Patricia Clarkson: "I'll Never Get Married!"

Chatting with her about Cairo Time. Plus: Judging penises, walking down Broadway.

Patricia Clarkson has been jazzing up films with her luminous wit since 1987's The Untouchables, long establishing herself as a must-have actor's actor for director's directors like Brian, Woody, Marty, Todd, and even some people with two names.

Well, Clarkson finally has her first bona fide leading role in Ruba Nadda's Cairo Time, in which she experiences a leisurely affair with the Egyptian city and (platonically) with her husband's friend, finding a low-key connection over the din of the traffic. Our recent conversation, done on Musto time, went like so:

Me: Hi, Patricia. You've played the female lead before, but not the lead lead. Was it fab?

Clarkson does Cairo.
David Shankbone
Clarkson does Cairo.

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Clarkson: It's sexy. I see why stars like it. I like things to be demanded of me and this part required everything of me. As actors, we love the bells and whistles of any part and we often most assuredly will reach for the externals, but there are none in this character. She is an intensely internal character, and it was exhausting. It made me a better actor. I had to be. I stood the course.

Me: What drew you to this script aside from the demands and the glory?

Clarkson: I thought it was stunning, and the territory covered—with spare dialogue and the juxtaposition of the fast canvas of Cairo and this gentle love story—staggered me.

Me: Did you have to adapt to Cairo along with your character?

Clarkson: There were days I was taking the same journey Juliette was taking, yet I was very careful not to make her me. Patty would experience Cairo in a different way. I'm much more aggressive, more vocal.

Me: You're not exactly a wilting flower.

Clarkson: I'm a blooming fucking rose! [Laughs.]

Me: Do you like taking direction, though?

Clarkson: Yes. It's rewarding to work with someone who knows where they want to take their film every step of the way.

Me: You worked with Woody Allen in Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Whatever Works. He leaves you alone, right?

Clarkson: Yes, but he steps in at moments—trust me—and those moments are priceless and dead-on. I love working with Woody because we get lazy as actors, and with Woody, you have to do your homework. He's doing long takes and you have to ad-lib, too. You can't be at Craft Services, you have to be present. You can't decide between coming here or M&Ms.

Me: What about Scorsese? [Clarkson played Rachel 2 in Shutter Island.] No M&M's there, either, right?

Clarkson: He's very present. I told a reporter he's an aural director, and they printed that I said "oral."

Me: Sounds like a porn film.

Clarkson: It's aural. He hears it. It's music to him. He's looking for how far he can take you—the depth and breadth of the emotion.

Me: And you always go for that ride. You have two other upcoming biggies (Legendary and The Easy A), by the way. Do you ever get complacent over your success?

Clarkson: Oh, no. It's still a struggle. I'm working like crazy. I'm lucky, lucky, lucky. I don't have millions of dollars and an entourage, and yet I have a crazy life, a very demanding life. I prefer this to absolute calm.

Me: You're playing mothers a lot these days, no?

Clarkson: I'm always mothers. I'm not quite sure why. I'm single—can I play me? I've never wanted to be married, and I knew it at 14. I knew I wouldn't have this life if I got married. I've had beautiful relationships with men, and I hope to continue to do so till I'm 100, but I could never live a conventional life. I'm claustrophobic. I can't do a TV series, and I can't get married. I can't do one thing for a long time!

Me: Me neither. But I could definitely do a TV series.

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore

Gemma Arterton plays a rich man's daughter in The Disappearance of Alice Creed, the spiky thriller in which she's abducted by two guys who make her pee into a bottle. "Who will see this movie—sadists?" I asked the excellent 24-year-old British actress at the premiere. "People like you," she replied, calmly. (Yep, sadists.) Was Arterton upset to lie strapped to a bed without even getting much money for it? "I really enjoyed it," she swore. "It was liberating. Everyone who has seen the movies I've done [Prince of Persia, for one] thinks I'm pop, but I've always been feisty and intense." The type that I'd be afraid to fight with in a dark alleyway? "I used to be," the blooming fucking rose said. "Then I grew up."

Some mother-daughter action has taken theater queens hostage by bringing new life to Broadway's budget revival of A Little Night Music, the exquisite period musical about missed connections, the mists of memory, and the need to nail who you can while you can. Bernadette Peters is a superb Desiree—sardonic, funny, and vulnerable—though she starts crying even before "Send in the Clowns." The night I was there, mama Elaine Stritch unnecessarily ad-libbed something about a dropped playing card ("Frid, pick that up, please. It's my Ace"), and I was afraid Spamalot had come to Sweden. What's more, in "Liaisons," while she doesn't get out of the wheelchair like Angela Lansbury did, Stritch does make too many arm gestures, punches up two jokes, and adds a "woo!" that brings us back to Python Land. The diva is clearly trying to make a big drama out of this song, but I always thought it was more like the rambling of a woman who rummages through these memories every day, not another version of "I'm Still Here."

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