Emmy-Winning Actress Patricia Clarkson On Thriving As A Woman Over 40 In Hollywood

Yitzi Weiner @ Authority Magazine

Authority Magazine
… I strongly believe in the way I was raised. No one is born prejudiced. No one is born hateful. No one is born to judge. We all come into this world accepting and loving. I have a tremendous number of gay friends and people of color. I think what disappoints me is that we have used the word tolerance for too long. You know, I’m a straight white lady, nobody tolerates me. Everybody’s accepting of me. It’s about learning. It’s about learning, and genuine acceptance; of people whose sexuality is different from yours or someone whose gender might be in the process of changing. I mean, I think it’s about love. And as corny as it is, I think it is really truly about true, deep-down acceptance, and learning to just live the life that we are all in. We all came out of the birth canal, the same way, either through a C-section or other, and I just don’t understand. We need to rethink our world. Our world is very different now. We no longer tolerate this, and rightfully so. We are moving on from sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. We are moving on from all of these things and we must continue. We must continue.

I had the distinct pleasure to talk to Academy Award nominee, Golden Globe Award, Critics’ Choice Award and Emmy Award-winning actress, Patricia Clarkson.

Patricia takes on roles as varied as the platforms for which she plays them. This multi-faceted approach makes her one of today’s most respected actresses.

Thank you so much for joining us, Patricia. Our readers would love to get to know a bit about your origin story. You have an extremely accomplished career. Can you share with us the story of your childhood and how you grew up?

Oh goodness. We’re going way back! I was born and raised in the great city of New Orleans. I grew up with four older sisters. They hate that–that I say they’re older… but they are! I’m the baby of five girls. I had a very middle-class suburban life growing up, went to wonderful, beautiful, public high schools, had a wonderful childhood, and it was a unique way to grow up. It’s New Orleans, so I grew up with great food, culture, music, and it was glorious. My whole family still lives there, and I’m very close to them. I love them all very dearly. I miss them. [Laughs] I’ve been working too much. I haven’t seen them in a while.

Later in my life, my mother got into real estate, and through real estate, my mother ran the city of New Orleans. She was president of the city council under two mayors. My father ran a children’s home and then he worked for LSU Medical School and, as an administrator, educated all five of us. I left LSU to come to New York and my mom and dad said, “Oh God, okay, how are we going to do this?” I went to Fordham. My aunt was Dean of Admissions of Loyola in New Orleans and she said, “Listen, I’m going to connect you with the head of the department. You’re going to find out, we’re going to try to get you some financial aid.”

Thank God. I had some very good grades from LSU. So, off I went at 19 to Fordham and had just a remarkable time. I met my second big mentor in my life, Joe Giseski.

Then I went off to Yale School of Drama [laughs] for another three years. Again, my dad was like — okay, here we go, Patti… and I’ve been in New York ever since! I pretty much lived in New York since 1985, and I love it, and I can’t ever live anywhere else except New Orleans.

Can you share the story about what brought you on your path as a very successful actress? Can you share how that started?

Well, I was very fortunate. I got a big Broadway show, pretty much out of Yale. The great Jerry Zaks cast me, and I replaced Julie Haggerty. I got this wonderful Broadway gig, eight months out of Yale, and then I got The Untouchables, the first big job where I met Brian De Palma. He really liked me. He thought I looked very sweet and lovely and then I had this voice [laughs] and he liked the juxtaposition from Mrs. Nest. He cast me in that great job–Brian De Palma! I mean, I just had great people give me jobs. And it changed my life. I got a great agent. It’s all about luck; I’m lucky, I’m lucky, lucky, and lucky! I got an agent, and that’s how work begets work. I started to get work, and then I got more work. I had a little rough spot in my thirties, but then I got back up on the horse in my late thirties, and I’ve been working ever since. [Laughs] So, I’m doing well. I’m working a lot in my sixties. Late fifties are hell. If you can last that long — good luck, everybody!

Amazing. So, you probably have a lot of fascinating and varied experiences. Can you share with us maybe one or two of the most interesting stories that have happened to you since you started your career?

Goodness. One of the most interesting things early on, was being acknowledged by such a large director as Brian De Palma and changing my life. Kevin Costner and I learned how to act on film through that film, and Brian trusted in me enough that I would catch on to film. There are certain directors that will take you and coddle you. I really had no experience given this beautiful gift, and then I would say later in life, running into Bradley Cooper and hear him saying, “Listen, I’m going to do the Elephant Man. I’m going to cast you. I want you!” I would say, “Oh my goodness, no, no, no! I don’t do theater anymore.” And he would say, “Oh, yes you do!” That was 30 years apart, but that’s the beauty of our industry.

I didn’t know that Bradley Cooper was a fan of mine. I had no idea! Before that, I had played, this really stunning character, this German lesbian heroin addict in “High Art,” and that was a critical moment in my career. It was critical because it broke me out of this suburban lady mode and let people see that I really was a shape-shifter, that I can transform. I’m not, thank God, a drug addict. I’m also not a lesbian, and I’m not German, but the great Lisa Cholodenko saw potential in me. So, it’s these key moments in my life that these very accomplished people saw me.

My goodness, it doesn’t get any better in offering me this beautiful job, I mean stunning job, in the State of the Union. I mean, I’m shooting the lead of a very sexy spy show, and I’m the lead of a show very much so, I’m talking underwear and all [laughs], you know That’s Ruba Nadda, who believes that women at any age are beings of a sexual nature. They are elegant, phenomenal creatures they can be, at all ages, desirable.

It has been said that our mistakes can sometimes be our greatest teachers. Do you have a story about a mistake that you made when you were first starting and then the lesson that you learned from it?

I’ll tell you exactly what my mistake was. I didn’t work hard enough on some of my auditions and that was a catastrophic mistake. It burned me a few times. That’s why, whenever I go talk to my Alma Mater, to the graduating class at Fordham, every year I say, “You guys don’t have agents, but your auditions are your calling card.”

I gave some great auditions. My great audition for House of Blue Leaves, where that got me that great Broadway gig, or my wonderful audition for Brian De Palma. Then there were other auditions that I’d let slide. I made mistakes, and I started to realize that even if I don’t get that job in that room, I have to impress someone. I have to let them know the level of actor I am. I might be too short, too old, too tall, too young. It just might be something else, my voice is too deep or whatever, but I had to let people know that I’m serious, that I came to work, and that I came to work hard. So, I started to kind of really take every single audition I had seriously and really work on it, really dive deep, and do the personal work. That’s how I got “The Green Mile.” I remember the work I did on that audition. Ooh, took years off my life, but I got the part right there in the room. They gave me the part.

That’s one of the last auditions I’ve had in a long time. I count my lucky stars every day.

That’s beautiful. So, you’ve been blessed with great success in a career path that could be challenging, particularly for women over 40. Do you have any words of advice for others who want to follow your path, but are intimidated by the prospect of constant rejection?

Well, I have suffered, of course, a tremendous amount of rejection. You know, we all do! There was a time in my thirties, I was not getting the parts I wanted. I was up for some very good parts and I was losing out! You know what’s interesting? This is something else I tell the graduating class. I tell them that you have to keep people around you who love you and believe in you. Again, I had a phenomenal family. My father would call me and ask me how I’m hanging in. I had tremendous support from my family. I had beautiful friends that I’ve had throughout my lifetime, those dearest of friends, that I’m still very close to.

What, I think, is essential for an actor is to have the people around you to buffer the blows. And to have to get back up, you simply have to get back up. I struggled and then finally, I remember, I had a moment and I just said, “Patti, this is ridiculous! You know, how hard you worked? You know, you can do this! This is ridiculous!” I dug back into my auditions hard and heavy, and I started to get some better jobs.

Every industry iterates and seeks improvements, and the entertainment industry certainly has iterated and has improved in many ways. What changes would you like to see in the entertainment industry going forward?

I’d like to say our industry is really starting to shift with the rise of older women in leading parts. On television and in film, we have started to see a rise in the trajectory for women and specifically women of color. I’d like that trajectory to continue. That’s the path we need to be on. We need more women behind the camera. We need more directors, we need DPs, we need more women, everywhere in our industry. Did you know that when I first did “The Untouchables,” everybody was male, even my makeup artist? [Laughs]

Look, I’m shooting for Lionsgate, this very big series, beautifully written by John McLaughlin, directed by, you know, the one and only Ruba Nadda who directed me in “Cairo Time.” One of my favorite, favorite films I’ve ever done. Here we are back together, again, shooting a glorious piece. And Lionsgate–I salute them every day–do not blink an eye that the lead of this series is me. [Laughs], The women in the industry, they’ve earned where they are right now. It’s not a fluke. They have earned their place in history, in this industry, and it’s exciting. I think it’s a very exciting time. Look at the rise of women in color throughout our industry, my God, it still needs to grow. We still need more, but it is shifting, and I do think it’s not all down and out. I think we are on a better path than we’ve ever been on in this industry.

That’s beautiful. So, let’s talk about your really impressive work. You have such a large body of impressive work and iconic films. Can you share with our readers the exciting projects that you’re working on now and will be working on in the near future?

Well, get ready. I have quite a few. [Laughs] It’s joyous. I’m 62 and I’m ready! I have a gorgeous film called Monica going to the Venice Film Festival in the main competition. It stars the beautiful Trace Lizette and I play her dying mother. It is about a transgender daughter who is returning home after 18 years… and it’s just a dream come true for me to be back in Venice with this special film. I was there with George Clooney with “Good Night, and Good Luck.” So, I will finish shooting this beautiful series called Gray, and in a week I will go home, do a fitting of all my gowns, and head to Venice.

And then later in the year, I have “She Said,” the wonderful film that Maria Schrader has directed about the Harvey Weinstein story, the phenomenal journalist who broke the story, and I play Rebecca Corbit, the investigative editor at the New York Times. I just looped that today. So that’s coming out in November. I’m taking a very big break through Christmas, but I’ve got another film down the line to shoot a beautiful, small, independent film that I love called “Light on Broken Glass” that I absolutely adore. So, we’ll see. I’ve got possibilities, and that’s what I think keeps actors alive. You know, we need to have possibilities.

Amazing. So, let’s talk about State Of The Union for a little bit. So, congratulations. That’s a really amazing nod. It’s really wonderful. I guess it is obvious, but it sounds like it’s a conversation between the two parts of America.

Yes. In a way, it is. I mean, it is. It’s Nick Hornby’s brilliance coming at a married couple. I have an old-fashioned husband, who is not willing to really budge, and I’m kind of trying to move on to a higher self, if you will. I know quite a few women who are in their fifties and sixties and seventies who have moved on to try to achieve a higher self. So, I understood Ellen’s journey. She had lived this very specific life and I think she woke up and realized–’no, I want something else. I want something else.’ It’s really just the beauty of this dialogue and the way that you Hornby balances the tone of these characters and really doesn’t let either of them off the hook either. It’s very funny and very sad, and that’s why it was a dream to do it. I didn’t really even read it. I just said yes. [Laughs] I got a call for my agent, and he said, “Patti, do you want to be in the second season of State of the Union? Nick Hornby wrote the second season,” and I said, “Are you kidding me?”

I flew to London at the height of COVID. [Laughs]

It was just the best decision. We were very sequestered. I was not allowed to go anywhere. We were tested every day. I lived in my little Mary Poppins apartment. It had this funny little outdoor patio with a pitched roof and I just kept thinking of chimney sweeps dancing with me, step in time, step in time. So anyway, it was just one of the most glorious experiences I’ve ever had. It was very concentrated, very demanding–deeply demanding–130 pages and 15 days.

It was brutal, but I would do it all over again tomorrow.

I think that I first became aware of you when I was 17 sitting on the couch with my friend, in 1999, and we watched The Green Mile together. The Green Mile ranks as one of the best films of all time.

Yeah; it’s stunning. I’m telling you, I walked in, fell apart in front of the producer and the director. I walked out the room and they said, “We’re giving you the part.” It was glorious.

So, maybe this is obvious, but can you articulate what caught people’s hearts about the film and what lessons we could learn to our society in 2022 from the theme of the film?

Well, I think it is good versus evil. Michael Clark Duncan was one of the most beautiful men I’ve ever met in my life, and I absolutely adored him. He was four times my size [laughs] and he was just such an exceptional man. We lost a great treasure in our industry, but I look back on this and I think about prejudice and evil and people rising above people. Goodness wins out, and that’s what we need right now. We need goodness in our world. Things are really tough. We need goodness and we need kindness. And I think this film is about that.

Ok, beautiful. Okay. So, this is our signature question that we ask in nearly all of our interviews. Patricia, you have a very successful career. Looking back, are there five things you wish somebody advised you or told you when you started and why?

Well, I wish someone had told me that auditioning for film is very different from theater. I mean, acting as a muscle, still requires the same thing, but I was a little bit unprepared. In drama schools, of course, we’re preparing actors for film.

I wish that someone had told me your auditions are everything. That’s all you have right now.

I wish someone had told me that I need to have really great support around me or I’m not going to make it. I must have friends who are excited about my success and when I am down and out. But also, when there are good times. We need our friends there when we have success, too.

Also, it was quite a rough and tumble time in the eighties with there was a lot of sexism, a tremendous amount of sexism in our industry. Again, all male, everybody was male in every room except a casting director, and to really kind of hold yourself in the midst of the sea of men. I just didn’t realize how many men ran everything. [Laughs]

Wonderful. So, Patricia, you are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest number of people, what would that be? Cause you never know what your idea can inspire.

Oh my goodness. I strongly believe in the way I was raised. No one is born prejudiced. No one is born hateful. No one is born to judge. We all come into this world accepting and loving. I have a tremendous number of gay friends and people of color. I think what disappoints me is that we have used the word tolerance for too long. You know, I’m a straight white lady, nobody tolerates me. Everybody’s accepting of me. It’s about learning. It’s about learning, and genuine acceptance; of people whose sexuality is different from yours or someone whose gender might be in the process of changing. I mean, I think it’s about love. And as corny as it is, I think it is really truly about true, deep-down acceptance, and learning to just live the life that we are all in. We all came out of the birth canal, the same way, either through a C-section or other, and I just don’t understand. We need to rethink our world. Our world is very different now. We no longer tolerate this, and rightfully so. We are moving on from sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. We are moving on from all of these things and we must continue. We must continue.

That’s beautiful. This is our final question, and this actually sometimes works [Laughs] We are very blessed that prominent leaders in many fields read this column. Is there a person in the world or in the US that you would like to have a power lunch with?

Oh, I know immediately. Pete Buttigieg. I would love to sit down with Pete Buttigeig. I think that he’s a true, genuine powerhouse. I think he’s one of the most articulate politicians on the scene. I think he has risen. Talk about a man who has risen above. Talk about a man who has made his way in a very, very difficult field of politicians. I just, I just adore him. [Laughs], I would want to sit down with people to judge, and really talk to him about his life, about the future. I think he should have a tremendous future in our world, and I’m knocking wood for him.

We’re going to try our best to get his attention. So, what is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your wonderful work online?

I don’t have Instagram, so I know I’m terrible. I have some big press coming up in Venice and big press coming up in New York. I have a lot coming up for the fall, and I’ll be around a lot.

Thank you so much for this extremely uplifting and inspirational interview. I’ve interviewed many people, but this really has been among the most inspirational ones.

Oh my! Well, you made my day. Thank you so much, darling. [Laughs] Thank you. I appreciate it.

Clarkson’s continuous innovative work in independent film earned her the 2018 British Independent Film Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Sally Potter’s film “The Party.” In 2010 she received rave reviews for her starring role in the award-winning romantic drama, “Cairo Time,” which put her career in the American spotlight. She won the Independent Award for Acting Excellence at the 2009 ShoWest Awards. In 2003, her role in “Pieces of April” earned her nominations for an Academy Award, Golden Globe, SAG, Broadcast Film Critics and Independent Spirit awards. The National Board of Review and the National Society of Film Critics named her Best Supporting Actress of the Year for her work in “Pieces of April” and “The Station Agent.”

2019 garnered Clarkson the Golden Globe Award and Critics’ Choice Award for her role in HBO’s “Sharp Objects.” The same year she was also seen at the helm of the Krewe of Muses Mardi Gras Parade, she was honored with the Precious Gem Award at the Miami Film Festival, and honored with the prestigious “Crystal Globe for Outstanding Artistic Contribution to World Cinema” from the 54th annual Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

In television, she can currently be seen in the second season of AMC+/Sundance TV’s “State of the Union” alongside Brendan Gleeson, for which she is currently nominated for her fourth Emmy Award. She is in the midst of filming television series “Gray,” in the lead role of Cornelia Gray, a CIA spy. Recent television projects include the HBO limited series “Sharp Objects” and the sixth and final season of Netflix’ “House of Cards.”

Clarkson will next be seen in the highly anticipated film “She Said” about the New York Times reporters who helped launch the #MeToo movement, in the role of Pulitzer-prize winning editor Rebecca Corbett, and Andrea Pallaoro’s moving drama “Monica.” She will next film biopic “Lilly,” playing the title role of Fair Pay activist Lilly Ledbetter.

Recent films include Isabel Coixet’s “The Bookshop,” the independent film drama “Jonathan,” opposite Ansel Elgort, the final installment of the Maze Runner trilogy, the detective film “Out of Blue” based on the Martin Amis novel, in which she plays the lead character, and Sally Potter’s film “The Party,” for which she won a British Independent Film Award for her role.

In 2014 she starred alongside Sir Ben Kingsley in “Learning to Drive” directed by Isabel Coixet. The film won runner up honors for the People’s Choice Award at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival and was released in August 2015 and opened to critical acclaim. Other recent films include the timely thriller “The East,” opposite Brit Marling and Alexander Skarsgård, the comedy “Friends with Benefits,” in which she co-stars with Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis and the Lone Scherfig directed drama, “One Day” with Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess. In 2010, she was seen in the box office hit “Easy A.”

Clarkson and the cast of “Good Night, and Good Luck.” with George Clooney and David Straithairn, received both Screen Actors Guild and Gotham Award nominations for Best Ensemble. “Far From Heaven” won her a New York Film Critics Circle Award for Supporting Actress, “All The Real Girls” won her a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, and “The Safety of Objects” earned her an Acting Prize at the Deauville Film Festival. “The Green Mile” earned Clarkson and cast (including Tom Hanks and James Cromwell) a Screen Actors Guild Best Ensemble Award nomination, and “High Art” earned her an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Supporting Actress.

Other film credits include: Martin Scorsese’s thriller “Shutter Island,” Woody Allen’s “Whatever Works” and “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” “Blind Date” with Stanley Tucci, “Elegy,” “No Reservations,” “All The King’s Men,” “Lars and the Real Girl,” “Simply Irresistible,” “The Pledge,” “Jumanji,” “Rocket Gibraltar” and “The Untouchables.”

In 2011, Clarkson was seen in Lifetime’s “Five,” an anthology of five short films exploring the impact of breast cancer on people’s lives directed by Jennifer Aniston, Alicia Keys, Demi Moore, Patty Jenkins and Penelope Spheeris. She previously guest starred in the critically acclaimed HBO series “Six Feet Under,” for which she won an Emmy in 2002 and again in 2006.

In December 2014, Clarkson returned to Broadway, after a 25-year hiatus from the stage, to star in “The Elephant Man,” opposite Bradley Cooper and Alessandro Nivola. Following its successful run on Broadway, the cast reprised their roles on the West End at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London the following year. That year, Clarkson was nominated for an Outer Critics Circle award for “Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play” and a Tony Award nomination for her role in “The Elephant Man.”

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Yitzi Weiner is a journalist, author, and the founder Authority Magazine. He is also the CEO of Authority Magazine's Thought Leader Incubator, which guides leaders to become prolific content creators. Yitzi is also the author of five books. In 2017, he created the popular, “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me” series that highlights the empowering lessons learned from the experiences of high-profile entrepreneurs and public figures. This series has inspired a mini-movement among writers, with scores of writers worldwide profiling inspiring people to share their positive, empowering, and actionable stories. A trained Rabbi, Yitzi is also a dynamic educator, teacher and orator. He currently lives in Maryland with his wife and children.

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