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.
She has no fewer than six films coming up: Phoebe in Wonderland, costarring Felicity Huffman and Elle Fanning; Woody Allen’s latest, as-yet-untitled project, with Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz; Blind Date, directed by and costarring her longtime friend Stanley Tucci; Married Life, a drama set in the 1940s, with Pierce Brosnan and Chris Cooper; Lars and the Real Girl, a quirky comedy in which she plays the shrink of a delusional Ryan Gosling; and Elegy, which boasts a role that she calls her most sexual yet ("I’m naked with Ben Kingsley!"). It’s a bounty she would never take for granted. "These are great female parts that I’ve been allowed to play — complicated, messy," she says. "I have the career now that I was hoping to have in my 30s. But I was never really an ingenue, and that, oddly, may be what saved me."
Julianne Moore, Clarkson’s friend and her costar in Far from Heaven, agrees. "Early success is overrated," she says. "I think for someone to become successful when they are 20 or 21, it’s difficult to build from there. You can burn out. The thing about Patti is, she’ll work for the rest of her life. She’s the person you want to be with in a scene — she’s so gifted."
Clarkson wouldn’t do anything differently. "I love being in my 40s," she says emphatically. "I would never go back. I certainly have more fun now than I ever did. There’s a joy in my life that I didn’t have in my 30s." She pauses thoughtfully and then breaks into yet another laugh. "God, if this keeps up, by the time I’m 60, I’ll be popping out of cakes!"
Always a New Orleanian
As her friends are quick to point out, Clarkson is an excellent storyteller. During the course of the afternoon, she leaps from her chair to act out the tale of how her dog escaped her dressing room at the Kennedy Center, where she was playing Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire — only to bark from beneath the stage every time he heard Clarkson’s voice — and an account of how she got the faint white scar above her right eye when she fell from a rope swing as a child. Her hands flutter like small, pale birds when she gestures. She has a graceful, petite frame like a ballerina’s and has recently started weight training, but she dismisses her muscle tone, her thick hair, and many of her other enviable attributes as simply the products of good genes.
Clarkson grew up the youngest of five daughters born to Jacquelyn — a real estate agent who turned to politics, eventually becoming a New Orleans councilwoman whose district included the French Quarter — and Arthur "Buzz" Clarkson, administrator of the department of medicine at Louisiana State University. "At one point there were five teenage girls under one roof," she says. "The fact that my father is still alive and sane is astonishing." Her close family relationship is something she holds dear. "My father says it’s the best time of his life when we’re all together now, sitting in the kitchen at two a.m., laughing hysterically about something. I’m lucky because so many people in my business come from fractured families, and I don’t. I had a remarkably golden childhood."
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."
Keeps Getting Better
The sun is hanging low in the Southampton sky, and Clarkson has a ton to do. She’s about to fly to Barcelona to be directed by Woody Allen, and there’s the ongoing process of organizing and moving into her new apartment. She jokes about the big-money job she would be happy to take to pay the mortgage — "Please god, let there be a superhero movie in my future!" — but it’s clear that she’s living her life exactly the way she wants to. "I have more power than I used to," she says, citing the fact that she can insist on being lit to her best advantage on the set. "When a woman is in her 40s, she’s at the mercy of the director of photography, and I take that very seriously now. Especially if I’m playing a hot character, I need to look hot!"
"There are a lot of pretty women in Hollywood, and Patti is one of them. But few, if any, are as good as she is," Tucci says. "For this reason, she will outlast them all. She just keeps getting better."
As she closes in on 50, Clarkson says, "I think I’ve found peace. I am best in chaos, but I’ve found a kind of acceptance and joy in who and where I am and what I’ve been able to accomplish — and what I will never be able to accomplish. I think I have been a good friend, a good daughter, a good sister, a good girlfriend. But, you know, I’ve also failed at all these things at points in my life." She smiles and shrugs. "All I can do is hope that the failures are fewer and farther between." Then she laughs once more, throwing her head back. "Is it too early for wine?"
Originally published in MORE magazine, November 2007.