Patricia Clarkson: Why the actress only takes meaty roles

Patricia Clarkson talks to Matt Wolf about her love of tricky projects, including her break playing a lesbian heroin addict
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The Independent Culture

When George Clooney's posse came to Britain for the screening of the actor's second directing effort, Good Night, and Good Luck, at the London Film Festival in November, amid the scrum there was a familiar if not immediately identifiable face: Patricia Clarkson, the lone woman in a male-dominated movie, and someone whose star is rapidly ascending.

For years, Clarkson has been making her way on the New York stage and in small-budget, little-seen films - Pieces of April, for instance, for which she received an Oscar nomination two years ago for her turn as a strong-minded mother dying of breast cancer. Good Night, and Good Luck, by contrast, is a low-budget movie - it cost about $8m (£4.6m) - with a sizeable reach. Telling the story of the crusading American TV newsman Edward R Murrow, and his battle against Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, the film is up for six Academy Awards. (Its title comes from Murrow's signature farewell, which burrowed itself into the American consciousness at the time.)

Clarkson has a supporting role as Shirley Wershba, wife of Murrow's colleague Joe, played by Robert Downey Jnr. But though the part isn't very substantial, Clarkson signed on at once. "I couldn't say yes fast enough. I get sent a lot of scripts at this point in my life, but when something is simply this good, it rocks you. I loved the idea of just kind of contributing whatever amount I could to this ensemble." Why is that? "I've always had a thing about Murrow, and I thought George and Grant [Heslov, the co-writer] just perfectly captured this one moment in time. Besides, I'm a news junkie; in another life, maybe, I was something to do with the news."

In this life, Clarkson, 46, has continually impressed with the integrity of her choices in an industry where virtually every actor's CV shows signs of slumming it. "Don't put me on a pedestal," laughs Clarkson, who prefers the altogether separate explanation that she simply knows what she likes. In Good Night, and Good Luck, for instance, she and Downey enact a clandestine marriage that lends a domestic dimension to the themes of secrecy and evasion coursing through the film. "It's a kind of layer, another texture, of the time," says Clarkson, adding that the real-life Wershbas' story has been "in no way embellished" for the film. "It's resonant in that everyone was living with this veil of secrecy, whether personal or professional; everyone was looking over their shoulder, regardless of their lives."

By rights, Clarkson should have most 40-plus actresses looking over their shoulders, since the New Orleans native isn't going away any time soon. A 1985 graduate of the Yale School of Drama, she had only been in New York for nine months before she was cast in her film debut in Brian De Palma's movie The Untouchables, playing the young wife of Kevin Costner's Eliot Ness. On Broadway, she replaced Julie Hagerty in an acclaimed production of the John Guare tragicomedy The House of Blue Leaves, and was soon appearing in plays such as Three Days of Rain from Richard Greenberg, the Tony Award-winning playwright of Take Me Out.

"I don't know that I had some whole career path in mind," says Clarkson, who grew up the youngest of five sisters - "Chekhov plus two," she notes, deadpan - the rest of whom, she says, smiling, "all have real jobs". But she speaks with refreshing pragmatism of seeking out "things that would pay money" while keeping her soul intact: "I think I was just seeking good work - the best scripts and parts I could be a part of. And also to make a living."

Whereas most screen actresses fade from view as they age (why else has Kathleen Turner, among many others, sought succour in the theatre?), Clarkson's screen opportunities have multiplied against the odds. "I know. Let's not talk about it; let's not jinx it," she says, pausing to choose her words. "Sadly, I am the exception, and it's not something to crow about; I shouldn't be, but in some ways I am." That this is so honours "the rise, the real rise, of independent film, which is shifting things. I credit that market for taking more chances so that they will make movies about women in their forties."

Clarkson's breakthrough by common consent - her own included - came in 1998 in the Lisa Cholodenko movie High Art, in which she played the heroin-addicted German girlfriend of a boho-chic photographer played by Ally Sheedy. "I almost didn't go in [to audition]. I was like, 'Oh my God, a German lesbian heroin addict: who would ever buy me as that?' But I loved the part." The critics in turn loved her. "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."

More recently, she has won acclaim in the Bafta-winning The Station Agent, playing the woman who ricochets between Bobby Cannavale and Peter Dinklage, and Pieces of April. The latter film, made for $200,000 ("that was guerrilla film-making"), brought her to the 2004 Oscars in a beige Bill Blass gown that probably cost more than the entire film. "When I'm going down the red carpet, I like to have on something beautiful that fits me and is right. I don't have a stylist; I do it all myself." At the Venice premiere of Good Night, and Good Luck she appeared in an Alberta Ferretti white dress that was almost as photogenic as Clooney. Indie queen Clarkson may be, but that in no way keeps the actress from, as she puts it, "looking nice, looking good".

'Good Night, and Good Luck' is out today