When did you know you were an actress?
Probably when I was 13.
I gave a speech in speech class, and my teacher said “You know, I think you’re an actress. You should join the drama department.” And I did! And that was it. I did a play called F.L.I.P.P.E.D.: Feminist Liberation Idealist Party for Permanent Equality and Democracy. The drama teacher was a major feminist. It was 1974 or ’75 and we did this rockin’ play! I had great training in New Orleans and great mentors, believe it or not. So I went to Fordham and had an amazing mentor there named Joe Jezewski, and then I got into Yale. I went right from Fordham into graduate school there. It was a fantastic, and rigorous experience. I mean, it was eighteen hour days. But in so many ways I didn’t realize at the time, it prepared me so much for this business, and not in the sense of auditioning and “the business,” but in a chemical, physiological way because it required so much of you. Then I graduated in ’85 and lived in New York.
The first thing I remember seeing you in was when you played the butt-kickin’ bride on that great episode of The Equalizer.
(laughs) Oh my God! I have to tell you, I did The Untouchables before I did The Equalizer, and I also did a Spencer: for Hire. (laughs)
Oh my God, it’s ‘80s night!
(laughs) Right? I played a murderer on that one. Foreshadowing. (both laugh)
But I imagine having a film like The Untouchables be your first feature must’ve been an amazing experience.
It was! Working with Brian de Palma first out of the gate was a great education. Again, it was illuminating and it was real on-the-job training.
Clarkson and Kevin Costner in The Untouchables (1987), her film debut.
It must’ve been especially tough with your stage background because, if memory serves, de Palma shot you almost entirely in extreme close-up.
Yes. I couldn’t touch a cup of coffee during that shoot! (laughs) But Brian really helped. You never forget your first, and he really took me under his wing. We keep in touch still. We’re friends, and I adore him. He has a great, wicked sense of humor.
You did about 2-3 years of stage work before your film career really took off, right?
Right. I was doing a lot of off-Broadway and Broadway. It was a dream, just beautiful shows, like The House of Blue Leaves. I met John Guare, and Richard Greenberg, and Nicky Silver. I was lucky and had great fortune to do this wide variety of parts on stage and then slowly doing these films like Rocket Gibraltar and Everybody’s All-American, which took place in Louisiana, but I played the Yankee! (laughs) And then I did The Dead Pool. Then things were cool for me for a while, while I was in my early ‘30s, and that was an interesting time for me.
That’s a tough age for actresses. It’s like the old saying about the three stages in an actress’ life: babe, district attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy.
(laughs) Yes, it’s so true!
You mentioned The Dead Pool. Tell us about the great Clint Eastwood.
I had just done Everybody’s All-American, and flew to San Francisco and met him for the first time. There were women screaming outside the restaurant, and just about everywhere we went: just mobs of people. He’s such a movie star. Working with George Clooney down the line was quite similar: just the sheer power they have with people. But at the same time, they’re both very real, and approachable and first-class people. But being the female lead in the final Dirty Harry movie was amazing! You know that Clint is famous for doing one take, right? So here I am on maybe my third movie, this huge part with lots of dialogue, playing an anchorwoman rattling off all this dialogue, paragraphs worth, and Clint would be looking at me and would say “That was good for me. Was it good for you?” I’d say ‘Uh yeah, sure!’ “Movin’ on!” (laughs) He was cutting Bird at the time, and was really burning the candle at both ends, and was still just unflappable. I’m very grateful that part of my “lore,” so to speak, will be that I worked with Clint Eastwood.
When you look at your career, it’s quite obvious you’ve chosen quality over quantity from the get-go. You easily could’ve gone the “starlet/babe” route when you began, but you never did. What motivates your choices for picking the right project?
There were some movies I passed on early on, and some movies I didn’t get, some big studio films. But now I look back and I realize that I really came later in life to a kind of career. I was somewhat typecast as suburban “mom” type roles early on. But I’ve always had this deep voice, so I think it was tough sometimes for directors to cast me as the ingénue. Because I’d walk in and look a certain way, then open my mouth and have this…voice! (laughs) So I think I sort of grew into my voice, my face, my body as I got older.
So you think of yourself as a late-bloomer?
Mm-hm. And, I hate the cliché, but maybe I’m an old soul. I think it all works better now, somehow. It’s all more symmetrical. (laughs)
Some of our greatest actors have had careers like that: Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman. Even Gena Rowlands didn’t really come into her own until she did A Woman Under the Influence when she was in her 40s.
Those are all my heroes! I’m lucky because now I have choices that I never had. In some ways, it’s “be careful what you wish for,” that I have the career that I have. That doesn’t mean that I don’t still have heartbreak, and disappointment, or feel that I’m sometimes underpaid (laughs). Shooting some of these independent films, and I am for the most part, an indie actress, but you know what? It’s tiring sometimes not having a place to sit between takes! (laughs) The amenities of shooting with money cannot ever be underestimated! (laughs) That’s why Married Life was a great job. It was truly an art film, I felt, with a great cast, but we also got paid. They treated us beautifully.
Who were your influences when you were growing up?
Oh, everyone from Ingrid Bergman to Lucille Ball, and Peter Sellers!
He’s one of my heroes. Every Pink Panther movie that came out…Oh my God, my father and I were obsessed with The Pink Panther movies! And The Party, what a brilliant movie! So I had odd, for New Orleans anyway, odd influences.
I don’t know about that: N’awlins is an eclectic city.
Yes, at heart it’s a European city.
It’s not the United States, not at all. It’s its own country.
And you’d have thought with the reaction to (Hurricane) Katrina that it wasn’t part of the United States! It was always everyone’s biggest fear, and it happened.
You were involved with the relief effort.
I was able to get back into the city because my mother is a councilwoman and so I just started helping wherever I could. It’s hard to talk about it…it’s difficult because I didn’t lose my life, so to speak, in Katrina. I witnessed people I love lose things. Fortunately no one in my family lost their life, but they lost a hell of a lot of other things. So I can talk about the gravity of it as an event, but at the end of the day, if you’re in the middle of it, it’s an entirely different thing. I love my family dearly and I love the city of New Orleans, and it’s not going anywhere! It’s rallying. It needs help, but it’s rallying. So what else should we talk about? What else do you have written on that little pad? (laughs)
Well, let’s see…You mentioned High Art earlier. Your character in that film had to go into some very dark places.
Oh my God! It’s interesting. That film changed everything for me. It was a glorious opportunity, one that I didn’t even realize at the time. I loved the movie and I loved the part, although I’m not German, I’m not gay and I’ve never even smoked pot! But (writer/director) Lisa Cholodenko had faith in me that I would transform and that I understood Greta in some way.
How did you get that accent down?
I don’t know. (laughs) It was cast and shot very quickly because we had no money. I mean, it cost $500,000. I knew a German woman and tried to learn her voice and her inflections, but there was no time for a dialect coach or anything. Plus I had to wear those hot leather pants…
Yes, they were…
No! I mean hot as in melting! (laughs) You’re bad…But it was a new beginning for me, in a way, and I’ve been offered magnificent things since then. I think it kind of shattered whatever the view of me was, then you do something that changes that perception. “Wow, if she could do that, maybe she could play my circus trainer who speaks in seven dialects.” (laughs) They start to think that maybe you could become something that’s impossible to picture, which is a great place to be, and a place that I always wanted to be in this business: people seeing me as an actor who could play…almost anything. (laughs)
If you look at your filmography though, it is a pretty diverse slate of characters.
Yeah, but even great movie stars are shape-shifters. Great acting is great acting, whether you’re a movie star or not. It’s interesting, this businesses. I think there’s more breadth in this business (among the talent) than we give people credit for, and people have greater imaginations than we give them credit for. (pause) And I say that because I’m not working right now! (laughs)
You worked with two amazing shape-shifters in The Pledge: Jack Nicholson and Sean Penn.
Again, they were two who don’t disappoint. They’re both consummate artists, two of the greatest actors of any generation, and Sean was a dream director. I was fortunate enough to be cast in the movie, and there was Jack, who knew when to have a light touch off-camera, and then when to drive it home. He’s a master. So I’m always thankful when I get to work with people who expand you, and hopefully make you a better actor. That’s what I seek…God, could I sound more pretentious: ‘That’s what I seek!’ (laughs) But that is what I seek: the idea of working with certain directors and actors that I’ve worked with, because that’s what I love: the actual work, going to work. I love the intimacy, even though it’s sort of a false intimacy you have with directors and other actors. There are times when you form a real friendship, and sometimes you have a real love affair, even though I haven’t! But even in the moment, it is manna from heaven. There is nothing quite like that feeling.
And without sounding pretentious on my end: it’s like a spiritual realization for you.
Yes, and hopefully you keep continuing to have those realizations. Otherwise, if you don’t continue to challenge yourself, you should just stay at home. That’s my motto! (laughs)
Let’s just go through a list of Patti’s greatest hits. You did a movie for writer/director Craig Lucas that was so twisted, but I loved it: The Dying Gaul.
Oh, thank you! Of course the hardest part was that bikini! (laughs) Somehow a bikini is harder than nudity. It’s a weird thing. I’m being sort of facetious…(laughs) That was a beautiful experience, and I loved making that film. I thought it was an incredibly provocative, sexy film.
It also had a lot of very intelligent truths to tell about “the business.” Oh, very much so! Craig Lucas is a beautiful man, and gifted and just a warm, inviting man that you fell incredibly…you feel you can be in a bikini with! (laughs)
Patricia Clarkson in The Station Agent (2003).
The Station Agent: loved it.
That film cuts across all time and place. Whatever country I’m in, people have seen this film. It’s the most universal film I’ve ever made. They all fall in love with this movie.
It has a very gentle spirit and it came out at a time when we needed some gentility in the world.
Yes, it did. Tom McCarthy is a great director. That was his first movie, and for him to capture that tone…I’ve had great luck with first-time, and young directors, knock on wood… (Patricia proceeds to knock on the wooden end table nearby) Here, I’m superstitious! Not so much in age, but first-time, second-time, neophyte filmmakers. I hope to continue to have that in my career, and hopefully they’ll have money! (laughs)
Good Night and Good Luck was the best movie of 2005, I thought. I grew up listening to the stories of the Army-McCarthy hearings and Edward R. Murrow from my parents, and I felt like George Clooney really captured a bygone era with that film.
Even though it wasn’t a large part, it was quite choice, and I love the fact that I am forever a part of that film.
Clarkson in Good Night, and Good Luck (2005).
Did you all know you were doing something special when you were making it?
I think we knew to an extent. We were all thrilled to be on that set. It was all shot on a soundstage. We’d walk through that door, and it was like walking through a time machine once we crossed through into that CBS studio to shoot the film. Everything was right, and we’d just enter. George is really brilliant. This was his baby. For him to set out and direct this movie as his first, it just shows the level of talent that man has.
And yet no one would take him seriously for nearly the first 15 years of his career, pre-ER.
Well, he always worked, shooting lots of pilots, and he was always handsome! (laughs) But I see what you mean. That’s the thing in this business: sometimes it can shift so quickly, but you have to be prepared for the shifts.
And a few young actors of late haven’t, which is very sad.
Mm-hm. It is a business that can be glorious one moment and deadly the next. But you have to remain hungry for the right things.
That’s the key mantra isn’t it: “stay hungry”?
Yeah, for the right things, for the right aspects of this business. All the other stuff you have to do is crucial, but always for me, it has to be just about wanting to work, and not in a 9-to-5 way. You have to be inspired. You have to be thrilled. You have to be all of those things. And maybe not every single job is going to make you want to run around naked (laughs), but in some movies you might have to run around naked! (laughs) So you better be prepared.
What I hear you saying is: it’s the process you have to love.
You do. You have to love the process. And you have to give your life to it.
Clarkson and Chris Cooper in a scene from Married Life.