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Interview

Patricia Clarkson on standing up to Weinstein and fighting for trans rights: ‘Being trans is not political – it’s human’

The Oscar-nominated actor and star of ‘Sharp Objects’ and ‘Easy A’ talks to Adam White about her affecting new film, the part that threatens to eat her breakfast, lunch and dinner, and why the word ‘tolerance’ is dangerous

Wednesday 13 December 2023 13:44 GMT
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‘I said: this is where I should be. I should be a German lesbian heroin addict!’
‘I said: this is where I should be. I should be a German lesbian heroin addict!’ (Maarten de Boer)

I’m a wild girl,” Patricia Clarkson tells me, before breaking into a laugh so rich and peppery that it sounds as if it’s been soaked in rum. “You can define ‘wild’ in your imagination – go ahead.” Before she sprung a dare on me, I’d been trying to understand her a little. How, in her words, “a sweet, straight southern lady” had ended up living so unconventionally. “I’ve never married, I’ve never had children – norms have never been a part of my life,” she says. “I’ve always existed on the edges.”

You will recognise Clarkson’s face in an instant, even if you don’t immediately recognise her name. A prolific film and television thief, the 63-year-old has been stealing scenes for more than three decades – as Emma Stone’s outrageously sex-positive mother in the teen comedy Easy A, as Julianne Moore’s suburban bestie in Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven, as the eerie family matriarch in the Amy Adams limited series Sharp Objects. She’s popped up in The Green Mile, Dogville, Six Feet Under and Lars and the Real Girl, often carrying with her a sharp, sensual intelligence – it’s no wonder she dated Frasier Crane for four episodes of his eponymous sitcom.

Both on screen and off, she thinks of herself as “deeply mercurial”: “It’s the spirit that’s been in me since I was young. I’m thankful I found an outlet for it all – which is acting. I’ve put it to good use. And I live in a really nice apartment now.”

I’m a bit relieved she said it first. Clarkson is video-calling from her cavernous New York home, and bathed in golden light. A frankly obscene number of glowing wall sconces surround her, along with busy bookshelves and plush sofas. It’s an Architectural Digest cover story waiting to happen, and, honestly, the very best advertisement you could imagine for being creatively fulfilled and sans dependents.

We’re here to talk about Monica, Clarkson’s new film. The Monica of the title is a massage therapist played by Transparent’s Trace Lysette, who is informed that her mother, Clarkson’s Eugenia, is about to succumb to brain cancer. They’ve been estranged for years, ever since Monica came out as trans. Now, with Eugenia losing her faculties, Monica returns to the family home under the guise of her mother’s new caregiver. As Eugenia fades in and out of lucidity, the pair develop an ambiguous, tender dynamic not unlike mother and daughter. It’s a marvellous film: subtle and affecting and anchored by two brilliant performances.

Clarkson says she signed up to the movie not only because the role was a challenge – Eugenia spends much of the film bed-ridden and non-communicative, in the process robbing Clarkson of much of her speech and movement – but because she knew a film about trans life, and led by a trans actor, was “important”.

Harvey Weinstein couldn’t [end my career]. I just stood my ground. And I’d do the same thing again and again

“It’s unusual, and it shouldn’t be, and that’s what bothers me,” she says. “We shouldn’t be talking about this.” Monica had been in development for close to a decade, with Lysette attached since 2017, but financing repeatedly fell through. “Raising money was difficult, getting a distributor was difficult,” Clarkson sighs. “We’ve crossed the queer threshold in film, but we haven’t quite crossed the transgender threshold, and that’s unfortunate and wrong.”

Monica is also being released into a climate of increased violence against trans people, and seemingly endless “debates” about gender and bathrooms and trans-inclusive healthcare. I tell Clarkson that I don’t recall trans existence sparking such vitriol until very recently. Clarkson has noticed the change of tone herself. “It’s become political, and it’s not political – it’s human,” she says. “You know how people declare from the rooftops about wanting freedom? Being transgender is about freedom. It’s about living as the person you know you are, and not the person somebody else wants to see you as. It’s very simple. There’s no discussion about it for me.”

Subtle and affecting: Clarkson in her new film, ‘Monica’ (606 Distribution)

People are, she thinks, “getting better at acceptance”, before adding that she used the word deliberately – she’s no fan of “tolerance”. “That is a dangerous word at times,” she says. “I don’t think anybody ‘tolerates’ me as a straight lady. They just love and embrace me.” She breaks into that laugh again.

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Clarkson was born and raised in New Orleans, the daughter of a politician and a teacher. Her background is liberal and educated – though also more traditional than the artistic world she ended up inhabiting. The playwright Richard Greenberg, one of her classmates at the Yale School of Drama, once described her as a bundle of contradictions: “She was the most behaved, most patrician girl imaginable – yet she was savage and unbounded.”

It made her a slight anomaly once she graduated and began finding work in film. “I was never really an ingénue, so I started to struggle,” she remembers. Her early credits are impressive – she made her debut playing Kevin Costner’s wife in The Untouchables (1987) and followed it up with Clint Eastwood’s The Dead Pool (1988) – but there followed years of low-paying theatre work and bad TV movies with titles like She Led Two Lives.

Crabby Patti: Clarkson in her breakout role as a heroin-addicted lesbian in 1998’s ‘High Art’ (Shutterstock)

Real acclaim and recognition came relatively late: she was 37 when she was cast in Lisa Cholodenko’s High Art (1998), an independent drama about a photographer (Ally Sheedy), her young muse (Radha Mitchell) and her erratic, perma-stoned girlfriend (Clarkson). “I said: this is where I should be,” she remembers. “I should be a German lesbian heroin addict!” The film earned Clarkson an Independent Spirit Award nomination, and finally put her on the map. “Suddenly I was living the life I had always wanted, that I had dreamt about at Yale, doing these really demanding, cool, cinematic parts, and then also doing theatre.”

It was also a moment in time that led to her colliding with Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced movie mogul, now a convicted sex offender, who at that point was the most powerful man in Hollywood. Clarkson, who in last year’s She Said played the New York Times editor who commissioned the initial exposés of Weinstein, experienced his wrath on the awards circuit. Weinstein was famously fixated on awards campaigns and Oscar wins, and in 2003 insisted that Clarkson be (wrongly) entered into the supporting categories for her heartbreaking performance alongside Peter Dinklage in The Station Agent, which Weinstein’s company Miramax Films distributed. Clarkson was also in the awards mix that year for a rival indie, the Katie Holmes-led comedy-drama Pieces of April. Going along with Weinstein’s machinations would have meant Clarkson competing against herself – and potentially losing out on nominations for both.

“I was the leading lady of The Station Agent, end of story,” she says. “I was not going to ‘pull a Harvey’ and lessen the movie or myself. Instead, I was urging everybody to see me in the right categories – leading for The Station Agent and supporting for Pieces of April. It was the right thing to do. I stood my ground against very mighty forces. It taught me early on that I can do what’s right and go up against a mighty power and still be standing.”

Having stuck to her guns, Clarkson ended up with a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for Pieces of April. I tell her that she must have had a degree of innate bravery to stand up to Weinstein back then – if he wanted to, he had the power to end someone’s career in an instant. “But he couldn’t with me,” she says, firmly. “I just stood my ground. And I’d do the same thing again and again.”

Unlikely friends: Peter Dinklage, Clarkson and Bobby Cannavale in the acclaimed 2003 indie ‘The Station Agent’ (Shutterstock)

There is an elegant yet robust fortitude to Clarkson. She’s also a little distracted. Throughout our conversation, I’m convinced someone else is in the room with her – she’s always glancing sideways, seeming to gesture to an unseen entity that keeps grabbing her attention. It turns out I’m correct… sort of. Next March, Clarkson will be starring alongside Brian Cox in the Wyndham Theatre’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s four-hour classic Long Day’s Journey into Night, and she’s just about getting to grips with the script – it’s currently all she can think about, so much that she’s keeping a copy of it close to her at all times, including right now.

“I keep looking over at it,” she laughs. “It’s a massive, massive undertaking. You know, I’ve done Blanche DuBois and it ate my lunch.” O’Neill’s Mary Tyrone, though? The recovering morphine addict at the heart of a dysfunctional Connecticut clan? “Ugh,” she groans, “it’s going to eat my breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

The role is one of the great albatrosses of the theatrical canon, and Clarkson has set an ambitious schedule for herself: learn the lines for act one by the start of her Christmas holiday, act two by the end of the year, and act three by the time she flies to London at the end of January for rehearsals. She’s finding the whole process daunting.

“It’s an incredibly intimate play, and so deeply personal,” she says, holding her hands tight to her chest. “Mary Tyrone is never naked, but she might as well be, you know?” I tell her it must be galling to know that she’s committed to extracting all of that from herself – day in, day out – for three months. “You’re placing yourself in harm’s way,” she says. “I hope that doesn’t sound pretentious… but you are! It’s probably the most arduous journey I will ever take as an actress, but I’m up for it.”

This is a woman who’s always lived and acted on the edge of things, though – so of course she is.

‘Monica’ is in cinemas from 15 December, with tickets available here. ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’ runs at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre from 19 March until 8 June – tickets are available here

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