Talking to Todd Haynes, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara about “Carol” in back-to-back-to-back hotel-room conversations is a study in contrasts. Haynes, the film’s director, sits on the couch and leans forward intently, rocking slightly as he makes his points. Blanchett, who plays the title character, almost reclines on her couch, speaking with her head leaned back in a languorous pose that is a picture of relaxed elegance. And Mara, whose character starts out young and naïve but grows more assertive, chooses a straight-backed chair and sits upright, arms at her side, friendly but also reticent and slightly guarded. To watch them in succession is to catch a glimpse of how their sensibilities could have meshed to create something like “Carol”: smart, elegant and restrained.
The film, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, tells the story of a lesbian relationship in 1950s New York with remarkable subtlety. Blanchett’s Carol has a husband and son but can’t hide her true desires; Mara’s Therese is a timid young clerk who aspires to be a photojournalist, so naïve that she doesn’t have the experience to express or even recognize what she’s feeling. Theirs is a world of whispered secrets and furtive glances, in which the smallest gestures can be huge; the actors convey big emotions in the smallest of ways, while Haynes orchestrates the tiniest details with a master’s touch.
“I always think it’s funny how we have actors in movies standing in for all of us in life,” said Haynes. “They’re so good at communicating emotion, and we’re usually so bad at it. We look to actors as guides for how to express ourselves, but we don’t really do it that flawlessly.”
The understatement, added Mara, was not the hardest part. “That’s kind of my m.o.,” she said. “But it was challenging to trust that I was doing enough, that I could let the material breathe the way it wanted to — that’s the way the film wanted to be, the way Phyllis [Nagy] wrote it and certainly what Todd brought to it.”
Nagy had been a friend of the late author Patricia Highsmith, from whose 1952 novel “The Price of Salt” the film was adapted. (Highsmith published the semi-autobiographical novel under a pseudonym, only changing the title to Carol and putting her name on it in a 1990 re-publication.) Nagy tried to get the film off the ground for 15 years and almost succeeded with Blanchett and Brooklyn director John Crowley — but when Crowley dropped out for scheduling reasons, the project went to Haynes, whose previous work ranged from the challenging Bob Dylan meditation “I’m Not There” to the stylized ’50s melodrama “Far From Heaven” to the HBO miniseries “Mildred Pierce.”
“I’d never done a love story before,” Haynes said. “And it made me want to look at the love story in movies and elsewhere, to try to discern what it was about the ones that resonated with me.” He drew from David Lean’s “Brief Encounter,” but also looked at films that included “Now Voyager,” “Rebecca,” “Letter From an Unknown Woman,” “The Lovers” and others–and even more than films, he turned to photographs from the era to create the look and feel of “Carol.”
Haynes and the actors convened for two weeks of rehearsals in Cincinnati, which Blanchett found inspiring. “There’s so much of the town that has been exquisitely untouched, little alleyways that felt very clandestine,” she said. The actress also loved the sparseness of the material. “It’s wonderful to play,” she said. “On film, I always love those moments when you can dispense with language. Phyllis had so beautifully wrought the screenplay with inbuilt moments of silence. And Todd, because he has such a fine musicality as a director, was really attuned to those moments.”
Blanchett said she found it “a challenge to play someone who has a privacy about their sexuality — you had to make perforations into the character so that the audience could be allowed in, but still maintain that ambiguous distance that Patricia Highsmith has from her character.” Over the course of the film, she added, the audience does learn more. “Carol’s is such a private, silent hell, and Therese is an outsider without the language to process what she’s feeling. But as the film progresses, you understand the level of deep, painful compromises that Carol has to make to get by day to day, and how deeply she understands the minefield that they will be walking into if they consummate their relationship.”
The story was written at a time when a lesbian relationship could have catastrophic personal and professional repercussions; it’s now being seen in an era in which the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that gay marriage is legal. But “Carol” exists independently of the political currents, Mara insisted. “I don’t think the film has a message or a social agenda,” she said. “It’s not a political film at all — it’s a love story, and that will always be relevant, no matter what time it is.
“It’s great if conversations about social justice come out of this, but it’s not the purpose of the film. We’re not preaching. We’re just showing a love story between two women who have many obstacles in their relationship, not just the fact that they are two women. Carol’s marriage, her child, their age difference, their socioeconomic difference — there’s just a lot for them to overcome. I think that’s what makes the film powerful, that it isn’t really pushing anything on you.”
When Blanchett looks back on the years she spent involved with the film before it could finally be made, she finds that the delay had an artistic payoff independent of whether the film now lines up with changing social attitudes. “With films as delicate and as special as this,” she said, “they often take a long time to find the right way to get made.” Her previous collaboration with Haynes, “I’m Not There,” she added, regularly seemed on the verge of falling apart before it somehow came together so impressively that Blanchett landed an Oscar nomination. “This had the same quality. It was made on a shoestring, but with no artistic compromises. Somehow Todd makes these extraordinary beasts of films, unusual and particular. I marvel at how he does that.”