In the years that have followed her breakout role as a drug-addicted German ex-model in Lisa Cholodenko’s High Art (1998) and her star-making, Oscar-nominated turn as a cancer-afflicted mother in Pieces of April (2003), Patricia Clarkson—now 54—has gradually become a genre unto herself. In a culture that’s perennially starved for honest onscreen representations of “women of a certain age” and their stories, Clarkson has emerged as a beacon. Vital and vibrant, naturally beautiful and effortlessly sophisticated, exuding vivacious personality, she’s served as a muse for an ever-growing number of filmmakers who see within her vast talents the empathy and soul needed to bring their visions to life.
At a time when the age gap between actors cast as parents and children has shrunk to an almost comical (not to mention biologically impossible) degree, Clarkson is regularly being cast as the scene-stealing mother of baby-faced starlets 30 years her junior, such as Emma Stone (Easy A) and Mila Kunis (Friends with Benefits). But, most crucially, she’s not just playing second-banana mommies offering sage romantic advice to their winsome daughters—increasingly, it’s her character’s love story that’s being told. Clarkson is the protagonist in films like Ruba Nadda’s acclaimed sleeper Cairo Time, playing a married woman who unexpectedly has a brief affair with her husband’s friend as he shows her around Egypt. With Clarkson’s warmly raspy voice and sly, sensual energy, it’s not surprising that such parts keep coming to her—I mean, she is the subject of “Motherlover” after all.
In fact, she had two such roles at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. In the romantic thriller October Gale, also directed by Nadda, she plays a widow vacationing solo at a family cottage who suddenly finds herself intruded upon by a handsome, severely injured (younger) stranger (Scott Speedman). And in Learning to Drive, in which she reunites with her Elegy director Isabel Coixet, she gives a corker of a performance as a deeply resentful Manhattan woman going through a divorce who forms a halting, emotionally complex bond with a Sikh cab driver (Ben Kingsley) she hires to teach her to drive. The film earned a rapturous reception at the festival, where it was crowned the first runner-up for the People’s Choice Award, coming in ahead of the highly anticipated Bill Murray dramedy St. Vincent. Regardless of our youth-obsessed culture and its ongoing quest to banish women to the margins once they evolve past their nymphet stage, Clarkson’s career continues to grow stronger and richer every year.
To wit: October Gale is actually her second film this year in which she’s center stage as a woman at a crossroads in her life who undergoes a moment of reckoning at a lakeside estate. The first, a darkly class-conscious social comedy called Last Weekend, received a hugely enthusiastic response after its world premiere at the San Francisco Film Festival in May; it’s currently available on iTunes and playing in select theaters nationwide. Although it bears certain surface similarities to October Gale, Last Weekend is another story—and another mother—entirely. Rather than a vulnerable widow sitting in solitude, Last Weekend stars Clarkson as Celia Green, an imperious, passive-aggressive socialite whose life couldn’t be fuller. The matriarch of an obscenely wealthy San Francisco family, Celia (along with her husband, Malcolm, played by the stalwart Chris Mulkey) has her sons (Joseph Cross and Zachary Booth) and their assorted friends and lovers (Rutina Wesley, Fran Kranz, Jayma Mays, Alexia Rasmussen, Devon Graye) fly in from around the country for one last big hurrah at the Lake Tahoe house they’ve been vacationing at for more than thirty years. But as the weekend progresses and things gradually start to go haywire, Celia finds herself asking if it’s time to accept that her children have moved on without her, sell the house, and figure out what’s next in her life.
It’s a tricky role; Celia is an unsympathetic and, at times, downright unlikable character, and yet the film—aided inestimably by Clarkson’s nuanced performance—continues to confront us with her truth, offering no apologies for building an entire story around a manipulative, self-pitying female character in her fifties. It’s difficult to imagine another actress who could’ve brought this woman to life, let alone give her more than a shred of compassion, quite as Clarkson has. The film is the tense, character-driven writing and directing debut of novelist Tom Dolby (co-directed with Tom Williams), and Dolby knows a thing or two about the milieu he’s depicting; he’s the son of billionaire Dolby Laboratories founder Ray Dolby (who passed away in September 2013) and his wife Dagma, on whom Celia is loosely based. Tom Dolby even went so far as to film Last Weekend at his family’s own West Lake Tahoe house, which previously served as a film set for the 1951 Elizabeth Taylor-Montgomery Clift classic A Place in the Sun.
We sat down with Clarkson while she was attending the SFIFF premiere of Last Weekend to discuss the challenges of playing Celia, being considered an overnight sensation after “Motherlover,” our collective hopes for the upcoming final season of Parks and Recreation, and much more. Below that, listen to our audio interviews with Dolby and Williams, Mulkey, and a roundtable featuring Cross, Kranz, Rasmussen, and Graye.
Celia, yes, with a capital C. I think that’s apropos. [laughs] Ceeeeee-lia.
Such a complex woman.
Yes. But it’s good to put women like Celia at the center of films.
When you were reading the script and seeing all of her flaws and contradictions and beauties, what did you see that made you think, I want to embody that, I want to bring that to life?
Well, at first I thought, I don’t know that I can do this. This is really tough. This is a character without any bells and whistles. It’s really this incredibly realistic, formidable, very complicated, mercurial, unsympathetic woman—and yet, she’s quite breathtaking in the deep, rich scope that Tom Dolby wrote. I wasn’t sure if I could do it, and that’s a good sign for me because I am drawn to the impossible at times. I’ve done so much work at this point, and I want to be challenged. I’ve done a lot of mothers, but Celia was a different mother. It is also a great feat to carry a film, and I like that I’m a woman who was 52 during the shoot. It’s always good for a woman in her 50s to carry a film of any kind…and have her face move while she does it.
Celia’s reactions to things are a big part of what makes her so unsympathetic.
Very much so.
Her reactions to the boy having an allergic reaction, to Hector’s accident—
Oh yes, but it’s such an overindulged life. It’s a padded-cell life. We’ve all known these women, and maybe at some point we’ve all been that person, when we’ve been so pampered, so indulged, so stroked and caressed, so fluffed. I found that there were parts about Celia that were truly universal, even thought she was this very affluent woman. At a certain point, excess takes a toll on you and you can sometimes lose everything. In the midst of having everything, you can have nothing. I’ve seen it repeatedly in my business; my god, I see it everyday. It’s heartbreaking. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a very good family: I have parents who are still together, I had a very middle class upbringing. I think I grew up with what is important, and that has helped me through this business. It also helps me play someone like her, because I know what it is not to have that.
There’s a scene toward the end where Celia is in bed with her husband, and you deliver a very powerful bit of dialogue. When you’re considering Celia’s arc, do you see that as a breakthrough moment for her?
Yes, in a way. It’s coming. I think she’s starting to realize. She’s finally found the words for it in that moment with beautiful Chris Mulkey, who plays my husband. He’s such a fine actor; he makes me want to cry. I think this woman who has so many words finally finds the words for what has so devastated her life, and the words for what is happening to her in this moment, and how she can go forward. Can you change in life? Can you just leave things behind and rethink?
A moment of clarity.
Yes, and with beautiful Tom Dolby language; he had the courage to write these brutally honest words. He’s a beautiful writer and director, and so is Tom Williams. We had such a journey on this film. We didn’t have the luxury of a lot of shooting days, and making a family drama can take on its own family drama—they become a drama as you shoot. It can be intense, because you’re all in these close quarters and you’re all fiery actors. Joseph Cross and Zachary Booth, they’re so gifted and handsome. I’m like, “Shut up! The whole world is your oyster, shut up! Fran Kranz—oh, go away! Alexia, you’re gorgeous! Shut up!” [laughs]
I have to tell you that one of the things I thought while watching Celia is that she’d make such a great Real Housewife.
Oh! Oh yes, oh my god, I didn’t even think of it! I don’t watch those shows, but I have my own reality shows that I love. I don’t know why, but I watch Dancing with the Stars. I’ll own up to it. I’m obsessed.
A Real Housewife was just voted off DWTS, NeNe Leakes.
Oh yes, NeNe! But I agree, Celia could be on the Real Housewives of Lake Tahoe.
I want to tell the Toms they should pitch it to Andy Cohen.
I love Andy Cohen! I met him recently.
He’s a charmer.
He’s a lovely, charming, handsome man.
Out of your incredible body of work, when people recognize you, what do they talk to you about the most?
It’s interesting, because it’s always shifting. There are always the go-to’s like Six Feet Under, but recently it’s become Cairo Time. It’s permeated.
It’s such a beautiful film.
I’m thrilled about it. Lately it’s all about Cairo Time, and also Easy A, with the rise of beautiful Emma Stone. And you know, for a while it was “Motherlover.” Everybody had seen “Motherlover.” I would think, Have you seen any of my films? Do you think this is how I got my start?
Overnight star Patricia Clarkson!
Discovered by Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake! [laughs] Although they are to die for. So, it’s always shifting. Lately it’s been more Cairo Time, which is fabulous. Especially in New York and LA, people say, “That movie you did…Egypt…” For some reason they can’t remember the title; I don’t know why, because it’s so exquisite. “That movie…you were in Egypt…pyramids…” I say Cairo Time and they say, “Yes, that movie…” The way they say “that movie” I know immediately, just from the timbre in their voice.
I wanted to ask you about the next season of Parks and Recreation, which will be its last.
[laughs] I have no idea if Tammy 1 will be returning, with her big crazy hair. All I know is that they are the greatest group. It was a very intimidating place to be, because it’s the largest collection of brilliantly funny people I’ve ever been amongst in my life. Every single one of them is so gifted, and it’s effortless. It makes me want to cry, and just crawl back in bed, and drink. [laughs]
And you had to go into this intimidating set to play an intimidating character.
Yes! I was just [meekly] “Oh hi…hi, Amy…” But it was deliciously fun. They are all my heroes. I get to work with the people I love, and I love that show. It’s brilliant: the writing, the directing, everything about it is indelible.
It’s inspiring! It’s so unusual to have a sitcom that’s genuinely inspiring.
It is, and there’s nothing like it. There’s not a single weak character on that show. Every character is so potent. That was certainly a highlight for me.
My fingers are crossed for a Tammy reunion in the final season.
It might happen.
I think they all need to circle at once. They can’t let Ron Swanson off the show without making him face down all the Tammys simultaneously.
Yes, all of them. They could mud-wrestle! Let’s see him try escaping from that.