Welcome to my favorite scene! In this series, IndieWire talks to the actors behind some of our favorite TV performances about their personal best moment on screen and how it came about.
When Cate Blanchett first guest-starred on “Documentary Now!”, the two-time Academy Award winner played a part befitting her elite status. Directors Alex Buono and Rhys Thomas needed to cast Izabella Barta, a Marina Abramović-inspired performance artist whose famous work includes everything from sitting inside a spinning clothes dryer to throwing her paint-soaked body against a wall white. Blanchett, no ordinary actor, was the logical choice. If she can bring instant veracity to both Lydia Tár, a pseudo-fictional character, and Katharine Hepburn, a true Hollywood legend, then she can instill comic credibility in an art-world legend, perfectly serving the winking parody of the episode.
His return to “Documentary Now,” however, somewhat extends the actor’s reach further. In season 4, episode 3, “Two Hairdressers in Bagglyport”, Blanchett plays an ordinary assistant at a seaside salon. Alice, a widow who works for free, is a bit clumsy. She sweeps her hair in a circle. She combs her curls with the force she would apply to a stuck pickle jar. Her huge block glasses don’t seem to help much, and it’s a minor miracle that she didn’t clip off one of her older client’s dangling earlobes.
But the customers love Alice, as does the shop owner, Edwina (Harriet Walter). She is kind and generous. She is loyal and always does her best. Blanchett lends Alice a deft blend of warm interiority and whimsical energy: she is familiar, yet unique, adorable yet often inept, in her own world but indispensable to it.
Written by Seth Meyers and directed by Buono and Thomas, the episode actually originated with Blanchett, who pitched the idea for an episode based on “Three Saloons by the Sea,” a 1994 short film directed by Philippa Lowthorpe. She loved working with the crew during Season 3’s “Waiting for the Artist” so much, she couldn’t wait to return to “Documentary Now!” and while it took several years for his idea to materialize, he’s still thrilled with the results – so thrilled, he eagerly accepted a half-hour Zoom conversation with IndieWire, in which he outlined his appreciation for the “beautiful” of Lowthorpe original documentary, the “Doc Now!” shooting process and the series in general. (Yes, she saw the Werner Herzog episode, “That I Love-I Love That.”)
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
IndieWire: Can you talk a little bit about how you ended up in this episode and where the idea came from?
Cate Blanchett: I was on the set of “Mrs. America” and a dear friend of mine was doing my hair. I was playing Phyllis Schlafly,[so]it took seven hours under the blow dryer to play that character, and we started talking about people’s relationship with their hairstylist. She said, “Oh, have you ever seen that little documentary (“Three Saloons by the Sea”)?” I laughed and I cried – only the day was filled with these women at a hair salon talking about death. Death is, you know, it can be a lot of fun.
I had so much fun making “Waiting for the Artist”. I had talked to Andrew (Singer) on Broadway Video, and he said, “Look, if you ever have any documentary that you love, (let me know.)” So I sent it to Andrew and he loved it, and he loved it. showed it to Seth (Meyers) and I sent it to Alex (Good) and Rhys (Thomas) and they loved it too. We kept in sporadic contact, and I saw that we were both filming in Budapest, and we met, just amicably. Then out of the blue, they said, “I have a script to send you.” I said, “Oh my god, I thought you guys filed this at the bottom of your sock drawer.” I was so surprised by it and said, “Yeah, sure, let’s do it.”
Then as we were shooting over drinks they told me that the reason we are in the UK is because of this idea. Well, at least that’s what they told me. I don’t know if it’s true. He probably told everyone.
It felt like this episode really brought attention to that original documentary, “Three salons by the sea”, in a sincere way.
Sometimes in the first (episodes) like theirs “Gray Gardens” one, what they make of it looks more one to one with the original. Holds the hand of the original. I think in a way that is too, because these women in the original documentary are such glorious creations that you have to honor them. I think it’s kind of the tone: as flippant as they are, as out there and often offensive as they can be, they really are a polite bunch of gentlemen. In this particular documentary, you may feel the love of their grandmothers, I think.
Was there a scene that stood out to you in the original documentary that you wanted to honor or capture in your own way?
In our iteration, I really love it taking the photographs. (Shooting this series is) so fast and furious. You never know what will happen. You know those weird Japanese game shows from the 90s where people would stand in front of pyramids and put magnifying glasses on their nipples and see how long they could hold out? This is the process of shooting these things.
(So) the actual assembly of the photo book came as a surprise to me. I took some of the photos and then they took some of the photos because that’s how Alex and Rhys work. The making of that book and the presentation of the book were especially memorable.
But in the original movie, I loved the purse. The idea that there were so many funerals and the owner of this particular salon didn’t want women to come unprepared. So he kept a little burial bag there and a list of when people had died because he didn’t want people to get their death dates wrong. And inside the funeral bag was a handkerchief and a mint. He had really thought about it, this funeral bag.
It’s a pretty sweet movie.
The amazing thing is that we shot in the original salon. Sure, it’s been renovated several times, but the woman who ran the salon was there, and she came with her dogs. Not much has changed.
So is it still used as a salon today?
Yes, it’s still a salon. And it was really, really adorable.
What was it like working with all the women who played the clients? There were so many of them, and even in such a short amount of time, each of them had their own personalities and big little moments.
I remember Rhys telling me there were literally hundreds of people they could have chosen. They were hilarious. And so on. It was so much fun. The outtakes, we have three hours of gems where these ladies just riff — and riff on each other. They had a beauty pageant down at the pier, and there was a woman who brought her big scrapbook of her because she was Miss Blackpool Pier 1957 or something like that. She was a hot potato in her day. They lived.
And you really went to work on them. The physical comedy is outstanding. That scene where you’re combing a curl out of a client’s hair – I thought you were going to fall out.
It’s so loose. I love it. I really enjoyed doing “Waiting for the Artist” and this. I have a close friend who is a visual artist, Julian Rosefeldt. We did something called “Manifesto,” which we shot very quickly, without rehearsals. We’ve talked about things technically, but there’s no time to overthink anything and no time to really plan. You come in and walk around. (In “Documentary Now!”) it’s like a set where someone is doing something in the kitchen, in silence, while something else is being filmed in the main body of the living room. And you move from set to set at the same time, so there’s no preciousness.
It’s almost like making a silent film. They will often talk during the shoot. And they’ll shoot, I’ll get behind the camera and say, “Oh, I see if I move a little bit more to the left, it’ll be better.” It’s incredibly, incredibly smooth. (…) It’s similar to a theater rehearsal room for me, or the Australian film industry, where if you’re an actor and you’re standing next to something the gaffers can’t pick up, then you pick up and move the equipment. You are your own roadie on this one.
How did you feel about Alice’s accent?
Oh, I don’t know if we landed, actually. (laughs) I don’t know.
Play very well!
I think it was probably Blackpool via New Delhi. I don’t know what ended up. I didn’t listen too much to Fred (Armisen). (laughs) But yeah, it was all from the (original) documentary.
Have you submitted more submissions to the “Documentary Now!” squad?
What, on which they can sit for another seven years? (laughs) You know, I didn’t. But I would work with them again in a heartbeat. I absolutely love it. I hope they do (another season), but that’s what’s so special about them. It’s very rare for a series to keep getting deeper and richer and keep surprising not only viewers, but surprise itself internally. They don’t work on a delivery schedule, just once they have enough ideas that they’re really excited about, they put them together and do (another season). You can feel it’s like they’re putting the band back together. It’s a really great environment to be in.
Were you able to keep the photo book, the one made for the show, with Alice on the cover?
I have it somewhere, I have it, I really have it. I love it.
All right. It’s a perfect keepsake.
YES! And look, I got a new headshot out of it, so.
“Documentary now!” Season 4 is available from IFC. All four seasons are now streaming on Netflix.