Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Savoir Faire, Sensuality And Positivity: Patricia Clarkson

Patricia Clarkson as Juliette Grant in "Cairo Time", directed by Ruba Nadda.   
Colm Hogan/Mongrel/lFC Films

By Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW 
Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Editor's note: this story first appeared on The Popcorn Reel on April 30, 2010.  "Cairo Time" opens in San Francisco on Friday, and opened last week in New York City and Los Angeles.


A ridiculously good view of a sunny late morning overwhelms the room in which the actress Patricia Clarkson stands.  It's almost the first thing you notice as you enter the suite of the local hotel here.  Miss Clarkson warmly greets her guest with a kind, enthusiastic smile.

The City entrances its visitors, and the New Orleans-born actress is no exception as she recalls San Francisco's beauty. 

"I was here 20 years ago shooting 'The Dead Pool' with Clint Eastwood . . . here I was, SAN FRAN!  Like being shot at with an Uzi!  And now here I am with "Cairo Time", which is antithetical to the Uzi."

Indeed, "Cairo Time" is no "Dead Pool".  Uzis need not apply.  "Cairo Time", even with its frowned-upon clichés, is often a beautiful whirlpool of dilemma, opportunity and romance.  Directed by Ruba Nadda, the drama is now playing locally at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival.  "Cairo Time" is scheduled to be released in June or July in the U.S.

Miss Clarkson, slender and wearing navy blue jeans and a green top, is charming, engaging and all smiles.  She laughs a lot during the conversation.  You think that you've known her for years as she engages you and laughs with you.  You realize that you've come to know her very well on the big screen.

"The Untouchables" (1987) was Miss Clarkson's start in film.  As in that film, she's played character parts for much of the intervening years ("Far From Heaven", "The Station Agent", "Pieces Of April", "Good Night, and Good Luck", "No Reservations".)  She has also been a leading lady ("Married Life", "Blind Date"), and takes center stage again, playing Juliette Grant, a woman on vacation in Africa in "Cairo Time".

Paradoxically, one could say that Patricia Clarkson has played so many character roles that she is a leading lady on the big screen. 

Born just days before the calendar turned to its 1960 page, the stage and screen actress from the Bayou on this day is animated.  Boundless energy.  She graduated from the Yale School of Drama.  "Angie (Bassett) . . . we went to Yale together.  She was two years ahead of me at Yale.  And -- so I know Angie, yeah.  Oh, she's such a beautiful woman, beautiful," Miss Clarkson notes, when a list of names of credible leading ladies with integrity on the big screen are mentioned to her.  She too is included.  The list: Catherine Keener, Alfre Woodard, Glenn Close, Angela Bassett.  (The absence of Meryl Streep or Tilda Swinton are either accident or because they are presumably givens on any impromptu list.)

Miss Clarkson talks about her "Cairo Time" co-star, Alexander Siddig, the British actor born in the Sudan.  Mr. Siddig plays Tareq Khalifa, a retired cab driver in Egypt who is left to chaperone Juliette around Cairo when her husband is stranded in Gaza.  There's palpable tension between Miss Clarkson and Mr. Siddig in the way it existed between Katharine Hepburn and Rossano Di Brassi in David Lean's "Summertime". 

"Alexander and I were both in Cairo for the first time . . . I walked into the lobby of the hotel (in Cairo) and met him for the first time.  He's just a gracious, vulnerable, open man.  I had to rely heavily on him.  I'm in every frame in this movie.  It was exhausting," Miss Clarkson admitted, while saluting the film crew and the director's endeavor and craft.

Miss Clarkson formed a strong connection to and friendship with Mr. Siddig during and after the filming in Cairo, the Egyptian city in northern Africa.

"We had Cairo, which is such a character in the film, and inundating -- beautiful, beautiful, remarkable city.  We just -- something happened.  We formed this incredible bond.  And we're still very good friends.  And I think we will know each other the rest of our lives."

The feeling of lifelong friendships on film is hardly unusual for the actress, who said that positive karma and bonding frequently occurs between herself and other actors or directors. 

"You just say, 'oh, this was someone I was meant to have in my life.'"

Part One - audio excerpt of conversation:

"Cairo Time" is bathed in color and costume and is rich in visuals.  When you watch you can't help but feel an intoxication with the film, which was released in Canada last year.

Despite some of the demands of the film shoot however, Miss Clarkson observed that Cairo is "very sensual, a very, very sensual city".

Speaking of which, Patricia Clarkson has brought a smart, sensual quality to virtually all her big screen work.  She may not have the biggest role in a film, but she usually has the biggest impact.

Take, for example, Miss Clarkson's role in "No Reservations"

In Scott Hicks' film she plays a New York restaurateur who keeps things in order when chaos seems to tear the place asunder.  There are flickers of sultry, savvy and charm, intertwined with toughness and effortless confidence.  Usually there's a look or a smoldering stare she gives that penetrates the screen.  Watching "No Reservations" offers just one example of the smaller, subtle things that Miss Clarkson brings to a great performance, film in and film out.

"I think it's crucial that as women age in this business that we don't lose our sensuality, our sexuality, our humor.  That is key for me as I age in this business and the parts become fewer and far between."

Miss Clarkson interrupts herself by knocking on the wood of her questioner's chair. 

"I've got to knock wood.  I'm very superstitious."

"I'm lucky that I have more work than I know what to do with.  But I do -- and I have the luxury now of saying 'no' -- but you know, I am looking for those parts large or small that are really going to have that integrity and have, you know, that don't marginalize a woman and put her in some kind of, you know, horrible space."

Note to writers: if you are writing a screenplay for Patricia Clarkson, you had better get the balance right.

"Someone sends me a script and I read the script and my character and I just say, 'Nope, nope.  You're already on the wrong track!'"

"And that's not to say, you know, playing like a really repressed, asexual woman -- if it were a character that went from A to Z -- but just to kind of show up for a few scenes and play some kind of horrible, you know, asexual marginalized woman . . . with really bad hair and like, mom jeans -- I'll kill myself!"

Howard Hawks probably could have hired Patricia Clarkson.  Told this, the actress looking skyward, with arms clasped and aloft, exclaims: "oh please, I love you Howard Hawks!  Yes!  Yes!"

The longing for Mr. Hawks and the film women of his day can be heard in Miss Clarkson's voice.

"You know, women with drive, and verve and presence and intelligence.  And not -- and it isn't about power.  Playing a powerful woman isn't empowering.  It's playing a woman that's incredibly well-written that's empowering.  You know?  I mean, that's not to say that I wouldn't like to play the president, or, you know what I mean?  Or a CEO, or, you know.  But it's -- people confuse the two.  Sometimes those powerful women that they write are some of the worst characters.  Because they're just all edges and sharpness and have nothing, and have no vulnerability.  You have nowhere to go."

Miss Clarkson shrieks at the sound of the words "romantic comedy".

"She's worthy of greater parts," Miss Clarkson says of Jennifer Aniston (whom she hailed as "fantastic") and others, listing several other women who often star in romantic comedy films.  There's more detailed discussion of this (in the audio portions embedded), including the lack of great writing of women from both men and women.

"Sometimes 'funny woman' is an oxymoron, and it shouldn't be."

Part Two - audio excerpt of conversation:

COPYRIGHT 2010.  POPCORNREEL.COM.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.                   Follow popcornreel on TwitterFOLLOW

Read more movie reviews and stories from Omar here.

Read Omar's "Far-Flung Correspondent" reports for America's pre-eminent Film Critic Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times - here

"popcornreel" film stories, movie reviews RSS