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When People Are Paying, Put on a Dress

Patricia Clarkson in conversation with Bryan Batt during the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival.

Bryan Batt calls Patricia Clarkson “a beautiful little bottle of Tabasco sauce in a little silver holder,” and the “Mad Men” star couldn’t be more accurate. The two actors and friends sat down for a conversation in what was the highlight of the 2019 Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival in March. On stage in the intimate Queen Anne Ballroom of the Hotel Monteleone, Batt asked Clarkson about her long career on screen, TV and stage.

A native of Algiers, just across the river from New Orleans, Clarkson wore a deep red, one-shoulder dress with bell sleeves. Come to think of it, the dress was not unlike the color of Tabasco. “When people are paying, put on a dress,” she said.

Priced at just $25, the event was a steal for her fans, and her family filled up the second row of the ballroom. The baby of five sisters, Clarkson attended Karr Junior High School and took a speech class in the eighth grade. She recalls that her teacher, Mrs. Morrison, said, “You’re an actress Patti. I think you should join the drama club.”

She did and performed her first play in 1974 at the age of 15. Ethel Istre became her mentor at O. Perry Walker High School, where she performed Neil Simon’s “The Star-Spangled Girl.” She took a break at LSU, studying speech pathology and joining the Tri Delta sorority.

“I really wanted to go to New York, she said. “I needed to get away, be outside of my home environment so I could really expand.” She transferred to Fordham University in the Bronx, and a mentor there pushed her to go to Yale, but not before she did Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” at age 21 for her senior project.

“New York was where I was meant to be at the time,” she mused. “Yale became this crazy ride. I played everything from an 8-year-old murderer to a 300-pound Cajun mama.” That 8-year-old murderer was Rhoda in “The Bad Seed.”

She returned to New York City in 1985 to start working. She had auditioned for “The House of Blue Leaves” and didn’t get the part, but she did receive a standing ovation after her second audition. Two years later, the part became available again and she got it. Just nine months out of Yale, this was her first Broadway show.

Clarkson got the call to audition for “The Untouchables” while she was wrapping up “Blue Leaves.” Brian De Palma read with her and said he wanted her to go and meet Kevin Costner. She had been told not to wear makeup and be very plain for the audition with De Palma, so she asked him if she could wear makeup to meet Kevin Costner. He said yes, and she got the part of Ness’s wife. It was her first film, and she was 28 years old.

“Everybody’s All American” filmed in New Orleans and Baton Rouge followed, as did “Eastern Standard” on Broadway. But then she hit a bump in the road in her early thirties. “I couldn’t get a job, and it was shocking. My confidence started to slip,” she admitted.

“My father was incredible to me in this time,” she said, with him sitting just a few feet away in the audience. “I had to go back to knowing who I was so that I could play others. I had lost myself.”

After a slew of TV movies, “Pharoah’s Army,” her first real independent film starring Chris Cooper, got her back in the business. “That started to lift me out and then the big lift came from “High Art,” she said. Clarkson had no qualms about playing a German lesbian heroin addict in 1998, especially when the character was directed by Lisa Cholodenko.

“I said, ‘I might not be all of these things, but I am this character. I know this woman.’ It completely changed my career—this one part.”

Clarkson’s mother brought her great-aunt Patsy to see the film in New Orleans, and Patsy called her the next day and said, ‘If a director told me I had to play a German lesbian heroin addict, I would have told him, ‘I can play one of the three.’” Clarkson laughed and said this is one of her favorite stories to tell.

Batt asked her if New Orleans plays a part in her acting. Her response: “I had the good fortune to have this remarkable childhood and unconditional love. It allowed me to go to dark places, because I always knew I could go back to the light. New Orleans is in my blood. I am a New Yorker now, but my heart beats to this.”

That’s why Clarkson makes a perfect Blanche DuBois, a character she played as part the Kennedy Center’s “Salute to Tennessee Williams” in 2004. In a 2018 interview with Vulture at her New York apartment, she refers to her “Streetcar Named Desire staircase,” made of black wrought iron and cascading down to the first floor.

“I don’t think you ever recover from playing Blanche,” she told Batt. “You lose a part of yourself playing her. The journey is worth every single cell in your body. It changed me. I have my pre- and post-Blanche days. I’m in my post-Blanche days now, but then I went and did ‘Sharp Objects.’”

Her character of Adora Crellin in “Sharp Objects,” based on the book by Gillian Flynn, is as Southern Gothic and twisted as it gets. Mother of alcoholic Camille Preaker and younger stepsister Amma, Adora is cruel, judgmental and just plain sad. Clarkson plays her to perfection.

She credits the success of that role to making an emotional investment. “The times I’ve been caught up [in a role], that is when I didn’t do my homework. No one really can save you, and you have to want to be in that person’s skin,” she said.

She admitted the process of getting into Adora’s skin was a slow one. “I kind of had to let go and give over. If I thought too much outside her, I would start to judge her, and that’s the worst thing we can do.”

Clarkson said she came to love Adora, but she never took the character home with her. For now, Adora remains on the set of “Sharp Objects,” which has been rumored to be planning a second season. Clarkson did deservedly take home a Golden Globe for the part and thanked her parents in her acceptance speech.

Clarkson recalled some of the other “big” moments in her more than 40-year career. There’s the time Scorsese called her agent to say he had a small part for her. She balked until she learned that she would be alone in a cave with Leonardo DiCaprio. Another memory she shares with Batt is when Bradley Cooper called. She was at the opening night of “Evita” with Batt and his partner Tom when Cooper called and left a message about “Elephant Man.” She played the voicemail message for them and said the experience of working with Cooper made her a better actress.

Clarkson has also had the pleasure of working with five female directors and said in response to an audience question that she’s waited 30 years for the industry to shift toward women. One of those directors was Isabel Coixet, who called on Clarkson to star alongside Ben Kingsley in 2014’s charming “Learning to Drive.” Her latest film, “Out Of Blue,” is directed by Carol Morely and has Clarkson playing a New Orleans police detective. The actress described the film as “unusual,” “beautiful and artistic” in an interview with nola.com.

The surreal journey of “Out Of Blue” is a departure for Clarkson, but that’s not surprising. Just when you think you have her career figured out, she goes and challenges herself to master a new role.

“I know there’s many more things I want to do,” the 59-year-old actress told Batt. “It might be a new play that I do next off-Broadway or I might just sit in my house with Isadora Duncan [her dog].”

As the two friends were wrapping up the interview, Clarkson’s phone rang. It was a call from her agent, proof that her prolific career is far from over.

Photos courtesy of The Bend Media.

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