Patricia Clarkson in the Spotlight; The New Indie Queen Talks About Her Four Films At Sundance
by Andrea Meyer
Patricia Clarkson should be crowned Queen of Sundance 2003. With roles in four films in the festival, the title is unquestionably hers. “Four is a little crazy,” Clarkson says, sitting on a sunny balcony on lower Main Street and looking, in dark sunglasses, every bit as young as the starlets — like Christina Ricci at last year’s fest — who have formerly been the belles of Sundance’s ball. “When I realized that I had three films in competition and one in World Cinema, I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s unbelievable.’ I thought, ‘OK, vitamins. B-12!'” Vitamins or not, she is happy to be here. “It’s been glorious,” she continues. “It’s thrilling. I’ll be honest: I’m exhausted, but I love these films so much, every single one of them.”
The films in question are “All the Real Girls” by David Gordon Green, “Pieces of April” by Peter Hedges, and “The Station Agent” by Tom McCarthy, in dramatic competition, and Michael McKenzie’s “The Baroness and the Pig,” in the World Cinema section. In addition to this abundance of Sundance selections, Clarkson also has roles in upcoming films “The Safety of Objects,” directed by Rose Troche, and “Dogville” by Lars Von Trier. And of course, there’s the Oscar buzz about her role as Julianne Moore’s snippety best friend in Todd Haynes’ much-adored “Far From Heaven.”
Suddenly, the actress who has generally played secondary roles in more than 25 movies since she played Kevin Costner’s wife in “The Untouchables” in 1987 is all over the place. How did this happen? “Work begets work,” Clarkson says in her now-familiar throaty voice. “A lot of it goes back to ‘High Art.’ I’m forever indebted to Lisa Cholodenko.”
Playing a strung-out German lesbian in Cholodenko’s 1998 film luckily has not led to typecasting. In fact lately she’s done a 180 and played a string of moms in two of her Sundance films, as well as “The Safety of Objects” (scheduled for a March release). What’s up with that? “I don’t know, seeing as I’m a single woman and I have no children,” laughs the vivacious 43-year-old. “But I come from a very big, strong Southern family. That’s all part of it. I have to tell you: Once you hit a certain age in this business, you play mothers. Most women over 35 have children. I just am fortunate in that the parts have all been very different and they’ve demanded very different things of me.”
The mom Clarkson plays in “All the Real Girls” is a tough single woman with a close friendship with her son (Paul Schneider) and a job working as a clown. In this lyrical story about teenage love and heartache, Clarkson is an unlikely anchor for a young man facing the ambiguities of male-female relationships for the first time. “It’s is a small part, but it’s a cool part — and I get to play a clown,” she says, laughing again.
In “Pieces of April,” the stunning directorial debut by screenwriter Peter Hedges (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “About a Boy”) that has festival audiences buzzing, Clarkson is a revelation. Joy plays a mother dying of cancer who drives with her family from the suburbs to New York’s grimy Lower East Side, where the daughter she’s never gotten along with is making Thanksgiving dinner. Joy is an ever-evolving mass of contradictions, who continually surprises the audience — and her family — from moment to moment. She moves fluidly from funny to cruel to heartbreaking within seconds. Clarkson loves this description. “That’s Joy,” she says. “She’s funny and cruel and heartbreaking. Peter Hedges is one of the greatest writers of our time, and I had to live up to that. I had to be comfortable with the cruelty and not soften it. I had to go to the emotional places quickly…I don’t know what it s like to die, so I had to search my soul for other ways to enter that zone and it was a dark-ass journey.”
In “The Baroness and the Pig” Clarkson plays what she calls “a fabulous Maggie Smith type part,” but, even better, in “The Station Agent,” the talented “character actress” got to be something of a leading lady. “I’m the chick with two guys, and they’re two young handsome men who are both attracted to me,” she says with a grin. “I love Tom McCarthy!” Another crowd-pleaser with audience award potential, “The Station Agent” got a lengthy standing ovation at the screening Clarkson attended.
Clarkson does not hide her excitement about her newfound celebrity. “I’m thrilled if it means that maybe my name can help get an independent film made, honey,” she says. “I’m all for that. I’m proud of the fact that my name is known because I’ve been in all these great films.” After many years of contributing to independent film, Clarkson hopes that her newfound celebrity will be instrumental in getting more of the kind of films she supports made. While she will accept offers for Hollywood films — she has recently been cast in a Disney film by “Tumbleweeds” director Gavin O’Connor — she insists that she’ll continue to do only projects she loves by directors she bonds with. She explains, “Sometimes a part might not work on the page, but if I’m drawn to the director and think with him or with her, maybe something will happen and it always does.”
Her support for the films makes the insanity of 10 days of Sundance worth it, right? “You mean the craziness? The fact that I really need an IV and I want to lie down?” she jokes. Clarkson is still smiling as the sun falls behind a mountain and it turns cold again. “It has been stunning,” she says. “I’ve worked with such great independent filmmakers, and I just added four more to a list…I always wanted to work with the great filmmakers of our time. And I am.”