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In Character 

Patricia Clarkson, the Big Easy Entertainment Awards' Entertainer of the Year, can be more than just everywhere with her myriad film projects. She can be everything.

The joke Patricia Clarkson likes to tell about her head-turning role in 1998's High Art was that not only did she play a lesbian opposite Ally Sheedy, but a drugged-out and washed-up German actress at that. Talk about a juggling act. She made a very believable lesbian in her devotion to Sheedy's coming-out-retirement photographer. She looked the very essence of a heroin addict, slurring her lines, drooping her eyes, passing out in a restaurant. And she sounded every bit the R.W. Fassbinder refugee she was supposed to be, clipping her consonants and mocking American euphemisms in a very German way. But most impressive of all was her ability to pull off these tricks without making the performance gimmicky.

These days, the ubiquity of Clarkson is well-documented; she basically won the Special Jury Performance Prize at this past February's Sundance Film Festival for her work in three films in competition (and yet another one that screened out of competition). All will have opened by year's end, while Clarkson cranks up still other film projects. (David Gordon Green's tone poem, All the Real Girls, is expected to open locally at the end of April or early May.)

It would be safe to say that Patricia Clarkson is everywhere. Just to be sure, it might not be a bad idea to check your garage to see if she's not performing a vignette with your kids.

But what all the talk of Clarkson's busy schedule sometimes overlooks is the variety of depth of talent she brings to her craft. She's not just everywhere; judging from her performances, she can be everything. Those two factors -- and a hot streak that would be the envy of any working actress in America -- are what make Clarkson the Big Easy Entertainment Awards' Entertainer of the Year. She can add this to the Independent Spirit Award nomination and two critics' awards she received for last year's performance in Far From Heaven and the Emmy she won last fall for her guest role in HBO's brilliant series Six Feet Under.

She will be honored, in absentia, at the annual awards ceremony on Monday, April 21, at the Hilton Riverside Hotel. (It's an excused absence; Clarkson is currently in Vancouver shooting yet another film, Miracles, about the U.S. hockey team's gold-medal run at the Lake Placid games.)

Looking at Patricia Clarkson conjures the Annie Liebovitz photo of Meryl Streep on the cover of Rolling Stone back in the '80s. Streep, blank-faced in her honesty, fixes a stare at the camera, a layer of white makeup spread across her mug already famous for its pointy features and high cheekbones. But Streep isn't a clown; with one hand, she pulls at a cheek, and with another, she tugs at her forehead in the other direction. The versatility is implicit.

Though on a less grand scale, this is how Clarkson applies her talents. At 43, she appears unlikely to ever become a leading lady, yet she possesses the classic traits of a diverse character actor that only now seem to underscore her longevity in the biz. Over the past couple years alone, she has played a downtrodden single mother (The Safety of Objects, All the Real Girls), a convict's well-worn girlfriend (Welcome to Collinwood), a rollicking New Ager (Six Feet Under), and a confidante with an evil streak (Far From Heaven), among other roles.

Just about everything has been made outside the Hollywood mainstream, a savvy career choice considering the town's treatment of women. When you're a woman, you get to graduate from being the girlfriend, the hooker, the temptress or other appendages to the housewife or mother.

"Unfortunately, those are the parts," Clarkson says by phone from her home in New York City, taking a break between the Vancouver shoot and a trip to Los Angeles for the Independent Spirit Awards. "There are very, very few parts for women 35 and older that are not token. If they're not, they're usually going to be played by a star. They're not stupid. They're going to seize those parts. If they're a lead, they're the reason that movie's going to be made.

"But sometimes, even they're playing the wife."

The key, then, is to make something out of what you get, and this is perhaps where Clarkson truly excels. She can make a sweater out of a few strands of thread, as she proved in her performance in Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes' sort-of homage to the Douglas Sirk melodramas of the 1950s. Clarkson won two critics awards -- from the New York Films Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics -- as Eleanor Fine, a spin on Agnes Moorhead's Sara Warren in Sirk's All That Heaven Allows. Clarkson plays confidant to Julianne Moore's Cathy Whitaker, who finds her idyllic suburban life crumbling around her when she learns her husband (Dennis Quaid) is gay and seeks comfort in her African-American gardener (Dennis Haysbert). Early in the film, Clarkson's Eleanor is a rock of support, but in a key third-act scene, she turns almost violently on Cathy when all the revelations come out. Clarkson's expression flashes in an instant, like a storm cloud rolling over the Mississippi, leaving the audience wondering about the depth of her rage.

"Even some roles as mothers are more complicated and complex, and they do afford me an arc, a real journey," Clarkson explains. "Sometimes, that journey comes in a smaller part. I'm looking for the emotional life of a character. My part in Far From Heaven is not a large part, but at least there's some journey. Everything in that scene ... it's just so funny how it kind of became such a source of debate. When I was at the Independent Spirit Awards, or whenever I'm out in public, people are still discussing that scene. I get that wherever I go.

"Am I turning on Cathy because I think a close friend of mine has turned on me, or because of my political views? Am I turning because I've lost a confidant?" She thinks about it for a moment. "Really, it's because of many things. And I must say a lot of it is a combination of being in this scene with Julianne and Todd, and where it can go. And giving. That was organically what I felt."

That organic feeling is what fuels Clarkson in any given role, an advantage that affords her a versatility that extends even to the age of her characters. At 43, she seems to be able to play women who are 10 years younger or 10 years older -- without exorbitant use of makeup.

"I go where I need to go," she all but shrugs. "If I need to look glamorous or spiffy or young, or battling cancer, or a drugged-out and hippie type, it hopefully will be projected in my face. That's the beauty of acting: hopefully it comes through. It's not about hair and makeup, a different color of hair. It's about being malleable. I just always hope it's going to work because you never know."

Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson always knew. "As a child, she always showed a dramatic flair," says the New Orleans City Councilwoman, who with her husband Buzz raised Patricia and her four sisters in Algiers. "They used to play together, you know, staging fashion shows, Miss America contests, you name it. And Patty always had to be Miss America! When we'd go to her grandmother's in Uptown, there was this big staircase, and she would always play Miss America coming down the staircase.

"She always liked be the star of the show, so to speak. But for most of her childhood, that was just a little glimmer of it." In at least one way, Patty wasn't all that special. Really, she was just another Clarkson sister -- who all in one way or another resemble their mother.

"They all have my over-scheduled, over-achieving maniac approach to life," Jackie says with a husky alto laugh that could easily be Patty's. "Some of them are more like me than others. One in Dallas looks the most like me, two others are more businesslike as I am, and the oldest likes to mother the others like I do.

"But Patty's the only one like me in that she likes to live in the public eye," Jackie says. "We both enjoy the challenge of living off of public opinion. We can make or break our day tomorrow by public opinion. And we both love doing it.

"Now, Patty once said in an interview that we're alike in that we both live off public opinion, and we both enjoy being onstage. I said the only difference is she's talented and I'm the ham. She said, 'My mother and I are alike because we both like to be onstage -- but I like to get off the stage sometimes.'"

Patty started getting onstage in junior high, with teachers including recent Big Easy Lifetime Achievement Award in Theatre recipient Janet Shea. She was particularly inspired by Ethyl Istre, the drama teacher at O. Perry Walker High School. At first blush, it would seem that Istre would have to get in line for Patty's attention; the perky blonde was everywhere, active in the Chargerettes dance squad, the yearbook staff, the Keywanettes, the gymnastics team, and yes, the drama club. In what by now should be no surprise, Patty was voted Most Talented. Istre was able to focus that talent.

"She just captured Patty," Jackie Clarkson recalls. "In her first play in 10th grade it was obvious to me and to her daddy and some of her best friends and family, that Patty would be on stage. And Ethyl Istre nurtured her and mentored her." Jackie is quick to note that, when Patty won the Big Easy nod for Ambassador for Entertainment in 1997, the one person she thanked was Ethyl Istre -- who'd come in from Folsom for the ceremony.

Though Patty's parents saw a bright future for their daughter -- all their daughters, really -- they wanted her to work gradually toward her goal. She took their advice and did her basic studies at Louisiana State University before transferring as a junior to Fordham University in New York City.

Following graduation from Fordham, Patricia Clarkson was accepted into Yale's prestigious graduate theater program, where she began laying the foundation for the versatile acting technique she employs today. She studied under acting department head Earle Gister, who's currently in his fourth decade at Yale and is considered one of the most respected acting teachers in the country. Not fixated on one particular acting school, Clarkson says, Gister borrowed a little from the method theories of Stanislavsky, as well as Richard Boleslavsky and Uta Hagen.

"[Gister] taught acting, reacting and listening -- and action," Clarkson says. "'What do you want in this scene?' But it wasn't one set thing, not the Sanford Meisner approach, not pure method.

"I did quite a bit of character work at Yale," she adds. "People said I probably did young leading ladies and ingenue parts in school. Well, I did some of that, but it was Earle Gister who forced us to act against type. I was in Pericles, I did the Bard. I did wild, crazy character stuff. I'd wear fat suits -- I wore an afro, for chrissakes! I studied the masters, Chekhov and Ibsen, I played Olivia and Viola in Twelfth Night, I was did La Ronde. But I did a lot of crazy parts."

"I think as just a base lining, having studied at Yale, and having done theater, definitely made me a better actress and made me capable of going to different places with my acting," Clarkson says. "It's in the doing that you find the ways and the means. You do get better. Hopefully, with all the work I do, I keep getting better. That is a goal. I'm no longer frightened looking dramatically different or feeling dramatically different."

As a testament to that foundation, her mother notes, "When she finished Yale, she had her Actor's Equity card, she had her agent, and she walked right onto the New York stage. We've never had to support her, and she's never had a second job. And that's incredible. She's been frugal, she's done without things, but she never had to depend on us for support. She's always sustained herself on her acting ability."

Patricia Clarkson has paid her dues the way many actresses have, by taking small roles in big and small films, tons of TV work, and of course the indie-film circuit. In other words, she's hustled to get to where she is today. After Yale, she worked in New York theater before a few TV parts and then her big-screen debut: opposite Kevin Costner, as Elliot Ness' wife in Brian De Palma's 1987 movie version of the TV series The Untouchables. But after a role opposite another Hollywood hunk, Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry in 1988's The Dead Pool, and in the Louisiana-based Everybody's All-American that same year, most of her work came on the little screen.

Then came 1998's High Art, Lisa Cholodenko's debut effort; Clarkson played Greta, the burned-out and junked-up German actress clinging to her photographer lover Ally Sheedy. Though the film was billed as Sheedy's comeback, Clarkson earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for her work. Greta, despite her many foibles, oozes with sexuality; even in her fog, she looks like she could be a handful for any man or woman. And it is Clarkson's sexuality that has perhaps been her secret weapon; even as mom or wife or confidante, there always is something simmering underneath.

"That's very flattering," Clarkson responds to the suggestion of the sexuality that permeates her roles, "but that's a very important thing. I think it's crucial. When I refer to the emotional life of a character as integral, one of the facets of a person's life is sexuality and sensuality -- how they feel sexually. It relates to where they live, what place they are in their life. Not sexual preference; that's important, but what's more important in High Art was where Greta was emotionally sexually, of being possibly left behind. And then my character in Far From Heaven, whose sexuality I think is somewhat repressed because of the time, may be bubbling in moments. She likes to think she's progressive but isn't."

High Art triggered a chain reaction of small big-screen roles for Clarkson, who appeared in Simply Irresistible, Playing by Heart, The Green Mile, Joe Gould's Secret and The Pledge before the even busier period that spawned her recent fame. With that fame, of course, comes more scrutiny; for the first time in Clarkson's life, a romantic relationship has attracted attention. Her relationship with actor Campbell Scott, son of the late, great George C. Scott, has become a "thing" with the media. While she prefers not to discuss the details of the relationship, she concedes it's a challenge having something so public.

"It's always tough keeping your private life private even with someone well known or not," she says. "It's a little bit bigger challenge being with someone well known. You have to be careful and you have to be protective. You don't want to infringe on the other person's privacy or right to privacy. But you get through it. You handle it. Neither of us is Jennifer Aniston or Brad Pitt. People have actually been respectful. We're not in that kind of limelight."

So as she launches into still more projects, the question becomes which is her greater concern, overexposure or burnout.

"Both," she replies. "I have to be careful of both. The good thing is, the good things I have coming out, they're not operating in a big arena. It's not like I have five studio films and I'm on the cover of 15 magazines. I'm still working in a small arena. Now, Sundance was huge, and Sundance was enough for a while. But I don't want to be in a thousand movies and have a thousand articles written about me. I've passed on quite a bit of press. I do feel bad about it, but I have to keep things on an even keel.

"The reason it's been crazy has been for good reasons. You go to Sundance with movies, and they may never be seen again. But I don't think I could ever work at that pace again. This year, I'm doing Miracles, and I have an offer to do Stanley Tucci's new film. How can you say no to Stanley Tucci? So I have that going on, maybe another studio film." Clarkson draws a breath and laughs. "I'd like to make money."

While Clarkson insists that she doesn't have to hustle for work as hard as she used to, you have to wonder just what exactly is her idea of slowing down. She worked on Far From Heaven and All the Real Girls at about the same period of time, and went from shooting Dogme maven Lars Von Trier's Dogville in Sweden right into Pieces of April.

Surely, at some point, Patricia Clarkson won't be everywhere. As she closes the phone interview, she concedes the brutality of her recent grind, the need to slow down a bit. But she has to leave, and get ready for her trip back to Vancouver to finish Miracles.

"It's not easy," she says, before yet another sigh. "It's all in a day's work."

click to enlarge  
click to enlarge Clarkson began her climb up the ladder of success - in O. Perry Walker High School's drama club. - O. PERRY WALKER HIGH SCHOOL
  • O. Perry Walker High School
  • Clarkson began her climb up the ladder of success in O. Perry Walker High School's drama club.
click to enlarge Clarkson received critical acclaim for her work in - 1998's High Art (opposite Ally Sheedy).
  • Clarkson received critical acclaim for her work in 1998's High Art (opposite Ally Sheedy).
click to enlarge Last year's Far From Heaven (opposite - Julianne Moore).
  • Last year's Far From Heaven (opposite Julianne Moore).
click to enlarge Clarkson starred opposite Glenn Close in The - Safety of Objects, one of two films in the New - Orleans Film Festival that brought Clarkson back to - her hometown last fall.
  • Clarkson starred opposite Glenn Close in The Safety of Objects, one of two films in the New Orleans Film Festival that brought Clarkson back to her hometown last fall.
click to enlarge Last September, Clarkson received an Emmy for - "Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series" for - her work on HBO's Six Feet Under. - MICHAEL GERMANA/UPI
  • Michael Germana/UPI
  • Last September, Clarkson received an Emmy for "Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series" for her work on HBO's Six Feet Under.


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