Forget Pittsburgh. Blanchett toured Seattle before becoming movie’s ‘Bernadette’

Nicole Brodeur
The Seattle Times

Seattle — Where did she go, that Bernadette? All over Seattle, apparently.

The Phinney Ridge Farmer’s Market. The top of the Space Needle. Buca di Beppo. Wherever actress Cate Blanchett needed to go to better understand the rant-ridden mind of Bernadette Fox, the title character of “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?”, a film based on the best-selling book by Seattle author Maria Semple.

“I had started corresponding with Maria before we started shooting and I thought, ‘I have got to get to Seattle!’ ” Blanchett said by phone recently. “So she took me all over. And it was a bloody heat wave! I thought, ‘Where’s the rain, Maria? Where is the rain?’”

Cate Blanchett in "Where'd You Go, Bernadette." (Annapurna Pictures/IMDb/TNS)

It turned out to be for the best. During their outings around the sunny city — a walk along the Queen Anne Loop, followed by coffee at Caffe Vita — Semple gifted Blanchett with the sunglasses she was wearing at the time she was working on the book, and which are depicted on its cover. Blanchett wore those very shades during filming.

In truth, Pittsburgh doubled for Seattle for much of the movie. While director Richard Linklater was here to shoot Bernadette walking through the Central Library downtown, the rest was filmed at 31st Street Studios in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. (Note the shot of Bernadette standing at Kerry Park, surveying the city; those aren’t houses behind her, but a stand of trees. Ah, Hollywood.)

Still, Blanchett needed to sample the city that inspired Semple’s prose — and infuriated her character.

“I went on the Bernadette Pit Stop Tour,” Blanchett said. “So I went to the places that Maria hung out in and had really strong pictures in my mind.”

Blanchett bought most of Bernadette’s wardrobe at Baby & Co. on First Avenue (“I bought a few pieces for myself, as well”); had dinner at Staple & Fancy, where they ate the chef’s menu; and visited Semple’s daughter’s school.

And Semple was sure to take Blanchett to “the stuff of Bernadette’s nightmares”: the five-way intersection where Green Lake Way North intersects with North 50th Street and Stone Way North. (“Whoever laid out this city,” Semple wrote in the book, “never met a four-way intersection they didn’t turn into a five-way intersection.”)

“Maria is a satirist, so I think she takes the mickey out of herself as much as she does anybody else,” Blanchett said, using a British phrase that means to tease or mock. “But she does it with such heart. I think that Maria has ascribed to the fact that you can only hate what you love. I think that’s definitely tattooed somewhere on Bernadette’s body.”

The two-time Oscar winner (for 2005’s “The Aviator” and 2014’s “Blue Jasmine”) spoke by phone from Toronto, where she is filming “Mrs. America,” about the late Phyllis Schlafly, a staunchly conservative lawyer who played a major role in blocking the Equal Rights Amendment.

The character of Schlafly was a stretch, Blanchett said. “But it’s always the points of difference that interest me. If you’re constantly playing someone who has the same moral and social and political code, who works in the same profession as you, who loves the same music as you, then, I mean, your world view and your world experience and your well of compassion becomes pretty dry pretty quick. The world becomes very small.

“So it’s always about playing outside your experience, for me. It’s what I enjoy most.”

It was the same with the character of Bernadette, a once-celebrated architect who endures professional ruin and several miscarriages before moving to Seattle with her Microsoft husband and beloved daughter, Bee. Once here, she throws herself into parenting, enlists the aid of a virtual assistant named Manjula, and has comedic-yet-manic clashes with the community (and culture) of the fictional, private and precious Galer School before making a break for Antarctica, a trip she was supposed to take with her family.

“The title, ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette?’ is obviously because the character disappears, so that’s no spoiler,” Blanchett said. “But it’s also something that a husband could say to a wife: ‘What happened to you? Where did our relationship go? Who are you now?’ And I don’t think it’s a question she can answer.”

Bernadette has moved so far from who she was and wanted to be, Blanchett said, that she’s lost herself. That sense of self was replaced with “an acerbic, hilarious and relentless mix of hostility and rage and despair that she takes out on Seattle.”

It takes a trip far from Seattle’s coffee shops and intersections for Bernadette to find herself — and then realize the problem wasn’t just this place.

“Maria sees the book as an apology to all the people she encountered when she first moved to Seattle because she had an antagonistic relationship to it,” she said. “It wasn’t Seattle’s fault at all.”