When Patricia Clarkson comes on the other end of the line, there’s absolutely no mistaking the voice. “Hi, I’m fine” she says with that deep husky tone that has become the trademark of her extraordinary career – particularly over the last six years. After being crowned the darling of independent cinema in 2003 with key roles in The Station Agent and Pieces of April, along with nominations for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe, Clarkson has never had a moment to rest. You might remember her in Lars and The Real Girl, or Dogville, Good Night and Good Luck, or as Sarah O’Connor in Six Feet Under – or even more recently as the gorgeously wicked Miss Dodger in Phoebe in Wonderland.
Now she’s about to star in Woody Allen’s latest film Whatever Works – and it’s a chance to enjoy some pure comedy playing a character she describes as “a Southern confection” opposite Evan Rachel Wood and the man who inspired George in Seinfield, Larry David.
On the stage since she was 13, Clarkson says that she owes her success on the big screen to her theatre training – particularly from her time at Yale’s prestigious School of Drama, a gruelling three-year Masters program.
“I think Yale really placed me as an actress – it defined me. I had a great mentor in high school and in my undergraduate course, but Yale was something else. It’s a real working program, and you act from sun up to sun down. I spent three years acting against type, which stretched me and shaped me and made me malleable and pliable. After playing classic leading lady roles like Hedda Gabler as an undergraduate, I got to Yale and wore more fat suits and wigs than you can imagine. I played the Bard in Pericles, and I played a 300-pound woman, and I shared a fat suit with Dylan Baker (Spider Man 3, Revolutionary Road). The course took you to places that truly transformed you, but it was exhausting. I would come home at Christmas a shell of a person. It was an extraordinary time for me and I flourished there. I was young – 22 – and the journey I took there has come back to save me in any ways.”
After Yale, Clarkson was working on the stage on Broadway when she auditioned for her first movie role – playing opposite Kevin Costner in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. It was an unforgettable introduction to the movie world.
“Brian De Palma was amazing – I did the audition with Kevin Costner and Brian offered me the part in the room. I remember calling my agent from the airport afterwards and he said ‘wait, wait, wait, they never offer it to you at the audition’. And I said ‘they did – just call them and ring me back before the plane leaves.’ And he did, and sure enough I had the part.” Excited and animated as she recalls the moment, Clarkson clearly relished the chance to work in film, naïve as she was about the process. “At the time I didn’t realise that I had a part in such an enormous film. I was just out of Yale and doing a Broadway show – which I had to leave. So it was difficult to go shoot this film. But I had a wonderful time and I learned about filmmaking.” She pauses and laughs a little. “Actually, I had no idea what I was doing. At Yale we didn’t do anything for the camera – it was strictly a theatre program.”
Speaking from her New York apartment, the conversation swings back to Woody Allen, whom she first worked with in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. “I was over the moon to have done that beautiful small part in Vicky Cristina Barcelona and it was wonderful to be asked back to play this fabulous Southern woman called Marietta. And my theatre training came in very useful – as Woody doesn’t really have a rehearsal period. You have to really do your homework with Woody, and I love that about him – he trusts you with the process of developing your character, which gives you this odd confidence and security.”
Unlike most directors, Allen is well known for preferring very long takes when he makes his films –sometimes up to ten pages of dialogue. For many actors used to learning their lines in short bursts, this can be tough going. Clarkson agrees. “It can be really intimidating on set with Woody because he doesn’t like to stop. Even if you say jibberish, you do not stop!”
She’s full of praise for Allen as a writer, and found Marietta much more complicated than the Southern stereotype she first appears to be. “There is a certain truth about stereotypes – that’s why they exist of course – but for me the challenge was taking an archetypal Southern woman and going through her, not just with the transformation she undergoes in the story, but to find the nuances and subtleties that are there in the archetype. What was great was that I realised that it was in the script. Woody is a wonderful writer and his script was so dimensional, so layered and complex that it was a true challenge for me – and unbelievably fulfilling.”
As we talk about her approach to performance, the same phrases keep coming back in the conversation. Clarkson talks about “transforming”, of “re-shaping” and even of altering her DNA to take on complex characters. It’s this changing of self that she clearly loves in her work. “Since the time I was 13 or 14 when I was first involved with theatre, I really just loved transforming. I loved entering another character and taking that journey – entering a different life for a while. But it’s not always easy: I had an acting teacher who once told me that if it feels good, it probably isn’t, so you have to be careful when you’re taking on a character. I’ve often said that when I stop being frightened, or on edge, or stressed, I should get out this business.”
That the process of acting is so important to her is confirmed in her reaction to seeing herself on screen. “I won’t even look at myself in a mirror on set. I only want to see the reality that I’m in, nothing else. I don’t ever look at rushes or dailes, or scenes if they’ve been cut together. I wait as long a possible before I have to see the final film and then I go with a very large crowd of people. There’s safety in numbers. Partly it’s because I am deeply critical of myself, but mostly it’s not satisfying me to see the results of my work. Me, I just love working.”