The Chameleon

Patricia Clarkson on the art of character acting
by David Schwartz  posted August 5, 2010
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This article is part of a series of interviews with leading filmmakers and craftspeople, made possible with special support by the Academy Foundation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Academy series has so far featured Q&A's with director Noah Baumbach, production designer Rick Carter, composer Carter Burwell, cinematographer Harris Savides, documentary filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, and actors Michael Caine and Tilda Swinton. Patricia Clarkson's latest film, Cairo Time, opens August 6.

Until now, Patricia Clarkson's fans have had to make do with enjoying her performances in small but potent doses. After about a decade of shuttling between film (The Dead Pool, The Untouchables) and television (Murder One, Davis Rules), she had a breakthrough in a vital supporting role in Lisa Cholodenko's High Art, an atmospheric lesbian romance in which she played Greta, the world-weary, drug-addicted German exile whose girlfriend (Ally Sheedy) falls for another woman. It was a witty, theatrical, and riveting turn that suggested Clarkson could do just about anything. A beauty who combines an earthiness—accented by her trademark husky voice—with keen intelligence, Clarkson also has the quicksilver adaptability of a great character actor. She has made a habit of giving the most convincing and indelible performances in her films, even when she has relatively small roles. As a refugee from the asylum in Shutter Island, she manages to electrify a film that is baroque in its intensity. As the best friend of Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) in Far From Heaven, she perfectly embodies the pseudo-sophistication and pettiness that hang oppressively over the bucolic suburban town. And in Woody Allen's Whatever Works, she carries the movie on her shoulders as Marietta, a Southern socialite who comes to New York to rescue her wayward daughter but discovers her unlimited artistic and sexual appetites. With Larry David awkwardly miscast in a role written for Zero Mostel, and Evan Rachel Wood bringing unintended shallowness to an already shallow role, Clarkson made Marietta's unlikely transformation both utterly convincing and completely delightful.

Clarkson has made such a strong impression in her films that it's surprising to realize that Cairo Time, her latest movie, is the first film that she truly carries from beginning to end. She plays a fashion magazine editor who travels to Cairo to meet her husband for vacation, but finds herself alone when he is unexpectedly detained. It is a laconic, intimate performance, subtly capturing the character's awakening and transformation with a rhythm and grace that is much closer to real life than to movie convention. Because it is such an unadorned performance, it is also one of her finest and most deceptively simple. It is also a remarkable testament to a career that defies the conventional wisdom that women's roles are hard to come by for actresses in their late forties. In addition to her work with Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, the past few years have included such memorable performances as a neglected housewife leading a double life in Ira Sachs's Married Life, a betrayed lover in Isabel Coixet's adaptation of Philip Roth's Elegy, and one of her most dazzling performances, in Stanley Tucci's underrated two-hander Blind Date.

I read that Ingrid Bergman was an important influence for you.

As a child. As a young girl, I watched old movies occasionally with my parents, and Ingrid Bergman affected me. Something about her had an impact on my life at that young age. I loved Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn. But there's something about Ingrid Bergman that sat with me...

Was there a favorite performance?

Gaslight. Definitely Gaslight.

She had a great double career, in mainstream and more adventurous films. And you've been able to do something like that.

Yes, in a way, yes.

Your breakthrough film was High Art, which—

Changed everything for me.

So what was it about the role? One thing that I heard Lisa Cholodenko say was that you brought a lot to that role, the theatricality and flamboyance of the character.

I do remember feeling this sense of drama about this character. And that's one of the things I related to. I've never done any drug in my life, and I'm not German. But I remember really relating to, first of all, her heartbreak, and her sense of high drama. I got that. I got all that. But it was a beautiful experience shooting that film, and it really just helped completely shift and change my entire career.

You started instantly getting different types of offers?

Everybody started to view me in a completely different light. Because they were like, "Oh my God, if she can play that—and wait, I know who she is. She was the wife in the Untouchables. What's she doing!?"

There were so many sides to that character.

Yeah. And so I think suddenly people realized that I was malleable, I was a chameleon. I was a character. I think people realized I was capable of character.

Another very important role for you was in Far From Heaven. That's a very different kind of role because Todd Haynes [the director] is playing what's underneath the surface...

The subtext.

So you play a supposed friend whose mean streak comes in that famous scene towards the end.

Well, it's a very complicated scene. And I don't talk about it. Some people read very different things into that scene, and I've never actually ever spoken publicly about what I was playing in that scene. So I won't. But that whole film had this melodrama subtext, and hairstyles and gorgeous clothes, and it was such a work of art. But that's Todd.

Throughout the film, she's this very lively, artsy suburban lady with a certain viewpoint, in a certain strata. And she values all of that.

She's sophisticated, but she's also a bit provincial.

She's sophisticated in her mind, and in her world.

Were there things that you learned from Todd as a director?

Well, great directors create a conducive environment for you. They set the tone. Far From Heaven had a very specific tone. The timbre in the room, the timbre of your voice—everything had to be right; right for the moment, for the time, for the period, everything. It was almost music, it was almost orchestrated. And you had to have Todd there to kind of take you through. And then also leave you alone, so you weren't like a doll.

All of Todd Haynes's movies are about the idea of performance, the idea that identity itself is a performance.

Yes. And all the layers of that.

You've had so many great roles in the past few years. Blind Date is underappreciated.

Blind Date's very underappreciated. You know, Stanley Tucci did a beautiful job. He took Theo van Gogh's classic film, but brought his own music to it, brought his own style. And I had to take such a journey in that film and become, oddly, so many different people, and yet the same person at the same time. And we had eight days to shoot it in. Oh, my goodness, it was wild. But I loved every minute of it. And our Dutch and Belgian crew were perfection. Many of them had worked with and were very close to Theo van Gogh, so I want to believe his spirit was with us. But it's a very difficult, artful little film. You have to kind of go with it. But the people who go with it love it.

Yeah. It has so many different facets; it's a comedy, but the pain that this couple has is always there. Elegy was another great performance about a troubled relationship. You play a character in her forties who is clearly beautiful and sensual, and has to deal with the fact that her partner is playing around with a younger woman.

It's such a great, complex character. You have to first thank Philip Roth, because it's his conception. It was slightly shifted, of course, in the movie. Adapted. The director, Isabel Coixet, is now a personal friend and a woman that I hope to work with again and again.

Do you have an idea in mind as you select roles? You seem to deal with certain themes over and over again.

You mean loss and age and—

And relationships and marriage and sexuality.

But isn't that every film? I mean, I suppose I'm always playing mothers. I say, "Well most women my age are mothers." It's so funny, you know. I remember the days where I thought, "Oh I don't want to just be the lawyer." Now I would kill to play a lawyer. [both laugh.] No, there are recurring themes in my films, but the journeys and the characters are so vastly different—thank God, or I wouldn't survive this. 

The Woody Allen film, Whatever Works, was a delightful change of pace.

Oh, a dream part. You have a fantasy about getting a great comedic part, and then there it was. I couldn't believe. I was afraid to cross the street. I thought, this part was so delicious, I can't even go anywhere. I was afraid to leave my house.

In a way, it has some of the flamboyance of High Art. And I know you're from a Southern family, it taps into that—

Yeah, but very different. I mean, some elements of my mother are there. My mother's hair; that's my mother's hair. But she's a radically different woman. But yes, my Southern roots are very present. And those just delicious, divine words that I get to say. Just that crazy journey...from a conservative Southern socialite to an artist who is sleeping with two men. God, I can't even remember my lines now except, "Ménage à trois." People quote it to me all the time on the street. I guess I said it with a certain cadence. And so people come up to me and say "Ménage à trois."

The sexuality she discovers in herself is quite surprising. And the way she rejects her well-constructed life.

This is a woman who's been harmed and a woman who has rage and has suffered. I mean, underneath all of that great comedy in Woody is incredible pathos and incredible depth.

Yes. But you're able to make that transformation really work. It happens so quickly in the film. But it's believable, because you get a sense in the beginning that your character is putting on a show, that she's playing at being flamboyantly "Southern."

Well, I think she's buried another self inside of the self she's living, the life she's living right now. I don't think it's so much that New York changes her as that it actually releases the person that she really always has been, the person she is inside.

This was the second film you did with Woody Allen, after Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Could you talk a bit about his directing style?

He casts well, and he puts enormous trust in you. You have to do your homework. He really wants you to show up ready to go. And we get lazy as actors, very easy. We like a nap and a snack. [They laugh.] With Woody, you have to show up ready to go. And you have to do your homework. Again, you have to really work hard on your own. You have to be ready to do very long takes. You have to know your character inside and out because you have to be able to improv. He says, "Just change that line." So you don't want to get caught with your pants down—bup-bup-ba—you do your work, know where you're coming from, know where you're going, know what you've done. He doesn't want to know any of it. You just have to have it inside. And then he just kind of creates. It's all about the work with Woody. There's no amenities. There's no little things happening around you. You show up, nine o'clock, you start to work. And I love that. It is really truly all about the work.

You have talked about the importance of costume in his films, and he has a strong sense of costume.

Yes, they're very important to him. He's a man after my own heart, because costume is everything for me. I mean, not everything but it's—I mean, I just started a new film last week, and I was doing a costume fitting. I tried on a different costume, and the designer saw how it changed my performance. She said, "You just shifted." I said, "This is right." She said, "Everything just shifted." The costume is crucial. Because it's all you have sometimes. In Whatever Works, I said, "Give me pantyhose and no shoes that have backs, so I'm a little bit slightly off-center and I'm a little bit slippy-slidy and not quite sure. And my shoes, make sure they're a little loose and give, just make sure I'm not quite always on steady ground.

Your new film Cairo Time has an incredibly distilled style.

It is. In the camera choices, everything, Rubba Nada had the courage to make an incredibly spare, restrained love story. We've gotten such an overwhelming response to it, I'm very enthused.

It's a simmering love story that takes you on a different adventure than the one you're expecting. There is a lot of quiet time, and you eventually realize that the film is really letting the character be alone and have some time to think about herself and her life.

Yes. She's a stranger in a strange land. All of those aspects come to bear, come alive, and it's such a beautiful film about longing and dual love, an affair of the heart, about how the heart can split in two.

Yes. You feel her desire for independence but also feel the strength of her marriage.

Yes, it's a very good marriage. She has a good life, she has a wonderful job. Albeit she struggles sometimes, as a magazine editor, with her subject matter and what she has to deal with. But she has, obviously, two children who love her, that are doing well.

Was it a personal film for the director?

Yes. She's Canadian, but she's of Syrian and Palestinian descent and her mother and father—she went to Cairo many times as a child, and it left an imprint, it had such an impact on her she said, "Someday I will write about this." And she did.

What was it like for you working in such a distilled, pared-down style?

It's one of the most difficult roles I've ever had to play. Because as actors, we really love the bells and whistles. We do love the highs, the lows. We love playing extraordinary people. It's very hard to be ordinary. It's exhausting [laughs].

Yeah, and to make that interesting.

And to make it interesting. And sensual and inviting, and in this intoxicating city that is the third character in this film.

It's also the first film that is really yours from beginning to end.

I've done female leads like Blind Date or Station Agent or Married Life—beautiful films I had the privilege of being in. But this is the first film I've carried in my whole career. And now I see why movie stars have entourages. [laughs]

Why is that?

Because it's so hard. It's exhausting. Every day is a journey, when you're carrying a film. Every single day, you're in every single scene. I've never really had that happen to me on a set. I mean, Blind Date almost. But Blind Date was such a small movie. One set. Stanley. You know, this was a big, large film, in a very dense, overpopulated, loud city. It was a bear. But at the end of the day, we were in Cairo, and it was amazing. 


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IFC Films
Patricia Clarkson in Cairo Time
Photo Gallery: The Chameleon
Video: Blind Date
Video: Cairo Time
Video: Elegy
Video: High Art


David Schwartz is the Chief Curator at the Museum of the Moving Image. He is also a Visiting Assistant Professor in Cinema Studies at Purchase College.

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