Patricia Clarkson: ‘When I was about to get naked, I heard a woman in the front row go “No!”’

'Older women are on a roll right now': Patricia Clarkson
'Older women are on a roll right now': Patricia Clarkson - Clara Molden for The Daily Telegraph
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Patricia Clarkson “has been crying a bit this morning”. So I am told, while I wait for the Hollywood actress in a church that is doubling as a rehearsal room, on London’s Tottenham Court Road. When Clarkson arrives, the 64-year-old New Orleans native tells me she has just put on some lipstick, so as “not to scare” me. It is all in a day’s work for an actress preparing to play “sexy and alive” morphine addict Mary Tyrone in a new West End production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night.

The role is the latest unexpected move in a fascinating career: over the years, Clarkson has won two Emmys for Six Feet Under and a Golden Globe for Sharp Objects; played Julianne Moore’s quietly vicious neighbour for director Todd Haynes in Far from Heaven; Robert Downey Jr’s wife in George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck; and an enigmatic scientist in the Maze Runner blockbusters. But before all that, she toiled away as a scene-stealing character actress, only getting her big break at the age of 38, as another addict, the “ravaged yet glamorous” German actress and heroin fiend in the 1998 film High Art.

In real life, Clarkson insists, she has never touched drugs, “even though I’ve been around a lot of them. It just didn’t interest me. God knows, I don’t need cocaine! I dated a man once who said, ‘Patty, if you ever do coke, let me know. I’m going to be in the next state.’”

Twenty years ago, when she played Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire on stage in Washington DC, Clarkson described Tennessee Williams’s flawed heroine as “the most broken person you’ll ever play in your life”. Now, she has been forced to reconsider. “I felt I could conquer Blanche; I don’t know that I can conquer Mary,” says Clarkson, who will be appearing opposite Brian Cox, the star of Succession (as Mary’s husband, James), Laurie Kynaston and Daryl McCormack (as their sons). “She’s the most complicated woman I’ve ever played; the well is deeper than ever. I keep plunging, and sometimes I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m never going to see sunlight again.’ But – c’est la vie – I’ll take a lot of vitamin D.” She erupts into her inimitable laugh – rich and smoky, knowing and naughty.

I have never heard an actress talk of her character the way Clarkson speaks of Mary; it’s as if she is ­discussing her best friend. When I ask what her daily routine will be come showtime for a four-act play that often exceeds three hours, she says: “Well, I have to eat, because Mary’s not skinny. She’s returned from the sanatorium, she’s got her breasts back and her hips. You know [the Tyrones] have probably had great sex and are having a good time. It’s just something Brian and I find really lovely about this…”

Patricia Clarkson and Brian Cox in rehearsals for Long Day's Journey into Night
Patricia Clarkson and Brian Cox in rehearsals for Long Day's Journey into Night - Johan Persson

What else? “I’ll try to sleep in as best I can, till about 10, prob­ably drink some concocted juices of some kind, thinking that will help me, and it won’t.” Dinner will be “a good sandwich”. And how will she wind down after the curtain falls? “Hmm, hmm, hmm,” she purrs. “French fries and bourbon!” Every night? “Oh… probably”.

I ask if she has braced herself for the kind of distracting behaviour that has recently been reported among theatre audiences. Andrew Scott revealed that he once had to halt Hamlet’s soliloquy when a man in the stalls opened his laptop; while, on Broadway, one audience member was apparently seen having an orgasm while watching Tom Hiddleston in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. “God save us,” says Clarkson, whooping with laughter. “Well, good on Tom Hiddleston!”

She recalls that while starring on both sides of the Atlantic as Madge Kendal in The Elephant Man opposite Bradley Cooper in 2014 and 2015, she once noticed “a woman in the front row when I was about to get naked – she was not happy. I could hear her breathing, ‘No, no, no, no, no.’ She knew what was coming. But then somebody quieted her – I think a man!”

After her stint on the stage, Clarkson will return to the screen in Lilly, a political thriller about the equal-pay activist Lilly Ledbetter. She says that, these days, she’ll only take on a role if her fee matches that offered to her male counterpart, and confirms that, for Long Day’s Journey into Night, “Brian and I are on equal footing, darling.”

Patricia Clarkson and Henry Czerny in Sharp Objects
Patricia Clarkson and Henry Czerny in Sharp Objects - Home Box Office (HBO)

It is a world away from the ­furious wrangling she had to endure with Harvey Weinstein, whose Miramax studio produced her 2003 film The Station Agent. Weinstein wanted to reframe her leading role as a supporting-actress contender for that year’s awards season. Clarkson, who already had an award-worthy supporting role in another film that year, Pieces of April, held her ground, fearing that having two campaigns in the same category would only split the vote.

“At the time, I didn’t realise how formidable I must have been,” she says now. “It was a battering – he was saying, ‘You’re going to ruin your career! You’ve ruined the movie!’ – but I didn’t let him back me down.”

Eventually, she says, Weinstein “gave up on me” – and she went on to get her first (and, so far, only) Oscar nomination for Pieces of April.

She’s been on the up ever since. “Well, 50-and-older women, we’re on a roll right now,” she says. “It feels almost antiquated to talk about ageism in our industry.”

'I am who I am and I've never really compromised on that'
'I am who I am and I've never really compromised on that' - Clara Molden for The Daily Telegraph

Clarkson said a decade ago that she dreamt of being cast as an action hero “in a black latex suit”. Today, she’s rather itching to play “a woman from a very different time. I’d love to be a warrior.”

I tell her I could see her as a Bond villain. “Oh, yes!” she hoots. “Oh, I’d lie down in Cairo traffic for that.”

What got her through the years of “incredible defeat and disappointment” earlier in her career was, she says, her “remarkable ­family”.

Her parents are still alive, both 88, and she is the youngest of five sisters. All still live in New Orleans, though Clarkson is in New York. “Sadly, a lot of people in my industry come from fractured families. But I came from a whole family, and I think it carried me through the toughest times I had.”

Despite that, Clarkson says, “I never really yearned for marriage, or children. I’m quite a solitary person.” She is, she admits, full of contradictions. “I am quick-tempered, but I’m deeply loving.

I have a certain kind of properness, I think from my upbringing. But I am mercurial. The savage in me is much needed right now for Mary. It will rise!”

Her advice to younger actors is to retain their idiosyncrasy, too. “Because that’s why people hire you – for you. I am who I am – and I’ve never really compromised on that, I hope.” Then she has second thoughts. “Maybe at the end of this I’ll be running down the street in my nightgown.”


Long Day’s Journey into Night is on at Wyndham’s Theatre, London WC2 (longdaysjourneylondon.com), from 19 March to 8 June

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