The next time anyone mentions the alleged lack of roles for actresses of a certain age, say this name like a mantra: Patricia Clarkson. The 48-year-old New Orleans native has been working steadily for 20 years, has never been pinned down as a certain “type” and is busier than ever.
Beginning last week with the debut of “Married Life,” in which she stars with Chris Cooper and Pierce Brosnan as a happily married woman whose cheating husband wants to kill her, Clarkson is set to have a year most actors only dream of. Already in the can and ready for release are “Blind Date,” starring Clarkson and Stanley Tucci, about a couple trying to rekindle their relationship; “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” Woody Allen’s latest; and “Elegy,” from French director Isabel Coixet, co-starring Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz. Plus Clarkson is about to start shooting “Shutter Island,” based on the Dennis Lehane novel and directed by Martin Scorsese.
Pierce Brosnan, Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, Rachel McAdams, David Richmond-Peck
(Sony Pictures Classics; US theatrical: 7 Mar 2008 (Limited release); 2007)
Despite her busy schedule, Lewis Beale managed to catch up with Clarkson during some down time in New York.
You fly in the face of the conventional wisdom that there are no great parts for women over 40. How come?
I am a chameleon in some ways. I’ve played leading ladies and character work, and as you age, it’s easier if you haven’t been pegged, and I haven’t been pegged in this business. I changed people’s perceptions awhile ago, about me not being one thing. As you age you have to be able to play a lot of different things, and I think I can.
You’ve never married, yet you jumped on this role as a contented married woman in “Married Life.” What attracted you?
Even though I’ve never been married, I’ve had big relationships in my life. I know what it is to love and be loved. But I am a free spirit, and that’s also Pat (her character). She’s a married woman who’s also a free spirit, and there were shades of me in there. And my parents have been married for 55 years, they still have a great marriage. When I opened the script and saw Pat was a truly complex woman, wrestling with her identity in that day and time (the 1950s), it’s not that she’s an unhappy woman, she’s a confined woman—and a truly sexual woman—and that’s what I liked.
A friend of yours once suggested you’re so successful today because you have a lot of integrity, which means you don’t have a lot of stupid roles in your past to live down. True?
I don’t think I’m pure. I have been willing to walk away from very big money because I didn’t want to do that part. That’s not to say I’m an elitist; I’d love to do an action movie. Let me play the mother of the superhero, or the girlfriend of an older superhero. I’ve made a very good living, and had to make a few compromises, but not tremendous ones in terms of my belief.
You grew up in New Orleans, but graduated from Fordham. What was it like for you to come to New York as a 20-year-old?
When I first came to New York it was 1980. I was staying at the YMCA on 63rd Street. All I remember is that the outside was much better than the inside (she laughs). I was living near Lincoln Center, and the city was daunting to me at first, but I did fall in love with it. I found it frightening and romantic, all in one. Just the fact you could walk out your door and go to a play; I found that enchanting.
Speaking of plays, some people feel the Blanche DuBois you performed in a 2004 production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” at the Kennedy Center is practically the definitive interpretation. Personally, I can’t think of anyone better suited for the role.
There’s the pre-Blanche and post-Blanche life. It does alter you forever, to play Blanche. Once you’ve taken that journey in that part, it forever changes you. It’s a subtle thing. It’s such a psychological, physiological altering of your body and mind, and ultimately exhilarating, and clearly one of the greatest experiences of my life. And I’d do it again.
Which brings us to New Orleans, your hometown, where the play is set. You returned there just days after Katrina hit to help your family, and have lately been involved in efforts to bring tourism back to the city. What’s your assessment of how things are going there?
I almost feel guilty speaking about it; all of my family and friends were affected in catastrophic ways. But I don’t live there. I have just gone back to do whatever I can do for this city that I grew up in. I am forever a New Orleanian, but I feel rage that this happened, because the hurricane didn’t destroy the city, the levee breached it. It was our biggest fear, and it came true. Our government failed the city, and continues to do so. But it is a stunning city, and anyone who ever felt New Orleans would be down for the count is an idiot. I tell everyone the great thing you can do for New Orleans is visit the city, because it is the tourism that is helping to rebuild the city. It is a slow recovery, but it is recovering, and is taking bigger strides than it has ever taken.