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Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara resist labels with ‘Carol’

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are puzzling over a question about why there aren’t more big-budget love stories between two women.

True, there are scores of indie films that streaming services label “lesbian romances.” But few have the household familiarity of, say, Brokeback Mountain.

The two star in Carol (opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles, expands to additional cities through Christmas), a story of love blooming at Christmastime between a New Jersey socialite and a young department store clerk in the 1950s.

Both actresses have done their own digging for related films. “They get made, they just don’t get distributed widely. They don’t get big budgets. I would hazard a guess that the budget for Brokeback Mountain would have eclipsed the minuscule budget we had to make this,” says Blanchett, 46, who recently watched the 1997 drama Fire, about two Indian women who struggle within arranged marriages and fall in love.

“We even had to make our budget smaller several weeks before shooting,” says Mara, 30, who was recently moved by Pariah, a 2011 film of a African-American teen living a closeted life.

Did that mean they took a salary cut for Carol? “Salary?” says Blanchett dryly, as they both chuckle.

The result is a triumph. Carol took off at the Cannes Film Festival and left critics in rapture, with all bets on a best actress Oscar nomination for Blanchett and a supporting actress nomination for Mara.

But before Carol’s wide release, they’re worrying about how their film will be described.

“You say ‘lesbian love story’ and it’s a very sort of reductive way,” says Blanchett. “Yes, it’s a part of it, but (in the 1950s) they didn’t have language like that. (Carol) sort of transcends any label, in a way.”

Mara says she’s moved by how many men have told her they loved the film. “Men you’d look at and think, ‘Oh that wouldn’t be for them,’ ” she says.

Carol, like the upcoming film The Danish Girl (starring Eddie Redmayne as a transgender woman in the 1920s), explores the psychological impact of living a closeted life. Carol, who is fighting for custody of her daughter during a nasty divorce, carries “a world-weary understanding that a love like this can’t exist,” says Blanchett.

Blanchett says she wonders what would have happened if Carol had never met Therese and remained living in anguish. “I thought she probably would have one day had too many brandies and shot herself,” she says.

Patricia Highsmith, the author behind The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train, wrote The Price of Salt (on which Carol’s script is based) in 1952, under the pen name Claire Morgan. In the postscript, Highsmith, who was bisexual, describes being a shopgirl and following home a woman who inspired the book and watching her drink through a window.

It’s all the more notable that The Price of Salt defied stereotypes of the era and ends “relatively happily,” says Blanchett.

Hollywood is working on busting other stereotypes, including pay equality, with famous voices such as Jennifer Lawrence, Sandra Bullock and Patricia Arquette speaking openly about the disparity that exists. “There’s now a critical mass of women saying enough is enough,” says Blanchett.

She and Mara are sharply aware of the labels assigned to women. It’s why Blanchett says she stopped reading interviews she had given. “I’d be asked my opinion on something (and be described as) ‘strident,’ ‘forceful,’ ‘doesn’t take prisoners,’ ‘doesn’t suffer fools.’ And all I was doing was expressing my opinion,” she says.

“I find that kind of language and description of women to be more prevalent and sort of worse in a way than the pay gap,” says Mara.

“We’re just talking about equality,” says Blanchett. “We’re not talking about greed. I don’t see how the conversation can change, and workplace culture in any industry can change, until there’s equal pay for equal work.”