USA TODAY – Here’s a fairy tale: Once upon a time, a spirit animal known to mortals as Cate Blanchett sits next to a newly anointed Cinderella (Lily James) under the bright lights of a ballroom. Tea service appears, like magic.

Suddenly, a discussion bubbles up from the cauldron: How does one build a career in Hollywood, the sort that can be held aloft for other girls, in a land where micro-sized outfits and male studio heads guard the gate to opportunity?

Blanchett considers. “I’m fortunate to have an old-fashioned agent,” says the actress, who revamps the evil stepmother in Disney’s new live-action Cinderella (in theaters Friday). She follows the role with that of a closeted lesbian in the anticipated 1950s drama Carol, and then journalist Mary Mapes in Truth, an upcoming film about Dan Rather’s final days at CBS.

“There are very few (agents) interested in building a career. But also you get talked to — as an actor, I imagine, but particularly as an actress — (as if) you are a puppet. And you get told what to do,” says Blanchett, 45. “You’re sort of sold this idea that you have no agency within your career. You don’t build a career yourself, you don’t make choices. And I think your career is built out of what you say no to as much as what you say yes to.”

James is listening rapturously. The 25 year old is a relative newcomer, buoyed by her success on Downton Abbey, which recently aired its finale in the U.S. and saw her character, Lady Rose, set off for America.

“And here I am!” James says, laughing. (On a return to Downton: “I’m going to go back, I just don’t know in what capacity. And it’s to do with timing, but I’m pretty certain I’ll be there for a couple episodes.”)

James credits Downton for her shot at Cinderella’s slipper. “I’m definitely at the point now where I really want to build a career and make smart choices,” she says. “And now is the moment it’s in the balance and I need to make a good decision next of what to do.”

Peek inside the Blanchett playbook: “Sometimes that’s playing a character who dies on page nine. It’s not necessarily leading the film,” says Blanchett. “I’ve been interested in trying to do things that I don’t think I can do. And sometimes it works and sometimes it fails in a very public way.”

James nods: “You sort of make strategic choices, like, if I do this, then this might lead to this, or this might give me security to then do this.”

An excessive proliferation of voices can be damaging. “I’ve never had a manager,” says Blanchett. “There are still studio executives who sit there with that folded chart seeing how many events (that actresses attend), who got best dressed. There’s not a similar chart for men.”

“You’ve got to know who to listen to. I don’t care what such-and-such magazine thinks about what I wore. Did I like it? Yep. Would I wear it again?” Blanchett grins, then shrugs. “Maybe not.”


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