By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—The first thing you notice about Patricia Clarkson is her long, flowing red hair. Her second most noticeable characteristic is her throaty speaking voice and hearty laugh. And then there’s her easy smile accompanied by a certain mischievous twinkle in her hazel eyes.
It comes as no surprise that she is a New Orleans native, as it seems there is likely a festive party about to happen whenever she is present.
The youthful-looking 55-year-old arrives for an interview in a flowery sleeveless dress, with a full skirt. Her hair is perfectly coifed; her makeup applied perfectly.
“It’s all wasted on you,” she teases a group of print and online reporters, followed by her signature laugh. “I’ve got to do a little TV later on.”
“Thank you, thank you,” she responds, as she is complimented on her fashion magazine ready appearance.
Clarkson is an Academy Award-nominated actress who is as adept doing big screen blockbuster movies (“The Maze Runner,” “Jumanji”) as she is in small, independent films (“Elegy,” and “Pieces of April,” for which she earned her Oscar nom). The stage-trained performer also likes to return to the boards from time to time. She recently wrapped a West End run with Bradley Cooper of The Elephant Man, after a successful run on Broadway. She is nominated for Tony for her portrayal of acclaimed actress Mrs. Kendal in the drama. She also reprises her tyrannical Chancellor Ava Paige character in the upcoming “Maze Runner: Scorch Trials.”
Together with producer Dana Friedman, she’d been trying to shepherd “Learning to Drive,” a low budget coming-of-middle-age dramedy to the screen for several years, and finally connected with the eclectic Broad Green Pictures, which has a whole slate of unique and visionary films coming out.
“Learning to Drive” is based on Katha Pollitt’s humorous, soul-searching essay that originally appeared in The New Yorker, and later included in a collection of essays. As a longtime resident of The Big Apple, Clarkson was moved and story about a 40-something city gal learning to drive a car in Manhattan. It also is a metaphor for modern middle age, new beginnings and moving outside one’s comfort zone.
The actress, who has never married or had children, plays a newly divorced writer who decides to learn how to drive a car so she can visit her college-age daughter in upstate New York. By happenstance, she meets a Sikh cabbie (Academy Award winner Ben Kingsley, “Gandhi”), who offers to give her driving lessons. These two very different New Yorkers—she is an upwardly mobile intellectual who is coping with being single after more than two decades of being part of a couple and he is working-class immigrant trying to stay afloat and getting ready to meet his pre-arranged bride from India—soon develop a friendship and learn about themselves by discovering each other.
“Learning to Drive” reunites Clarkson with Kingsley, with their “Elegy” director Isabel Coixet. The film is based on Sarah Kernochan’s screenplay.
Q: Describe working with Ben Kingsley. What is he like?
Clarkson: He’s the consummate actor, the consummate professional. He’s an actor’s actor. And singular. There’s no one like him in the world. I know him well. He’s a personal friend. I know his wife. I loved working with him on “Elegy.” I got very intimate with him in that. So I know him well and he knows me. (She laughs.)
Q: What do you make of your character, Wendy? What did you like about the story?
Clarkson: Wendy is on such an odd journey. The story doesn’t reinvent the wheel. I loved the Katha Pollitt essay in The New Yorker. I just found it so tragic and funny and true. And yet, at the time, I’m 55 now, but at the time I was 45, so I realized the good fortune was to wait. I needed to be in my 50s to play Wendy. I’m now thankful that we couldn’t get it together (earlier) and get the financing and the director and co-star in my 40s. Sometimes that’s the beauty of this business. Out of the strife and out of this relentless… all the doors slamming in your face, what I realized was all this time I was getting closer and closer to really playing Wendy, to really becoming Wendy. I was getting closer to being able to play those highs and lows and all of the emotion that is required to play her.
Q: You have a humorous bedroom scene with a blind date that doesn’t go very well. How did you like filming that?
Clarkson: The tantric sex, please! I can’t wait for my old-fashioned southern father to see that. My father’s a cool, amazing, liberal man but he’s still an 80-year-old southern man.
It’s a very funny film. I see it as more of an emotional film but I know it’s funny. I don’t see Wendy as comedic; I see her more as angry and mercurial, and that’s what I loved about her. I loved this yin and yang relationship. I loved this fiery New Yorker and this beautiful devout Sikh coming together in this smelly little car in New York City.
Q: Have you ever had a blind date as interesting as that?
Clarkson: Never. I’ve never really had a blind date. It’s not like I can go on OkCupid. “You mean Patricia Clarkson’s on OkCupid? I don’t know if that’s cool or sad.” But I should be. If I weren’t an actress, I would be (on dating sites). I’ve been on some very crazy dates. They weren’t blind, but I wish they had been. (She laughs.)
Q: Hasn’t a friend tried to fix you up?
Clarkson: Oh yes, I’ve had a fix up. Usually, it’s a person I’ve met. Recently, I’ve started dating a man whom I’ve met before when I was in London doing “The Elephant Man.” It wasn’t a blind date. It was a fix up.
Q: Do you drive?
Clarkson: My father taught me how to drive at 16. So, yes I drove in New Orleans. I could drive. But as I slowly became this New Yorker—I’ve now lived in New York for over 30 years—and then I dated this man who lived in the country, so I would drive his Subaru. Oh, sexy! He was very sexy. All right, that’s enough. (She laughs) But I would drive country roads, and those are easy. But like Henry Hudson and the sawmill, I slowly lost the ability to drive. And as it got closer and closer to this film coming to fruition, I realized I needed to keep all the fears I had. I can get a tiny bit Method when I want to. So I specifically was not thinking about driving and I didn’t drive. I saved it all for the film so I could connect back with that and let art and life merge. It was very helpful.
Driving through Manhattan was difficult. We didn’t have a tow truck pulling us on a flatbed. We had only several million dollars (to make the movie. We had me behind the wheel, and a car in front and a car in back, and a cop (escort) or two. But going over the Queensboro Bridge, I looked at Sir Ben and said, “I adore you. Hold on. I promise I will get you to the other side and if we don’t make it over the bridge, I’ve loved every minute of my life with you.” (She laughs.)
Q: This film is reminiscent of “An Unmarried Woman.”
Clarkson: Yes. But what’s also important is that this is not a film about a woman finding herself. We were the first generation to have it all. Our mothers made great sacrifices. I’m a 55-year-old woman. We’re able to have jobs, partners, lovers, spouses, children, adopted children, surrogate children—we can have it all. This is a woman who forgot to look up and this is a woman who forgot to appreciate what she had. She had a wonderful husband and a devoted daughter. She lived a valuable and valued, intellectual life. I wish I were as intelligent as Wendy. What interested me most was a woman thrust into an emotional life and how that upsets her apple cart. This is a woman not used to dealing with emotion. She comes at everything head up. Suddenly, she had to come at everything from the gut. That fascinated me.
Q: Are you and Ben and Isabel planning a trilogy?
Clarkson: Isabel Coixet lives this life. Her partner of many years, the father of her child, left her and she learned to drive at 48, but she doesn’t know how to park. So she said the sequel should be “Learning to Park.”