Oscar nominee and two-time Emmy winner Patricia Clarkson returns to the silver screen this month with three new and wholly disparate films. Thankfully, at the end of a grueling few months, cocktail hour has arrived.
“Bourbon!” The order, spoken in a voice that sounds like it’s met its share of American spirits—or, for that matter, American Spirits—ricochets off the walls of Café Loup, a French bistro in New York’s West Village. But it doesn’t match the woman from whom it emanates: slight-framed, wispy-haired, 50-year-old actress Patricia Clarkson. With a wink followed by uproarious laughter, she acknowledges the disconnect.
A waiter rushes over to greet Clarkson, who dines here so often that she jokes about needing a cot in the kitchen. “What the hell do you want?” she asks, kidding. “Care for a glass of wine?” he offers. “Oh, god yes. But no. If I weren’t sick I’d love one.” Clarkson flew back yesterday from New Orleans, the city where she was born and raised, and for which she has great respect. She’s come down with a fever since returning to New York, her home for more than 25 years. “Look,” she says, “I’m not responsible for anything that comes out of my mouth today.” Instead of wine, or bourbon, she orders a cup of coffee, “half-decaf and half-caffeinated.”
When it arrives, Clarkson, dressed in a pink top, fitted black pants, and open-toe heels, pulls out a box of non-dairy creamers from her handbag. “‘I don’t know that I need to reveal all of the lurid details about my life,’ says the crazy woman who brings Coffee-Mate everywhere she goes!” Her laugh, sophisticated yet bawdy, boils back to the surface. “Seriously, though, I’m at the point where, even when I go to the bathroom, you can follow me with that recorder.” It sounds more like a proposal than a resignation.
Clarkson is a masterful flirt, and she brings this come-hither hospitality to each of her roles, from the capricious friend to Julianne Moore’s tortured suburban housewife in Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven; to the cancer patient in Pieces of April, for which she received an Oscar nomination; to the sexually reawakened Manhattan transplant in Woody Allen’s Whatever Works. Before sitting down to a two-hour lunch, she tells me I’m “yummy.” Similarly, she had “such a crush” on Andy Samberg, with whom she co-starred, opposite Justin Timberlake and Susan Sarandon, in last year’s “Motherlover,” a Saturday Night Live short about the sexual allure of older women. And although she hates the term “cougar”—“never have I so wanted an animal metaphorically extinct in my life”—Clarkson refers to Will Gluck, the young director with whom she worked on this month’s Easy A, as “hot.” Catching herself, she adds, “He’s also very talented.”
It wasn’t until her thirties, following memorable turns in small, often forgotten films such as 1995’s Pharaoh’s Army, that Clarkson began to attract widespread attention from audiences and critics. But she has no desire to turn back the clock. “If I was asked to do a nude scene, maybe,” she says. “But even at that, if Helen Mirren can get photographed naked in a bathtub, then why can’t I?” Clarkson is alluding to the headline-grabbing editorial Juergen Teller shot of the esteemed actor for New York magazine this past summer. “Helen said, ‘You know, we’re only talking about this because I’m older,’ but I think any time a landmark actor is nude it’s worthy of discussion. It’s cool we’ve seen her breasts. I mean, they’re as fabulous as her acting!”
There’s fearlessness in Clarkson, a thrill-seeking quality that characterizes her personality and performances. When discussing her part in High Art, a role that established her as an icon of independent cinema in 1998, she says, “I’d played too many suburban moms and housewives, and so I thought no one was ever going to cast me in that part. I’m not a lesbian, I’m not German, and I’ve never taken drugs—well, I took a hit off a joint once with a boyfriend and hated it—but I am all of those things.” Clarkson is not a mother, either, but she plays one in Easy A, which stars Emma Stone as a high school student who lives out an updated version of The Scarlet Letter by planting a rumor about her own, non-existent promiscuity. Clarkson, who relishes the challenge of comedy (“Dying is easy, but jokes are like boot camp,” she says), channels a free spirit who consoles her daughter by regaling her with stories of her own loose past.
But it’s her starring role in the slow-burning romantic drama Cairo Time, also out this month, that gives Clarkson the chance to honestly explore her sexual side. In the film, she plays Juliette, the wife of a Canadian diplomat, who travels to Egypt and falls in love, not only with the country, but also her Cairene host. Clarkson cares deeply for the film. “It was a profoundly emotional journey because it was so subtextual and restrained,” she says. “We actors do like our bells and whistles, but Cairo Time has none. I joke that the largest thing I do in the film is make a cup of coffee.”
The part couldn’t be further from her role in Easy A, or from the widow she plays in the sports drama Legendary, also, unbelievably, out this month. “The common denominator in all of the projects I choose is that there is no common denominator,” she says. “I don’t like to revisit the same emotional peaks and valleys. I don’t return to things that are etched in the same rhythms because I’ve been there before.” Of her obvious willingness to tackle difficult parts, Clarkson says, straight-faced, “I am not one who seeks cheer. Every day—even just sitting here, eating this salmon burger—I’m weeping on the inside.” On the outside, she breaks into uncontrollable laughter.
One thing Clarkson won’t joke about is the mass devastation resulting from the BP oil spill, which has ravaged the Gulf of Mexico, and in turn her hometown, itself still healing after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. In the wake of Katrina, Clarkson returned to New Orleans to assist her mother, a councilwoman-at-large, in relief efforts. The optimism she displayed five years ago dissipates now when discussing the state of the Gulf. “I’ve never seen anything like it. The wildlife that has been killed will never come back,” she says. “The CEOs and COOs and CFOs at BP need to pay for this, and I hope they pay their entire lives.”
Clarkson has also been a champion of the gay community. Last year, in a speech she co-wrote for a Human Rights Campaign gala, she attacked the hypocrisy of Christian televangelists when she said, “How can I believe your theology when I can’t believe your hair?” Reminded of that moment, Clarkson, a self-described “news junkie,” mentions a recent profile of Mike Huckabee in The New Yorker, in which the former Arkansas Governor said he opposed gay marriage, in part, because of its “ick factor.” Clarkson shakes her head and says, “Oh, Mike. Oooh, Mike. There is seriously so much ick surrounding you.”
After lunch, we walk down West 14th Street on a sweltering afternoon in early July. The crowds don’t pay Clarkson much attention, which, she insists, is unusual. “I don’t have any anonymity here,” she says, not that she’s complaining. “Nobody wants to photograph me, but people want to have soul-searching conversations: ‘Yes, yes, it’s really me. Oh, really? Thank you so much. You saw what one? Oh, it was that one. You saw it how many times?’ It makes a difference when I wear a hat, which is such a cliché, but it works. Running to the pharmacy can sometimes be an event.”
And this is exactly where we part ways. Clarkson stops outside Duane Reade to pick up food for her dog. Before going in, she puts on a wide-brimmed hat.
Photography by Patric Shaw. Styling by Christine de Lassus.
Top image: Jacket and top by Barbara Bui. Second image: Men’s shirt by Maison Martin Margiela, Bodysuit by D&G, Shoes by Pour La Victoire, Ring by M.C.L. by Matthew Campbell Laurenza, Pantyhose by Falke. Third image: Top by D&G, Pants by Stella McCartney. Hair by Seiji @ The Wall Group using Tresemme. Makeup by Talia Shobrook @ community.nyc using La Mer. Manicure by Dawn Sterling for B Agency NY using Dior Beauty. Photo Assistant: Shin Kishima. Digital Tech: Justin Shaffer. Fashion Assistants: Allison Hartnett and Lilly Spratt. Production Assistant: John Burke. Location: Industria Superstudio, New York City .