A newcomer to the well-established cast of TV’s award-winning Boardwalk Empire, Patricia Arquette admits to “new girl on the set” jitters despite a 25-year career.
“I remember when I first started, I was always terrified by the camera. I’d think: ‘Wow, all these people are quiet, and they’re staring at me, they say “action” and you’re supposed to do something’. Even on Boardwalk Empire, I caught myself doing it, and started laughing at myself because it reminded me of when I started and how I was terrified and incredibly shy,” says Arquette, 45, whose siblings are actors David, Alexis, Richmond and Rosanna Arquette; her grandparents and parents all actors.
“Even my great grandparents were in vaudeville. I’m sure when we understand the human genome we’ll find there’s probably a gene for this.” Swiftly overcoming her first-day nerves, she soon felt right at home as Boardwalk Empire’s tough speakeasy boss Sally Wheet, draped in gorgeous period costumes with her platinum hair teased into period curls.
“I think that getting comfortable with yourself is one of the gifts of age. The wisdom you get with age makes me feel like I could never be 21 again, I would never be 29 again, I wouldn’t be 35 again. I’m so glad to be where I am. I enjoy getting older,” says the actress who still enjoys having fun with fashion, radiant when we met in a Maxfield black parachute-silk dress and chunky platform sandals, and sporting a razor-cut bob.
If plastic surgery isn’t for her, she has no argument with those who choose that route: “That’s fine that you can look however you want to look. Definitely in this business I think you feel like others don’t feel you have something to contribute if you don’t look a certain way. I’m not judging other people I’m just saying for me, personally, I’m so happy to be getting older. I wouldn’t go back no matter what. I just think wisdom is more important.” At the RMFF (Riviera Maya Film Festival) in Mexico, maybe it’s the balmy breeze or gentle change of pace, but the endlessly fascinating Arquette is in a reflective mood and no topic is off limits.
“I’ve been conscious for a while that I have a duality within me – pain and sadness. There’s a sadness in me I will never understand. Every man I’ve loved has tried to find it, fix it, soothe it. But there’s a fierceness to me too,” says the actress whose ex-husbands, Nicolas Cage and Thomas Jane, are both actors.
“It’s funny how you don’t love someone until they’re gone and then did you really love them anyway? Or are you just upset they left?” she muses. “I think in Hollywood we see a lot of people who are very creative, but also are a little bit emotional disasters, self consumed.”
Reflecting on her family’s theatrical dynasty, she says: “My dad was a struggling actor so early on I got to see the bullshit of the industry and that was something I didn’t want to buy into. I knew those girls who led with beauty and it was disturbing to watch. Growing up poor, I understood that it wasn’t about what you wore or what designer, or how much money you made, or fancy parties. All that frivolous stuff seemed like such a waste.” By 19 she was pregnant and in love with Argentinian musician Paul Rossi, young motherhood only serving to strengthen her resolve to act: “I think because I was a very young mother, my life was all about baby stuff so I didn’t have anywhere to put all my adult emotional feelings so I embraced this world of film to communicate my pain and longing and heartbreak,” says Arquette, who also has daughter Harlow, 11, from her marriage to Jane while her son Enzo, 25, is now a photographer and artist.
Making her mark on Hollywood in her mid-20s, memorably featuring in Ed Wood, True Romance and Flirting with Disaster, she recently returned to movie-making, after her TV series Medium ended two years ago, in upcoming independent films including Electric Slide and The Wannabe.
“I’ve also been working on a film directed by Richard Linklater, where Ethan Hawke and I play parents of two children. It begins when our son starts first grade and ends when he graduates high school. We’ve been shooting a week a year for 11 years now and have one more year so that’s been a really exciting project.”
No subject is sacred for this uncompromising actress who tackles tricky topics including rape, bullying, gay rights, taxes and sexual abuse. “A lot of people don’t like it. But I don’t think I would be a full human if I didn’t have an opinion and a feeling for all of those things – although I do have to say now in the Twitter age that a lot of actors are afraid to have any opinion. They’re worried they’ll lose a contract... but I don’t want to compromise myself.” She was perhaps unfairly tagged early on in her career as being kooky, but there’s nothing remotely wacky about the efforts she has put into serious causes, particularly in Haiti.
“I think that’s another thing that happens perhaps with age, that people start being willing to see you as more than that. I do a lot of work in Haiti, building schools and classrooms, orphanage dormitories, and then we ended up working in sanitation, which is a very weird thing for an actress to do because it’s unglamorous, but it kills more kids than Aids, malaria, and tuberculosis worldwide. So I think at a certain point, when you’re talking about clean water and sanitation systems, they can’t really call you just kooky anymore,” she argues.
“After working in a place like Haiti, and you go back to Hollywood where everyone’s starving themselves to death and running around eating vegan, and getting facelifts, you’re like, ‘wow, this is such a weird reality’.
“It took a long time before anyone recognized me for my brains! For a long time it was like, ‘oh you grew up in a hippie commune, wacky, crazy, wacky, crazy’, and I just thought, ‘OK, it’s convenient and it’s boring to simplify something that’s deeper than that’. I think the majority of my career has been more about trying to say that’s not who I am.”
Arquette is tough on herself: “I think there’s times where I’ve failed [as a mother] but I also have a lot of people that help me. My daughter’s dad is a very active participant. Also, when I first started working on our project in Haiti I would only get two hours of sleep emailing and phoning, but now I’ve learned moderation.”
A new ‘Boardwalk Empire’ episode is on Sky Atlantic at 9pm tonight