For her latest role, Patricia Clarkson plays a tough cop in a big screen adaptation of Martin Amis’s Night Train. The House of Cards actor talks to Alistair Harkness ahead of its Glasgow Film Festival screening
When Patricia Clarkson won a Golden Globe earlier this month for her turn as a soused southern matriarch in HBO mini-series Sharp Objects, she gave one of the funniest and most withering speeches of the night, thanking co-star Amy Adams, then turning her praise towards director Jean-Marc Vallée for demanding everything from her “except sex, which is exactly how it should be in this industry.”
It was a sly dig at the systemic abuse in Hollywood that the #MeToo movement has brought to light – something Clarkson has been reflecting on a lot over the last year: prior to making Sharp Objects, she’d recently joined the cast of Netflix drama House of Cards and was about to shoot the final season when Kevin Spacey was implicated in the #MeToo scandal.
“I’ve known Kevin forever,” sighs Clarkson when I ask her about it in London a few months before her Golden Globe win. “The whole thing was shattering and bad. Bad behaviour is bad behaviour. People who do bad things are punished. There’s no grey area here. I wasn’t as invested in House of Cards as everyone else was. I came in and then was told the show was maybe not going to happen. And then I was told they were going to rewrite it [Spacey’s character was killed off and his association with the show terminated] and then boom! It was powerful. And it was Robin Wright who made that happen.”
Although Clarkson says she feels uncomfortable about some of the people she’s worked with in the past whose reputations have become increasingly problematic (“These are serious issues that people who have suffered under them have to deal with”) she also looks at the flip-side of her own career. “I look at the fact that I’ve worked with so many extraordinary directors who aren’t embedded in scandal and I dwell on that and think,’Wow!’
“Also, I’ve worked with a hell of a lot of women directors,” she adds, reeling off a list that includes Sally Potter, Rose Troche, Lone Scherfig, Lisa Cholodenko, Brit Marling, Ruba Nadda (twice) and Isabel Coixet (three times). “Honey, I’ve been working with women for a long time. That’s not the exception for me.”
One more she can add to that list is British filmmaker Carol Morley (Dreams of a Life, The Falling), whose new movie Out of Blue she’s in town to promote. Loosely adapted from Martin Amis’s 1997 novel Night Train, the film – which has its Scottish premiere at next month’s Glasgow Film Festival – is an abstract take on Amis’s homage to hard-boiled noir and features Clarkson as a detective called Mike Houlihan whose investigation into the grisly death of an astrophysicist (Mamie Gummer) triggers a crisis of her own.
“It has this hard-boiled dreaminess,” says Clark, who relished the challenge of playing someone so unreadable and complex. “I’m more outgoing as a person than Mike. I’m a woman who leads with my femininity; Mike does not. But I never thought of her as masculine; I just thought of her without accoutrements – without the feminine, conventional accoutrements that we tend to have as women. That’s the beauty of her: she is unadorned, unfussy, untouchable in a way.”
She says she can identify with the way people in the film treat Mike precisely because she doesn’t conform to standard gender stereotypes herself. “Look, I’m an unmarried, childless woman and people would say I don’t live a conventional life as a woman. I’m without man and without child, you know what I mean?”
That kind of weird societal conditioning is partly a consequence of the movie industry’s narrow conception of women on screen. Part of the reason Clarkson liked Mike was because she’s dealing with an existential crisis unconnected to being a wife or mother. “It’s rare to have women on screen who don’t have husbands or partners or children or all the trappings of a perfect conventional life, whether you’re gay or straight,” she says. “But as a straight woman, me being unmarried with no children – people still wrestle with that. But that’s their problem not mine.”
Not that she’s ever let that kind of thing hinder her career. After drama school she walked straight into her first job, playing Kevin Costner’s wife in Brian De Palma’s starry update of the The Untouchables. It’s an experience she remembers fondly, partly because her mother arrived on set intent on meeting Sean Connery. “She was like, ‘Kevin’s lovely and De Niro’s great, but am I gonna meet Sean Connery?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, ma.’”
After that, she worked steadily for the next decade – until her performance as Ally Sheedy’s heroin-addicted lover in Lisa Cholodenko’s boundary-pushing High Art put her firmly on the film industry’s radar. “At 37 my whole career opened up. Like, overnight. It’s amazing what one role can do.”
Meatier characters in high profile arthouse films like The Station Agent, Far From Heaven and Pieces of April (for which she was Oscar-nominated) duly followed, as did supporting roles in mainstream Hollywood fare like Scorsese’s Shutter Island. But she benefited too from the dawn of the current golden age of television, picking up two Emmys for her role as the drug-addicted Aunt Sarah in HBO’s Six Feet Under, an unconventional show at the time, but one Clarkson says she knew was going to have a big impact. “You could just tell. But I haven’t really done much TV since then. That’s why it was a big moment for me to come back to do Sharp Objects. And Amy Adams was just divine.”
Are there any types of roles she’s still desperate to play?
She shrugs. “I wanna play an action hero lady, like a middle-aged action hero lady. Why not? I could wear black Lycra.”
I tell her she should give Avengers directors Joe and Anthony Russo a call. After all, she acted in their breakthrough feature Welcome to Collinwood.
“I love the Russo brothers,” she says. “They’ve become so big. And to think: I knew them way back when. In Cleveland, baby. All piled in a van!”
Out of Blue screens at Glasgow Film Festival on 27 and 28 February. It goes on general release on 29 March