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Cairo Time’s Patricia Clarkson on Playing the Romantic Lead, for Once

Patricia Clarkson has been so ubiquitous in so many films over the past few years that it seems silly to think she’s being underutilized. But that’s exactly the thought that occurs while watching Ruba Nadda’s Cairo Time, which gives the 49-year-old Clarkson the rare chance to play a romantic lead. A quiet and disarming love story about a married woman who comes to Cairo and winds up spending time with her absent husband’s former employee (played by Alexander Siddig of Deep Space Nine and Syriana fame), the Canadian film premiered at this year’s Toronto Film Festival before coming to the Doha Film Festival for its Middle Eastern premiere, where Clarkson sat down with Vulture to talk about her recent career.

I was a little surprised at how old-fashioned Cairo Time was, given that it’s an indie film from a first-time director.
It is definitely old-fashioned. But in a good way. That’s what I loved about it. I’ve done plenty of edgy, indie, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kinds of films. This is a bit more classic. It is an independent film, of course, but it’s also kind of sweeping. It’s very delicate, about two very simple people. As an actor, it was actually deceptively challenging to do this film. First of all, I have to look good every day. [Laughs] But the relationship between these two characters moves in quarter inches. The shifts are so delicate, and you really have to play it carefully. Sometimes the emotional context of a scene had to do with something as simple and understated as whether I took a breath in a shot or not. That sounds crazy, but it’s true. On the surface, very little changes between these two characters, and yet their whole world changes. I think it surprises people. They don’t quite realize the journey they’ve taken by the time the film is over.

You’ve played a wife in so many films. It was nice in this film to actually see a character in the foreground.
It’s true. I’ve always been the secondary, the tertiary character. And now here I am, playing not just a wife, but the Wife. You know, move aside, boys. And if I can be vain about it, it’s a real treat to play a lovely, enticing, sexual woman. But it required so much of me. It was kind of brave of Ruba to really write this part for an actress of my age, 49.

At the same time, you don’t seem to have had the trouble that a lot of actresses have had in finding work. Some actresses, once they’re past their twenties and thirties, seem to hit a kind of brick wall.
Let’s knock wood. [Actually finds wood and knocks on it] I’m not really quite sure why that is. I think it’s a blessing that I’m still in this game.

Is it maybe because fame for you came later?
Oh, it’s still coming! It hasn’t really arrived. But you’re right: Things did really shift a lot for me after High Art — I was 38 then. I also think work begets work. So I’ve been good about taking on all kinds of parts in all kinds of films. And that’s been important, because eventually people see something I’ve done and become familiar with me, and they give me parts. It’s not an overnight thing. I had the chance to make two films with Woody Allen. And it was just that I’d done so many parts that eventually Woody noticed. And I just love working.

What was it like shooting in Cairo?
Cairo is in one breath incredibly beautiful, and it has incredible poverty. Shooting every day was a challenge. What lives off camera lives on. Everything we were experiencing as a crew is basically in the film. It is about a woman seeing Cairo for the first time, and so all of these places and these serendipitous moments we caught were things I witnessed at that moment; we always had a camera there. Initially, I was somewhat hesitant about going to Cairo at the height of this anti-American sentiment. But I loved the script so much and got along so well with the director that I just had to do it.

What was the strangest thing that happened to you while shooting?
It’s always amazing and terrifying to me how in Cairo they just walk out into traffic, with children under their arm — they just rush right out into oncoming traffic. I remember the first time I witnessed it, I was like, “Oh, no, no, no … ” Then I realized it’s what they do. I still can’t get over it. Also, I think at one point I was mistaken for a hooker.

Wait, what?
[Laughs] That’s all I’m saying about that.

Did some people recognize you as an actress, though? You’ve been in so many films.

People did recognize me on and off in the hotel. Not so much outside. But I’ve been really recognized here in Doha — in a shocking way. Everywhere in Doha. I’m thinking I might not leave. It’s very flattering. The only other places where people recognize me are in New York and in New Orleans, my hometown.

You’ve worked with a lot of first-time filmmakers. What can you tell me about the way a first-time filmmaker approaches actors and the way a veteran filmmaker does?
I think there’s something that great directors have in common, whether they’re making their first or their 50th film. There’s kind of a universal language that they all kind of have, even if their approaches are different. I shot films with Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese before shooting with Ruba, and it was fascinating to travel through these very unique individuals. They’re all linked in their confidence and their trust in their actors. They all create a very conducive environment for you to do good work. They all try to make the scene live in the best possible way. And they remain open to some unexpected direction a scene might take.

What can you tell me about Shutter Island?
Marty’s just so energetic and passionate, like he’s still making his first movie. Wait till you see what I look like in that movie. I can’t give away too much about it. I’m a woman in a cave, I’m on the lam, and Leo comes in. I didn’t bathe or shower.

Cairo Time’s Patricia Clarkson on Playing the Romantic Lead, for Once