Patricia Clarkson first captured my attention in 1998’s High Art, a romantic, harrowing film about a privileged, druggy lesbian artist subculture, directed by Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right). As expat actress Greta, the lover of the troubled photographer Lucy (brilliantly played by Ally Sheedy), the actress stole every single scene she was in playing a heroin-addled former member of Fassbinder’s storied troupe. Living in New York like a ghost who dreams of reclaiming her long-abandoned career, while stuck in a dying relationship with Lucy, Clarkson gives a performance that is boldly modern while referencing classic German cinema in an adroit, humorous way that manages to be both haunted and haunting. I left the theater wanting to know more about Greta.
Clarkson has told stories of how this particular indie film opened up a new world of opportunity for her and judging her post-High Art run can only confirm her to be the consummate supporting actress of the last decade, working with key directors such as Woody Allen (2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona and 2009’s Whatever Works), Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven, 2002), Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island, 2010), and Lars von Trier (Dogville) in meaty, yet usually ancillary roles.
Patricia Clarkson, Alexander Siddig, Tom McCamus, Elena Anaya, Amina Annabi
(IFC Films; Wide: 13 Aug 2010)
Nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her acerbic turn in Pieces of April (2003), Clarkson also picked up two Emmys for her (likely) best-known work on HBO’s landmark drama Six Feet Under as the sister of Ruth (Frances Conroy)—though I dare suggest millions morenon-discriminating film fans might even know her better from the screamingly funny “Motherlover” skit on SNL that co-starred Justin Timberlake and Andy Samberg as young men with a taste for cougars. In each of these character endeavors, I would still come away thinking about the kind of atom bomb impact of Clarkson’s performances, of the impression they made and left me with. Again, each woman in this canon – from Eleanor in Haynes’ spectacularly Sirkian vision to Vera in von Trier’s stylistic masterpiece to Elaine in Craig Lucas’ underrated, raw 2005 The Dying Gaul—leaves the spectator with just enough pertinent information to know the character. It is to Clarkson’s credit that she can so economically construct such complex women within these often limited time constraints, and do it quite effortlessly.
After a long career of supporting the story, it is tremendously exciting to see the magnetic Ms. Clarkson top-lining in her first-ever romantic lead for director Ruba Nadda in IFC’s Cairo Time. As Juliette, an American magazine editor who travels to Egypt’s capitol to rendezvous with her husband Mark (Tom McCamus), a United Nations heavy who is held up by delicate diplomatic issues in Gaza. This unexpected turn of events leaves Juliette, a person whose trade is communcation and words, without a way to communicate or use words outside of her sort of bougie hotel. This is where Tareq (Alexander Siddig), a former attache of Juliette’s husband, steps in to help, taking Juliette on a fairytale odyssey through the storied city. With his classic leading man features and warmth of expression, he is the perfect foil to Clarkson’s at first rigid character, who will unexpectedly face a major shift in her own way of thinking over the course of the film; in lage part thanks to Tareq, but in no small part due to her enlivening experiences with the tantalizing scents and seductive heat of Cairo.
I met with wise Clarkson – who was wearing a pair of plum Pura Lopez platforms that she previously had worn in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (!)— in Manhattan in late July. With shorter interviews, it can often be tough to get a strong impression of one’s subject, particularly after they have spent a long day doing press, but Clarkson during our talk was so witty, engaging, expressive, and present that I felt like I knew her much better after I left. We discussed her career as a supporting player and why she is optimistic that film is becoming a more welcoming place for a woman over 40 in a leading role.
I want to talk a about loneliness, one of the themes of Cairo Time, and being in your own head and not being able to communicate in the way you are accustomed to communicating. I wonder what appeals to you about being left to your own devices as Juliette is at the beginning of the film?
Well, you know, I’m single and I don’t have children. I have a beautiful old, old old dog—he’s 15 and a half—so I know lonely. I have had extraordinary relationships, I have dated some beautiful, remarkable men and I wouldn’t trade any of those relationships for all the money in the world. (pauses for comedic effect) Well, maybe some of the money… no!(laughing) I know how to be lonely and I know how to deal with lonely because I know it well at this point in my life. I’m 50, I know what it is to be younger. But, I can handle it. I couldn’t handle it as well many years ago.
How do you use that in this character?
That was some of the easier work that I had to do, because, you know, I am not Juliette. I wanted to make it very clear with Ruba, the director, that, and this is a beautiful character, and I am not this character. There are aspects that are me. There are certain aspects within this character that are absolutely [me], that I will bring to the forefront that live within me, but I need to shift and create new DNA, which hopefully I did.
Let’s talk about sexy co-stars. You’ve had a few. Your current co-star Alexander Siddig compared you to Katharine Hepburn. That’s pretty hot.
I have... that is very high praise.
Tareq’s and Juliette’s relationship is unconventional, in cinematic terms, and there is such a great chemistry. What do you think are the quintessential qualities a romantic leading man should have that Alexander exemplifies?
It’s an affair of the heart. I think Alexander, and I couldn’t be more sincere if I tried, is everything a leading man should be and I think that is rare. And it isn’t just because he is tall, dark, and handsome, which are nice prerequisites, but what he has that I think is rare is grace. I think grace is an extension, it is not something he has had to acquire, I think he has a natural grace and he’s fiercely intelligent and extremely witty. He’s divine, yeah.
I really enjoyed watching his eyes. They looked very kind.
They did! I had a movement teacher at Yale that said, ‘the body never lies’, and you know, the eyes never do. You’re onscreen, your eyes… you better be careful. They will get you in trouble if you’re not truthful.
Tilda Swinton told me that there was a “great lie” that was being peddled by film financiers and that is that people do not want to see films with women over 40 in the lead. What kind of opposition do you see out there just in terms of getting an independent, romantic little movie like Cairo Time made?
She’s so dreamy. Look at what’s out right now! Let’s just look at what’s out right now! You’ve got The Kids Are All Right which is off the charts, hot, successful. I Am Love. You’ve got Marisa Tomei [in Cyrus]. And I am opening a film and I am the star. You know? Poo-poo-pee-doo! Take that and smoke it! Stick that in your pipe and smoke it! (laughing) Every time Meryl Streep steps out, she’s in a hot movie. She’s unbeatable and people go and see her films.
I think certainly films like Elegy—made by women with great roles for women—are really changing things, in terms of how women over 40 are depicted onscreen. I feel a sense of optimism from women who I talk to that things are looking up.
I’m more optimistic now, even though the independent film world is in the worst place its been in a long, long time with so many distributors going out of business. But we’ll rally. We just have to make great films for less money. That’s what have to do to counter it.
Also this year was a jaw-dropping little scene in Mr. Scorsese’s Shutter Island...
(kicks leg high in the air a few times): Oh! And don’t I look gorgeous? Gorgeous! (laughing)
Yes, you looked really hot in that cave. (riotous laughter from both of us) As I understand it, every actor’s dream is to be in one of his movies. He’s such a massive nerd for movies, I love it so much! What did he teach you?
It is [every actors dream]. You look up cinephile in the dictionary and you know… (laughs). When you meet your heroes, you don’t want them to disappoint you and then when they exceed your expectations, you know… He is incredibly present and so passionate and so intelligent and just such a wonderful man. A wonderful, wonderful man. Its an extension of who he is and it carries right into his direction. The set is forward and frothy. There’s no dead air on a Martin Scorsese set.
In Shutter Island, you have one really impactful scene, but in Cairo Time you’re in every scene just about.
Oh my God...
With leading versus supporting characters, is there any difference for you in terms of preparation?
I don’t know that the preparation is much different. Of course, there’s more preparation when you’re doing the lead of a film, but you still have to do your homework, you still have to do your research, you have to—I call it “sit with it wee small hours of the night—and you have to come to terms with the real journey that you know you will have to take. I think whether its one scene or 30 scenes, it doesn’t matter.
In films like Far from Heaven and Dogville you’re kind of working within limited spaces to create a character. The latter is such a polarizing director and film…
Lars von Trier! He’s so impish and such an eccentric and such an odd man. He was wonderful to me, to work with. It was just an adventure. He works in such a deeply improvisational way. But its great as an actor, its great to turn the applecart upside down. Its very good for us to be put off balance and I liked it.
Not to mention, you got to work with that cast… I mean Harriet Andersson? Are you kidding me? That’s so amazing…
She was beautiful, so beautiful. She’s stunning, absolutely.
I really regret not being able to see you play Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire in Williamstown, Massachusetts when you did it. She is one of my all-time favorite characters. Jessica Lange, who also played her, talked about how the character was impossible to shake and that doing the play kind of messed with her head. What did playing Blanche do to you?
(deep in thought about Blanche, Clarkson looks positively spectral, even haunted like her wraithlike Greta in High Art by the memory of playing such a draining, classic role) Well, it definitely alters you. You know? I’ve said it before, but there is your pre-Blanche life and your post-Blanche life. Because it is so monumental. It takes you to such a deep, dark place. Almost a point of no return and that’s what’s difficult. Its one of the most amazing experiences I will ever have in my life. One of the most fulfilling. It is, to me, not just one of the greatest American plays, but one of the greatest plays in the entire history of theater. I had these extraordinary actors with me onstage, the four of us, that quartet [Clarkson, Noah Emmerich, Adam Rothenberg, and Amy Ryan]. That’s the thing, its really the quartet, not Blanche, but all four actors, characters, they go to the abyss.
Are you interested in doing some more theater?
You know, my New York friends—I did a lot of New York theater before I stopped doing it – they’re angry. (laughing) I want to come back and do a play again, I really do!
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Cairo Time opens August 6th in New York and Los Angeles, and will expand beginning August 13th. It will also be available nationwide on demand August 18th via IFC In Theaters, provided by Comcast, Cox, Cablevision, Time Warner, and Bright House Cable. Patricia Clarkson can next be seen in Will Gluck’s next two movies, Easy A and Friends with Benefits and will soon be heard narrating the film criticism documentary For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism. Fortunately for the critics, they have always been kind to her.