Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Patricia Clarkson is one of those chameleon-like actors who has been in so many projects since her 1987 film debut, in The Untouchables, that you’re bound to recognize her from something, even as she transforms with each role. From her memorable performance as a drug-addicted German artist in the indie film High Art to her Oscar-nominated turn as a sick, light-hearted mother in Pieces Of April to her two-time Emmy-winning role as free-spirited Aunt Sarah in Six Feet Under. More recently, Clarkson stole scenes as the exceedingly capable Jane Davis in House Of Cards, and won a Golden Globe as one of the most malevolent mothers put to screen in the HBO miniseries Sharp Objects. In her latest film, Almost Love (now streaming on Amazon and other services), she plays a successful artist who passes off the work of an apprentice as her own. The New Orleans native/longtime New Yorker took a few minutes with The A.V. Club to discuss a selection of highlights from her momentous career and insights into her process.
The A.V. Club: Let’s start with your most recent role in the rom-com Almost Love. You’re not in that very long.
Patricia Clarkson: It is definitely what we classically call a cameo. I’m very dear friends with the director, Mike Doyle. He said, “Would you come in for a day? Actually, it’s just a couple of hours. Would you come in? I need a powerhouse to come in and play this artist, and I need you.” And I said, “Of course,” because, like I said, I have a long-standing friendship with Mike and adore him. And I like to support independent film—as I have been in all my career—and he’s one of the most handsome men I know, and he’s also just one of these hot new directors. So I said, “Of course, Mike. I’ll be there for you.” So I showed up and brought my own clothes. [Laughs.] And was on the set for I think about three hours, four hours.
But what I’m happy about is it—something that’s way beyond my part—is that this is the awakening of a new great director in our world, Mike Doyle, and it’s a beautiful film. So—I’m knocking wood, I’m superstitious—I’m hoping, hoping people tune into it. But I have a feeling they are. I have a great feeling about this film. It’s beautiful and funny and delicious, and the two lead male actors are divine.
AVC: The director made sure that he hired gay actors to play the main couple.
PC: Yes, which is nice. Which is a wonderful, wonderful part of our industry is, you know, why fake it when you can have it? [Laughs.] When you’ve lived it, why fake it? So I think it’s just the icing on the cake that these two great gay actors [Scott Evans and Augustus Prew]—I mean, they’re actors, but they are gay and openly gay, which is a good thing—and they have a beautiful chance to shine.
The Untouchables (1987)—“Ness’ wife”
AVC: Your movie debut was in The Untouchables as Kevin Costner’s wife. That seems like quite the get for a debut.
PC: It was my very first movie, yes. I went in and auditioned for the casting director, the great Lynn Stalmaster. Beautiful man. Gave me my biggest break of my life—the first big movie. And he said, “Come back and meet Brian De Palma. But don’t be glamorous. You know, remember this is a Midwestern girl.” I was like, “Okay.” And I came in with a sweet little dress on and no makeup, and there was Brian De Palma. And he read Eliot Ness with me.
And the next thing I knew, like, the next day, they said, “We’re going to fly you to Chicago to meet Kevin.” I said, “Well, I’m in the middle of a play.” I was doing House Of Blue Leaves on Broadway. And they flew me in the morning, like on a Friday morning or something, and then they flew me back to make the show. Thank god Chicago is a quick flight. And I met Kevin Costner, and they told me right then and there in the room that I had it.
And Kevin hugged me, and my agent didn’t believe me at the time. “No, no, no, Patty, they don’t tell you.” He said, “Don’t—don’t get too excited.” I was like, “No, no, no! He told me I got the part!” And it was so sweet and lovely, and I had such a beautiful time. I have such a love still, a soft spot, for Brian De Palma. He gave me the first break of my life. He was very kind to me and added me to the courtroom scene. I was broke, and he added me to the courtroom scene, which meant I had to be paid for a whole month. Which was like, “Oh, my god!” I was like, “Brian, I love you!”
And Kevin was a doll, and I’ve seen him since, of course, and we always hug. He was really involved in post-Katrina in my hometown of New Orleans. He’s beloved there, and he’s a beautiful man, and still beautiful. He was hot then, hot now. [Laughs.]
AVC: You followed that up with another movie with another icon: Clint Eastwood.
PC: I was in—that’s the last Dirty Harry movie. I kept thinking, “C’mon, Clint, you’ve had all these movies. Do one last Dirty Harry. And bring back the journalist you had a crush on.”
I mean, that was—what a job. My father was beside himself. He couldn’t hang up the phone fast enough to call every single friend of his to tell them that I was doing a movie with Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry—I was going to be in a Dirty Harry movie. Some of my more New York friends were like, “Really?” I was like, “Yes.”
And I was cast off-tape. Clint Eastwood doesn’t meet in person. I just did a tape, sent it in, went into a casting director, and was cast. Showed up in San Francisco. The first time I met him—oh, my god—was in a big restaurant by the Wharf, and the producer and the cinematographer were there, and I got there, and I was waiting, the three of us. And suddenly, I hear screaming. I mean screaming. We’re at the back of the restaurant, and I hear screaming. And I turn around, and there’s Clint Eastwood walking through the restaurant, and it was—you know, the king had arrived. It was crazy. And he sat down, and he was incredibly dry and cordial and lovely.
I had a beautiful time working with him. And he’s very quick. So some of what you see in that movie is one or two takes, I’m not kidding you. He’d be like, “Was that good for you?” And I’d be like, “Wait, it it it—yeah? I think it was good.” “Okay, okay. Moving on! Moving on.” I’d be like, [Exasperated sigh, laughs.] “Yeah.”
High Art (1998)—“Greta”
AVC: About a decade after that, you had what could be considered your big break: your performance in High Art. Would you say that’s accurate?
PC: Yes. High Art changed everything for me in a way that I was [looking] for the change. I was looking for the shift, the tectonic, a monumental shift in my career, because I suddenly found myself in these mother roles—and it’s not even the mother roles. I was finding myself in these limited roles, and these roles that did not demand great things of me. They were good parts. They weren’t demanding parts.
So when High Art came along, I was in Los Angeles, and I remember I called my agent at the time, and I said, “I really love this part.” I said, “I just don’t know. I understand that I’m not German, I’m not a lesbian, and I’ve never done any drug.” I mean, I’ve never even smoked pot. And I said, “But I get this character. I’m going to fly back.” She said, “Well, you better get on a plane, because they’re about to offer the part to somebody.” So I hopped on a plane and went into the room with the great, great, great Lisa Cholodenko. And I just—I understood Greta. I think it’s because I was at 38—I had been struggling to find work for the first time in my life in a moment there. I understood the pathos of this character. I understood the desperation and the despair. And I walked in, and I basically got the part then and there. I had to meet Ally Sheedy, and then less than a week later, I started shooting High Art.
AVC: You are amazing in that movie. Every scene you have is completely over-the-top.
PC: Greta was a divine character. And I was part of a really, almost revolutionary film. I remember taking it to Sundance, and people were knocked out. We just recently—me and Lisa and Radha [Mitchell], gorgeous Radha—went to Sundance to do an anniversary screening of it because John Cooper—who ran Sundance—one of the first films he ever programmed when he became head programmer was High Art. And as a tribute to him, we went back to honor him with a screening of High Art.
It’s a film I hold very near and dear, and it changed my whole life. It changed my career. People suddenly were like, “Wait, that’s the woman who was Mrs. Ness in The Untouchables? Wait, wait, wait, wait. That’s who played, like, the wife in Jumanji? No, no, no. Wait, wait, wait.” And then they suddenly—everybody, from very big actors in our industry—started to take note, and from very beautiful and big directors. And they were like, “Oh, okay. I get this now. She is a chameleon. I hadn’t fully imagined her.” So things shifted for me, fortunately.
AVC: You have had such a strong stage career also. Were you balancing both of these industries the whole time?
PC: Well, I took a break. I did a Broadway show, Eastern Standard with one of my dearest best friends, Richard Greenberg. And then I took a break, because I really needed to make money. I went to live in L.A. just for a moment, just a couple of months here and there. I was going back to try to stir things up. And then I wasn’t onstage for a while. And then after High Art, I did The Station Agent and Pieces Of April, which were huge things that completely changed my life. And then I went and did Streetcar at the Kennedy Center. I played Blanche. Amy Ryan—the great Amy Ryan—was Stella. It was a beautiful cast, and it was directed by the great Garry Hynes, the great Irish director, and it was a beautiful production.
It’s a moment in anyone’s career to do Streetcar, and it changes you. It is a galvanizing moment in your life, and especially to play Blanche. You never quite recover from Blanche. It just stays with you for the rest of your life, and I think it’s just who Tennessee Williams is and was and what he continues to bring to actors.
Pieces Of April (2003)—“Joy Burns”
AVC: It’s interesting that you mention the mother roles, because sometimes when you do play these maternal roles, they’re not the warmest. Like in Sharp Objects and Pieces Of April.
PC: I mean, Pieces Of April, yes, is a mother, but, my god. I’m dying and I’m frisky and feisty and tough. No, it was a dream part. And I loved—Peter Hedges and I are still very dear friends. I love him, and he has that gorgeous son, that great son, Lucas. I knew him when he was just a wee boy. But it was just such a personal project for Peter. And it’s a part that has everything—it required everything of me—and to go from High Art into Station Agent and Pieces Of April was a great moment in my career, and one that was so fulfilling and so powerful. One that just kept challenging me as an actor, kept making me refocus and be better. I had to be better, you know? I had to really do my homework. I had to be committed. I had to love it. I had to love the art of acting on camera. I started to really form a love of acting on camera that I’d never had.
Simply Irresistible (1999)— “Lois McNally”
AVC: Your part in Simply Irresistible is the best part of that movie. You’re like a screwball comedy heroine from the ’40s.
PC: Well, no pun intended—it is a movie about a chef in a restaurant—but it is a delicious part. And Judy Tarlov [Roberts], the writer, and her husband, director Mark Tarlov, are very dear friends of mine, and [they] said, “Please come play this part.” I said, “Oh, please. Of course I’ll be there.” She’s glamorous and funny? Oh, my god. I loved doing that part, I love being in that film.
It kind of has a cult following now, which I’m so excited about. People just keep rediscovering it. I can’t tell you the amount of millennials who will say, “I know you from that movie. It’s like you play—there’s a chef? Sarah Michelle Gellar?” I would say, “Simply Irresistible!” “Yes, yes! I love this film!” “It’s magic, it’s magic.” I say, “It is, yeah.” It is.
Parks And Recreation (2011)— “Tammy One”
AVC: You’re one of those actors who can really do everything, from heavy drama and then being able to walk onto a well-established sitcom like Parks And Recreation. Was it odd walking onto that set? Was it hard to get in the groove there?
PC: Are you kidding me? I’m walking into a set with the most—I mean, it’s lousy with the most brilliant comic actors of our lifetime. From Amy Poehler to Nick Offerman—I was the most intimidated I’ve been. That was one of the most intimidating times of my career, because these were towering comic geniuses. And to be on the set… You have no idea what doesn’t even make it into the episode. How they live from scene to scene, from moment to moment, from take to take—it is comic genius. It’s comic artistry. Every single moment. They do things that—I don’t know how they get through any episode, because it’s so funny. It’s so inspired. There’s a reason that show was beloved, and it was beloved for the right reasons. It was brilliant, and they were all stunning. And each one of them.
AVC: Was there improv going on, too, or did you guys stick to the script, mostly?
PC: I stuck to the script. You know, I’m not like a stand-up. I don’t have the comic facility. I don’t have the chops that they have. I mean, on a good day, I can make a line funny. [Laughs.] You know what I mean? So I kind of let them rule the day, and I follow the lead. I mean, there was some improvisation, of course. From them, much. But yes. But the script, it has great writers, too. But it was also just how they would present the lines or the scenes or what they would do. The lazzi—you know, the Italian word—the kind of extra that they would do. What they would do with a coffee cup. Coming in a door, how they’d come in a door. I’d be like, “Oh, my god.” [Laughs.] It was good. It was, again, a highlight of my career, something rare for me to be on a sitcom set surrounded and completely intimidated. But it’s good for me. It’s good as actors to be out of our comfort zones. It really awakens a new part of us, and I think that’s essential as an actor.
Six Feet Under (2002-2005)—“Sarah O’Connor”
AVC: One role that has both of those elements, the humor and the drama, was your Aunt Sarah on Six Feet Under, which won you two Emmys.
PC: Aunt Sarah, wow. I mean, speaking of genius, Alan Ball is the genius man of all time. And he wrote this exquisite, perfect part. And I just showed up. That isn’t false modesty. I honestly just had to learn the lines, be committed, have an emotional life, which I had established as Aunt Sarah. But the writing was perfection. It was beautifully written. These paragraphs—they sometimes had these crazy scenes, and I just had to kind of have them in me, and show up and do Alan’s writing justice.
AVC: She was so opposite from her straitlaced sister, Ruth.
PC: From Franny Conroy, the brilliant Franny Conroy, gorgeous Franny Conroy. We had played sisters in a movie we had done long ago called—god, back in ’88—Rocket Gibraltar. And we had played sisters then, so to come back into her world, it was really lovely. I would show up on that set and—people don’t realize I really had very much of a guest star part. I wasn’t a regular on that show. But it’s a testament to the power of that part, the great writers of that show and the great directors. They had just first-class directors on that show. And it’s a testament to them because people thought I was such a part of that show, but I only did I think seven episodes? It wasn’t that many.
Far From Heaven (2002)—“Eleanor Fine”
AVC: What was working with Todd Haynes like?
PC: Todd has this aesthetic that is so powerful, so omnipresent, so deep within him. He’s a true artist. And he sees the movie as a whole. And he brought together just this exquisite cast, led of course by the wonderful, amazing Julianne Moore. I just ran into her on the street. She’s one of the loveliest people I’ve ever met. Dennis Quaid giving one of the performances of his life. That’s how I feel about it, that I was just a small part, but a beautiful part of this work of art.
AVC: Your character personifies the racism of the era. At the end? She’s shocked that her friend had a flirtation with a Black man.
PC: If you believe that’s why I’m upset with her. But that’s something I’ve never divulged. People assume I’m upset because of the race.
AVC: You don’t think so?
PC: Well, I’ve never spoken about it. I let people decide for themselves. I’ve been very—there might have been something else going on. But yeah. But I love these enigmatic or mysterious moments in film, in that people absolutely, immediately want to assume it’s something. But I leave it to me as how my internal, my private thoughts of the character remain with me. I just think it’s an important thing. Because that has to do with the work I do and the very personal work I do for a character to prepare. And I think as actors, it’s most important to hold it close. But it was a powerful movie for many, many, many reasons.
Sharp Objects (2018)—“Adora Crellin”
PC: That’s, again, a once-in-a-lifetime character. And the stunning and formidable Amy Adams. It’s always a highlight of your career to act opposite—she’s not only one of the biggest movie stars in our world today, she’s one of the greatest actresses, which can be very intimidating. But she’s not, because she is whole. She is present, and incredibly available, which is what makes her, I think, ultra-talented. So I leaned into her and into Jean-Marc Vallée, one of the great directors alive today, and the beautiful writing of Gillian Flynn and Marti Noxon, and I had it all. Again, I was surrounded by greatness, and I just had to rise to the occasion. I had to bring the best game I could.
And preparing for that kind of part, you prepare in certain ways for this. I had long known about Munchausen, but I did some research, of course. I did my own research, and I have a dear friend who is a psychiatrist. But, at a certain point, it’s no longer technical. It’s no longer medical. It’s just how it exists in you, and the parts that have to come through to make this character whole, to make her genuinely frightening and horrifying. And you have to let yourself go there.
AVC: What was the feeling like on the set? Was there an attempt to make it lighter when the camera wasn’t rolling?
PC: Well, of course there are moments of lightness. You have to have that. And Amy Adams and I joked. We would drink fake liquor on the set, but once these scenes were over, we’d have a real glass of wine. There, of course, were moments of levity. There have to be. But no. For the most part, it was a dark and difficult shoot. It had to be.
We were dealing with some of the most horrific moments in our psyche—a deep mental illness, a pervasive mental illness that took over this family. And it is sadly cyclical, from the mother to the daughter, to the daughter to the daughters. It took us all on a ride, again, I think a ride none of us will ever forget. Me and Amy and Chris Messina, Eliza [Scanlen]. Beautiful, stunning Eliza. It’s a journey we’ll never forget. Never.
The Green Mile (1999)—“Melinda Moores”
PC: It was a big moment in my career because it was such a huge movie, and the great, great—god bless his soul—Michael Clarke Duncan. Just a gentle giant, and a man for all seasons. He was truly one of a kind. I had never really met anybody like him. It’s so sad to think that he is no longer with us.
But he made that part. I just looked into him—it’s going to make me a little sad every time I think about it. That scene was very emotional, and it was all in him. I looked into those beautiful eyes, and oh, my god. He’s a stunning man. And I just had the great fortune to act with him. And I loved working with Frank Darabont. He’s a perfectionist, but he’s a great director.
That’s the last audition I gave as an actor, The Green Mile. I never had to audition again, really, after that. I gave a hell of an audition for that. [Laughs.] And I got it!