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Pieces of Patricia
Actress Patricia Clarkson declared herself off-limits after a manic spring of 2004 – a spring filled with premieres, red-carpet bashes, interviews and other A-list responsibilities. In fact, the heavy load of celebrity events punctuated a somewhat-manic two-year period, a time during which Clarkson filmed several movies in quick succession.
But during this so-called downtime, Clarkson will read a heavy volume of scripts, go to benefits, watch films for an Independent Spirit Awards committee and attend to, again, A-list responsibilities. She describes her self-imposed stage hibernation as “a daily job.”
This spring, Clarkson received an Academy Award nomination, her first, for Best Supporting Actress for her role as cancer sufferer and beleaguered mother Joy Burns in “Pieces of April.” The statuette went to Renée Zellweger for “Cold Mountain,” but it’s Clarkson’s stubborn Joy that sticks with the viewer like a bad cold.
It would be unfair to say that the Oscar nomination accelerated Clarkson’s career – she has always worked steadily – but it served as the gateway for a storm of media about the actress.
Clarkson – who by now you should know comes from New Orleans and is the daughter of City Councilwoman Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson – has a history of and a talent for playing complicated women. There were roles as a declining German actress with a heroin problem, a mother whose son died and whose marriage disintegrated, the mother of prom-night terrorist Carrie, and, onstage, the godmother of head cases, Blanche DuBois. Next year, audiences will see her as an evil 1960s headmistress in the “artsy horror movie” called “The Woods,” and as a glamorous Hollywood wife in “The Dying Gaul.”
“I always have been attracted to characters that are challenging, characters that require many facets of you, of your personality, of your psyche, of your temperament,” Clarkson says. “I think if you look back at most of my work, there is a common thread that emerges. I think I’ve played a lot of women on the edge, women on the outskirts that are bold or different or in very dramatic situations.” There has been some lighter fare, including supportive wife Patty Brooks in the triumph of sport and spirit “Miracle,” and Claire French, suitor to nitpicky Frasier Crane.
It doesn’t take a movie critic to figure out that Clarkson’s Oscar nomination was well-deserved. She absorbs her characters’ personas and oozes them on-screen. If Clarkson’s characters have discontent bubbling under placid faces, Clarkson herself brings to them a kind of turn-on-a-dime quality that makes them seem unpredictable in a madcap but unsettling way. Their actions seem random and haphazard but specific and deliberate at the same time; their behavior is often amusing but disturbed.
In 1998 she portrayed Greta, the German actress/junkie in “High Art.” “For the first time in her career, I lost Patti in the role,” Jackie Clarkson says. “When your own mother loses you in the role, you have to be excellent.”
Patricia Clarkson had been calling my office for 20 minutes when I realized I had turned the phone off. Generally, it’s not nice to keep people waiting for an appointment, especially when they’re on a schedule and you can’t translate Eastern Time to Central. But she was gracious about the gaffe.
Clarkson was calling from New York, where she lives in a West Village apartment with a Lab-Rottweiler mix named Beaux. When we finally connect, she describes her daily life: Besides the scripts and the premieres, she walks the dog several times a day, frequents the same dry cleaners and often the same two restaurants, and fills her free time – which had been in short supply until recently – with socializing with friends, going to movies and plays, and catching up on the news. “I am a news junkie. I do love to watch the news and read the paper.” She describes The New Yorker as “my one real addiction in life.”
Clarkson identified drama as a career path when she was 12 years old. Though her grandfather, Johnny Brechtel, founded the New Orleans Recreation Department and its theater program, Clarkson only acted in school plays. The youngest of five daughters, she was somewhat of an academic overachiever, maintaining excellent grades while pursuing Girl Scouts, sports, the stage, cheerleading and later the O. Perry Walker High School dance team. Today, she remains close to her family, especially her sisters, and her two nieces who now live in New York. “All my sisters have real jobs and real lives,” she says. “They’re wonderful, admirable women; they’ve had incredible careers and raised beautiful children.”
Kevin Sanders, who is Clarkson daughter No. 4 and once shared a room with the actress, describes Patricia as “dramatic and funny. She loved the arts, but she had a very funny side to her.”
“It was not like she was only dramatic, but when she did things, you could tell she had a flair,” Jackie Clarkson explains. “You could tell she had a unique passion for being on the stage. And not just [for] being on the stage, but for reading, whether it be Tennessee Williams or O’Neill. At a very young age she was into classics.”
Ethel Istre, who retired after 21 years in the drama department of O. Perry Walker High School, says Clarkson liked to be onstage, even in small roles, such as the year she “almost stole the show” as Tootie in “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Clarkson had many interests, Istre agrees, but drama was her main focus.
“Not only was she committed, but she enjoyed learning lines and she enjoyed rehearsing,” Istre says. “She had a spark plug in her.”
Clarkson attended LSU for two years before her parents allowed her to transfer to Fordham University in New York, where she further pursued drama and finished a bachelor’s degree. From there she earned a master’s degree in fine arts at Yale University, where she says the director cast her against type, forcing her to remold herself as an actress over and over.
Upon graduation, Jackie Clarkson says, the dean expressed hope that Patricia would be “our next Meryl Streep.”
The same Yale dean praised her work ethic. “He made my day because I take credit for the work ethic,” Jackie jokes. “She’s driven. She never lost sight of her goal. She was always willing to work extra hard. It never occurred to her that it would be easy. And it never occurred to her that she would fail. Never.”
Clarkson has not lived in New Orleans since. After Yale, she took roles in plays, including ones on Broadway, acted in TV series and movies, and pursued feature movie roles. Her first movie role, as Catherine Ness, wife of Kevin Costner’s Eliot in 1987’s “The Untouchables,” was widely seen. She declined other roles – financially lucrative roles – that she felt were not quality material. And over 20 years, she never worked as a waitress.
Asked to describe herself on-set, “I’m quite energized; I do love working,” the younger Clarkson says brightly. “They’re very long days. Most work days, you’re up at 5:30 in the morning, so by noon it’s like, ‘Wheee!’ And you have to look good.”
And whatever innate dramatic ability Clarkson brings on set, “I do really listen and heed a director’s advice. I put great trust and faith in directors I work with.”
Istre still sees that quality. “She has a knack for getting into the heart of the character. She listens to the director. She’s not an actress who says, ‘Well, I can do this all by myself.’ She listens to what’s going on with the director and the other actors. And as she develops her character, she helps the others develop their characters.”
The depressing thing about interviewing a celebrity is that you know you’re asking the same hackneyed questions every other writer has asked. You strive for originality, but you’re only allotted a certain amount of time, and the interview in this case is further disabled by geography: Clarkson is in New York after a bicoastal summer, and I’m in an office conference room in Metairie. Nonetheless, in interview mode, Patricia Clarkson is a good sport: She listens to my questions intently. She hesitates before answering each one, giving me the impression that she weighs her responses carefully and speaks honestly instead of delivering canned answers. Once she’s onto something significant, she has a tendency to roll with the thought, despite my attempts to interrupt her. She’s modest, but on several occasions, she cracks herself up, which is very charming. A listener would get the impression that there’s a lot of internal combustion taking place within Patricia Clarkson.
Speaking of combustion, this summer, Clarkson left New York to assume the mantle of Blanche, the frayed heroine of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” The month-long run at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., during which Clarkson lived at the Watergate Hotel, was both a stretch and a pleasure. In theater, Clarkson is accustomed to longer runs; just as her Blanche began to evolve, the show ended. But then again, “I don’t know how long you can do Blanche and … not be hospitalized,” she deadpans.
“Fame is an odd thing, but it has its moments,” Clarkson says. Undoubtedly one of those moments had to be Feb. 29, 2004, when she strolled the red carpet of 76th Annual Academy Awards, fans screaming, flash bulbs flashing and “Entertainment Tonight” correspondents grinning, with mikes at the ready.
“The Oscars were fun for me,” she says. “By the time I got to the Oscars, I had been to the Golden Globes” – accompanied by her father, Arthur “Buzz” Clarkson (whom the Clarkson women describe as “the rock” of the family) – “I had been to the SAG Awards, I had been to the DGA Awards, I had been to the National Board of Review. I had been to seven awards ceremonies … It was like, easy – not easy, because it is the Oscars and they are different. I was prepared. It was quite fun.”
“Fine, fine,” I say. “What about the dress?”
The dress was a fluid gold sheath with hand-applied crystals. A svelte knockout in a sea of floof and excess, Clarkson says she was comfortable too, crediting Bill Blass designer Michael Volbrecht (who also designed her Golden Globe dress), who made the dress for her specifically.
“It was just a beautiful dress. I’m very fortunate. When something is made for you – that’s the secret to awards-ceremony dresses. I’ve learned the secret.”
The secret she has not tapped into is how to comfortably watch herself on-screen or read about herself in the press. “It’s very hard on me. I really, really, really don’t like to watch myself on film. I don’t read interviews I do. I probably won’t read – ” she says, stopping just short of saying “this one.”
It’s OK, I want to tell her. I’m in fine company.
Back at home, the Southeast Louisiana Chapter of the American Red Cross hosted an officially sanctioned Oscar party at the Loew’s Hotel on Poydras Street, at which Jackie Clarkson, her husband and their family bought six tables. Jackie says she cried when Patricia came down the red carpet, accompanied by writer/director Peter Hedges. When the program started and Patricia’s category was announced, the entire room went silent, Jackie reports.
“A lot of people had their fingers crossed for me,” Patricia says.
“Home” is where Patricia Clarkson visits twice a year. She would like to film a movie in New Orleans. She looks forward to it. In fact, she says, she might like to have a little French Quarter pied-à-terre someday, besides her place in New York.
“I do miss the feeling I get in the French Quarter,” she admits. “I miss beignets. Nothing else tastes like beignets and nothing else tastes like café au lait made at Café du Monde.
“There are very specific things I miss about New Orleans. A taste, a smell, a muffuletta, just being in the streets of the city with my mom. There’s just a great feeling that I get being in the Quarter or driving down St. Charles. I can’t explain it. I never tire of the way New Orleans feels and smells and looks.”
She never misses a Christmas visit; perhaps this year she’ll be welcomed not only by her family but by hordes of fans. New Orleanians are pretty relaxed about celebrity as a concept; around here people are used to spying Lenny Kravitz or John Goodman in clubs or even watching pugilistic actors on surveillance video at Harrah’s Casino. But this time it might be different because Patricia Clarkson, Oscar nominee, is a local product. Orleans Parish public schools! LSU! Café du Monde!
“It’s funny. I do get stopped. A lot. Now. More so,” she says, mentioning her growing awareness of “the stare factor.” Instead of dwelling on fan encounters, though, Clarkson prefers to cite her good fortune. Forget the years she spent scraping by financially – she still approaches her celebrity status with great sincerity and appreciation.
“I’ve had good luck. I’m under the mistletoe; I’ve worked with many, many first-time directors, and I continue to have great fortune with them, and I’m knocking wood as I say that.”
And she does.