“Death Can Be Very Funny” – IndieWire
Welcome to my Favorite Scene! In this series, IndieWire talks to the actors behind some of our favorite television shows about their personal best screen moments and how they came about.
When Cate Blanchett first guest-starred in “Documentary Now!”, the two-time Oscar winner played a role befitting her elite status. Directors Alex Buono and Rhys Thomas had to cast Izabella Barta, a Marina Abramović-inspired performance artist whose famous work includes throwing her paint-soaked body against a blank wall while sitting in a rotating clothes dryer. Blanchett, an unconventional thespian, was the logical choice. If he can instantly do justice to Lydia Tár, the pseudo-fictional character, and Katharine Hepburn, the very real Hollywood legend, he can inject comic cred into the art world legend while perfectly serving the episode’s winking parody.
However, his return to Documentary Now somehow expands the actor’s reach even further. In Season 4, Episode 3, “Two Hairdressers in Bagglyport”, Blanchett plays a casual assistant at a seaside salon. Alice, a widow who works for free, is a bit of a fool. She sweeps her hair around. It combs out curls with the same force you would use a jammed pickle jar. His giant block glasses don’t seem to be helping much, and it’s a minor miracle he hasn’t dropped one of his older clients’ dangling earlobes.
But the customers love Alice, as does the store’s owner, Edwina (Harriet Walter). Kind and generous. He is loyal and always does his best. Blanchett lends Alice a deft mix of warm interiority and quirky energy—familiar yet unique, lovable but often out of place in her own world but indispensable to it.
The episode, written by Seth Meyers and directed by Buono and Thomas, actually originated with Blanchett, who pitched the idea for an episode based on the 1994 short film “Three Salons at the Seaside” directed by Philippa Lowthorpe. She loved working with the crew on Season 3’s ‘Waiting for the Artist’ and couldn’t wait to get back on ‘Documentary Now’! and while it took several years for his idea to come to fruition, he’s still excited by the results — so excited that he enthusiastically agreed to a half-hour Zoom chat with IndieWire in which he outlined his appreciation for Lowthorpe’s “beauty.” original documentary Doc Now! the filming process and the series as a whole. (Yes, he saw the Werner Herzog episode “what I like – I like.”)
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
IndieWire: Can you talk a little about how you came to be involved in this episode and where the idea came from?
Cate Blanchett: Mrs. America” and a dear friend of mine did my hair. I played Phyllis Schlafly, (so) it was seven hours of playing that character under the hair dryer and talking about people’s relationship with their hairdresser. She said, “Oh, did you ever see that little documentary (‘Three Salons at the Seaside’)? I laughed and cried—just because of the full day these women were talking about in the hair salon death. Death, you know, can be very funny.
I had a great time in “Waiting for the Artist”. I talked to Andrew (singer) at Broadway Video and he said, “Look, if you ever have a documentary that you love, (let me know.)” So I sent it to Andrew and he loved it, and he showed it to Seth ( Meyers) and I sent it to Alex (Buono) and Rhys (Thomas) and they loved it. We kept in touch sporadically and I saw that we were both filming in Budapest and caught up unfriendly. Then all of a sudden they said, “I’m sending you a script.” I said, “Oh my God, I thought you guys put this in the bottom of your sock drawer”. He was really surprised and I said, “Yeah, sure, we’ll do it.”
Then, while we were filming, I was told over a drink that the reason we were in the UK was because of this idea. At least that’s what I was told. I don’t know if it’s true. That’s probably what he told everyone.
I felt like this episode really brought attention to that original documentary, “Three saloons on the beach”, honestly.
Sometimes in the early stages (episodes) like theirs “Grey Gardens” is one, what they do with it looks more and more like the original. He holds the original’s hand. I think it is, in a way, because these women in the original documentary are such glorious creations that they should be respected. I think it’s that kind of tone – as disrespectful as they can be and often insulting, he’s actually a polite gentleman. This particular documentary, I think you could feel the love of their own grandmothers in it.
Was there a scene that stood out to you in the original documentary that you wanted to capture in your own way?
I really like it in our iteration taking the photos. (Shooting this series) is so fast and furious. You never know what will happen. You know those weird Japanese game shows in the ’90s where people would stand in front of pyramids, put a magnifying glass on their nipples and see how long they could last? This is the process in shooting.
(So) the actual compilation of the photo book was a surprise to me. I took some pictures and then they took some pictures because that’s how Alex and Rhys work. The making of the book and the unveiling of the book were particularly memorable.
But I loved the handbag in the original movie. The idea that there are so many funerals and the owner of this salon didn’t want the women to be unprepared. That’s why he kept a little burial bag and a list of when people died because he didn’t want people to misunderstand the date of death. And in the funeral bag was a handkerchief and a mint. He thought a lot about this, this funeral bag.
It’s a very sweet movie.
The wonderful thing was that we filmed in the original salon. Of course, it was transformed several times, but there was the woman who ran the salon, who came with her dogs. Not much has changed.
So is it still used as a salon today?
Yes, it’s still a salon. And he was very, very nice.
What was it like working with the women who played clients? There were so many of them, and even in a short amount of time, they all had their own personalities and great little moments.
I remember Rhys telling me that there were literally hundreds of people that could have been cast. They were fun. And so on. It was so much fun. The bottom line is that we have three hours of gems where these women would just riff—and riff on each other. They used to have this beauty pageant by the pier and there was a woman who brought in her big album because she was Miss Blackpool Pier from 1957 or something. He was a hot potato in his day. OK lived.
And you really worked on them. The physical comedy is excellent. The scene where you brush a lock out of a customer’s hair – I thought you were going to fall over.
So relaxed. I like. I really liked doing it “Waiting for an artist” and this. I have a dear artist friend, Julian Rosefeldt. We did a thing called “Manifesto” that we shot super fast with no rehearsal. Technically we discussed things, but there is no time to overthink anything and no time to really plan. You come in and talk. (In “Documentary Now!”) it’s like setting up a set where someone is doing something in the kitchen, quietly, while something else is being filmed in the main part of the living room. And you’re moving between stocks at once, so there’s no value.
It’s almost like making a silent film. They often negotiate the admission. And they’re going to shoot, and I’m going to go behind the camera and say, “Oh, I see, if I move a little more to the left, it’ll be better.” Incredibly, incredibly fluid. (…) For me, or for the Australian film industry, it’s a theater rehearsal room, where if you’re an actor and you’re standing next to something that the bad guys can’t pick up, you pick it up and move the equipment. You are your own way on this.
How did you deal with Alice’s accent?
Oh, I don’t know if we landed to be honest. (laughs) I don’t know.
He plays very well!
I think it was probably Blackpool via New Delhi. I don’t know what happened. I didn’t listen too much to Fred (Armisen). (laughs) But yes, it was all from the (original) documentary.
Have you sent more presentations to the “Documentary now!” team?
What is it that they can sit for another seven years? (laughs) You know, I don’t. But I would work with them again in a heartbeat. I absolutely love it. I hope they do (one more season) but that’s what’s special about them. It is very rare that a series continues to deepen and enrich itself, and continues to surprise not only the viewers, but also itself. They don’t work to a delivery schedule, only when they have enough ideas that really excite them, they put it together and do it (for another season.) You can feel the band getting back together. It’s a really great environment to be around.
Did you get to keep the photo book – the one for the show with Alice on the cover?
I have it somewhere, I really do. I like.
That’s good. It’s a perfect memory.
Yes! And look, I have a new headshot, so.
“Documentary now!” Season 4 is available from IFC. We stream all four seasons on Netflix.