On screen she beams, but off she likes her anonymity

When I started acting school," Cate Blanchett confides, "my grandmother told me, 'When you're performing - always keep your headlights on. But when you're home, turn them off.' "

The award-winning Australian star has followed that advice to the letter. When we met for tea, she slipped in unnoticed. It was only when she laughed heartily that people turned their heads.

We met just a few days before she gave birth to her first child, Dashiell John. "My husband and I are lapping up leisure time because we know after the baby that will be a rarity," she said.

The past 18 months have been a banner time for the actress. "Andy [her husband, screenwriter Andrew Upton] and I were chalking up our frequent-flier miles," she says, laughing. "It's a tidy sum. I've filmed in Georgia, Italy, Germany, New Zealand, and France."

The movies include "The Gift," "Bandits," "The Lord of the Rings," "Shipping News," "Heaven," and "Charlotte Gray." In February, she'll be filming in Ireland for Joel Schumacher's "Chasing the Dragon: The Veronica Guerin Story," in which she plays Guerin, an outspoken Irish journalist.

She's excited about "Charlotte Gray," which Warner Bros. released Dec. 28 in Los Angeles and New York to make the Academy Award deadline for consideration as a 2001 movie. The film chronicles the adventures of Charlotte, a British spy sent to France at the height of World War II.

"I'd just completed the evening performance of the play 'Plenty' in London's West End" a few years ago, she explained, "when the stage doorman handed me a package."

It was a copy of the best-selling novel "Charlotte Gray." Its author, Sebastian Faulk, whom Blanchett had never met, left the book with a note: "If this is ever made into a movie, I think you'd make a perfect Charlotte."

Blanchett, who had already read the book, admitted, "When I opened the letter, I burst into tears. It was such an enormous compliment coming from him. A short time later, Ecosse Films sent me an early draft of the script, saying they had acquired the film rights, and asked if I'd be interested. I literally jumped for joy."

The story is set in London during World War II. Charlotte, who speaks French fluently, falls in love with a Royal Air Force pilot. When she learns his plane has been shot down over France, she is recruited into British espionage. After some rigorous training, she is given the code name Dominique and sent to a small French village. Secretly, she hopes to find her love, but she finds more.

"I never felt I was playing two roles, Charlotte and Dominique," she said. "Instead, I think as my character moves into the identity of Dominique, she becomes more her true self. Her breadth of experience gives her a depth of maturity."

Gillian Armstrong, who directed Blanchett and Ralph Fiennes in "Oscar and Lucinda" in 1997, wanted her for the role.

"Cate was the perfect choice," Ms. Armstrong said. "Although the book is fiction, it is inspired by real-life stories of civilian women who were spies in World War II. From months of research, I discovered that most of these women were quiet, reserved, with sustaining beliefs."

They filmed in the French village St. Antonin Noble Val, near Toulouse. This medieval town substituted for the novel's Lezignac, whose citizens lived under the Vichy government and the shadow of the Nazis.

"I never rode a bicycle so much in my life," Blanchett laughed. "I'd turn up on the set, and sigh, 'I've got to ride it again! I felt like the Wicked Witch of the West - it was hilarious. It's good [that] in Australia every child is taught how to swim and ride a bike!"

After she'd seen the completed film, she said, "I realized the adrenaline Charlotte harnesses really propels the action for the last third of the movie. Once she sets her mind to achieve something, she's like a freight train, there's no stopping her. I think that's why I warmed to her as a character - there's such an intensity of passion and commitment. I loved her refusal to yield to powerlessness in the face of wartime experiences."

Cate confided that in real life, her first impressions are not always her best. When she was 18 and sightseeing in Cairo, she almost ran out of money. So, when she and her friends were asked to be extras in a movie and paid only $5, they said yes. "It involved sitting around and was terribly boring. I didn't do it to act, but to survive."

When friends first introduced her to her future husband, Mr. Upton, she thought he was a tad arrogant, and he thought she was a bit aloof. "We saw each other socially, but it wasn't until he kissed me that I knew, 'That's it! There's no going back!' In 1997, at Christmas, he proposed.

"I live my life parallel with my work, and they are both equally important. I'm always amazed how much people talk about celebrity and fame. I don't understand the attraction. I suppose I find the freedom in anonymity actually enables you to engage in the world, which for me is the cornerstone of an actor's tool."

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