Patricia Clarkson, a Star Ascending

Actress Patricia Clarkson
Patricia Clarkson plays an unlikely avant garde New York City photographer in the recent Woody Allen film "Whatever Works" - yet another character study from this talented daughter of New Orleans. Erin Moriarty of "48 Hours" now has a Sunday Profile:

"Hello, boys, don't you look handsome? It's been a long time, a long time."

It has been a long time since Patricia Clarkson walked the halls of O. Perry Walker High School in New Orleans, where she was once a "Chargerette." ("I was a lieutenant!")

When she returned with us this fall, it was a homecoming to the place where she first felling in love with acting . . . 35 years ago.

She showed a student a photo of her in a production of the "Playroom." "Look, there I am. I was 15."

"You look the same," the boy said.

"I love you!" she replied.

She shared a reunion with the drama teacher who first inspired her, Ethyl Istre, who Clarkson said was the first person to tell her, "What you're feeling right now, should be onstage."

"Did you really think she would go as far as she has?" Moriarty asked Istre.

"I never projected she would go as far as she did," Istre said. "She really wanted to act. It wasn't that she wanted to be star necessarily, but she wanted to act."

And ACT she has, building an impressive resume - not as the star, necessarily, but turning minor roles into memorable ones.

A scheming friend in "Far from Heaven" . . . a sick wife in "The Green Mile" . . . and eccentric Aunt Sarah in HBO's "Six Feet Under," for which she won an Emmy Award.

Clarkson's is recognized not only for her talent, but for that deep and unmistakable voice.

"You have a very distinctive voice; it has been described as a dirty martini," Moriarty said.

"But occasionally, it has a twist!" she laughed.

Here's another twist: At an age when many women in Hollywood fade away, Patricia Clarkson - who turned 50 just last week - is hotter than ever.

(Sony Pictures Classics/Foundry)
Now she's playing romantic leads, stepping into starring, sensuous roles - in "Cairo Time" (right), which won awards and raves at the Toronto Film Festival, and in Woody Allen's "Whatever Works" (left), playing an uptight Southern woman who is reborn as a totally uninhibited New York City bohemian.

It's a role that's generating Oscar buzz.

Moriarty asked her about her recent leading lady roles: "To be honest, they are very sexy scenes. You're taking off your clothes."

"Oh goodness, yes!" Clarkson said.

"But isn't that unusual?"

"It shouldn't be, but maybe it is," Clarkson replied. "They are vibrant, sexual complicated women. And vibrant, complicated women have sex."

But as undeniably sexy as she is, that wasn't what directors saw in her at first. That voice . . . that dirty martini of a voice . . . got in the way.

"It was difficult for me when I first started out in this business to be an ingénue," she said. "I started because I would walk in with my hair and my dress and I would open my mouth and sometimes the director was like 'Whoa, the voice didn't match the rest of you. No.'"

In 1987, she managed to snag a highly-sought-after role as the wife of Kevin Costner's Elliot Ness in "The Untouchables." But the blockbuster film didn't propel her career as she had hoped - she had difficulty getting movie roles after that.

"Was it frustrating, a little depressing?" Moriarty asked.

"Demeaning, depressing, frustrating, absolutely," she said.

But things turned around, because of a little film called "High Art." Clarkson laughed, because of the indie film was a big risk. "At the time, I didn't know it, but yes, it was."

A big risk for ANY actor: Clarkson took on the role of a German, drug-addled lesbian.

"I have to tell you a quick, funny story. My Aunt Patsy, that I am named for, she said to me, 'Patti, if a director told me I had to play a German lesbian heroin addict, I would have told that director, I can play one of the three.'

"When I read it at first, I said, I 'get' this part, I understand this character, even though I'm not a German, I'm not a lesbian, and I've never smoked pot. As far as I am from it, as a woman it is closer to who I am as an actor in that it is about transformation."

After that, she transformed herself again and again, playing quirky, complicated women, mostly in small independent films that allowed her to showcase that her impressive range.

Her uncanny ability to convey emotions, sometimes without saying a word, helped earn Clarkson an Oscar nomination in 2004 as a cancer-stricken mom in "Pieces of April," a film with a tiny budget that broke out and became a major hit.

Other recent credits include "Good Night, and Good Luck," "Dogville," "Lars and the Real Girl," "The Station Agent," and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."

Actor and director Stanley Tucci admits he had Clarkson in mind when wrote the screenplay for his latest film "Blind Date," about a wounded couple's efforts to reconnect after their daughter's death.

"When I write movies, very hard not to write a role for Patty," Tucci told Moriarty. "Because she is that good.

"She can be alternately funny and heartbreaking, go to the darkest places you ask her to go and also the lightest places, and she can do so snaps like that, on a dime."

A dime was not QUITE the whole shooting budget, but close. They shot the film in seven days in Belgium.

"You know, when I was a young girl, I was a sprinter, I couldn't run long, but I was fast as hell," Clarkson said. "And I had two long braids that went down to my . . . and they were seriously, like perpendicular to my body when I would run, because I was so fast. And 'Blind Date' felt like my braids were perpendicular!"

Clarkson models many of her characters on the strong-willed, Southern women she grew up around in New Orleans, across the river from the French Quarter. She's the youngest of five girls in an outspoken and competitive family.

"It was a very nurturing childhood, but difficult at times," Clarkson said. "There was a lot of screaming. We had to share clothes at times. I'm still not good at sharing."

Her oldest sister, Ruddy, is a world-renowned environmental epidemiologist. She was one of the sisters who turned out recently to support their 74-year-old mother, Jacqueline, in her bid for reelection to the city council.

"In my family, we've printed and passed out so many fliers, one of us should be named Kinko," Patricia said. "Kinko Clarkson!"

And Jacqueline Brechtel Clarkson couldn't be more proud, taking a moment from campaigning to extol her brood, including her most famous daughter.

Of Patricia she told Moriarty, "She came home one day after she was on stage the first time in ninth grade and she said, 'I know what I want to be. I want to be a star.'"

Thirty five years later, on the same stage where she dreamed those childhood dreams, Patricia Clarkson got the full star treatment, and offered hugs and encouragement to other young dreamers in return.

"Nothing will ever compare to what happened today in that high school, nothing," she said.

Nothing yet, anyway.

"Do you worry about one of these days you get a call to be someone's grandmother?" Moriarty asked.

"Oh, sure. That's coming, like tomorrow!" she said. "I'll probably, you know, we'll end this interview and there'll be a message on my phone."

"As long as she's an interesting character?"

"Yes, as long as there is a nude scene!"

For more info:
"Six Feet Under" (HBO)
"Blind Date" (Official Web Site)
"Cairo Time" (Official Web Site)