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Having made her film debut in The Untouchables in 1987 and her career-changing German-lesbian heroin-addict debut in High Art in 1998, Patricia Clarkson has over the past ten years transcended the ageist stereotype of the American female actor. Since turning 40, she has had major roles in over 30 films including The Station Agent; Pieces of April; Far From Heaven; Good Night, and Good Luck; Lars and the Real Girl; Married Life; Vicky Cristina Barcelona; and Elegy, to name a few. With a career as distinctive as the voice that has given it life, it is her generosity of spirit that one remembers best when meeting her. On screen and on stage she inhabits characters with a deep humanity, and in person she opens the door to an exquisite intelligence and charm that lives, breathes, and simmers inside. She is the youngest of five daughters and is a New Orleans native who has lived in New York City for the past 20 years. Recently she was lauded for her performance in Woody Allen’s Whatever Works, and in Ruba Nadda’s new film, Cairo Time, scheduled for release in the US in May, Clarkson is the romantic lead. I spoke with Clarkson while she was shooting Brother’s Keeper, a film starring Danny Glover and WWE wrestler John Cena, directed by Mel Damski, and shot, as it happens, in New Orleans.
Patricia Clarkson I love that you have little packets of index cards. Oh my God, you’re taking off the paper clips to release the questions. This is the last interview I’m ever going to do.
Howard Altmann Me too. Now Patti, this acting thing, when did you know?
PC It started in speech class with little index cards like the ones you have. Ms. Moore, my eighth-grade teacher, said, “You’re an actress,” because I would prepare speeches that were like life to me. I was so invested in them, and I think she saw that I would almost transform.
HA So you’re barely a teenager and you’re already thinking transformation. They say transformation is the human experience. Would you say that’s the essence of your attraction to acting?
PC That speech class gave me a taste of the ability to change people’s emotions and thoughts with my own emotions, thoughts, and words. Later on, I took a readers’ theater class, and a similar thing happened—this was after high school, when I did a lot of acting. When I went to LSU before transferring to Fordham, I took a readers’ theater course yet again, and the teacher was like, “What are you doing? You’re definitely an actress.” So I think there’s something deep within me that likes to affect people’s emotions. There’s something that shifts in me. It’s visceral, it’s chemical. I’m now comfortable with that shift, but I remember first becoming aware of it.
HA Do you feel this every time you take on a new role?
PC Every time. And every time it’s frightening and exhausting. It’s why I’m always exhausted; it takes so much of me to act. That sounds really pretentious, but it’s true. I don’t know how to approach something any other way. I think that’s why I’ve never settled down and had children because acting is just too consuming. It’s a blessing and a curse, and I’ve lived with it since I was 12. This might be the first time I’ve ever really spoken about this in this way. Ever.
HA Those who know you and have worked with you know that you’re exquisitely committed to whatever you undertake. It’s almost as if you’re scared you’re going to be caught unprepared for your homework, like you’re back in speech class in the eighth grade.
PC I’m still the eighth-grade speech student, forever. I’m deeply invested in everything I do, and it’s a good thing, because acting is the only thing I know how to do. I have no other gifts of any kind. So many people in my business are multitalented like you; I mean you’re a great writer and poet, but you can write many things.
HA Maybe this won’t be my last interview. Where does this work ethic come from?
PC I have a very powerful mother who is a politician. Apples and oranges—seriously, it’s almost antithetical. But I also think you’re born with it, that it’s not just work ethic. I think you were born a poet. My grandfather, who died quite young, was an actor. Maybe it’s in my blood?
HA Your father is one of the funniest men I’ve ever met. Why has it taken you this long in your career to get such a meaty and meaningful comedic role like the one in Whatever Works?
PC Well, I’ve had a couple of others. Six Feet Under was very funny. And when you look at Pieces of April and The Station Agent—my character in Pieces of April is especially comedic. But Woody Allen gave me the beautiful opportunity to do a purely physical, balls-out comedic woman.
HA He saw something in you?
PC He did see something in me. I think he had decided that I would be right for this woman. He knew I was Southern—very Southern. He filmed me full body—long shots, not head shots. He shoots actors in full. Woody saw that I could handle this broad but divine and delicious character, especially given that I’m not 25.
HA You brought an authenticity to the role that prompted Anthony Lane to say that when you arrived, you essentially rescued the film. Hopefully you’ll rescue this interview. (laughter) You’re going to hate this word and you’re going to hate this question, but can we talk about your process?
PC The big P. Well, the process always begins with the emotional life of the character. There’s a shift I can identify; it’s almost euphoria. I’m not like, completely method, but I would say there is a method component to my preparation, and what I feel as Patti is important within the context of a character.
HA Woody Allen, from what I understand, was very specific about how you would look and move.
PC Very. He’s very specific about costuming. He’s a man after my own heart, because he understands that costume is character. He understands the physical, which is a beautiful thing.
HA Did he also give you room to make choices?
PC Well, he has enormous trust in actors, and he trusted that I would do my homework, know my lines, know my character. He also works in very long takes. Longer than any director you’ll ever work with in your life. During most films you’re shooting four to six pages a day; Woody sometimes shoots a take of eight to ten pages without stopping. So you have to really be prepared, you have to know your character inside and out, you have to be able to improv if he asks you. You can’t get lazy. As actors it’s easy for us to get lazy. Film can be a lazier medium than theater. That’s why theater is the hardest work an actor will ever do.
HA Like your Blanche Dubois, who you played at the Kennedy Center a few years ago. Are there different muscles that get worked in theater versus film?
PC None. The emotional muscles are the same. It’s all about character. Creating a person. What’s different is the actual labor. You have to be able to sustain in theater. You need stamina. Then again, film can be rigorous—sometimes you’re shooting in the elements, there’s nowhere to go to the bathroom, nowhere to sit down, 15- or 16-hour days. That’s crazy.
HA Let’s go back to the choices you made in Whatever Works. How did you get the character of Marietta so right?
PC Well, I know these kinds of ladies.
HA You grew up with them in New Orleans?
PC This character is one particular woman I know, but also a dollop here and there of all the Southern women I’ve known in my life. She’s very real to me.
HA In High Art you played a German lesbian heroin addict. Is it easier or more challenging to play a role that is removed from your actual personality and history?
PC It’s clichéd, but it’s always more challenging to play a character further removed from one’s own. That said, sometimes with that challenge you can travel the greatest distance as an actor.
HA Let’s move from Woody Allen to first-time directors, of whom you’ve worked with many. Peter Hedges, Tom McCarthy, Lisa Cholodenko, to name a few, and John Doyle, whom you just worked with on the Horton Foote movie Main Street, with Colin Firth. What attracts you to first-time directors and why are first-time directors attracted to you? Because they are in pursuit of you.
PC I honestly don’t know. I’ve said yes to them because I’m intuitive. I respond to true intellect.
HA There must be something about you that feels accessible, approachable.
PC I think directors think, “She might say yes to me. She’s worked with a first-time director so she knows the ropes and she understands the journey.”
HA Cairo Time is coming out in May and will be Ruba Nadda’s second film. But in many respects it’s her first major film.
PC It’s a very big film. We shot in Cairo, and that’s in itself an enormous feat.
HA In the US, however, she’s basically unknown. And you said yes to her, which means you said no to a lot of other projects. What was it about the role she was offering you that made you say yes?
PC It all starts with the script. Nobody is more selfish on this planet than actors, but, at a certain point, you have to actually look beyond your part and read the entire script and look at what you’re actually going to be a part of. As it turns out, I’m actually the lead character of Cairo Time. But I’ve done plenty of smaller parts, often because I liked everything about the script. I liked the journey that everyone took and I liked how my character fit within that journey. Cairo Time is one of the most distilled movie scripts I’ve ever read.
HA And why do you think Ruba sought you out for the role?
PC I think I’m right for the part. I’m a middle-aged woman, and there aren’t a lot of us left standing. There were qualities that Ruba had seen me portray on screen that related to this character. I am not Juliette, although it’s a woman I want to be. She’s incredibly calm and quiet, almost shy.
HA There’s a sense of restraint about her.
PC I was very careful not to make that character me. I have done the opposite on several occasions. I wanted to make sure that Juliette remained what Ruba had written. It would have been very easy for me to be Patti instead of this character, because there’s a wide-openness about her, even though she’s very insular. There were more blanks there, but I wanted to fill them with Juliette rather than me.
HA You’ve done over 40 films in 15 years. Is there a role you look back at and wish you could have done differently?
PC Oh, many. I feel that way about almost every character I’ve done. It’s excruciating to watch myself. Honestly, the only thing I truly love about being an actress is just the acting itself.
HA So why aren’t you doing more theater?
PC I’m gonna be doing some theater, all right! But it’s difficult and frightening. In the next year I’ll do a play, I know I will. It’s hard to do Blanche DuBois at the Kennedy Center and then move on.
HA Let’s shift gears, if we may. Many of the characters you played have been struggling with grief. In The Pledge, it was for a dead child.
PC Oh my God, you brought up The Pledge!
HA You sent Jack Nicholson on his way to search for the killer. In The Station Agent it was the loss of a child.
PC Same with Blind Date.
HA And there was the loss of a child to cancer in Pieces of April. You were a dying wife in The Green Mile. Death and grief. Patti, are you the go-to actress for grief?
PC Once they see you do it once, they come back for more of the same. It’s like trick or treat. They know that you’re capable of the emotions. People are shocked when they see me do something funny. They think of me as this very dark character. I’ve met actors who actually live in a very dark space. I don’t. But I am capable of going there. At age 14 I did Emily’s monologue from Our Town. I was devastated by this monologue—and I felt it—and I won the whole damn competition. Where does that come from? I had a very good childhood. Many people in this industry had painful childhoods. You just have to have the ability to enter. Your mind and body has to be willing. Going to Fordham and Yale made me a better actress, no doubt. But school can’t make you an actor or a writer.
HA Well, let’s talk about writers, because they do figure so prominently in your life—Richard Greenberg, Nicky Silver, and Stanley Tucci to name a few. Have you ever thought about writing yourself?
PC Never. Even writing a postcard is difficult for me. I sometimes get overcome with waves of passion about writing a speech, and I can get on these jags, but that’s a very different muscle, and it has nothing to do with writing something dramatic in fiction.
HA How about directing? I mean, I sense control comes naturally to you.
PC All right, already!
HA Well, I think you’d be a fantastic director.
PC I’m intuitive, and I do see a larger picture. But I’d be a better producer than a director. I don’t have the patience for directing. You have to have true vision to be a great director. You have to be really comfortable with many creative thoughts in your head.
HA Do you think there’s anything that first-time directors can teach the old pros?
PC Absolutely. Great directors all have something in common, whether they’re first-time or they’re Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese: they have enormous trust in their actors, and they genuinely like them.
HA Is there a certain freedom you experience with a first-time director?
PC Yes. I like being very loose when I work. I don’t like a tight, tough environment to work in. With first-time directors, you’re shooting on the fly, and there is a beauty in that. There is a kind of devil-may-care quality to shooting with them, because you really have no time or money. But the great directors who have a lot of time and money also have that. I mean, Scorsese is a master; his is the finest filmmaking you can witness. And yet there is something loose. Woody is also a master, yet there is something kind of loose within that frame. That’s whom I work best with: people who give me a physical as well as an emotional freedom. I love directors, I love notes, but the environment you walk into initially says it all.
HA It sounds like a first-time director might better foster an environment of trust.
PC That’s why they hired you. Those great first-time directors got me to the point where Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese would hire me, so I’m forever indebted to them.
HA When actors hear your name, one of the first things they seem to say is, “She chooses so well.” Walk me through choosing a role.
PC I know good writing at this point.
HA What makes for a great screenplay? And how can you detect it?
PC True wit, humor, and intelligence; not necessarily the characters being intelligent. True humor is elusive to a lot of screenwriters. It is also very difficult to write great parts for women, especially as they age. It’s slim pickin’.
HA Is there a role that you aspire to?
PC I have no parts I aspire to play, no historical characters I feel I must play. I’m looking forward to playing Tallulah Bankhead, but I was asked to do this. I just like a good script, a good character, like the movie I’m shooting now, Brother’s Keeper; it’s a lovely character. And I’m also looking for things that are going to demand things of me that haven’t been demanded, comedically, physically, emotionally.
HA There are very few female actors whose careers have accelerated later in life the way yours has. Do you have any fears of sustaining the trajectory?
PC I don’t really have any fear about that. Maybe I’m fearful of hitting a plateau and not having interesting parts come my way. You know, I don’t slum when I’m doing an independent. That’s how I truly make my living, doing independent films. I do studio films here and there, and I love doing them, but I make my living doing independent films. So I live in fear of nothing interesting coming my way.
HA Where would you go then?
PC Well, politics is in my blood, but I don’t know that I have the wherewithal to be a politician. But I do like fighting the fight, the ability to change people’s lives for the better. There are a lot of bad politicians in this country and this world, but there are also remarkable ones, and most of them on the local level are working very hard for no money. Honestly, I love the idea of acting when I’m older, of being in my seventies and doing remarkable parts that I can’t do now. I’ve always had a certain amount of vanity, and I hope I still have some at 70, but I love the idea of giving in to gravity.
HA Now, can we talk a little bit about your personal life?
PC I have none, but yes, a tiny bit.
HA You’ve dated some extremely talented actors. John Slattery and Campbell Scott, for instance. Did you learn something about them from their acting that you didn’t know while you were with them as lovers?
PC You know, for me, acting is intimacy. The best actors are very revealing when they act, so of course some things are going to be illuminated that aren’t anywhere else.
HA Did you feel closer to them afterward?
PC Yes, in some ways, because it was intimacy upon intimacy. It’s easy to understand why people fall in love when they work together, and also why people split because of working together.
—Howard Altmann’s second book of poems, In This House, will be published in April 2010 by Turtle Point Press. John Ashbery has called the collection “…essential as a glass of water.” His work has appeared in assorted journals including New England Review, Ploughshares, and Poetry. A Montreal native, he lives in New York city. Photo by David Corio.