She feels just as strongly about her New Orleans heritage. When Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005, Clarkson was at the Venice film festival in support of Good Night, and Good Luck. "I’ll never forget it," she says. "I was standing with some people from the film and I saw on CNN: ‘Levee Breach.’ And truly, I doubled over, almost sick to my stomach, and burst into tears. I knew what that meant; I knew the city was done." Although many of her relatives lost everything they owned, they all survived; Clarkson flew to Baton Rouge the following Monday and drove to New Orleans to witness the destruction firsthand. "It was biblical," she says, "and totally avoidable, which is an outrage." She is committed to helping the city rebuild, advising that the best way to speed recovery is to visit and spend time (and money) there. At last year’s Mardi Gras, she proudly waved from a parade float, sitting alongside Saints coach Sean Payton. "Anything I can do for New Orleans, I’m going to do," she says. "When they say jump, I ask ‘How high?’" Her Southern drawl, which she has all but lost, comes back in a flash when she’s home. (And "sometimes when she’s a little nervous, she sounds like something out of Tennessee Williams," says Stanley Tucci, who does a fond, excellent Clarkson impression.)
"I will always be a New Orleanian," she says. But she’s equally entranced by New York, where she moved at age 19 after transferring from Louisiana State University to the Fordham University theater program. "What a shock: sorority girl in New York City!" she says. "It turned out to be the best thing I ever did." Graduate work at the Yale School of Drama followed; she can still remember her audition outfit: a blue shirt, wrap skirt, and borrowed shoes that were too big.
Although many of her contemporaries eventually decamped for Hollywood, Clarkson chose to make New York her home base. And now she’s got a piece of the city to call her own: Earlier this year, she bought her first apartment, a loftlike space in Greenwich Village, around the corner from the place she’d rented for years. "People think New York is such a big city, and it’s not; it’s got such a small-town life," says the actress, who knows everyone from her neighbors to the woman who sells her coffee (and keeps tabs on her schedule) at a local deli. Her constant companion for the past 12 years has been Beaux, her beloved 49-pound mixed-breed rescued dog, who "sits on my stoop and waits for someone to pass and pat him. He lives for the kindness of strangers." Her canine crush is another family trait, she says: "People think I’m dog-crazy because I don’t have children, but my sisters and my 10 nieces and nephews — all of us — we’re dog obsessed."
Although Clarkson dotes on her sisters’ kids — "They are the children I would have wanted to have and raise" — she is happily single and notes that she has had great love in her life, most recently with actor Campbell Scott. "I don’t consider the fact that I’ve dated several men in my life and not married one a failure," she says. "I consider that a good time!" She laughs long and hard. "My parents have been married for 54 years, but I know what it took to have that kind of life. And that’s not me. I’m a free spirit. I think anytime you have love, it’s a success, however that love is defined — whether it’s through children, or a home you share, or maybe you get together and take a trip once a year. And I’m fortunate, because I’ve had great men in my life who have made me a better person, a better lover, a better everything. I don’t have regrets."