"The East's" Patricia Clarkson Lowers the Boom

by Jose Solis

30 May 2013

A Statuesque favorite, the effervescent, irrepressible Oscar-nominated actress reminds us that "you have to speak up and you have to engage in whatever way you can".
cover art

The East

Director: Zal Batmanglij
Cast: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson

(Fox Searchlight Pictures)
US theatrical: 31 May 2013

For years, Patricia Clarkson has been supplying cinema with two qualities most actors—whether male or female—completely lack: an utter sense of awareness that often transforms into wisdom and an earthy sensuality that invites us to want to know more about the characters she’s playing. Known for her supporting turns in films like Whatever Works, Elegy and Dogville, she’s also made a name for herself in television where she has done both drama (Six Feet Under) and comedy (stealing scenes in both Frasier and more recently Parks and Recreation).

It seems there are no parts too small for Ms. Clarkson, who in recent years has even carved a niche for herself as the funniest mom in some of the best contemporary teen comedies, ranging from her hilarious turn in Friends with Benefits to her outstanding work opposite Stanley Tucci and Emma Stone in Easy A, both directed by Will Gluck. However, it’s back to drama for the talented actress who plays Sharon, the ruthless CEO of a private security company in The East, the new film by Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling, the duo behind Sundance sensation Sound of My Voice.
The East centers on Sarah Moss (played by co-writer Marling) a young ambitious woman selected by Sharon to infiltrate the title anarchist collective led by the mysterious Benji (Alexander Skarsgard) who target big CEOs and make them suffer the same way they’ve made others suffer, whether it’s drug poisoning, oil spilling or plain murder. The film offers many questions but provides very few, if any, answers. At a recent roundtable discussion Batmanglij eloquently added “I don’t know if films have the power to change as much as they have the power to reflect the world back to us” and suggested that his movie is partly an homage to films like the classic social pictures made by Preston Sturges “that idea of the haves and have nots was really big in the ‘30s and the ‘70s and today there’s a sisterhood with these times, so you can see Sullivan’s Travels going into Pakula and going into The East”. But right at the middle of the film there is something more primal, which is Sarah’s coming-of-age and her choice between doing good or evil, “we had always thought the movie relied on Sharon being as charismatic, sexy and alluring as Benji, we needed an equal power…” continued Marling.

Speaking of Clarkson’s character, Marling explained I think theirs is “a mother-daughter relationship”, to which Clarkson added “with a death grip”, and she might be right, given that she is given the opportunity to play a character of The Manchurian Candidate proportions. “I think Sarah looks up to Sharon but her moral compass is set in a different direction” continued Marling, to which Clarkson added that “moral compasses can be reset at any moment, we all think we have a very set compass. I like to believe I do, but then tomorrow I can wake up and be on the cover of the New York Post ”

Clarkson often seems joyful and willing to tell a joke, however her face turns somber when she discusses her eco-activism. “We all have blood in our hands” she said regarding the way in which we all contribute to the cycle of pollution and destruction. In 2010 the actress published an article for the Natural Resources Defense Council condemning the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The New Orleans native acknowledges that she was attracted to work in the movie because of the location, or at least a misunderstanding due to it. “We chased Patty, we told her agent the movie would be shot in Shreveport, which was close to her home” said Marling, to which Clarkson hilariously added “no, you said New Orleans and what people don’t understand is that if you’re in Shreveport, you might as well be in New York because the distance between New Orleans and Shreveport is vast!”

“When Patty said yes, Zal and I jumped and ran around and screamed” added Marling with a smile and watching the movie you can tell why. Once again Clarkson brings something beautiful and unexpected to the table. Later that day I sat down for a one on one interview with her to continue talking about her work in this film, her thoughts on real life eco-terror, as well as other of her most notable screen characters.

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We rarely get to see spy movies with women as the lead characters…

Yes…I know, I know…

...so, how was the experience of being in a genre movie?

It’s the reason I wanted to do the project. I didn’t know Zal and I didn’t know Brit—I knew Brit from Another Earth but I had not seen Sound of My Voice...I have subsequently seen it and thought it was just breathtaking—but first and foremost, I’ve done so many movies at this point that I’m always looking for great scripts, whether I’m the lead or supporting part. I wanna be a part of great films, so when I read this script I thought “this is fantastic”. I found this shocking, upsetting, the intrigue…I had no idea what was going to happen next, I really liked these characters, I liked their moral ambiguity. It just took me into this world, that I did not know and I’d never made a film like this. I think Zal’s found a new way to make a spy movie, it’s real spy. It’s real spy and real intrigue, so because it’s about real things…not that I don’t love Jason Bourne and all those movies, but this is about real…change and real times.

Now that you’ve brought up Sharon’s ambiguity, probably some audience members will see her as the movie’s villain, right?

Oh god, yes! And she should be! That’s why I took it. Look at how much work I’ve done and I’m often in the house with the kids, or I’m dying, I’m ill, I’ve got a husband who’s walked out on me or I walked out on him…and this was just a finely-etched woman. Like I said there’s not much there, but look at each of the scenes I have, they’re very “click, click, click”, they’re beautifully drawn and I had to fulfill that. I didn’t want to disappoint Zal or Brit because Sharon is like pen and ink, it’s like an etching and I had to kinda fit myself into that frame. It was difficult but fabulous.

I love that moment in the movie when you get a phone call and we see your character at home. How do you feel someone like Sharon unwinds at the end of the day?

She compartmentalizes, yes, of course she does. When she’s home, she takes a breath and then boom, but she never takes that hat off, she never takes the CEO hat off. I don’t believe people in that position, I think they wake up as a CEO, they go to bed as a CEO, they kiss their children, they bathe them, they make dinner, they make love as a CEO.

That’s a very scary thought.

Yes, they’re scary people but they run the world with their corporations. They literally make life and death, other than doctors they really do determine. You look at the man who ran BP, he sat back and knew how much oil was gushing for weeks and weeks and weeks…and just every time you’d see him on camera he was like (sits straight and does a severe face), while thousands, no millions of lives were being ruined, the Earth was being destroyed and he’s like… (nod, nod, nod, nod…lowers voice) because he was protecting a corporation…

Do you think these people’s behavior involves any kind of acting?

No…I think they lose part of themselves. They lose a compass within themselves, because every day they are driven by these monumental demands to deliver. Millions, billions of dollars are sitting on their shoulders and they know the top line, the bottom line, they know everything. You are what you do and every day you take the emotion out of what you do, every day you strip the emotion out and look at cold hard facts and numbers…every single day or your head is on the chopping block and many of their heads should be, you know Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, they sat back and made all of those false mortgages to all of those desperately poor people, people who had no right taking out these ridiculous mortgages and every day they sat back and “yes, I’ll loan you two hundred thousand dollars” and they knew in the fine print it would flip and they would be paying 12% interest. (mimics signing contracts) Now these people are homeless, they’re already at poverty level and all these people just sign their lives away and day after day other people just behind desks going “OK, congratulations, good luck”. I mean, who makes these people like that? How could you do that? But you do it, because the bottom line is that it’s about getting people to sign, getting people to accept you, because it’s something larger than yourself.

Earlier today, when we were doing the roundtables you mentioned that you thought of yourself as someone who was spoiled and I thought that was fantastic.

(Laughs) I am! We all are! I mean, I grew up very middle class. Neither of my parents made a lot of money and they raised five daughters and educated us and it was brutal! I think they just recently finished paying a VISA bill, I mean it was ridiculous. I didn’t grow up with any money, but now I have money, I’m spoiled. I’m not rich…you know crazy rich, but I’m rich…come on please (does exaggerated hand gesture pointing at what she’s wearing). I have my creature comforts…”oh no, I don’t like that…I don’t drink that kind of coffee…oh for Christ’s sake, just have a fucking cup of coffee!” (laughs) You know how it is with people, just buy coffee and make it! But we’re like “no, I need this specific maker and this specific thing, argh!”. It’s ridiculous the way we live now…

That’s right, but the reason why I brought that up is because I know you’ve always held very high ideals, so I wonder if you see your younger self joining a group like the East?

No. I was passionate and had opinions, I’ve been opinionated all my life. I grew up with a very opinionated and passionate mother and my sisters were all…you know we were all very educated, we’ve all worked, many of my sisters have families, they’re married and have children and I’ve never done that. My oldest sister is like me, she’s a career gal…but I don’t know that i would’ve joined a group. I didn’t live in that kind of environment, I grew up in the suburbs, we had struggles, I didn’t live in a creature comforts world, I didn’t have comforts. I had to share everything with my sisters—oh my god, I hate sharing, still to this day… (giggles)

So what do you want audiences to take home from The East?

That you have to speak up and you have to engage in whatever way you can. I’m proud of actors who use their fame to speak out and speak up, it’s the most beautiful thing we can do because people will listen. I’m proud of people, you see the Occupy Wall Street people—that was a brave and formidable and amazing movement! All of those people who came together…people who stood at the funeral to fight the Westboro Church, you know, people who gathered to fight against them and came out and rallied at the funeral to protect against the idiot Westboro people…who I don’t know how they’re still here…but they are. (Laughs and rolls her eyes)

You’re usually regarded as one of the most important figures in independent cinema, do you think of yourself in this way?

(giggles)...as the Independent Lady? (bats eyelashes) Better that, than the painted lady…

Look, am I very much a part of the independent film world? Yes of course I am. My life and most of my career have taken part there and don’t get me wrong, I love studio films, I love working with big directors and I love making money. I like being paid to act! I have a mortgage, I’m a sole supporter of myself, I don’t have any dual income, I don’t have a husband…I have to pay my bills. But I love the independent film word, it’s afforded me so many opportunities I would’ve never had. I’m about to shoot two back-to-back films that I’m the lead of, because I’m lucky enough that someone said “well, I’ll invest in a film starring Patricia Clarkson” and I’m like “well, aren’t you just the nicest person around?” (Chuckles)

Last time we spoke to you, you had just starred in Cairo Time, what projects are you working on now?

...I’m doing another movie with that woman. (Talking to herself)  That woman, she’s one of my best friends now, her name is Ruba Nadda and she’s written me, just a delicious part. It’s the lead, I’m in 99 percent of the movie, I was like “oh thank you Ruba”. It’s a beautiful film, I star opposite a very hot young man that we’re right in the process of settling on. But the first movie I’ll shoot, is the Sir Ben Kingsley film, it’s me and him. I’ll shoot that in August and it’s a beautiful film called Learning to Drive.

I recently re-watched High Art, which had one of your breakthrough roles, I love how your character Greta is always name-dropping Fassbinder. Do you, like her, ever find yourself referencing a specific director you’ve worked with?  

Oh, I drop the fact that I’ve worked with Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen all the time! I’m always like “oh yes, Marty and Woody”, or “oh yeah, the other day i was talking to Marty”...(explodes in laughter)

(suddenly serious)...except I’m not high in heroin! [like Greta]

Far From Heaven is one of my favorite movies and I often find myself wanting to slap your character for the way she behaves towards Julianne Moore’s character…

...oh my character! She’s complicated, she’s of a certain time, of a certain generation. You never wanna excuse racism, but you know it’s just who she was. It was vital to tell her story to have that counterpoint, but it was a beautiful experience cause Todd Haynes is an artist.

Have you gone seen the musical version that’s playing off-Broadway right now?

I will! My dearest best friend in the world, his name is Richard Greenberg, he’s a big famous New York playwright, wrote the book for it. It was his idea to turn Far From Heaven into a musical. I can’t wait to see it opening week, and anything starring Kelli O’Hara, you wanna be there. She’s so gorgeous, she’s a star, she’s stunning…

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The East premieres theatrically May 31.

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