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Patricia Clarkson

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New Orleans native and award-winning actress leads the Krewe of Muses

The Krewe of Muses has selected accomplished film star Patricia Clarkson as its first ever Honorary EveryMuse to head up its 2012 Mardi Gras parade. Along with the other members of the krewe, she’ll be perched on top of a dynamic red high-heeled shoe float that stands around 17 feet tall. Obviously Clarkson wasn’t chosen for her love of stilettos or high altitudes, but because, according to the Krewe of Muses Captain Staci Rosenberg, she embodies all of the artistic and admirable qualities of the nine muses.

After talking with her on a recent Sunday afternoon—our chat was more like a conversation between two old friends rather than an interview—I’d like to suggest keeping the tradition of EveryMuse in honor of Clarkson. She not only embodies a rare talent, but also exudes strength, confidence and determination; her journey as an artist is nothing less than inspirational.

Patricia Clarkson is the youngest of five daughters born to Arthur Clarkson and Jackie Brechtel Clarkson, a long-time New Orleans politician and currently a City Council member-at-large. According to Patricia, growing up the youngest child in the Clarkson household didn’t mean she was the favorite. “I was the baby but I was never ‘babied’ interestingly. My parents were truly egalitarian; we were very much equal in their eyes and were treated as a group… as a quintet almost. We all had to wear hand-me-downs, we all had to share and we all had to do chores.” To this day, Clarkson remains very close to her sisters, describing them as “remarkable women who are incredibly helpful and wise.”

Her mother, Jackie, has influenced her life in countless ways. “Formidable is where it starts. She is also an incredibly remarkable woman who kind of had it all. … She raised five children and then she got into real estate and then politics. I can honestly say that her love for this city is unparalleled and unprecedented and never ending,” said Clarkson. “Her true goal has been to make the city better and so, she’s had an enormous life and [has influenced] mine and all my sisters’ lives. We have that can-do spirit; we all want to succeed and have full lives and we all do.”

The quest for Clarkson’s full life started by attending LSU but after realizing that her true love was acting, she longed to be in New York City. She then transferred to Fordham University and then immediately afterwards completed a three-year MFA program at the Yale School of Drama. She describes her Yale experience as “the toughest three years of my life” but also attributes it for laying the groundwork for her as an actress. “I always wanted to do it all. I wanted to be able to play everything from the leading lady to a character and to take on all these different parts, these different lives, these different journeys. You know each character is a journey; how you get there, you really don’t know and sometimes you do,” explained Clarkson.

After many years of numerous roles in theater, film and guest appearances on television, Clarkson landed the role of Gretta, a heroine-addicted lesbian muse to a photographer played by Ally Sheedy in Lisa Toledanko’s High Art. Clarkson attributes this role to be a pivotal point in her career that led to another offbeat part in HBO’s Six Feet Under, in which she had the recurring role of the free-spirited sister of the oh-so-conservative Ruth, played by Frances Conroy. Her exceptional portrayal garnered her two Emmy awards and helped establish her as one of Hollywood’s most versatile actresses. When asked if she enjoyed these roles, I could hear the excitement in her voice. “I was always drawn to an emotional life and to these complicated, far reaching characters and the more you do, the more people want you to do that,” said Clarkson. “I owe much to Lisa Toledanko and Alan Ball because [those roles] started to turn the tide for me at 38, which is a beautiful thing in this business.”

Clarkson admits that she doesn’t get every role she wants and Hollywood does favor the young, but she attributes the rise of independent cinema for creating more and more options for mature women from which she has benefited. “I don’t have to audition anymore, thankfully, but there are a few perks that come to you later if you last in this business,” said Clarkson. “For the most part, I am lucky. I am fortunate. I have a wonderful career that I wouldn’t change and I’ve been able to say no to a lot of [roles]. The greatest luxury that I have is that I don’t have to do things I don’t want to do.”

Pick and choose, Clarkson has and continues to do, but she does it so wisely that she’s one of the busiest and in-demand actresses at the age of 52—a point in her life of which she speaks of proudly and wears tremendously well. Her recent movies include Easy A and Friends with Benefits and she’s just recently finished shooting The East with Alexander Skarsgärd and Ellen Page in Shreveport. “I play a CEO, which is very good for me… a very powerful, very strong woman and I run a company… it’s a very tough character,” said Clarkson. “She’s a woman who pulls no punches and is very glamorous so it was an exciting time.”

When asked if she has a favorite role it seems as if there are too many to count, though she fondly mentions her characters in Cairo Time and Whatever Works. Clarkson also likens picking her favorite director to deciding on a favorite child. “I would say that great directors, whether they’re Martin Scorcese or they are a first-time director I’ve worked with, if they’re really great, they do have one thing in common and that’s [that] they have a really strong vision. … They’re really capable of taking you into that vision and in an incredibly powerful way. It does change you as an actor.”

One thing that is evident in all the characters Clarkson portrays is that she refuses to step away from a challenge, embracing wholeheartedly both the tragedy and comedy in life. She’s taken on the roles of women suffering from cancer in Pieces of April and most recently in Lifetime’s Five, where she was directed by Jennifer Aniston, who gives her the highest of accolades during an interview for the network. “Patty Clarkson is just so like a thunderbolt in this part. I mean it’s exquisite to watch her.”

Clarkson knows many people who have endured cancer and admits that while these two roles were very challenging, she recognizes their individuality. “They’re all very different women and being stricken with cancer is just one aspect of the character… that’s one part of the journey. My goal is to bring it all to the table—all of the pain and comedy, drama and tragedy that exists in this person’s life,” said Clarkson. At the same time, she still realizes that although she hasn’t personally fought cancer, she understands its severity. “I am an actress doing this and I never want to lessen the real journey that a woman stricken with cancer is taking. I just hope I can illuminate or help add a dollop of solace to anyone who has been on this journey. … I’m thankful for that.”

On the lighter side of things, Clarkson has also had the opportunity to be cast in movies with some of the most gorgeous male actors in the business, among them George Clooney, Jude Law and Bryan Batt. Recently, she often finds herself playing an older figure to young actors like Justin Timberlake, among others. “Some of them have played my sons! I play the mother to all of these beautiful young men —and young girls—and I’m like, ‘I’m playing your mother? My god.’” With all this beauty surrounding her, Clarkson said she never tires of the eye candy. “When you’re working with a hot man? No you never do! I walked on the set and there was Mr. Ben Kingsley—he’s a very sexy man. No, you are never immune to the beauty of your co-stars. Never!”

Clarkson worked with Ben Kingsley in Elegy and had some very intimate scenes with him where she admits to being a little self-conscious but believes that it’s a good thing. “It’s a rough and tumble business but that’s why we’re actors. We’re there to expose ourselves in good ways and bad ways. The integrity of the scene sometimes requires intimacy —real intimacy— and it’s just part of the journey as an actor,” said Clarkson. “It’s never easy; it’s like deeply emotional scenes are incredibly exposing and draining and intimidating and if they’re ever not, you should get out of the business. If ever it’s too easy, something is wrong.”

Clarkson’s future plans include doing more films as well as returning to live theater for which she has the utmost respect. “There’s nothing harder than theater. … Eight shows a week is grueling. It requires such discipline and such stamina and I have such respect for those actors who have made a real, formidable career acting on the stage.” Last year Clarkson co-starred with Bryan Batt in Love Letters to raise money for Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre. She will be reprising her role along with Batt at the Westside Theater in Manhattan on February 13 to benefit The Actor’s Fund.

Although Clarkson resides in New York City, she visits her hometown at least four or five times a year and dreams of owning an apartment here. Until that happens, she’ll sometimes treat herself to a stay at the Windsor Court because she can walk everywhere or take the streetcar. “I love taking the streetcar. I feel like a kid again when I do.” She also enjoys exploring Magazine Street and the Warehouse District and buys gifts for friends in the French Quarter. “I love being in the city… it’s invigorating to me. You can really enjoy it in a simple way and there really is no bad food, anywhere in New Orleans.” Sometimes she’ll give into a craving for red beans and rice, a bowl of gumbo or a beignet and still manage to keep a trim figure. “Trust me, I do eat plus I work out; I hate it but I have to. I don’t eat bad things often but I do love beignets… there’s nothing better in the whole world.”

The only thing Clarkson might appreciate more than wandering the city is supporting the Saints. “Are you kidding me? I have black and gold underwear on right now,” she said laughing. She was joking of course, but then went on to praise Sean Payton and Drew Brees for their outstanding talents and achievements. But it was Jimmy Graham’s single-handed pass receptions that left her awestruck. “How can he do it? What is that? I’ve never seen anything like that with one hand.”

Besides attending Saints games and visiting with her family, Clarkson finds time to work with some charitable organizations such as the Grace House, which she describes as a remarkable organization she holds very near and dear to her heart. “I’ve shown up at a lot of places and I’ll continue to do so with New Orleans. Wherever I can ever be an ambassador for the city, I will but the city certainly doesn’t need me. I’m the lucky one that was born and raised in this great city. I’ll continue to do and help where I can; if it helps, I’ll be there.”

At the end of our conversation, I asked Clarkson to share a little-known tidbit about the time she spends in New Orleans. First she mentioned that she loves to take walks with her sister around Audubon Park and then pausing, said, “That’s not even slightly scandalous.” A few seconds later, she came up with a real treat. “I know. I love shopping at Burke’s Outlet on the Westbank. It’s a major little discount store, not huge, small. I bought like a $12 dress there and I might have worn it on the red carpet and I’m not even kidding,” she said, laughing. With Clarkson, you’re not sure what you’ll get but are always satisfied because she is full of life and wonderful surprises, just like your typical muse.

-JEANNE SOUDERS