“...There’s a true shift, almost at a cellular level, amongst men in this world, that our rightful place must be alongside them. We’ve fought hard and long and now we just want to exist...”
by Chesley Turner
photography by Robby Klein
Patricia Clarkson, a lady with a worthy body of work, is a rarity: an in-demand, one-of-a-kind character actor who seems oblivious to the financial draw and cultural sell-out of those high-cost productions Hollywood excels in. Instead keeping intact her integrity. In spite—or perhaps because of—this status, she is recently experiencing a new surge in her popularity with a pipeline of projects on stage, movies and TV.
There’s a subtle talent held by some women, evidenced by the ability to draw the attention of everyone in the room without putting on a show. It’s not an overt power-play, nor the work of clever machinations or feminine wiles. Rather, it’s an invocation of charm, awareness, and intelligence. It’s the power of poise, and Patricia Clarkson boasts it in spades.
When she speaks about equality of the sexes —with that gravelly voice that leaves you subconsciously wanting to reach for a blanket, or a cigarette, or a glass of whiskey—she does so with an inviting conviction.
“There’s a true shift, almost at a cellular level, amongst men in this world, that our rightful place must be alongside them. We’ve fought hard and long and now we just want to exist.”
No longer must we rail and rage for women’s rights to be considered an issue. It’s in the ether, ladies. Now we just have to prove the point.
“You know, I think we were in survival mode for so long as women. But in businesses across our country and across the world we were often struggling just to stay in the game, to be in the game. And so now, imagine the power and what we can bring when we’re not in the struggle. You see all of our intellect and our ideas and our character emerge that is not suffering and struggling, that’s just co-existing in space.
“The struggle is not over,” she adds. “But at least now it is an issue.”
Clarkson’s repertoire boasts countless collaborations with female directors and writers—so many of her favorites and good friends that she can’t list them off the top of her head. They roll off her tongue like the end of an Awards speech, when the orchestra starts to play. “I’m fortunate and proud of the fact that I’ve worked with many women directors. Isabel Coixet, Carol Morley, Agnieszka Holland, Robin Wright. Sally Potter is another one. These are women who’ve had to really fight the toughest of fights.”
“...I can’t tell you how many people have said, ‘Listen. If Elizabeth Warren is running for president, she has to start wearing makeup.’ Oh my god!” Society, to be sure, is image driven. “I know we want to say that we aren’t, but we are...”
Meanwhile, at the 2018 Venice Film Festival only one of the films shown had a female director. “It’s appalling.” Clarkson’s mind immediately jumps to a dramatic way to protest. “Can you imagine if all those remarkable, remarkable men—and I mean they’re all brilliant men that are going with their films; Damian Chazelle, Alfonso Cuarón, Bradley Cooper who’s just one of the great men I know—you know, had all boycotted the festival? Yeah! Can you imagine that power? But it didn’t happen.”
Of course, there are publicity opportunities for multi-million dollar films at stake, and Clarkson knows that it’s not easy for these men to take a stand. “But it is shocking behavior, and it must be called out.”
The Toronto Film Festival, by comparison, is recognizing women directors in high numbers, including one of Clarkson’s latest projects, Out of Blue, directed by Carol Morley. She’s anticipating the first public screening of the film with great trepidation and excitement. “I mean, who wouldn’t want to play a woman named Mike?”
She’s also quite proud of the presence of the fairer sex in the production of HBO’s Sharp Objects, also starring Amy Adams. “It was written by a woman, directed by a man, starring three female leads at the center of this project, produced by a woman; I mean, it has a lot of women on board. We’re inescapable now.”
How do we maintain this newfound and hard-fought presence of higher numbers of women in the industry? What needs to be done to put down roots and prevent backsliding? Although she’s never had any children, Clarkson grew up in a household with four sisters. “I think the most important thing…I urge mothers with their daughters, fathers with their daughters… that from a very early age I never questioned, I never thought of myself as different or unequal.”
With this strength of self-confidence and self-knowledge, young women are more likely to make the best decisions for themselves and not fall prey to the pitfalls of the industry. “I have been put in compromising positions. I mean of course. How many hotel rooms have I been invited to? How many times, you know, have certain men tried to compromise me? And women too! Let’s not disregard that women in power can sometimes be as sexist and difficult as men.”
Positions of power often corrupt and distort perception, something we’ve seen all too often in every walk of society. But the power that comes from within, Clarkson maintains, is what has kept her authentic and on track. “In the end, what remains is at the core. I knew who I was. I had a firm grasp on who I was and what I wanted and that was unshakeable.”
“... I’m fortunate and proud of the fact that I’ve worked with many women directors. Isabel Coixet, Carol Morley, Agnieszka Holland, Robin Wright. Sally Potter is another one. These are women who’ve had to really fight the toughest of fights...”
Delivering such candid and careful advice for the next generation, it’s no surprise that much of her past repertoire has been standard mom-roles. But lately she’s had the opportunity to expand. Although still a matriarch, she strikes quite a different feel playing Adora in HBO’s Sharp Objects.
“It’s tackling a real serious mental illness, and some very serious issues of image and self-worth, with Amy’s character Camille at the center, a kind of anti-hero in a way. A deeply flawed young woman who does survive in the end, which is maybe what is most powerful.” This powerhouse piece of work centers on three women, a family that is far from perfect. “We can’t all be Wonder Woman. And most of us aren’t. And most of us struggle. And most of us have, sadly, been subjected to either some form of childhood abuse or neglect. So few people have perfect childhoods.”
Clarkson quickly adds, “The irony is, I had pretty much close to a perfect childhood.” While contemplating her character roll call of damaged and traumatized people, she chuckles a bit. “I shouldn’t laugh. Maybe because I’ve had the fulfillment of such an extraordinary upbringing I can imagine living without it. It lets me be incredibly empathetic to the characters that I’ve played that have been so brutalized in their lives and then become the brutalizer, as with Adora. And Adora is one for the ages.”
Clarkson was reluctant to take on the role at first. Not being quite sure she wanted it, she had a long talk with Gillian Flynn, the author of the book, before deciding to commit. With graciousness, she speaks of the people on the project that she got to know better, including Amy Adams, Eliza Scanlen, and director Jean-Marc Valleé. “Ultimately, that’s what’s most important for me. It’s the talent that surrounds me.”
The Party, another recent film, addresses British politics, also boasting an amazing breadth of talent among the cast and crew. “It’s a farce and a romp, and whatever you want to extract from it, you can.” However, what stood out most to Clarkson were the lines of her character that are most often quoted back to her. “If you want to run this country, actually, you must, you have to do something about your hair.”
“And how many times would we all sit and watch Hilary Clinton in the middle of debate, and she’s fiercely intelligent and quite beautiful. And we’d say, ‘Oh my God, she’s so…that’s the color she should wear…her hair looks so much better!’” Clarkson laughs, loud and expressive, at the thought. “I can’t tell you how many people have said, ‘Listen. If Elizabeth Warren is running fro president, she has to start wearing makeup.’ Oh my god!” Society, to be sure, is image driven. “I know we want to say that we aren’t, but we are.”
Looking back at the variety of her recent characters, Clarkson again recognizes the women she’s worked with and the talent she interacted with. Where does this overarching and ready sense of gratitude come from?
“Well, I think I, you know, I’ve suffered the slings and arrows of this industry. We all have. I’ve had the good fortune….” She catches herself and offers an aside: “I used to say I was lucky to still be in this place at 58, but there’s not a single man at 58 who would say he was lucky; it’s just a normal occasion.” She returns to her point. “I think we do rise on the backs of others, men and women. It’s the only way we really can.” She mentions the people who help her every day, her remarkable team and her remarkable family, agents, managers, publicists that respect and admire the actors and actresses they work with. “My life is by no means perfect, but it is one that is graced with good fortune and very good people.
“I do think we are dependent, often, on of course the kindness of others, but the insight of others, and the belief that they possess in us. Without that, we can’t go very far.”
“...What we learn in our childhood persists within us. “Of course, as I entered one of the most ageist, misogynistic, sexist industries in the world, I had to confront it dead on. But I think because I had a childhood that was so empowering....” She tapers off, remembering, then finishes, “And so I hope from the cradle, as long as women can teach their daughters, and that fathers can teach their daughters, and that older siblings can teach their younger siblings just the power that lies within them; the innate power that we have as women...”