Few Hollywood actors have been as successful yet have managed to avoid the glare of the spotlight as the diverse Patricia Clarkson. The New Orleans born and raised politician’s daughter has appeared in over 40 films, more recently having included the likes of The Station Agent and Pieces of April. Once again displaying her strength as a formidable complex actress, Clarkson now stars as an ex-screenwriter in the tragic drama The Dying Gaul and will be next seen opposite Sean Penn and Jude Law in a new version of All the King’s Men, a rare big Hollywood film for her. In this exclusive interview with Garth Franklin, she talked about both films.
Question: This must have been another one of these irresistible characters for you to play, what was the immediate attraction of her?
Patricia: I think I am drawn to complicated characters and, Craig is a great writer. He’s a rare breed: a great playwright and a great screenwriter – and I saw the play in New York and it was indelible. So I was actually glad when he said, well, the screenplay is going to be very different, and is going to be it’s own entity. So then when I read it I had very complicated feelings about it. I was shocked and appalled and just kind of coming back and revisiting, this subject matter because I hadn’t seen the play for many, many years, but I was drawn. It was also a different character for me, in that I’d never really played a kind of archetypal kind of, iconoclastic Hollywood wife, so to speak.
Question: Do you feel that you need to identify or connect with a, with a woman like this?
Patricia: I had to connect with her on some level – absolutely – or I couldn’t play her, because I am a very visceral actress but I understood Elaine. I mean I’m very different than she is obviously, but we have similar currents and I think on the surface and even deep down inside, when we first meet her, she is a very gregarious, warm and generous woman, who is formidable. I mean I think she had a very good screenwriting career, writing art films – she says that great line to Robert out by the pool, “Oh, Jeffrey. I write the kind of screenplays that Jeffrey will never make.” So I she’s put that on hold and probably at around 35 she had her children, then kind of succumbed inch by inch to Jeffrey’s life, and kind of gave in. But I was fascinated by what would make someone who for all intents and purposes seems to have it all, how lives can turn so dark and how the furies can be let out so quickly.
Question: There are so many dark moments in the film. Is it easy for you to switch off after they say ‘cut’?
Patricia: Elaine followed me; she troubled me. I mean It was one of the more complicated characters I’ve ever played. You know I have been blessed. I’ve worked with great writers and incredible characters, but Elaine is such a mixture of things – you know of love and hate in an instant and revenge and hurt in an instant and just all of these – every single thing that she was feeling kind of moment by moment. And many times her motivations are very complicated, yet at the bottom of it all I think she loves these men, and that’s the sad part of it all.
Question: Now you mention you’ve never played the token Hollywood wife, in fact you’ve always predominantly been – especially in the last several years – on the periphery of Hollywood despite your considerable success in that arena. Is that by accident or by design?
Patricia: Some by accident, some by design. I have been drawn to, ah, independent film more often than not because it’s great characters, great writing and it gives me an opportunity to do better characters than some of the things I’ve been offered in, in studio films. But I’ve done studio films here and there and I’ve got All the King’s Men coming out in December, which is as big a studio movie as you can get. So it’s interesting, but I have deliberately made choices because I’ve taken the part over the accoutrement and so they have tended to be in independent cinema – they’ve been great characters, from Pieces of April and The Station Agent and Far from Heaven, you know what I mean?
Question: I was at Sundance when that plethora of movies of yours was screened there, The Pieces of April year and it was quite astonishing because I was going through your filmography and you’ve done 46 movies and yet that particular period at Sundance people suddenly thought to themselves, ‘here’s Patricia Clarkson’ – how does that… is that… does that surprise you, shock you?
Patricia: No, it doesn’t surprise me because, this is a very serendipitous and fickle business at times. You just never know what is going to happen, when you’re gonna get the rush, when you’re going to be handed defeat and, the mightiest among us in this business will fall and that’s kind of maybe the beauty of this business.
Question: How do you think you’ve survived in a business which is full of leading ladies – and you’re both a leading lady and character actor – you’ve been able to combine those two areas?
Patricia: I mean I get these glorious parts, and it’s all about the part, and if it’s a leading lady like as in The Dying Gaul, which is kind of classic leading lady down to the white bikini part or if it’s, Pieces of April which is maybe more character driven somewhat, I don’t know. I guess I just have always straddled the two and, I’m just thrilled to be working on something great and I don’t really care about which compartment it fits into.
Question: Tell me about, your take on Sadie Burke in All the King’s Men.
Patricia: Ooh. it’s hard to switch gears. I haven’t seen the film also – you know. This isn’t a remake this is a brand new adaptation by Steve Zaillian. Steve Zaillian has never seen the original film and neither have I…
Question: Oh, really? So you didn’t draw on the original…
Patricia: It has nothing to do with that… he went back to the book.
Question: So what was your attraction to playing Sadie Burke?
Patricia: I don’t know. It’s funny I think she’s sexy and heartbreaking and, again, complicated, you know… funny. (Laughter)
Patricia: Ah, I mean, I get to be Sean Penn’s mistress and press secretary and Jude Law’s confident.
Question: So two very different leading men I would think.
Patricia: Yes. Yes. Yes.
Question: Any major differences in terms of acting styles – were you able to adapt to the way that each of those guys work?
Patricia: Oh, yes. I mean they’re both consummate actors. They’re formidable. I mean they, you know… they’re unbelievable. It’s unbelievable how prepared they both are and, I mean they’re both dreamy and… (Laughter)
Patricia: …ah, you know… similar in The Dying Gaul, everyday to show up and shoot with Campbell Scott and Peter Sarsgaard and in All the King’s Men to show up pretty much every day and shoot with Sean or Jude Law it was quite yummy.
Question: Is there a kind of bittersweetness to this movie that was shot in New Orleans and everything that’s happened since? Do you think it’ll be painful to watch the movie?
Patricia: yes – and you know I was born and raised there so it will be painful because when we were shooting there New Orleans was, on top – you know the film industry was a 4 billion dollar industry, it was booming, the city was, just in a high time, in a glorious, glorious time, and it’s devastating what has happened but great cities don’t go away, they just don’t.
Question: Are you optimistic that it will bounce back?
Patricia: Right. Oh, it will come back – oh, yes. You know it’s the first movie I ever shot in my home town.
Question: How was that experience?
Patricia: Well it was wonderful because I could… I got to see a lot of my family, day in and day out and shoot this remarkable film, this – in my opinion one of the greatest, novels – and so I… and I got to meet Robert Penn mare’s daughter and his granddaughter but it was lovely being home, just to hang out in the French Quarter again and for an extended period of time eating some of my favourite restaurants, eat my mother’s cooking – which is great, my mother’s a great cook –
Question: Oh, she is?
Patricia: Oh yes, she cooks great Creole food. and so I got to see my sisters and my nieces and nephews, for an extended period of time. It was fabulous. my mom, my dad – you know… it was, it was a nice time, a really nice time.
Question: Now you’ve also done another film called Conquistadora, right?
Patricia: No, I haven’t shot that yet.
Question: That is happening?
Patricia: is that on a website that I’ve done that?
Question: Yeah, I know… it says ‘In Production’, which…
Patricia: No, it’s not in production…
Question: …could mean anything I suppose.
Patricia: Still trying to get the financing together, but it’s… it’s a wonderful film and I… we hope to shoot it next year.
Question: According to… according to this it’s also got Chris Cooper as attached, Bill Macy is attached, Meryl Streep is attached…
Patricia: Well she’s going to do the voice over…
Question: The voice over, right – yeah. Sounds like a really interesting story.
Question: Sounds great.
Patricia: It’s a remarkable story about a real woman named Mary Somoza.
Question: Now what else is going on with you? I mean you’re obviously always busy, are you…
Patricia: Yeah, yes, I am. I have a lot of projects coming up and I’m lucky in that I have honestly so many things right now happening, I’m just not really sure to talk about any of it because I’m not sure what the hell I’m gonna do. I just have a lot going on.
Question: You haven’t shot anything since this, right? I mean you’ve… you’ve got The Woods, which I don’t think has come out yet…
Patricia: Well that kind of is… I don’t know what happened.
Question: Okay… and you’ve got… and then Good Night, and Good Luck of course.
Patricia: Good Night, and Good Luck is out, and, ah… No, I haven’t… I shot All the King’s Men then I shot Good Night, and Good Luck and then I shot, ah… I did, yeah, in between – yeah, and then these two episodes of Six Feet Under and then that… that’s the last thing I shot. I haven’t shot anything this fall. Yeah, I’ve kind of taken a break because I have a very big year next year.
Question: You do?
Question: And are you planning on buying a house in Park City – you seem to spend more… an awful lot of time… (Laughter)
Patricia: no… I, I love to go and visit Sundance, and I’m always honoured to be there and I love it when a film of mine gets in but, no… I don’t think I could live in Park… (Laughter)
Patricia: I don’t ski. And I hate the cold.
Question: Well that would be… that’d be a bit of a downer then I would think. (Laughter)
Patricia: Yeah. But I love to go there – I love to be at Sundance, and I’m always honoured to be included.