“I grew up below sea level, so I just rise.” —Patricia Clarkson
“Have you ever had bourbon, ginger, and orange?” asks Patricia Clarkson in her husky purr of a voice, like a pearl dropped in honey. “Do you want to try it?”
Now 59, this New Orleans–born actor’s actor is still slim and willowy, still luminously pale, as if lit from within. She’s been in some of the most addicting films, theater, and TV series in recent history—The Untouchables, Six Feet Under, The Station Agent, Pieces of April, House of Cards, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Elephant Man. Now, with the terrifying role of Adora Crellin, a smothering Southern matriarch in HBO’s mini-series Sharp Objects, she has riveted our attention yet again.
The eminent stage actress Irene Worth once wrote about Clarkson: “She burns very brightly and quickly, like a poem by Keats, all burners on, aware of time running out, interest and energy running out, engaging in service to her playwright, her fellow players, her audiences. I want to see her in everything.”
“It’s my favorite drink,” Clarkson continues, in her West Village apartment during one of several meetings we had over the course of some summer weeks. “We’re drinking out of my grandmother’s highball glasses.” Clarkson has laid out champagne in a bucket of ice, a tiny dish of almonds and olives, and three candles to brighten the fading light in the room. “I’m so Southern, I have to be hospitable.”
It’s true. Though Clarkson has lived in her adopted city of New York for more than 30 years, there’s no taking the South out of her. She is proud of her forebears, in love with her family. She’s been “Queen” of the Krewe of Muses at Mardi Gras—twice—and her whimsical, poetic way with a phrase conjures some of our greatest Southern writers. Poring over family photographs, she says, “This is my mother’s mother, Maw-Maw, the fancy grandmother; not that my other grandmother wasn’t fancy, but just in a different way. She kept her bourbon and her white wine in the fridge. Those were her staples, somewhat mine.” Ah, the great tradition of New Orleans libations, those elixirs that can sometimes get you through hurricanes, mosquitoes, humidity, corrupt politics, and the burden of history.
Lethal as a Rusty Nail
Clarkson began her film career in 1987, playing Eliot Ness’s wife in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. The following year she played a reporter with a memorable hairdo in The Dead Pool, with Clint Eastwood. She earned a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination for her work in the 2003 film The Station Agent. In 2004, she was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Pieces of April. She had a supporting role as a mental patient in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island in 2010 and was a recurring character for four seasons in the cult classic Six Feet Under. In 2014 she played opposite Bradley Cooper in The Elephant Man on Broadway and was nominated for a Tony Award for best featured actress.
Cooper, writing from Los Angeles, notes that “Patti brings authenticity and idiosyncrasy to everything she does, resulting in delivering, time after time, indelible performances.”
With the popularity of Sharp Objects, adapted from Gillian Flynn’s harrowing novel, more people are aware of her gifts. She’s already won a Golden Globe for best supporting actress in a series and a possible Emmy is waiting for her next month. But a legion of actors and connoisseurs have known for some time that Patricia Clarkson is among the best we have. And let’s admit it: America is a place blessed with marvelous actors, several of whom appear alongside Patti (as her friends call her) in Sharp Objects. A short list includes the series’s star, Amy Adams; Elizabeth Perkins as a bourbon-soaked, over-the-hill Southern belle; Matt Craven as the good-ol’-boy police chief; and Chris Messina, who plays hunky, soulful detective Richard Willis.
In a recent phone conversation, Messina attested that Clarkson “can do anything, and she does it all with such grace.… She’s kind of like liquid. You never catch her acting, and she does make everybody around her better for that.” In 2008 they both appeared in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona. “I’m not alone in thinking she’s one of our great, great actresses,” he says. “I think there’s nothing she can’t do.”
Ron Marasco, who ran the Loyola Marymount University theater department for many years and wrote Notes to an Actor, has known Clarkson since they were acting students at Fordham University, in New York. “She had this mangy apartment on the Upper West Side,” he says, “and we would sit up all hours smoking cigarettes, discussing and talking. There’s a phrase about acting: ‘I need to keep my mad up.’ But that crazy fire is hard to keep going in life, and that’s why you have to have those friends that help you.” In their salad days, they fell in love with acting not just as a profession but “as an idea, a way of life, almost a soul pursuit, and we were both swept away by it.”
“I’m not alone in thinking she’s one of our great, great actresses. I think there’s nothing she can’t do.”
Though her range of characters is broad, of late Clarkson has played mothers. With Adora in Sharp Objects, she has arguably met her most challenging character. Adora is the mother from hell—pretty in pink but lethal as a rusty nail. “I was like, what the hell am I doing?” says Clarkson. “I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to take the part, but I had great admiration for Amy Adams.”
Adams, who plays Camille, Adora’s rebellious, cast-off daughter, wanted Patti from the beginning. “She’s someone I thought of immediately when we were casting,” Adams said, “because she’s really great—her splendid elegance and Southern sophistication and unpredictable energy. She has this beautiful sensuality about her. There’s a delicacy and grace to her presentation, but also a fierceness.”
Speaking from her home in Chicago, Gillian Flynn, author of the novel Sharp Objects, explained why Patti was so right for the part of Adora: “Patti has that innate sexuality to her which you don’t get to see in actresses over 50. First, she has that voice, and she has that grace that’s almost like a silver-screen actress. Her bawdy sense of humor takes you off guard, like she stepped out of a screwball comedy. Her life is like performance art. You don’t know where any day with Patti is going to take you.”
The only other character who has haunted Clarkson the way Adora haunts her is Blanche DuBois, ever since she played the tragic aging belle in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Kennedy Center’s Tennessee Williams summer festival in 2004. The New York Times praised her “ravishing moments” of hysteria in a portrayal more shrewd and self-aware than Blanche’s usual petal-thin fragility.
“Blanche and Adora felt like a lifetime,” Clarkson says. “But it’s a job and what is the alternative? I guess sitting at home and kissing on my dog, which I do.” (She is taking care of her six-year-old dog, a rescue named Issy—short for Isadora Duncan—whom she is currently nursing through a very rough patch. “I couldn’t live without her. I’m more in love with this dog than just about anything.”)
After shooting the eight-episode series in Barnesville, Georgia, and Los Angeles, Clarkson couldn’t wait to tear off the fake nails she wore as part of her character and rush back to her family of friends in New York. She had to shed all vestiges of Adora before heading home.
Some Kind of Elixir
Clarkson’s own mother, Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson—Miss Jackie—held public office for 24 years and is a much-loved figure in New Orleans. Patti says that her mother was the only public official still in town when Hurricane Katrina hit. She served on the New Orleans City Council from 2006 to 2014, and was its president for five of those years, the first woman to do so in New Orleans’s 300-year history.
“I can’t take all the credit,” Jackie Clarkson said on the phone. “My husband in his own quiet way was a leader, head of the department of medicine at L.S.U., but we needed a second income to put five girls through school. We could’ve made more money or traveled the world, but we needed to look after this city. It’s one of a kind, and every so often we have to help pick it back up. I loved every day of it, and I got to help [Mayor] Mitch Landrieu rebuild this city. We really were broken, and nearly bankrupt, but we raised a phoenix from the ashes.”
Another day at Clarkson’s, her close friend Lauren Lentz, a cytogeneticist, dropped in to say hello. She could easily be mistaken for one of Clarkson’s sisters—tall, with long blonde hair and the profile of a John Singer Sargent portrait.
Lauren was also close to Jackie Clarkson, whom she knew even before meeting Patti. She describes Jackie as “a force in New Orleans.... Patti and her mother are very different, but Patti gets her political bent from her mother. Just the advocacy that she has for the LGBTQ community.”
“My mother just made us care,” Patti adds. “For someone who had such ambition later on, it’s shocking, because usually those types of women—I play them—are not very good mothers. I would say my mother was a great mother. I would say there was always unconditional love.”
Jackie had five daughters, each a year apart. She encouraged them to pursue what they wanted. “If it was to join five organizations, she would figure out a way to get us to that after-school activity. We all were Honor Society, Kiwanis, Chargerettes, Key Club, swim team, gymnastics.”
Patti, the youngest, says she was the most temperamental and high-strung of her sisters: “I think I was born feral, and I gussied it up. I had a lot of hair curlers and makeup and a lot of uniforms and schooling. My nickname was ‘The Banshee’ as a child. Even though I grew up in a conventional, but by no means conservative, Southern household, I was a true free spirit. I think it’s just my DNA and I had to deal with it, a combination of my mother’s family, my father’s family. It swirled together in a cocktail that came together in some kind of elixir.”
“I think I was born feral, and I gussied it up. My nickname was ‘The Banshee’ as a child.”
Patti’s father had an appointment to the Naval Academy. Both parents went to Tulane. “My father ran a children’s home before he became an administrator at L.S.U. medical school, and he was one of the first people to allocate money for AIDS research at L.S.U. He was a good man.”
She describes her maternal grandparents as “the Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt of New Orleans, whenever they walked into places. My grandmother was Russian-Jewish and Spanish, and my gorgeous grandfather, Johnny Brechtel, was Irish-German.” Brechtel founded a community center in New Orleans, which had programs for sports and the arts, including a little theater. She points to groaning shelves of books in her apartment. “I have his Shakespeare book. It has all the blue ink lines in it. It’s crumbling. He’s with me somehow, I think, because none of my other sisters [are actors]—they all have real jobs.”
As her career—a word she’s not overly fond of—has been given rocket fuel by Sharp Objects, Clarkson is remaking her home. “I’ve got this damn renovation. Come see what I’m doing.”
The project started as a way to soundproof her apartment, “and if I have to soundproof, I’m going to finally renovate. This is my little guest room, and it’s kind of crappy-ass now. This bathroom? I normally have long red velvet curtains in here that are quite yummy, and they go from almost the ceiling down.”
She’s turning her red kitchen into a black kitchen with Chinese-red walls, though she admits that the one time she cooks in her whole life is when she does a sit-down Thanksgiving dinner for 18 people.
“So many of my friends are gay, so I call it 18 men and a baby, because my niece used to come here. I make jambalaya and stuff the turkey with it. Lauren is my sous-chef. We get up at the crack of dawn, because jambalaya takes forever. The simmering down, the cooking down of the triumvirate—garlic, bell pepper, and onion. In New Orleans, they just sell those three already pre-cut, but it never tastes as good if you don’t chop them in the morning. You’ve got to just suck it up, get up early, but it’s fun. I make praline parfait with cornbread, which is really more Southern. My mother never made cornbread in her life. We just ate French bread.”
The Best New Yorkers
Because she was raised in the Algiers section of New Orleans, Clarkson didn’t have the opportunity to see a lot of live theater. “But there was something inside me,” she says, that came out in speech class in eighth grade. “Whenever I would give these speeches, they became soliloquies. That’s when my teacher said, ‘Patti, you’re an actress. You should be in the drama club,’ and I had never thought that.”
Jackie Clarkson remembers the day Patti came home from school after being in the ninth-grade play. “She just loved it, so she said, ‘I know what I want to be! I want to be onstage!’ And we didn’t doubt that,” she says. “We have an environmental epidemiologist, we have a lawyer, we have a school psychologist, we have a financial businesswoman, so we weren’t at all surprised our daughters were all over-achievers!”
When it came time to start college, Clarkson says, “I wasn’t quite sure. It was very hard for me to leave home, I think, because of my unconditional damn love. I grew up with so many people surrounding me in this cocoon, this warm and cozy, cushy life, even though I did not grow up with money.”
She became homesick whenever she had to leave her family. “I think L.S.U. seemed easy and unchallenging,” she says. “But it wasn’t for me, so I transferred to Fordham, and that was the best decision I ever made in my life.”
Transplanted Southerners often make the best New Yorkers, and indeed the city fits Clarkson like a pair of evening gloves. She loves her neighborhood like a born New Yorker: “Just the beauty of this city! What moves me the most in my life is encountering these small acts of kindness from small-businesspeople, and they are the blood of this great city. Everyone in my neighborhood knows me. They follow everything I do. When I won the Golden Globe, it was as though I won it for my neighborhood—the notes under the door, the notes left in the lobby. It was beautiful.”
Her first home in New York was the YMCA on West 64th Street. “You would go in the door and you would have to come in sideways in order to get your clothes, because there was a chest and a bed, and that was it. I started to decline very quickly, and so I called my mother and father and I said, ‘I can’t stay here.’” But three months later, Clarkson and a fellow student at Fordham found an apartment at 77th and Broadway, in the old Belleclaire residence hotel. “There was this super, this very large man, who was so kind to us. I remember going down alone with this man to the basement to look for furniture.”
Two years later, after she’d graduated and left for the Yale School of Drama, a friend called her and said, “‘Patti, have you seen the front page of the Post? Remember your old super? He’s on the cover. He’s murdered his wife, his son, and the manager, and two tenants.’ This was a man we spent a lot of time with. I was down in the basement with this man picking out furniture. We would have him into our apartment for coffee. We were two pretty girls in an apartment in Manhattan, but he was never untoward. He was never inappropriate. What a New York story! I remember telling my mother that, and she was like, ‘Patti, you should have stayed at the Y.’”
“The Beast Came Out”
Clarkson loved her time at Yale, where she earned her M.F.A., but found it “brutal, yet extraordinary. Just the amount of work and creativity that was placed upon us daily! The classes go from sunup to sundown, and then you go to rehearsal for the cabaret, or you’re running scenes. But I liked its structure, and I liked its classical offerings. All you did was Ibsen and Chekhov for the first year in scene study. There’s something that brings you back to why you became an actor in the first place when you do Chekhov, because it requires the most intimate parts of you, and Ibsen requires the warmest parts.”
Clarkson was also doing cabaret, which is when she started to do “these wild and crazy characters,” like playing the eight-year-old murderer in a musical version of The Bad Seed, written by the late Richard Beebe. “I had to tap-dance and sing, and I don’t really do either, but that was Yale.” One of her teachers, she says, told her, “‘Patti, you have this hair, this voice, but I don’t want any of that.’ He was starting to cast us against type, which was the most advantageous teaching I’ve ever had in my life. The beast came out, and it’s still there, and I’m probably more beast than anything now.”
The playwright Richard Greenberg, who won a Tony in 2003 for Take Me Out, shared an apartment with Clarkson for two years at Yale and for three years in New York. He was first struck by her because, even in a place where there were many actors, he says, “Patti was the one who looked like a movie star. She had masses of blond hair, and she was very much from New Orleans, so she was pulled together in a way that others didn’t bother to be.”
Clarkson has appeared in three of Greenberg’s plays, including Three Days of Rain, which he describes as “the hardest part I have ever written for an actor. She was playing a neurotic Southern woman. I assumed she probably had met some of those.”
When they graduated from Yale, Greenberg recalls, people expected instant movie stardom for Clarkson, but that didn’t happen. One reason, he believes, was that at that time “the girl in the movie most existed to prove that the leading man was straight, and Patti didn’t necessarily do that.” A second reason was that Clarkson “passed on scripts because she thought they were bad, and some of those movie scripts she thought were bad were made into movies that were enormous successes and turned other actresses into huge stars, but they were bad. She used to sometimes literally fling a script across the room.”
Clarkson’s breakthrough would not come until 1998, 11 years into her career, with Lisa Cholodenko’s High Art, in which she played a once-glamorous, heroin-addicted German lesbian.
Greenberg considers Clarkson a “born actress,” so he was surprised to hear her say recently, “I don’t really like my acting. Of all the things I’ve done, the thing I love the most is a documentary I narrated on the hummingbird for PBS.”
Any given day, someone on the street will stop Clarkson to express admiration, lately primarily for Sharp Objects. Not long ago, down by the Magnolia Bakery, a young man walked by, recognized her, and said, “You are dope. You are, like, dope in that role.” Once you’ve been called “dope,” you’ve bridged generations.
Clarkson’s next project is Monica, which Andrea Pallaoro is directing. Trace Lysette (Transparent), a transgender actress, will play Monica, and Clarkson will again play the dying mother. It’s a role she’s chosen, because it’s important to her. In that way, her friend Ron Marasco observes, Clarkson hasn’t really changed over the years. “How much does fire change?” he asks. “Fire is fire.”
On our last day together, an afternoon of relentless summer thunderstorms, we were joined at her apartment by another of Clarkson’s closest friends, Ricky Trabuco, an interior designer and stand-up comedian. “I know a lot of actors who aren’t very interested in general, but she’s interested in what other people’s lives are,” he says, “For all her busy life, when I do stand-up, she will come to this little shit-can gig that I’m doing somewhere and be my biggest fan, and bring people.”
Clarkson extends her goodwill to strangers. Trabuco recalls one evening coming back from a party at Greenberg’s. “He had so much leftover food, so Patti said, ‘Let’s take it. There are people sleeping on the street across from the apartment.’ We get out of the taxi, and we had this big box of hors d’oeuvres and little pastries. Three homeless guys were sleeping over the vents, covered under blankets. I said, ‘Just leave it,’ but one of them woke up. He was a little startled, so Patti said, ‘We have food for you.’ She opened the box. She’s explaining, ‘These have little pimentos on the top, and these are profiteroles, and these are vol-au-vents filled with mushroom ragout. Some of these might be gluten-free.’ I’m like, ‘Patti, Patti, just leave it. They’ll eat it.’”
Before Clarkson had a personal stylist, designers would often send her dresses. “I still kind of do that. I just had my fitting with Christian Siriano—that’s a scoop. I can tell you I’m wearing Christian Siriano to the Emmys.”
A Giant Red High-Heeled Shoe
Trabuco has enjoyed a front-row seat at her private fashion shows as she decides which designer dress to wear at galas and awards ceremonies. “She would call me and say, ‘Ricky, I’ve got these 10 dresses and some shoes and bags. I’ll open a bottle of champagne or something. Would you mind coming over?’ I’m a gay man, are you fucking kidding me!”
Trabuco and his husband, Nestor, also had the pleasure of accompanying Clarkson at the Queen of Muses Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans. Their plane was met, they were ushered into a limo, and they were given a police escort of six motorcycles to the Windsor Court Hotel. The day of the parade, Clarkson recalls, “it rained like hell. It was Noah’s ark. Remember, it was just me, Ricky, Nestor, and Lauren, and all the muses sitting in their buses, all dressed up.” By 6:30, the rain stopped and Clarkson was brought to the parade float, a giant red high-heeled shoe. The mayor, Mitch Landrieu, and his wife were waiting for her. “I climbed up on the shoe, and we took off.”
Clarkson is frank about her personal life. “I don’t suffer fools anymore. I’m too tired. I knew when I was 14 that I never wanted to get married and have children,” she says. “I’ve lived a rather solitary life. I’ve had extraordinary men in my life—I’m very thankful for each and every one of them, but I’ve made my own way. I will continue to do that, unless I suddenly get married, but I doubt it. Wouldn’t that be crazy? Patti married. You ask my friends, do you think Patti will ever marry? They’d be like, ‘What?’ I’m going to marry in my 80s. That’s my goal.
“Do you want more bourbon?” she continues. “I’m going to have just a splash. Why not? Who cares?”
Sam Kashner is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL