features + interviews

patricia clarkson: “entering the character and finding the truth”

David Rooney and Patricia Clarkson. Vineyard Theatre. 13 December 2010. Photo: Martha Wade Steketee.

Vineyard Voices Fall 2010 Series:
Patricia Clarkson in Conversation
Monday, December 13, at 7pm
http://www.vineyardtheatre.org/vineyardvoices/index.html

My second visit to the Vineyard Theatre’s “Vineyard Voices” series is a boffo follow-up to the Law & Order panel discussion of several weeks ago (http://wp.me/pHkrs-Mg).  Yes, the standout, stand up, stunning and luminous Patricia Clarkson of Station Agent and High Art and Good Night and Good Luck and Frasier and Six Feet Under and Cairo Time and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (a movie that falls flat, for this viewer, every time Clarkson leaves the screen) — well, ain’t that enough?  And for those of us lucky enough to have been in DC during the Tennessee Williams festival at the Kennedy Center in 2004 and who saw Clarkson’s Blanche Dubois in Streetcar Named Desire, well.  You all know what I’m talking about.

I’m here to say that this woman is the real deal.  Charming and funny and self-effacing and deep about her art and a real hardworking actor when it comes down to it.  No diva energy here.  And she gives a hint about a Tallulah Bankhead movie in the works.  Heart beats a little faster with that possibility, doesn’t it?  With all that said, here are some notes from tonight’s interviews/questioning session with theatre and movie journalist and critic David Rooney.

Q: When did you know that you wanted to be an actress?

A: In speech class in 8th grade, worked so hard on a presentation my teacher said to me: I think you’re an actress.

Q: You trained at Fordham and Yale (MFA).  What roles did you do either place that were especially important to you?

A: At Fordham we had to do everything.  I did Hedda there, but I built the set, hung the lights, sewed my costumes.  And there at Yale I met extraordinary people.  Yale was eye-opening — I was cast against type.  At Fordham I was the leading lady — Betrayal, Hedda.  At Yale I “got to do wild things” and it changed me as an actress.

Q: You’ve worked with a range of playwrights in New York on new works, such as Nicky Silver [in tonight’s audience] and Richard Greenberg.  What have been the high points for you?

A: It has been “nothing but high points”.

Q: Being from New Orleans, it must have been the Holy Grail to get to do Blanche DuBois in the Kennedy Center production of Streetcar Named Desire (in 2004).

A: “It is the hardest thing I have ever done.  The sheer volume of words alone.  But it was also the particular situation there [as part of the Kennedy Center festival dedicated to celebrating the work of Tennessee Williams].  There were no previews and a short period of rehearsals. I had Amy Ryan in the cast [familiar to many today as the new therapist for Gabriel Byrne in In Treatment. All I could do all day between performances was watch reruns of the West Wing in my suite at the Watergate [next to the Kennedy Center].  I was Miss Havisham-y and Blanche Dubois-y between performances.  The audiences in DC were incredible.”

Q: Do you keep up on the New York theatre?  Are there things that tempt you?

A: I’m in a movie mode … and that’s all going to change.

Q: Let’s talk about television.  Your role on Frazier and your roles on Six Feet Under and Murder One.

A: Alan Ball .. I got the call to play Frannie Conroy’s sister.  I knew her and had played her sister before.  I couldn’t believe how divine the script was.  I did only six episodes but people continue to ask me about being  a regular on the series.  They would make room in the shooting schedule for me when I had a window between projects.  The crew called me and Franny and Kathy Bates “the three tenors”.

Q: What are the differences between television, stage, and film acting?

A: There’s nothing more terrifying that theatre — that’s why I’m doing movies.  [laughter].  “Acting is acting .. entering the character and finding the truth.”

Q: Who has been the most interesting director to work with in the movies?

A: “You never forget your first.”  Brian DePalma [The Untouchables], I was just out of Yale, 25.  The casting director told me “don’t do anything to your hair” [her hair was Southern, big, “done”].  DePalma himself read with her.  The juxtaposition of my face and my deep voice — people didn’t know what to do with me.  “This was long before Scarlett Johansson.  I paved the way, baby.”

Q: What is it like working with Woody Allen?

A:  I love working with Woody Allen.  He is exactly right.  As actors we get lazy.  We’re deeply spoiled.  We get coddled and stroked.  He doesn’t care how you’re really feeling.  Show up and know your lives.  Do your homework.  I’ve never been so prepared in my life.  He doesn’t like you to stop.  He wants long takes — wants it clear, intact.  He wants it true.  “If you don’t say his lines, come close.”  He’s not the least bit precious about his dialogue … except his jokes.  “You have to know it to the core, know your lines, know your arc.  It’s all about the work.”  “You show up, and you just go.”

Q: Talk about Martin Scorsese.

A: Very passionate. If there’s an angle to be found, Martin will shoot it.  He’s thorough.  “He’s aural.  He hears it.  He’s in the pocket, he’s in the moment, he’s very alive.  Slightly crazy in the best way possible.”

Q: What about when you’re directed by actors, which you have been (e.g. Sean Penn, George Clooney).  Is there a difference?

A: Sean Penn is a wonderful director.  She knew for the movie she did with him that she would be stepping off the plane and crying for three days.  “Oh George … what were we talking about?”  Actor directors are “slightly more liquid, more in tune, deeply actor-friendly.”

Q: High Art was a break through role for you.

A: “Lisa Cholodenko saved me.  She stepped in and radically changed my film career overnight.  Lisa shifted me radically as a film actor.  She let me ride with this character.”  “Work gets you work.”  “It’s not that there aren’t good roles for women of a certain age.  But Meryl Streep is playing them.”  Independent film is a different story.  “Independent film has embraced women of a certain age and let them shine.”

Q: You play leads and character roles.  Are these still valid terms?

A: It has become interesting in the business in that Leading ladies and leading men suddenly are donning funny noses and hunch backs.  “Character is character.”  The walls are coming down.  [and in response to sequence of observations about doing nudity] “You never know when people are going to want you to be attractive.”

Q: Cairo Time is a movie when you are a woman of a certain age who is attractive and desirable.

A: Being attractive is so difficult.  It was hot in Cairo — but I’m from New Orleans so part of me really enjoyed the heat — it was a Canadian production and the Canadian folks were dying.  “Part of the beauty of this business is the incredible people you meet.”  The director Ruba Nadda is one such person — who wrote a role for a woman of a certain age, a woman coming from a position of strength who “finds herself serendipitously in love” .. the experience of shooting in Cairo was “surreal, life changing, haunting”.

Q: Far From Heaven by Todd Haynes haunts people.

A: Haynes is “fiercely intelligent” and one of the kindest men she has ever met.  She almost got canned because the costume designer had ideas for extreme 1950s costumes that she assumed wouldn’t suit Patricia’s body — but the designer was wrong.  Her experience on the time limited shoot (by the budget — “it all went into the production design”) was enhanced by her friendship with Julianne Moore.  “We’re both just kind of broads.  We show up, it all goes into the work.  It’s all about he work.”  “We just got on.  We connected as women off camera.  It all shows up on camera, somewhere.”

Q: Are you ever nervous about work with famous actors?

A: Yes, I’m always nervous in the beginning of any project.  “And you want to kind of be cool.  And you know I’m not cool.  At the end of the day It comes back to the character.  I love the process of work .. rehearsing.  I love finding the character.”

Q: Are there any classics that would get you back to the stage?  Any roles that you are burning to do?

A: No, I don’t have that.  “I love the idea of a new part, something new.”

Q: What else would you do if you weren’t acting?

A: It’s in my blood — my mother is a politician, I like local politics.  I could imagine being a politician.

Q: Do you have any favorite roles?

A: I can’t answer that.  “So many extraordinary experiences .. such strong parts.”

Q: Are there roles you wish you’ve gotten in the past?

A: “Oh yes.  Not now though.” [laugh line.]

Q: How would you describe yourself?

Photo: Martha Wade Steketee.

A: “I’m pretty straightforward…. I’m a little odd at times.”  “I can be glamorous if the lighting is right.”

Q: What’s next?

A: A film about Tallulah Bankhead.  [she knocks at this point on the wooden stage — claiming that she is deeply superstitious.] “A film I’m hoping to make — a great script and a one of a kind lady.”

Q: Do you have any advice for young actors?

A: “Every single job I got came from the fact that I gave a great audition.”  “Everything is about the audition.” “the audition is your calling card.” “No great audition is wasted.”

Clarkson is a believer in the hardworking, no bullshit, straight ahead, keep it true, acting ethic.  It’s about the work. It’s about the craft.  It’s about the magic that then can be created.  Stunning.

© Martha Wade Steketee (December 14, 2010)


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