Patricia Clarkson is a charm pill: a dynamic tell-it-like-it-is beauty with a throaty laugh. She swept into the Hamptons International Film Festival for a lengthy Friday afternoon conversation with me at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor where she kept the audience rapt with stories about her distinguished acting career. Highlights of the discussion, hooked to screenings of her latest film “Learning to Drive” with Sir Ben Kingsley, included references to some of the great directors with whom she’s worked.
Up next for Clarkson? This week, she goes into rehearsal for the Broadway revival of “The Elephant Man” opposite Bradley Cooper and Alessandro Nivola, which will open on November 7th.
She got her big break thanks to Brian DePalma
Fresh out of the Yale School of Drama, the New Orleans native auditioned for the casting director Lynn Stalmaster to play the wife of Eliot Ness in “The Untouchables.” She was “kind of glamorous,” with big 80’s Southern hair, which “seriously could just fit in through the door” and a racy fuchsia dress.
The agent clued Clarkson in – and toned her down. Clarkson returned to meet DePalma in a borrowed “goony” gingham dress, dowdy tresses and no make-up. She explained, “I walked in and I made a joke about it with Brian and we just got on immediately. We started laughing about it. He ended up reading with me. He played Eliot Ness and I was cast almost in that room…On the set, the first day I shot, Brian did 30 takes to see where I fell, if I reached it early or reached it late. He learned I was early, and by the 30th take I’m just not here.”
Lisa Cholodenko brought out Clarkson’s dark side for “High Art”
For her “High Art” character, Greta, a German lesbian heroin addict, Clarkson revealed a darker, edgier side of her talents. “I owed so much to Lisa Cholodenko,” Clarkson said. “She took such a gamble on me for this part. I had played so many suburban Moms but she saw that in me lived a dark, dark person and that I’m much closer to Greta but that’s another star at the bar…[a robust and slightly wicked laugh]. It was a beautiful moment in my life and my career.”
The experience had a larger significance for her as well. “It’s just the example of that perfect part, that great role for a woman that is beautifully written with a wonderful director and you have to go in with all guns a’blazin’. I shot in pleather pants during a Brooklyn heatwave. It was like being in an EZ Bake Over from the waist down.”
The challenges of working with Woody Allen
“Woody’s quite tough,” said Clarkson, who worked with the director on “Whatever Works” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” “He doesn’t direct you often. He lets you be, which I find quite amazing and also freeing. He’s not going to step in and nitpick but you do have to absolutely be 1000 percent prepared because he will shoot that mag out. He will do an eight-minute take. You can say anything. You can stand on your head. Just do not stop.”
She compared the experiences to theater. “You have to do the long stretch,” she said. “You have to know your lines but you also have to know your character so internally that you can improv it.” She also addressed the speed of his productions. “He does not suffer fools,” she added. “He wants to shoot it. He wants you to get it right. And he wants you to be really good. The bar is very high, but I like that.”
George Clooney “lets you go”
“George is George,” said Clarkson, who worked with the actor-director on “Good Night and Good Luck.” “He’s also a true egalitarian…who happens to have enormous talent, a remarkable indelible sense of humor.” She compared his approach to Woody Allen. “He’s not going to nitpick,” she said. “He lets you go. He wants you to improve. He just wants you to live in the space. You better know what the hell you’re doing. You really have to be in the pocket. You can’t be ambivalent. You can’t be nervous. You have to be George every day when you arrive at work. Centered. Charming. Hot.”
The brilliance of Martin Scorsese
In contrast to arriving fully-formed, as Clarkson did on Clooney or Allen’s set, “Scorsese is different,” she said, recalling her experience with the director on “Shutter Island.” “He’s moment to moment. He’s feral and brilliant.” She raised her hands in front of her and vibrated them to convey the director’s energy. “When I got the call to play this part in ‘Shutter Island,’ they wouldn’t let me read the script at first,” she said. “‘Would you be interested: It’s you and Leonardo [DiCaprio] in a cave?’ And, I thought, me and Leo in a cave? And then I read the script. And then I saw my wig. And then I saw my make-up, and then I saw my burlap dress, and then I thought, oh, me and Leo in a cave.”
Ultimately, she found the decision worthwhile. “I had an extraordinary time shooting that film because I got to work with the one and only Martin Scorsese,” she said. “He is a tour de force. His energy is different. The set is different. The moments are different. It is just crazy and anything goes.”