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Interview: Patricia Clarkson on The East, High Art, and More

One of the actress’s killer virtues is her ability to tackle searingly human drama without seeming to take herself too seriously.

Interview: Patricia Clarkson on The East, High Art, and More
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

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.

Thank God.

[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.

In the press notes, Zal is quoted as saying that you were “seducing people on set left and right.” What’s that all about?

[laughs] Oh, that’s because Zal wanted to believe that. Part of it is getting into character, because I had to keep Sharon burning. She’s a manipulator. She’s a master manipulator, and I don’t think there’s a CEO alive today, male or female, who isn’t. You have to be. You have to know how to shift. They’re…shamans. They know how to change the light and texture of a room.

I have some tradition movies that I watch annually, and one of them is Pieces of April, which I insist on playing in the background every Thanksgiving, mainly because of your performance.

Oh God.

Do you have any films like that? Ones you revisit on a regular basis?

You know, it’s funny—sometimes, with my favorite films, I don’t want to see them a lot. With many, I’ve seen them only once, and I don’t want to repeat the experience, because I like holding onto those initial feelings and I’m afraid they might dim. But it’s hard for me, if I’m switching channels, to not watch Ingrid Bergman. So I’ve seen quite a few of her films. Because she was most impactful for me when I was younger, like 14 or 15.

And you narrated that segment on her for TCM.

Yes, yes, yes. And there’s Lucille Ball too. There’s not an episode of I Love Lucy that I wouldn’t, or haven’t, watched 50 times. But in terms of film, do I have those regulars I come back to? I don’t think I do. I’m not a cinephile, which is shocking, in a way. [Whispers] I probably should be. But I’m not. And I’m not one who likes to watch a lot of movies on television. I like to see them in the theater. So maybe I’m more of a real cinephile after all! But there are great big popular films that are still fabulous to see. Could I watch Annie Hall every year? Yes, of course I could. Could I watch any movie of Woody’s or Martin Scorsese’s? Of course. And now that I’ve worked with them, I love them dearly as directors and as people. I’m very lucky to know them and to have had the experience you have when you work with them.

What’s the difference between working with legends like them and filmmakers like Zal and Brit, who are much more green. Is there a different energy on set?

Well, with age comes an enlightenment and gravitas that Zal and Brit will have because they are, truly, so gifted, and so talented. Twenty years from now, they will have that. It’s the best part of the aging process: We do get better as we get older. It’s one of the few professions in which we age well. And that’s what happens—to be on the set with someone like Marty and Woody is a remarkable thing, and it’s hard to express it exactly. But that’s not to take anything away from an amazing young director.

You also narrated the 2009 documentary For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism. How would you describe the role and the importance of the film critic in the industry today?

Oh, they’re vital. They’re crucial. We have a love-hate relationship with them, but they are essential, and they’re necessary, and they are the litmus test. And, you know, often, we heed them, sometimes to our dismay. And there are the big blockbusters, but great small films have a life because of great critics who have championed them. There are a lot of great critics who’ve rallied for small films that I’ve done that may never have been seen had they not been championed. And the flipside is that, when they don’t champion your film, you have to just suck it up, and stay home, and then get back up again and carry on. But I’m someone who, as sad as a critic can make me, and as much as I need to remember it’s just words on a page, I think they’re vital to our existence.

You’ve said that you’re deeply invested in acting because “it’s the only thing you know how to do.”

Yes.

Surely that’s not true.

No, really, I…I don’t play the piano. I don’t sing. [In a husky whisper] I can dance. But I don’t have skills. I’m a very good swimmer, but, you know, that’s not going to help me. [laughs] But a lot of actors, they play the clarinet, or they’re a writer, or they have a yearning to direct. No. I don’t have skills. And I don’t really have hobbies. I mean, I have things I enjoy doing outside of acting, thank God, but I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to make a very good living doing this. Because I don’t know what the hell else I’d do.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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