Patricia Clarkson doesn’t like watching movies on screeners. The New Orleans-born actress, 59, prefers the pleasures of the big screen in a darkened room to the apparent commodity of home viewing. “I love going to movies. It’s my favorite thing to do,” she told Awards Circuit at the 2019 Miami International Film Festival, where she received the Precious Gem Award honoring her distinguished trajectory.
Her predilection for large projection, however, doesn’t imply she has any disdain for other formats, especially not episodic content on streaming platforms, after all, her career has been recently revitalized as consequence of shows like Netflix’s “House of Cards” and HBO’s “Sharp Objects,” which earned her a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in a Series, Miniseries or Television Film earlier this year.
Clarkson started her career in theater. She attended the Yale School of Drama, and as soon as she graduated in 1985, New York City became her training ground. “I hit the boards and I really started working in theater.” But then, almost right out of school, she got cast in Brian De Palma’s now-classic “The Untouchables,” while she was also doing a Broadway show.
“I just hit the Jackpot. I got two great jobs pretty early on once I hit New York.” Work on stage and cinema was steady ever since, and it wasn’t until her thirties that she started working on television. “I was fortunate in that I only had to act to make a living and I realize just how nice that was.” What’s most striking about the seasoned thespian is her reluctance to take anything for granted, and the profound gratefulness she expresses about her
Part of that is her wholehearted appreciation towards collaborators that have marked her, like Catalan filmmaker Isabel Coixet, with whom she’s made multiple movies (“Elegy,” “Learning to Drive,” “The Bookshop”) and described as brilliant. “She’s not only one of my favorite directors I’ve ever worked with because I’ve worked with her three times. She’s one of my favorite people in the world.”
In Clarkson’s rather sensible outlook, being an exceptional director goes hand in hand with being an exceptional person. “I think to be a great director, you have to have life in you, and she does, and she has true Joie de vivre, and I just adore her.”
Then there is also George Clooney and Stanley Tucci, actors in their own right that decided to get behind the camera while also being part of the ensemble. With Clooney, or George as he refers to him, Clarkson made the lauded “Good Night, and Good Luck” and with Tucci she co-starred in his directorial efforts “Joe Gould’s Secret” and “Blind Date.” “I’ve liked acting with someone and being directed by them. I have enjoyed that experience. It’s a little bit demanding sometimes,” she explained.
There is a different atmosphere on set, she thinks, “because they are in the scene and out of it, and in this scene and out of it, but the ones who do it well, of course, are always in it.” Clarkson compares it to working with directors of different genders. “A man or a woman directing is not better or worse, it’s just different. It’s just a different journey,” said the actress. “I’ve worked with a lot of other great directors and in particular a lot of great women.”
One of those women was Lisa Cholodenko, who directed her in “High Art,” what would become a landmark performance for Clarkson. “That really changed my whole career, it was the first big art film I did. I was 38 years old and my career changed overnight. “ When asked why she thought that particular role resonated so potently with viewers, she playfully noted, “I played a German lesbian heroin addict, and that’s what everybody should play.”
Speaking of distinctive memories, Clarkson also reminisced about the one time she worked with Lars von Trier in “Dogville” opposite Nicole Kidman. “He was lovely to me,” she said about the Danish provocateur. “Lars is an unusual man, but a lot of people in our industry are, you know, so I’ve worked with eccentric people, and Lars is a real true eccentric.”
Her inclusion in the project was fortuitous because another actress was forced to drop out due to a family matter. Clarkson stepped in more with the intention of doing a good deed than with specific aspirations. “Her father got ill and I had to fly to Sweden with a 48-hour notice,” she remembered.
In reflecting on her life prior to the tribute she received in Miami and just days after being crowned the queen of a Mardi Gras parade in her hometown of New Orleans, Clarkson thought about several other creators who over the years have allowed her to exhibit her perceptive craft as a critical part of their stories in film: Ruba Nadda (“Cairo Time” and “October Gale”), Ira Sachs (“Married Life”), Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent”), Peter Hedges (“Pieces of April”); and in television: Jean-Marc Vallée (“Sharp Objects”), Agnieszka Holland (“House of Cards”), to name a handful among many.
“I’ve come a long way. I’m 59. I started a little later. I started at 25 because it went to drama school and I’m thankful I did. I think it gave me a base, a great foundation to build on, and I’ve worked with such an array of extraordinary women and men,” she movingly stated.
While Clarkson cherishes the more intimate movies she’s made, she is aware and thankful for the prestige of HBO and ubiquitous presence of Netflix have put her in a new place. “It has brought a whole new audience to me that I probably never had. I’ve always had the art crowd, but it’s brought a different crowd to me, a lot of young people.”
Her work for the powerful streamer as a savvy politician with extensive international connections has been rather empowering for the actress. “You know who loves “House of Cards”? Men. I’ve had more young guys love me in “House of Cards than anything else. It’s very sexy,” she candidly
Thinking about her recent Golden Globe win and the Academy Award nomination she received back in 2004 for Best Supporting Actress, as a resentful and terminally ill mother, in “Pieces of April,” Patricia Clarkson sternly disapproved of those who dismiss the significance of recognition. “Awards are good and anyone who tells you otherwise is not being truthful,” she said. “Awards help the project, and they help everybody involved. Everybody wins when you win.”
For her, accolades also represent an opportunity to acknowledge people that mean a lot in her life and for whatever project she is a part of to be celebrated as a whole, even if she is the one being singled out. “You never win an award in a vacuum. You never win an award alone. It’s a collaborative art are, our art, and it requires a lot of moving parts to all work together.”
Ungratefulness is absent from her understanding of the industry and the artistic process, and though judging by how graciously she shares her triumphs with colleagues on both sides of the camera it’s unlikely it will ever be, she’s given us permission to be vigilant and never allow cynicism to become part of her.
“I’m glad I’m not jaded or callous. I’ve been nominated for a lot of awards, and I’m always thrilled and thankful and you have to be,” she said. “Don’t ever let me not be. If you interview me five years from now and I’m jaded, like I don’t care, turn off your microphone.”