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Patricia Clarkson On 'Learning To Drive,' Fighting For Starring Roles

Sep 4, 2015
Originally published on October 20, 2015 6:24 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Patricia Clarkson has accomplished a rare Hollywood feat. She is 55 years old and still getting interesting, complicated roles. You might remember her as the grieving artist in "The Station Agent," or Ruth's hippie sister from the HBO series, "Six Feet Under," or for many other supporting roles. But for her latest film, "Learning To Drive," Clarkson is front and center. She plays Wendy, a New York book critic whose husband is leaving her.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LEARNING TO DRIVE")

PATRICIA CLARKSON: (As Wendy) Oh, you inform me in a public place so I can't make a scene? And you thought that would work?

JAKE WEBER: (As Ted) Hey, cut that out.

CLARKSON: (As Wendy) You thought that would work?

MARTIN: To get over it, she decides to learn how to drive. Sir Ben Kingsley plays her instructor.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LEARNING TO DRIVE")

CLARKSON: (As Wendy) I think I don't like this.

BEN KINGSLEY: (As Darwan) Well, you have to go forward now because I haven't taught you how to back up. Now check your mirrors again. Turn your head.

CLARKSON: (As Wendy) Oh, [expletive].

KINGSLEY: (As Darwan) Nothing will happen. I'm always here with the other brake. Now press your foot.

MARTIN: When I spoke with Patricia Clarkson about the movie, she told me, yes, she really was behind the wheel.

CLARKSON: That's me for pretty much, I'd say 90 percent of the driving. It is me driving the great Sir Ben Kingsley, or, basically Gandhi, around, like, Manhattan. (Laughter). I mean, what pressure.

MARTIN: It's a little bit of pressure, just little bit of pressure.

CLARKSON: So yes, it was illuminating and it was quite a beautiful way to get to know a city you've lived in for so long, to see it again.

MARTIN: You do see things differently when you have to drive around, don't you?

CLARKSON: You do. And driving through all of the boroughs because everything in this film is real. When we're in Queens, we're in Queens. When we're in Brooklyn, we're in Far Rockaway, we are there. And that's part of the truth and the honesty, and I think hopefully what people find beautiful about the film is the - it's real, everything is real. (Laughter).

MARTIN: I gave a brief sketch of Wendy in the introduction, but would you mind filling out the contours of her a little bit? Can you introduce us to this woman and where she's at in her life?

CLARKSON: You know, Wendy is a very modern-contemporary, very complicated, flawed woman. And I like that about her. I wanted to take that journey, and I thought a lot of people could relate. She's angry and fiercely intelligent, and funny and difficult, and ultimately, I think, sympathetic. And these are - this is a quintessential New York story, but I think it resonates because Wendy is true and real, and she meets this exceptional man named Darwan. We all need a Darwan in our life. (Laughter).

MARTIN: Well, let me ask you - because I did find myself getting a little bit annoyed with her. There was part of me that, you know, I'm looking at this incredibly independent and smart woman who's trying to leave this failed marriage and he seems like kind of a jerk, her husband, and yet she is saved by another man who is rescuing her.

CLARKSON: Well, I don't think she's saved by him. I think she saves herself. For me what Darwan does is he's just the platform, he just offers a way for her to see the world in the way that is better. And this is a man, in Darwan, a man who's come through incredibly tragic circumstances. And...

MARTIN: He - we should say, he's a Sikh.

CLARKSON: He's a Sikh and he's suffered and been a political prisoner. He's lost his homeland. He's had to make a real new life for himself. And so I think what Wendy sees reflected in him is it brings her up by the bootstraps, which it should, and that's what I think is important.

MARTIN: May I ask you about sex?

CLARKSON: Sure. God, please, let's talk about sex.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: There's a - I mean, there's a sex scene in the movie. Your character is, you know, she starts to...

CLARKSON: My sister sets me up on a date that I'm - yes.

MARTIN: With a guy who's into tantric sex.

CLARKSON: Tantric sex, yes

MARTIN: So the sex scene lasts a long time.

CLARKSON: Yes, it does.

(LAUGHTER)

CLARKSON: I had to shoot it.

MARTIN: Perhaps longer than Wendy would have liked it to.

CLARKSON: Yes, it's a delicious and fabulous scene in the film, and it taught me some things along the way.

MARTIN: Was it intentional? I mean, because I did note again these are two people who are in their 50s...

CLARKSON: Yes.

MARTIN: I don't see that all the time in movies.

CLARKSON: No. We - there's been a lot of discussion about - you know, no one stops being naked. We continue to be naked as we age, and we continue to have sex and have sexual relationships. And I think sex scenes are valid and valuable, especially with people who are older. So I had to jump in, and it was a nice day at the office. (Laughter).

MARTIN: You've had a long career already. You were 25 - did I read that you were 25 years old when you starred in "The Untouchables?"

CLARKSON: I was nine months out of Yale School of Drama when I starred in "The Untouchables," my very, very first movie. The wonderful and great Brian De Palma gave me my first big break.

MARTIN: Amazing. I wonder if you act differently now at this stage in your career, or, the actress that you were when you were 25, is that still the actress you are now?

CLARKSON: Oh, no. No. Thankfully, I've - yes, I've changed. Acting is a muscle, and acting is - doing is being, being is doing. And the sad irony is that as we age, we do get better because we have so much more to call upon. We have so much more in stock. And it's sad that certain actors are not afforded those opportunities because of - just the nature of this business. But yes, I think that the young woman who is in "The Untouchables," I mean, I'm proud to be in that film, but I (laughter), I'm also proud to say I think I've - I'm a little bit better.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, it has been such a pleasure talking with you.

Patricia Clarkson, she stars in the new film, "Learning To Drive."

Thanks so much Patricia.

CLARKSON: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.