Clarkson’s Midlife Success
"Are you sure don’t want a muffin? Just a little muffin?"
Patricia Clarkson is in distress. She’s standing in the kitchen, hands clasped, her blue-green eyes opened wide. She has asked this question several times already, as well as offered scones, volunteered to go get sandwiches and salads, and suggested that she brew coffee or make green tea. It’s a hospitality fixation that the New Orleans native attributes to her "Southern thing" — never mind that she’s been living in New York for more than two decades.
The same impulse made her run out to the end of the driveway to greet her guest, worried that her detailed directions to the bungalow she’s staying in while filming in Southampton, Long Island, weren’t clear enough. There the 47-year-old Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning actress stood: a pale, honey-blond slip of a woman clad in a yellow cotton halter dress and an enormous floppy hat, waving her hands wildly above her head, as if directing an airplane into a hangar. Now, all offers of food declined, she drops into a chair and eyes the plate of scones that she, of course, put out anyway. "Do I want a lemon poppy…or a blueberry?" she muses, her finger hovering above the plate, before flashing a mischievous grin. "Maybe just a bite of each."
It’s no surprise that Clarkson would want to have a taste of everything. She describes herself as mercurial, a fitting adjective for an actress who can get inside a wide range of characters — a grieving artist who befriends a lonely man with dwarfism in The Station Agent; a small-minded, treacherous friend in Far from Heaven; a free-spirited hippie on Six Feet Under — and inhabit them completely. "It’s been my goal to have people see me as many different things," she says. "Being a movie star? That would have been fun, but to be a chameleon…that’s kind of why I wanted to be an actor." But surely she knows she is indeed a movie star? "Oh no, no, no, no," she says with a laugh. "I’m a movie person."
She likes to laugh — often at herself — and the sound is a good one: throaty, gravelly, and silky all at once. It’s the perfect complement to her distinctive voice, which is startlingly big, with an old-fashioned "why don’t you come up and see me sometime" quality, perhaps the only constant in a Patricia Clarkson performance. "I’ve finally grown into my voice," she says. "It was interesting how people in the business used to deal with it, because I looked a certain way, like a sweet, pretty girl, and then I’d open my mouth and it would be like, boooaaaah." She laughs again. "So people probably thought, oh no, she’s not that sweet."
Hollywood did have a hard time figuring Clarkson out at first. She made her film debut in 1987, playing the wife of Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness in The Untouchables, and during the next 10 years she repeatedly found herself cast in similar stand-by-your-man parts. "I never thought I’d break through that whole suburban-mom thing," she says. "And then I did. And sometimes I want to run around naked in euphoria just for that reason." The turning point came in 1998, when Clarkson, then 39, wowed audiences in Lisa Cholodenko’s High Art, playing a German lesbian heroin addict. "It changed my whole career, that part. I’m indebted to Lisa for casting me. She went out on a limb." By 2003 she was the unofficial queen of the indie scene, with four movies at the Sundance film festival, including Pieces of April, for which she earned a best supporting actress Oscar nomination. As the acerbic, cancer-stricken, won’t-go-quietly mother in Pieces of April, Clarkson was a study in bringing complex emotions — dignity, bitterness, bravura, and a hint of desperation — to the screen. Hollywood woke up.