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Patricia Clarkson

December 28th, 2008 · 3 Comments

Patricia Clarkson was born December 29, 1959 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Her father was an administrator for Louisiana State University School of Medicine, her mother Jackie Clarkson a New Orleans city councilwoman and later, state legislator. The youngest of five girls all less than eighteen months apart, Clarkson was thirteen years old when her fuse for performing arts was lit. Speaking with Hollywood Interview in March 2008, Clarkson says, “I gave a speech in speech class, and my teacher said ‘You know, I think you’re an actress. You should join the drama department.’ And I did! And that was it. I did a play called F.L.I.P.P.E.D.: Feminist Liberation Idealist Party for Permanent Equality and Democracy. The drama teacher was a major feminist. It was 1974 or ’75 and we did this rockin’ play!”

Clarkson attended O. Perry Walker High School, where her classmates included future New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. After spending two years as a speech pathology major at LSU, Clarkson talked her parents into letting her transfer to Fordham University’s College at Lincoln Center. “They agreed to let me go to New York if I finished my bachelor’s degree. So it was a real stretch for my parents, putting their fifth child through school, and they weren’t rich by any means. We were middle, or upper-middle class, but New York has always been incredibly expensive. So the sacrifices they made to send me there were enormous.” Clarkson graduated summa cum laude with a degree in theater arts in 1982 and was accepted into the graduate program at Yale School of Drama.

In 1985, Clarkson had her Master of Fine Arts and made her New York stage debut in Oliver Oliver. The following year, she was tapped to take over for Julie Haggerty in the Broadway revival of John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves. Clarkson found time to audition for a movie role, that of Eliot Ness’ wife in a film version of The Untouchables to be directed by Brian DePalma. “I went in and read for a great old casting director and he said, ‘I think you might be right for this but that dress you have on is too sexy. Come back in something plainer and read for Brian.’ And I did and that was it.” While The Untouchables became a summer blockbuster, roles opposite Clint Eastwood in The Dead Pool and Timothy Hutton in Everybody’s All American did anything but rocket Clarkson to stardom.

Clarkson spent most of the next decade in TV, appearing in Movies of the Week with titles like Legacy of Lies or Caught In The Act. Joining the cast of Steven Bochco’s legal drama Murder One in 1996 was a step up in prestige, even though she played another loyal wife. It took an audition for Lisa Cholodenko’s High Art for Clarkson’s film career to take off. The actress recalls, “I almost didn’t go in. I was like, ‘Oh my God, a German lesbian heroin addict: who would ever buy me as that?’ But I loved the part. High Art changed things because it was such a dramatic departure. Sometimes, you need to shake people up, and High Art definitely, dramatically shook things up.”

At the Sundance Film Festival in January 2003, three movies Clarkson had finished – All the Real Girls, Pieces of April and The Station Agent – were featured in competition, while a fourth (The Baroness and the Pig) screened in World Cinema. The title “Queen of the Indies” – previously held by Parker Posey – was bestowed on Clarkson in the press. Sundance awarded her the Jury Prize for Outstanding Performance, while Clarkson’s work as a terminally ill, acid tongued mom in the comedy Pieces of April garnered nominations for an Academy Award, Golden Globe, Broadcast Film Critics Award, SAG Award and Independent Spirit Award. Pieces of April director Peter Hedges stated, “There is a difference between celebrity actress and being a great actress, and Patty is a great actress. There are a couple of directors, and we have made a pact to do whatever it takes to make the world know about her. She is incredible, and I can’t think of anyone more deserving.”

Clarkson has since won an Emmy Award for her recurring role as Lauren Ambrose’s bohemian Aunt Sarah on Six Feet Under, played Blanche DuBois in the 2004 Kennedy Center production of A Streetcar Named Desire and appeared in moves ranging from Good Night and Good Luck to Lars and the Real Girl to Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Asked about blossoming late, Clarkson says, “There were some movies I passed on early on, and some movies I didn’t get, some big studio films. But now I look back and I realize that I really came later in life to a kind of career. I was somewhat typecast as suburban ‘mom’ type roles early on. But I’ve always had this deep voice, so I think it was tough sometimes for directors to cast me as the ingénue. Because I’d walk in and look a certain way, then open my mouth and have this … voice! So I think I sort of grew into my voice, my face, my body as I got older.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: United Federation of Character Actors

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 the communicatrix // Jan 3, 2009 at 7:22 pm

    Thank you for writing this little well-researched valentine. I’ve been nuts about Patricia Clarkson since I saw High Art, and I’m man enough to admit that I’d seen The Dead Pool at least twice (and The Untouchables, which I thought was schmaltzy and dull, once) before seeing High Art, and had no clue who this spectacular “new” talent was.

    Yes, I’m a dumbass.

    I love stories like Clarkson’s b/c as an artist of a certain age (which would be 47, I’m dead certain), I cling to the idea that my time may yet come where what I do best and love to do best also becomes something I not only get to do a lot, but get paid handsomely for. (I know she’s not a Big Box Office name, but I also have an idea of what she must make per picture, and that’d be dandy by me.)

  • 2 Alex Simon // Jan 21, 2009 at 6:51 pm

    Dear Joe,

    Very nice article–with every quote from P.C. taken from my interview with her in March of 2008, which was the cover story of that month’s Venice Magazine, a local L.A. publication, but that you most likely found on my website, The Hollywood Interview. I don’t mind you using our site as research source, but would greatly appreciate being credited, just as I’m sure you would if the shoe were on the other foot!


    Alex Simon
    The Hollywood

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Jan 21, 2009 at 7:33 pm

    Colleen: What you need is to become wildly successful in a field where you get to show up and take stuff home with you. I believe this was referred to as “swag” at some point, but there is probably a politically correct term for it now, like, “promotional items” or “free shit.” Anyway, Patricia Clarkson is in a class that includes Frances McDormand, Joan Allen and Toni Collette. Her presence in a movie is a magnet for other actors. I’m sure she’ll only improve with age.

    Alex: As of late, when I lift anything verbatim, I cite the publication it originated from. However, reading back over my Patricia Clarkson post, I can see what happened.

    I credited Hollywood Interview as a source, but that acknowledgment did not come up front. It surfaced in the last paragraph. I can easily see how a passer-by would think I mirrored something you reported on first. I’ve since clarified you as a source, while installing a hyperlink directly to your blog as well.

    Hollywood Interview has been an excellent source for quotes, so I’m eager to give credit where credit is due.

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