose hubris and manipulative ways lead to career meltdown. The conductor’s need for control, over everything from her bespoke suits to the secrets around her entanglement with a former protégé, is central to the film’s examination of power.
That’s what Ms. Blanchett wants audiences to ponder—not how much prep work the lead actress did to seem natural when playing her piano parts in the film.
“It’s a little bit like spinning plates, isn’t it?” Ms. Blanchett said of the various skills she practiced for the role, including some stunt driving. “You spin two plates, so you think, ‘I’m going to see if I can spin three. Let me spin four! Oh, my God, there’s seven!’ And as soon as you think, ‘I’ve got seven plates in the air,’ they all crash.”
“So you just can’t count plates, and hopefully the audience doesn’t count them either.”
When movie stars go to school for a role (training as a cowboy, dancer, boxer), or transform their bodies (packing on muscle, adding or shedding pounds), or disappear themselves in method acting, it draws attention because it helps explain the trick they’re attempting to pull off on camera.
“Tár” is a tantalizing example: an elite acting talent taking on a rarefied slice of the classical music world. The preparations Ms. Blanchett and her collaborators did behind the scenes mirrored aspects of the story, which involves the painstaking work of creation and rehearsal.
“It’s a process film,” Ms. Blanchett said.
She began her own preparation with the basics. She studied video recordings of master classes led by Ilya Musin, a Russian conductor more influential as a teacher than on the podium.
She rehearsed the fundamental hand gestures for keeping time in Zoom sessions with friend and conductor Natalie Murray Beale. She developed more expressive movements: borrowing from her own experience as a stage actor and from choreography, such as a Mikhail Baryshnikov piece that highlighted his hands. She practiced “wherever I was. In the bathroom, on a train, in this room,” she said during a video interview from her home office.
“She was trying to figure out her own language, because it’s very idiosyncratic and very personal,” said Todd Field, the writer and director of “Tár,” his first film in 16 years following his acclaimed dramas “Little Children” and “In the Bedroom.” He consulted conductors including John Mauceri, who has written about the mysterious nature of the craft.
“There’s an alchemy in it,” Mr. Field said. “What is the difference between a conductor that actually inspires an orchestra and changes the temperature in a room as opposed to someone who’s just up there beating time?”
Ms. Blanchett’s character is the first woman ever to helm a major orchestra in Berlin. It includes Tár’s wife, the concertmaster (played by Nina Hoss) and a new Russian cellist (Sophie Kauer) whom the conductor appears to be grooming. As Tár prepares to launch a memoir and chips away at a new composition on a piano, she’s also preparing the orchestra for a recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.
The live recording represents a crowning moment in a career as calculated as the portrait photo she plans for the album cover. The symbolism of the music suggests otherwise. The Fifth, created after a near-death experience for the Austrian composer and conductor in 1901, opens with a funeral march.
Ms. Blanchett wields a baton in only a handful of scenes in “Tár.” Instead of showing the conductor presiding over her orchestra in concert, Mr. Field used rehearsal scenes to get inside the power dynamics between maestro and musicians.
“It’s infinitely more fascinating than a performance because it’s messy and it has a different rhythm to it,” Mr. Field said.
The real-life Dresden Philharmonic stood in for Tár’s Berlin orchestra in the film. Members of the Dresden ensemble were cast to play musicians involved in Tár’s workplace politics.
“I was lucky in that everyone was outside their comfort zone. The musicians had to act and I had to conduct, and in the middle we met,” Ms. Blanchett said.
Instead of using dramatic camera swoops to match the majesty of the Fifth, Mr. Field shot the rehearsals at floor level, in the ranks of the musicians. Tár controls them with sweeping arms and a squeezing hand. She chastises and coaxes them with phrases in German and lines such as, “It’s got to be like one person singing their heart out.”
“It’s like a sex scene in a way. What is the purpose or the psychology behind it?” Ms. Blanchett said. “I wanted to progress the narrative through those scenes, rather than, ‘Here I do a bit of conducting.’”
Ms. Blanchett’s piano-playing (dormant since her youth in Australia) served a similar purpose. In a scene where Tár leads a conducting seminar at Juilliard, she flays a student (played by Zethphan Smith-Gneist) who rejects Bach as a misogynist symbol of the white-European-male hegemony.
To make a point Tár squeezes next to him at a piano and plays the first prelude from Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” The piece is a staple for piano students, but Ms. Blanchett plays it in shifting styles while delivering a monologue, with references to the Peanuts character Schroeder, Glenn Gould and the “humility” of Bach’s compositions.
Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, who won an Oscar for her score to “Joker” and wrote the original music in “Tár,” said Ms. Blanchett’s casual rendition of Bach—in a scene that unfolds in a long, uninterrupted shot—established authenticity without showing off.
“When she steps away from the piano, she plays a chord as pianists often do. These kind of details aren’t too try-hard in making it obvious, ‘Look at her, she’s actually playing!’” Ms. Guðnadóttir said.
For a piece Tár is composing in isolation, Ms. Guðnadóttir developed a melody that would match Ms. Blanchett’s keyboard skills and also the halting nature of music writing: “Something simple and exploratory rather than something brilliant,” Ms. Guðnadóttir said.
The movie’s soundtrack is a concept album. It features recordings of Ms. Guðnadóttir’s music sketches and Ms. Blanchett’s rehearsal scenes in character. The album was released by Deutsche Grammophon, the same classical record label that Tár is gearing up to record for in the film.
The technical demands behind the role “gave me a sense of the stakes, of what a musician stands to lose when their instrument is taken away. It also gave me a real way into [Tár’s] rhythm and her inner life, and her compulsion to escape into the music,” Ms. Blanchett said, before trying to steer the interview elsewhere.
“I just want people to fall into the film, not how much homework I did.”
Write to John Jurgensen at John.Jurgensen@wsj.com
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