When I greet her for our interview, Patricia Clarkson tells me I’m handsome, and I manage to keep my footing as I lean in to accept a hug. She later admires my socks—socks that, according to her, land me one more question before her publicist plucks me away and shuffles in another (doubtlessly smitten) journalist. For someone who’d gladly call himself a Clarksonite, receiving compliments from this can’t-go-wrong character actress is like jumping on a trampoline. Clarkson and I are meeting, in her Crosby Street Hotel suite in SoHo, to discuss her commanding new role in The East, which sees her play Sharon, the head of a private intelligence firm that ruthlessly protects its corporate clients, specifically from the eco-terrorist group of the title. Embodying a woman who’s both mother figure and whip-cracker for her protégé, Sarah (Brit Marling, who co-wrote the script with director Zal Batmanglij), Clarkson particularly ignites one brief scene in which she shifts dramatic gears at least three times, conveying admirable fierceness, venomous deception, and finally, maternal protection. It’s a multifaceted moment that speaks to Clarkson’s wondrous malleability, and it contains the sort of emotional dime-turns she exhibits while we chat.
One of Clarkson’s killer virtues is her ability to tackle searingly human drama without seeming to take herself too seriously. Remember, this is the woman who terrorized Nicole Kidman in Dogville, and formed an achingly poignant bond with Peter Dinklage in The Station Agent, but also played cinema’s most irreverently liberal mom in Easy A, and teased Andy Samberg’s man parts in SNL’s “Dick in a Box” follow-up, “Motherlover.” In between firm, pointed insights regarding her work and the things she cares about (movies, causes, and the women who’ve made her great), the New Orleans native, a svelte beauty at 53, releases many variations of her unmistakable laugh, which is itself one part of her smoky, distinctive voice. I make no secret of my great admiration for her, and she welcomes the love with a gleeful grace that’s all too familiar.
I should warn you. This might be one interview in which I’ll have trouble being professional.
Oh, god! [Laughs] Well, let’s not be professional. Let’s just, like, hang out in my room all day and [whispers] play hooky.
That sounds fantastic. Really. But since we must get down to business, I do have some questions here…
Oh my god, you have notes! Oh god, he’s so professional. [Laughs]
I read that you described Sharon, your character in The East, as “glamorous, intelligent, and formidable,” and my first thought was, “Sounds like Patricia Clarkson to me.”
[Laughs] Well, what can I say? As I lounge back in my chair with, probably, LUNA Bar in my teeth. [Laughs] No, I mean, I’m antithetical to this character. I would never want to run this kind of intelligence company, and I would never want to work in this way, but I would love to have her power. I do love playing women who have really achieved a status, and a height, that very few women in the world often do. As cutthroat as she can be, and whatever her politics, Sharon is a remarkable woman. We are still very much a male-centric world and society, and we women have, you know, 50 rungs to climb.
Can you name some other characters you’ve played that have felt drastically removed from who you really are?
Ooh. Well, if we go all the way back to High Art, I played Greta, a German lesbian heroin addict. She was the first chance for me to really step outside of myself. There’s a lot of Greta that’s in me, this kind of aging, frustrated woman, but, you know, I don’t do drugs. And I’m not gay, but love is love, so that wasn’t in any way difficult. But playing this dramatic druggie [Laughs], for a Southern girl who just drinks bourbon, that was difficult. But what’s interesting is, I’m a woman who’s never married and has never had children. And so many of the characters I play have these marriages, and these children, and their lives are intertwined and informed by those very people. And I’ve never had those in my life. So, oddly, while I’m not formidable in her way, someone like Sharon is probably a little closer to me than I’d care to admit. I’m focused, and driven, and can be stealth, and can be tough, and unyielding. And I love my work. I’m a workhorse, a workaholic.
[Laughs] But I’m often placed in the home, and that’s not how I live. But people think of me that way.
The East deals with radicals, but also activism, and you’ve certainly been known to stand up for certain causes yourself, like LGBT rights. That amazing speech you gave…
Oh, that HRC speech! Oh, God, that day. My mother and sister still talk about that moment. They were all there. What a crazy night that was. What a beautiful night. I showed up and I was so damned nervous. And my brilliant friend, a brilliant writer named Ron Marasco, helped me put that speech together. I had no idea that it was just going to live, and that it was going to have this power. It was so flattering to have been there. And the audience was filled with a lot of clearly gay activists, but there were also a lot of staunch Republicans in the house. I mean, it was New Orleans. And I think we converted a few. [Laughs]
It meant a lot to a lot of people.
It was such a shining moment. Of all the parts I’ve done…they’re all great, and I love acting. But that speech is probably one of a handful of things I’m most proud of in my life.
The East is one of many films, like The Green Mile or Shutter Island, in which you make a very strong impact with very minimal screen time. Now, I don’t want to ask some pushy, actorly question about process, but maybe you can give me a great, Patricia Clarkson-y answer about how you access something in these women to make them feel fully formed.
You can only fake so much, so you do have to draw on parts of yourself. With Sharon, look, I’ve never run a company, I wouldn’t even know how to begin to run a company. But I do run my own life and my own career, and I do deal with very powerful, big people all day, and I do certainly know how to be forceful. And I’m very opinionated. I have a very strong mother as a role model, who’s president of the [New Orelans] City Council. I grew up in a family of very strong women; all of my sisters are extraordinary women, and three of them have raised remarkable children in the midst of sterling careers. So I harness all of that. I look at all of the remarkable women that are just to the right and left of me. I have to take in all of the things that are very close to me, and that I know, and then shift it. But I also start to shift myself physically; I put on these certain clothes, I change my hair. With Sharon, I had this straight hair and I just wanted to take all the curves out. But she also knows when to stick that curve back in, because she’s not stupid. She knows that an exposed leg can shift the world sometimes.