Patricia Clarkson’s Provocative Women

“I call this my Streetcar Named Desire staircase,” Patricia Clarkson says on a balmy day at the end of June, addressing the inky-black, iron-wrought staircase cascading around us, when I visit her at her apartment in New York. Clarkson has been living here for 11 years, but it speaks to a history far older than that; much of it betrays her New Orleans upbringing. The eight-foot shutters adorning the windows in the front room. A wall chandelier gifted by a good friend. A fleur-de-lis tray holding small glasses on her coffee table. The soft navy carpet in her bedroom. Each room evokes the understated decadence her hometown is known for.

It’s also filled with markers of her long career as an actress. A beautiful Schwinn bike leans against a nook in her hallway that has floral decals along its body and a leopard print seat. “You want to know who gave me this? One of dreamiest directors I’ve ever worked with. George Clooney,” she says with a coy smile, pointing out her character’s name from his 2005 directorial work, Good Night, and Good Luck, printed on its side. “It’s really way too heavy. I rode it when I dated a man who lived in the country, but I would never ride it in New York City,” she adds, before moving to her bedroom.

Clarkson moves with a calm, warm confidence as she points out beloved aspects of her home, but what’s most striking about her is clear the longer you’re around her: Here is a woman who carries a sense of history in her every step. Onscreen, this is perhaps nowhere more evident than in her latest role in HBO’s limited, southern-gothic series, Sharp Objects. “I haven’t walked this line since Blanche,” she says over a glass of rosé, referring to the infamous Tennessee Williams creation Blanche DuBois, whom she played in a 2004 staging of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Blanche is a continued presence in our conversation about Sharp Objects. Based on Gillian Flynn’s first novel of the same name, it’s the kind of splashy, A-list series HBO has become increasingly adept at nurturing. Coming off the success of Big Little Lies, Jean-Marc Vallée acts as the series’s director. Marti Noxon and Gillian Flynn, among other writers, pen episodes. The knotted tale centers on Amy Adams as Camille Preaker, a low-rate, alcoholic journalist riddled with emotional and physical scars, who is thrust back into her rural Missouri hometown, Wind Gap, in order to write a story about a serial killer targeting young girls. But the story that becomes the most fascinating is the one that unfolds between the women in Camille’s own family as they navigate their generational wounds — her teenage half-sister who carefully hides her rebellion, Amma (Eliza Scanlen), and her brittle, demanding mother, Adora, whom Clarkson plays. Adams has the showier role, but as the show progresses, it’s evident that Clarkson has the trickier one.

Clarkson, who is 58, has built a stunning career out of playing complex women, primarily in supporting roles, with each performance feeling more distinctive than the last. But none are as emotionally fractured, and with as deep a sense of a twisted past, as Adora. She’s the kind of character who could easily fall into caricature, a villain whose humanity is constantly obscured. But Clarkson plays her as a contradiction. At times she feels otherworldly, like a ghost transplanted from a fairy tale, the kind of Blanche DuBois character Williams made a career out of creating. In other moments, she’s hard-edged, biting in her cruelty. But Clarkson never forgets Adora’s humanity, even as her actions over the course of the eight-episode mini-series grow more unforgiving.

She’s also keenly aware of the darkness within Adora. “Remember, she’s seducing her children,” she says, her voice dropping. “It is the most frightening thing I’ve ever done as a character. It created torment in me, as Patti. It’s this borderline incestuous relationship that’s ultimately about control, and deep psychological … lackings.” Clarkson credits Amy Adams with being cast in the role. “I could never have done this part without Amy, and Amy wanted me for this part,” Clarkson noted. “She knew I had an even more tortured Blanche inside of me.”

L-R: Clarkson, Eliza Scanlen, and Amy Adams Photo: HBO

The youngest of five sisters, Clarkson was born in New Orleans to Arthur, a clinical psychologist, and Jackie Clarkson, a former state representative and councilwoman. She describes her upbringing as solidly middle class and staunchly progressive, buoyed by the rich culture of her hometown. She graduated from Yale Drama School at 25, landing her first film role at 26 in 1987’s The Untouchables. While she’s worked with everyone from Brian De Palma to Martin Scorsese, she is quick to credit a number of female directors for some of the highest points in her career, including Sally Potter, Isabel Coixet, and Ruba Nadda. “I did a lot of supporting characters, a lot of wives. I’ve cooked a lot of dinners onscreen; I’ve chopped a lot of vegetables. But for the most part, High Art helped me,” Clarkson says, referring to Lisa Cholodenko’s first film. “I’m always indebted to Lisa. She did truly change my life. I was on a very specific path as an actress, but what Lisa saw in me was that I was a chameleon, that the darkness —” she pauses. “I’m a rather dark person at times. I think I was born that way, and I became an actress in order to handle the raging rivers that are inside of me.”

In High Art, Clarkson plays Greta, a former model whose glamour has curdled due to her heroin addiction. Greta has both a lushness and an internal gloom that laces her every movement, qualities that Clarkson has gone on to explore in a number of roles — as the cancer-stricken, uncompromising mother in Pieces of April, who refuses to be a victim, which nabbed her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress; as an artist unsure of her talents who develops an addiction to Vicodin for seven episodes in HBO’s Six Feet Under, which earned her two Emmy awards; as Mrs. Kendal in the 2014 Broadway production of The Elephant Man, for which she was nominated for a Tony; and as the pointedly vindictive Vera in Dogville. Her upcoming film, Out of Blue, a noir directed by Carol Morley, sees her in a completely different dimension: The sole leading role, Clarkson appears in every scene as a rough-hewn detective devoid of the femininity that often colors many of Clarkson’s characters.

One of her greatest performances also leans into a quality that is subtext in many of her roles: her sensuality. (As Adora in Sharp Objects, this quality is also present, but in a way that scans as dangerous rather than alluring.) In 2009, Clarkson starred opposite Alexander Siddig in Nadda’s Cairo Time, a lovely, moving romantic drama in which their characters fall into an unexpected and deeply felt emotional affair. The sensuality Clarkson projects in her work is immediately apparent when you’re in her orbit. But it’s a trait Hollywood often has no idea what to do with in older women. “Those harsh, horrible, asexual women existed for so long in so many films — you came in for a couple of scenes and had no character and you left! Everybody was just like, ‘Oh, god. Give that person a vagina,’” she says with a blunt laugh. She’ll never forget a script she received with a character described as “Clarice, 48, with a sexuality that has left her, but she longs for it to come back,” Clarkson recalls, howling with laughter. “It was everything that made you just wither inside.” As she’s aged, Clarkson says, she’s been called upon more and more to play characters with sexuality. “Just as our emotional life expands, our sexual life expands,” she continues. “Our sensuality, I hope, is inherent, and therefore apparent. There’s always going to be those movies that are flooded with men, with the girlfriend at home writing letters. I’ve played a few of those! But we were complicit because we were holding our heads above water. And you know, Harvey [Weinstein] really opened it wide. That is the only upside of that whole tragic mess — it just cracked us open wide.”

Clarkson recalls being dealt a “professional blow” from the now-disgraced Hollywood producer over her decision to submit her performance in the 2003 Miramax film The Station Agent for awards consideration in the lead-actress category. “He was very unhappy with me about that, but I’ll still stand by it today,” she says. “I’m sorry, I was not the supporting actress; I was the leading lady — as the SAG Awards revealed.” While Clarkson’s disagreement with Weinstein was professional, she notes that his method of inviting actresses to his hotel was a common practice throughout the industry. “Many of us have talked about that, those of us in our 50s now,” she says. “We look back on the ’80s and the early ’90s and we were all like, ‘What?’ Producers, people, would be like, ‘Why don’t we have a drink? Just come up to my hotel room?’ ‘Oh, okaaaaay …’ A lot of us said yes! I guess I’m fortunate I didn’t, and I’m sad for those women.”

In the wake of #MeToo and other gradual sea changes in Hollywood, one trend that’s emerged is asking women to account for the moral failures of men they’ve worked with in the past. This is especially true of Woody Allen, who cast Clarkson in Whatever Works and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Is this a genuine desire to speak truth to power or a form of moral grandstanding? When I asked Clarkson about this dynamic, and her thoughts on Allen, she gave an answer that reflects the complications of the situation. “As actors we can always say no, and that’s the power I hold. If I’m uneasy with someone, I say no,” she begins. “It feels wrong that everybody is seeking this answer from all of us who knew him. I’m going to know the answer, but it’s going to stay with me. I don’t know anything about him personally, and I’m not saying there are not huge issues with him, but I’m going to let his family either take him down or not.” Clarkson adds that her opinion is somewhat of a moot point anyway: “Do I think he’s going to go forward in this industry? Probably not.”

By the time Clarkson first worked with Allen a decade ago, she had reached a certain status in Hollywood where directors were actively seeking her out for roles. “I’ve worked for no money, and I’m at the position now where I can do that, which is maybe the best part of where I’m at in this industry. I have the ability to work for … low wages,” Clarkson laughs. She can also be choosier about working with whom she wants. She clearly relished collaborating with Vallée on Sharp Objects, whom she describes as a “beautiful nightmare.” “With Jean-Marc, you’re completely on instinct. The only thing you are assured of is the breath inside of you — and even sometimes that was knocked out of me,” she says while standing in front of her kitchen island, her physicality growing more animated as her voice adjusts to impersonate Vallée’s French-Canadian accent. She describes filming a scene late in the series with Chris Messina, who stars as Detective Richard Willis, in which she gives him a tour of her beautiful, palatial home. “‘Patti! Talk about the house, talk about this, talk about that,” she mimics the director instructing her. “I just thought, Oh my God. I’m about to shoot three-and-a-half pages. I’ve never said them. I simply know them in my head … I think. I looked at Chris and I said, ‘Let’s fail.’”

As Clarkson relaxes back into her more natural stance and her flat, New Orleanian accent, what strikes me is her uncanny ability to inhabit the physical and vocal stylings of others within the span of a single sentence. At one point, as we discussed our shared southern upbringings and how she figured out Adora’s voice, she pivoted from the deep, clipped rhythm of New Orleans’s Garden District, an accent that is dying off, to the slow Alabama roil of her aunt to her own grandmother’s accent, which speaks to her Virginian and Georgian upbringing. She isn’t transformative in the traditional sense that we expect of actors. She doesn’t gain or lose weight in a dramatic fashion. Her changes are more provocative and revealing — the way she takes up space in a room, her manner of speaking, whether she faces someone’s gaze head-on or demurs. “As actors, we can only create so much,” Clarkson says of her own process. “At a certain point our own heart, our own blood, has to be there in the scene. The best parts of Adora are my grandmother; the worst parts just have to come from the blackness in my soul,” she adds, letting out her signature velvet laugh. “The body never lies” is a phrase Clarkson picked up from her movement teacher at Yale Drama School. Back then, she didn’t understand the gravity of the statement, but it’s become a personal philosophy for her. It’s evident both in her work and natural aura. She’s a woman who speaks eloquently with her physical form. She’s able to be fully present, to sweep you up in her emotions with a throaty laugh and a honeyed smile, and convey the depth of her emotional life with a simple, beguiling gaze.

It’s hard at first glance to find a through line in her greatest works. It only occurred to me during our second time speaking, when I found her leaning against her building. Decked casually in all black, her hair loosely put up, her quiet dog Isadora Duncan by her side. It felt different than when she’d greeted me during our first visit, wearing a white button-up dotted with color, a black skirt swishing at her hips, her radiant blonde hair in soft waves. I felt like I’d stumbled in on a private moment, the bawdy incandescence gone, replaced with a quiet reflectiveness. Perhaps this is what her best performances share. The suggestion that these women have hidden grooves and corners to their personalities, secrets they refuse to share.

Patricia Clarkson Is Terrifying in Sharp Objects