It wasn’t by accident that Andy Samberg cast Patricia Clarkson to star alongside Susan Sarandon in Saturday Night Live’s “Motherlover” short. From her breakthrough role as a Nico-esque chanteuse in 1998’s High Art, Clarkson has specialized in playing women who are comfortable in every inch of their skin, roles that, counter to general Hollywood practice, have only increased as she nears her 50th birthday. (We’re not telling tales out of school, either—Clarkson is one actress who’s absolutely forthright about her age.) In Woody Allen’s new Whatever Works, she plays Marietta Celestine, mother to Evan Rachel Wood’s teenage runaway, a Southern society matron who arrives in New York City as a delicate flower in a pink skirt suit, but soon finds herself succumbing to the city’s myriad temptations. Though she’s played her share of wives and girlfriends, Clarkson has amassed a fascinating collection of past characters, in part by balancing small roles in big movies with big roles in small ones. If you don’t remember her from No Reservations and Miracle, you will as Ben Kingsley’s spurned mistress in last year’s Elegy, or the inspirational but unhinged drama teacher in Phoebe In Wonderland. She’s sure to make her mark again in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, due out this fall. Clarkson, who introduces herself as “Patty,” gave The A.V. Club a call from her home in New York City.
The A.V. Club: Was High Art a big turning point for you?
Patricia Clarkson: That was the turning point for me. Are you kidding? It completely changed everything for me in such a beautiful way, in a dream way. It was more than I could have asked for in an odd way, and so unexpected. I owe Lisa Cholodenko everything for casting me in that part, which I never thought she would. I almost didn’t go in. But anyway, things dramatically changed after that.
AVC: I wouldn’t push the comparison too far, but there’s a little bit of a similarity between that role and your role in Whatever Works.
PC: Oh, definitely. [Laughs.] Crazy lady? Yeah. We were out there. They’ve been through struggles. They’re people who have humor, we hope, and desperation. Which can sometimes be a lethal cocktail. But I think, yeah, absolutely. Marietta and Greta are kissing cousins.
AVC: Before High Art came out, I knew you mainly from Murder One.
PC: Great show.
AVC: You played it very well, but it was basically a suffering wife.
PC: That chopped vegetables. I chopped more vegetables in a season of television… But I loved being a part of such a beautifully crafted show, and they were great actors. I was proud to be part of the show. But yes, it was that, and a hint of the trophy wife too, which was odd for me to play. It had such a following, that show. People loved it. I mean they really loved it, and they still talk about it. People still come up to me after moments and be like, “Oh that show. Murder One. Wow.”
AVC: Was there a point where you worried that as an actress you might end up, so to speak, chopping vegetables for a living?
PC: I thought I was going to have to be a grocer, a farmer. I did these films in my 20s, and I was always doing theater, but then I kind of hit this wall in my 30s. Then I got Murder One and it was really lovely, and I think, even though I was chopping vegetables, people seemed to really like me on the show.
AVC: They lit you well.
PC: It’s all about lighting. Then I did this little film called Pharaoh’s Army that a handful of people saw. It was my first independent film I did. It’s a very beautiful little film, just this very tiny little war film that a man named Robby Henson wrote and directed and he shot it in McDaniels, Kentucky. And then right after, I was doing Three Days Of Rain out in L.A., and hen High Art came, and boom. Then I did Green Mile. I think that was the last audition of my life. I know some actors are like, [fondly] “Oh, auditions,” and I’m like, “Oh, suck it.” Who wants an audition? I’m so thrilled that I never have to audition ever in my life again. [Laughs.]
AVC: Just looking at some of the roles you’ve been doing recently, this movie and Elegy and some others…
PC: Did you see Elegy?
AVC: I did. I thought it was an odd movie, but very affecting in a lot of ways.
PC: Isabel Coixet is a magnificent director. I’ve worked with these remarkable female directors. There’s only five of them in all of Hollywood. I have managed to work with two or three of the great ones.
AVC: What’s interesting about your recent characters is there is a strong, forthright sexuality to them. Those kinds of roles aren’t common for women beyond a certain age.
PC: No they are not. And that’s why every day when I want to complain about something I say “Patty, you’re 49 years old and you’re working in movies, honey. Suck it up. Do a jig and get your ass together and be peppy.” So I am lucky that I have been offered parts that actually demand things of me and are complicated and have a true sexuality—not that faux, imposed sexuality that they tend to place on women of a certain age in films. You’re either in whips and chains or it involves some man a third of your age. Adult, complex, true sexuality. I’m very happy about that. That thrills me to the core.
AVC: Do you seek those out or do they seek you out?
PC: They seek me out. I didn’t know Isabel Coixet. I didn’t know her at all. But when she was casting her movie, she said, “The only person I wanted for this part is Patricia Clarkson.” So I got it and read it and said “yes” that day. And I was flattered and thrilled. I’ve been lucky. I worked with Woody on Vicky Cristina and heard through the grapevine that he might offer me this other part. And sure enough, seven months later he wrote me a letter, which he does, and sent me the script, and offered me Marietta.
AVC: The tone of Whatever Works is very elusive, maybe because there are three decades between when it was written and when it was made. The style of it is realistic while the characters are very heightened. Did you have discussions with Woody Allen about that, or does he just trust the actors to find that?
PC: He always puts enormous trust in his actors; certainly he did with me. With everybody in the film, he was very trusting. Woody is the non-director’s director. He doesn’t say a lot and he creates this environment that I do think demands a lot of an actor. In many ways he prepares you better than other directors. You really have to know your stuff; you can’t be lazy. And actors, we all get very lazy, especially in film. We shoot a page, two pages here and there. There’s always a second take. But with Woody you have to know your lines and know how to improv and really be invested to the core. As broad as these characters are, you really have to know them inside and out, head to toe. And you have to be able to shoot very long stretches of your character. You can’t stop in the middle of eight pages. That’s not Woody. You have to keep going. That’s where he puts his trust in you. That you’re really going to be able to have these arias at moments and pull it off—without a break, without him editing it and finagling it. So he trusts.
He wanted a very broad Southern character and I got that because I am a deeply Southern woman. [Laughs.] And I had a similar path with my life that Marietta did. I didn’t in any way come from a fundamentalist household. I came from a very progressive household. But I was a nice Southern girl from a somewhat old-fashioned family. But I left the South, I came to New York to pursue my art, my craft, whatever. My parents were fine with it; they could afford Fordham, although even that was brutal. But they said, “As long as you finish up your bachelor’s.” So I came. And I kind of transformed from a big-haired Southern girl to an arty New Yorker. I was 19. I wasn’t middle-aged like Marietta. But when I first read the part I was like “Wow!” It’s an archetypal Southern woman; it’s in some ways a stereotype. But it was genuinely funny, and funny can really break down barriers and doors. She was genuinely sexy. She wasn’t on the periphery. She came in full guns blazing. And to me, with great writing, you can take on a stereotype and go through with it. That’s what I felt he did with this character.
AVC: There is definitely that Blanche Dubois side to her. She’s even wearing a faded rose when she comes in.
PC: That’s what he said. It was kind of like my mother and Blanche and other Southern women, everyone I’ve known. That’s definitely my mother’s hair. She was at the premiere and said, “Patty, your hair is gorgeous!”
AVC: Is that a coincidence?
PC: Oh no. I know big Southern hair. Are you kidding me? I came out of the womb with big Southern hair.
AVC: That must have made for a difficult delivery.
PC: I was the youngest of five girls so my mother was prepared. They’re sort of large characters. But for actors, they’re delicious. With Woody, you really do have to know your shit. But it can also be glorious, because he really lets you run and play and lets you find things in a very organic way. Because it’s not chopped and shuffled and pieced together. A lot of times, other sets, just because of the nature of film, people tend to shoot in smaller chunks and from 14 different angles. But with Woody, that’s why he’s very, very, very detailed about the way you look. Your costume fittings with Woody are an entire day. I get that and I love it. I am a very physical actress and I know: the body never lies. From tip to toe, if you are the character from your shoes to your hair, it works.
AVC: Woody Allen is one of those directors that every actor seems to dream about working with. When you got the first part, did you call up any of your friends who have worked with him to ask what he’s like?
PC: I lucked out on Vicky Cristina. It was a small part—a lovely part, but small. It was manageable to some degree, and I don’t mind improv. I actually like it. So I’d just heard: Know your lines, know how to improv, know how to mix things up. I spoke to Helen Robin, the producer, and she said to mix it up, that he likes it. I liked that. So that’s how I prepared for the first time I worked with him. So I knew it and I kind of invested in other things, other thoughts the character might have in the moment and whatever else she might be doing. I think we got on, on the set of Vicky Cristina. I was a little bit nervous, a little bit intimidated; he’s Woody Allen. But it was okay.
AVC: In the interviews that Larry David has been doing for this movie, he’s said to everybody how he described himself to Woody: “I’m not an actor.” Was it different working with him?
PC: A little, but not really. He was in the moment, he was there. That opening scene we have, we ran our lines and it really brought us together. It was War And Peace, just slightly condensed. A bonding goes on that occurs on any set. So I kind of came to know Larry and Boris at the same time. And they became one, even though Larry is very different from Boris.
AVC: He really connects with the underlying dread in that character, in a way that actors who play similar roles in Woody Allen’s other movies don’t. They play the self-deprecation or the neurosis, but there’s something kind of frightening about this.
PC: Oh God, yes. People ask, “Was this written for Woody?” No. Woody said he could never have played this part. He’s not right for it. But people want to leap to that idea. He took this play out of the drawer during the writers’ strike and talked with Juliet Taylor, his casting director, and somebody said Larry David and he started to rethink. He did rewrite the script, he didn’t leave it from the prior draft.
AVC: He wrote it for Zero Mostel, who especially after being blacklisted, was someone who always seemed to have a great deal of anger just underneath his comedy. You still see that in the character.
PC: Right, right. Larry has all of that, but there’s something winning and heartbreaking about him. And he’s sexier than he thinks. I think Larry is a very sexy man and I think he becomes sexier as Boris becomes sexier.
AVC: You gave a speech a few weeks ago at a Human Rights Campaign gala in New Orleans, later reprinted on the Huffington Post, in which you spoke out forcefully in favor of gay marriage.
PC: Oh goodness. My Huey P. Long moment. It was a fabulous night and one that meant a lot to me, obviously. I was honored when they asked me to come be the keynote speaker, although I didn’t realize it was going to fall in the middle of all this craziness, because they asked me to do this eight months ago. Suddenly I was in the midst of a commitment in San Francisco and I was in New Orleans and I had the two Woody openings in New York and L.A. But it was a glorious time.
AVC: You talked about how this is the “age of Obama,” and one of the people who needs to remember that is Obama. Do you feel like the resolve is softening or that this moment could slip away? It seems that the administration’s stance on “Don’t ask, don’t tell” has gotten a little more slippery.
PC: Oh yes, I think things are shifting. Eventually that will go away. He said DOMA [the Defense Of Marriage Act] is discrimination when he signed the bill the other day. Now it’s not just enough that he said it, he has to repeal it. I have the highest of hopes for Obama, but he has to act. We had the highest of hopes for Clinton and he failed. There’s so much rage and anger in the gay community, and rightly so. I’m a straight woman and I’m furious. It has to shift.
AVC: One of the things that’s strange to me is how conservative Hollywood is. Especially for leading men and women, there are so few out actors. Is that just fear?
PC: It has to be. But it’s also the inherent homophobia that exists there. We’ll never understand that, but I think it’s sad and it is a reality that for leading men and women to be gay and translate into movie stars—that’s a very hard thing.
AVC: I wanted to ask about one of your next movies, Shutter Island.
PC: Woohoo! I look so hot in that movie, honey. I look so hot.
PC: Talk about it: I’m a woman in a cave. That’s all I’m going to say. Woman in a cave.
AVC: It’s interesting that you’ve worked back-to-back with probably the two quintessential New York directors.
PC: It was heaven. I seriously left Woody’s set to go work with Martin Scorsese. I left his set and he said, “Bye.” I remember he gave me a hug and said, “Go have fun with Marty.” And I said, “Okay,” and I left the set and went to Boston to shoot Marty’s movie. I call him “Marty. That’s so embarrassing—Martin Scorsese’s movie. I mean, I know him a little now. It was a moment in my life. It was wild.
AVC: Obviously their movies and the people are so different, but is there any comparison between them?
PC: Well, it is clear when you are in their presence that you are in the presence of genius. Superlatives and “genius” are so overused now, but they are truly remarkable people in their thoughts and in just being next to them—the way they think and the way they put things together. But they’re very kind and oddly humble within their stature in this world. They are workhorses, too. They are very different people, clearly. But they put great trust in you, as an actor.
AVC: They’re also within a very, very small class of filmmakers who get to make, more or less, a movie a year.
PC: Well, They’re in the most ageist business in the world. Often directors, as they age in this business, it is difficult.
AVC: You hear stories about Billy Wilder spending 15 years trying to get a movie made.
PC: Mind-boggling. It’s a testament, I think, to the pure depth of their talent. Their eyes are still very keen. It’s remarkable what they see and how little they have to say to convey the exact right thought.
AVC: That must be great from your point of view.
PC: Oh, yes, goodness. My Woody/Marty moment. Marty/Woody. It was kind of wild. But I survived. I think I’m still in both movies.
AVC: Marty needs his cavewomen.
PC: I haven’t seen it yet so I have no idea. I just know in the preview I look scary. I don’t have a computer so I haven’t seen it.
AVC: Really? Wow.
PC: Yeah, I know. Now I’m embarrassed. I really haven’t joined the 20th or the 21st century yet. Someday. I’m getting closer. I have voicemail and a fax machine.