Singular Lady: Patricia Clarkson

8.28.2014

By R. Kurt Osenlund

After a lengthy hiatus, independent screen queen Patricia Clarkson returns to the stage in The Elephant Man.

Photo by Veronique Vial

Patricia Clarkson is dolling herself up for a New York Pride party, where she’ll be bringing a splash of color. “I’m not wearing a rainbow,” the regal actress says in her husky timbre, “but I will be putting on lipstick.”

Even if she hadn’t played a lesbian in High Art, or delivered an indelible HRC speech in 2009, Clarkson would still be a gay favorite. Known for her Southern sass and staunch liberalism, the New Orleans native is the rare actor who can expertly delve into characters without ever losing herself.

She’s a diva without the baggage, the formidable lady next door, and after starring with Zachary Booth in August’s gay-themed dramedy Last Weekend, Clarkson is returning to Broadway in a new production of The Elephant Man (in previews November 7 at the Booth Theatre). Co-starring Bradley Cooper, the play casts Clarkson as sympathetic actress Madge Kendal, and it will have her dolling herself up on repeat — eight times a week.

Out: Last Weekend’s co-director Tom Dolby said you were pretty drained by the end of the film’s 25-day shoot.
Patricia Clarkson: Oh, I had copious lines to learn every night, and on top of that, I had to take in everything about this character, Celia, and drive a lot of these dense scenes. It was crucial that I was prepared and present. It was a journey — great characters are tough.

And The Elephant Man is going to be demanding in a very different way.
Yes. As hard as moviemaking can be, there’s nothing harder than theater. That’s why I have the utmost respect for theater actors and musical performers who’ve spent their lives on stage. It’s brutal. I’m gobsmacked at what they can do.

It’s been two years since you first presented this show in Massachusetts. What were those initial performances like?
Terrifying, but glorious. I hadn’t been on stage in [nearly a decade], but I’m a trained theater actor and theater was my first love for a long time. Now I’m coming back, and it’s been incredible. Bradley and Alessandro [Nivola] are truly two of the finest actors I’ve ever worked with. They also happen to be very beautiful.

Yes, you’ve been keeping some handsome company lately.
Oh, I only work with beautiful people. [Laughs]

Two of your earlier plays, Three Days of Rain and Eastern Standard, were by Richard Greenberg, and the latter dealt with a lot of LGBT themes.
Rich and I were roommates at Yale [School of Drama], so doing a play with one of my best friends on Broadway was a dream. [Eastern Standard] was a beautiful experience, and I remember the gay scenes were very powerful. This was around 1990 — it was a potent piece. And it was my first big lead on Broadway. My 87-year-old grandmother came up from New Orleans with my mother and sisters.

In The Elephant Man, John Merrick’s friends observe how they’re all reflected in him. In what ways do you see yourself reflected in that character?
I believe in an unconventional life. I’m a 54-year-old, unmarried woman with no children. I’ve had beautiful relationships, but I am, at the core, more of a loner. I have many friends—gay and straight—and everybody’s married now, with children! [Laughs] It’s daunting sometimes to walk into a room and be the only single, childless person. But it’s nothing that I’d want to change.

Is there anything specific that helped prepare you for the role of Mrs. Kendal?
Everything prepares you for Mrs. Kendal. She’s been through much, and I think that’s what Merrick sees in her — a kindred spirit. I’ve lived a lot of life, and each night, that comes on stage with you.

Previews for The Elephant Man begin Nov. 7

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