Born Patricia Davies Clarkson, December 29, 1959, in New Orleans, LA; daughter of Buzz and Jackie (an elected official) Clarkson. Education: Attended Louisiana State University, c. 1977-79; Fordham University, B.A. (summa cum laude), 1982; Yale University School of Drama, M.F.A., 1985.
Addresses: Agent—Gersh Agency, 41 Madison Ave., 33rd Fl., New York, NY 10010.
Actress in films, including: The Untouchables, 1987; The Dead Pool, 1988; Rocket Gibraltar, 1988; Everybody's All-American, 1988; Tune in Tomorrow, 1990; Jumanji, 1995; Pharaoh's Army, 1995; High Art, 1998; Playing by Heart, 1998; Simply Irresistible, 1999; Wayward Son, 1999; The Green Mile, 1999; Falling Like This, 2000; Joe Gould's Secret, 2000; The Pledge, 2001; Wendigo, 2001; The Safety of Objects, 2001; Welcome to Collinwood, 2002; Far From Heaven, 2002; Heartbreak Hotel, 2002; The Baroness and the Pig, 2002; Pieces of April, 2003; All the Real Girls, 2003; The Station Agent, 2003; Dogville, 2003; Miracle, 2004; The Woods, 2005; The Dying Gaul, 2005. Television appearances include: Spenser: For Hire, 1985; The Equalizer, 1986; Tales from the Crypt, 1990; Law & Order, 1990; The Old Man and the Sea (movie), 1990; Davis Rules, 1991; Blind Man's Bluff (movie), 1992; Legacy of Lies (movie), 1992; An American Story (movie), 1992; Four Eyes and Six-Guns (movie), 1992; Queen (miniseries), 1993; Caught in the Act (movie), 1993; She Led Two Lives (movie), 1994; Murder One, 1995-96; London Suite (movie), 1996; The Wedding (movie), 1998; Wonderland, 2000; Frasier, 2001; The Six Wives of HenryVIII (miniseries; narrator), 2001; Carrie (movie), 2002; Six Feet Under, 2002-04. Stage appearances include: The House of Blue Leaves, 1986; Three Days of Rain, 1997; A Streetcar Named Desire, Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C., 2004.
Awards: Emmy Award for outstanding guest actress in a drama series, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, for Six Feet Under, 2002; New York Film Critics Circle award for best supporting actress, for Far From Heaven, 2002; special jury prize, Sundance Film Festival, 2003.
Hailed as American independent film's newest star, actress Patricia Clarkson won the special jury prize at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. She was honored for her compelling performances in not just one but four different movies, including The Station Agent, the acclaimed Tom McCarthy film. Clarkson was also seen in 2002's Far from Heaven, Todd Haynes's masterful drama about a faltering marriage in the 1950s.
Clarkson was anything but new to the scene, however. She was 43 years old when she won the Sundance award, and had a career that dated back to New York theater in the mid-1980s. For a time, Clarkson languished in television roles, but her career took off in the late 1990s when individuals who knew her stage work became involved in casting independent films. "Wry, dry, and ruefully self-aware, Patricia Clarkson's performances stand out in current American film like crisp martinis in a soda fountain," asserted Ben Brantley in the New York Times. A journalist for London's Guardian newspaper, Gareth McLean, also wrote enthusiastically of Clarkson's talents. "She takes on a scarily diverse range of characters and nails every one of them," McLean noted. "Aided by a subtle, willowy beauty, she has a rare talent for transformation" that, he pointed out, also made her one of American cinema's most unrecognized screen stars.
Critics usually note Clarkson's throaty drawl, a byproduct of her New Orleans background. She was born the last of Jackie and Buzz Clarkson's five daughters, and had made up her mind that she would become an actress by the time she reached O. Perry Walker High School in the Crescent City. Her mother was a similarly determined woman: she began selling real estate, and was elected to city council in New Orleans; she later went on to a seat in the Louisiana state legislature. Yet Clarkson had inherited the acting talents of her paternal grandfather, who died before she was born. He was a local New Orleans mover and shaker who helped create the city's recreation department, and he also acted in plays at French Quarter theaters. He had even co-founded a theater in the Algiers district of New Orleans.
Like her mother, Clarkson also served a stint in the state capital of Baton Rouge—attending Louisiana State University. She transferred to Fordham University in the New York City borough of the Bronx around 1980, which brought her nearer to the epicenter of American theater. Fordham had an excellent drama program, and for her senior project Clarkson staged a performance of the Henrik Ibsen play Hedda Gabler. She graduated summa cum laude in 1982.
Clarkson won a slot at Yale University's prestigious School of Drama, leaving with a graduate fine-arts degree in 1985. That same year, she landed her first television part, as a guest star on the hit ABC series Spenser: For Hire. In 1986, she was cast to replace Julie Hagerty (Airplane!) in John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves on Broadway. The following year, she played the pregnant wife of Kevin Costner's character, Elliott Ness, in the highly anticipated Chicagomob drama The Untouchables. In 1988, she appeared in a little-seen Burt Lancaster film, Rocket Gibraltar, as one of the veteran actor's on-screen daughters. One of her children was played by a then-unknown eight-year-old named Macaulay Culkin.
Roles as moms and wives seemed to make up the bulk of Clarkson's career for the next several years, and she even had a hard time winning new film roles. There was a five-year hiatus between 1990's Tune in Tomorrow and her 1995 appearance in the kids' adventure film Jumanji. In the interim, Clarkson kept busy with television parts, including the series Davis Rules and the miniseries adaptation of the Alex Haley novel Queen. That film's title part was played by a young Halle Berry, while Clarkson impressed critics as the vicious wife of the plantation owner who is Queen's secret father.
Clarkson admitted that this was a low point in her life. "I couldn't get a part, and my self-confidence was down. And those two things go hand in hand," she told Orlando Sentinel journalist Roger Moore, in a 2003 interview that appeared in the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service. "Now, it seems light-years away, like a mere blip in my life. But it wasn't. It was a difficult time."
Just before she turned 40, Clarkson suddenly emerged as the new face in independent cinema. She delivered an impressive performance in High Art, a 1998 film written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko (Laurel Canyon). Critics commended Clarkson's supporting role as Greta Krause, a heroin addict and German actress who was once a protégé of legendary German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Greta lives in New York with her girlfriend, Lucy, played by Ally Sheedy, an acclaimed photographer who vanished from the art scene after a burst of early promise. Lucy befriends her hesitant, heterosexual neighbor, Syd (Radha Mitchell), and the two begin an affair. Clarkson, noted New Orleans Magazine writer Ron Swoboda, "nails Krause cold with a husky Teutonic accent and look, not unlike Marlene Dietrich in slow motion, with the body language to match."
In 1999, Clarkson appeared in The Green Mile as Tom Hanks' wife, but began taking small roles in a slew of other films that would be released in 2000 and 2001, including Joe Gould's Secret, The Pledge, and the adaptation of the A.M. Homes work of fiction, The Safety of Objects. Clarkson also took a part as the flamboyant sister of Ruth, the widow on the acclaimed HBO series Six Feet Under. Clarkson's performance earned her an Emmy Award.
In 2002, Clarkson appeared in the heist caper, Welcome to Collinwood, and also made what she has called one of her favorite films, The Baroness and thePig. She was cast in the period drama as an American Quaker woman who marries a French baron, settles in Paris, and tries to help a young girl from the countryside. It was never released in theaters.
Clarkson had better luck that year with the critically admired Far From Heaven, which starred Julianne Moore as Cathy Whitaker, a 1950s housewife who discovers her husband, played by Dennis Quaid, is gay. Costuming for the film by Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine) forced both actresses into elaborate period costumes that seemed nearly as constricting as those of an eighteenth-century French aristocrat in Clarkson's previous film. Her part as the best friend and confidante of Moore's character was small, but served to convey the themes that Haynes wanted the story to show: that in middle-class suburban Connecticut, Cathy's attraction to the handsome local florist, who is an African-American man, seems to many a far worse transgression than her husband's furtive sex life.
Clarkson's role as Eleanor Fine in Far From Heaven won her a New York Film Critics' Circle award, but she was bypassed for the Academy Award nominations early in 2003. In January, however, she won the unofficial crown of "indie queen" of Sundance, which showcases the best of independent cinema, when she seemed to have a part in nearly every top buzz-worthy entrant of that year's film festival. They were supporting roles, but impressive nonetheless: she was in All the Real Girls, a David Gordon Green project in which she portrayed the single parent of a love-struck teenaged son. In some scenes, Clarkson's character gave advice to her son while dressed for her job as a professional clown for children's parties.
Critics also liked Clarkson's performance in Pieces of April, an appealing low-budget family drama from Peter Hedges (About a Boy's screenwriter). She played Joy, wife to Oliver Platt's jovial patriarch, and both are en route through Pennsylvania and New Jersey with other family members to spend Thanksgiving with their New Yorker daughter, played by Katie Holmes (Dawson's Creek). Mother and daughter have been estranged, but Joy is now terminally ill. Newsweek critic Devin Gordon found Clarkson in his film "downright unforgettable. As Joy, a mother with terminal breast cancer, Clarkson is cruel, bitter—and mordantly, marvelously funny." Writing in Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleiberman judged Hedges' efforts unsuccessful, claiming that the filmmaker "shoves his characters into the narrowest of sitcom slots and seals them there . The one glint of honest comedy in Pieces of April comes from Patricia Clarkson's exuberantly hostile performance."
Pieces of April finally earned Clarkson her first Oscar nomination, but she lost the Best Supporting Actress statuette to Renée Zellweger for Cold Mountain. Clarkson also appeared in yet another Sundance-premiered film that made its way to general release in the fall of 2003, The Station Agent. The title character of Fin was played by Peter Dinklage, a rail buff and dwarf who inherits the remote New Jersey station job from a friend. Clarkson's Olivia is a divorced artist, still grieving for her late son, who nearly runs the diminutive Fin over with her car. A quiet bond develops between the pair. Critics commended her portrayal, with the New York Times' Elvis Mitchell noting that her entrance into the plot marks a point where the film "takes on a deeper, more tantalizing shape . Olivia is flushed with pain, and embarrassed by it. The power in Ms. Clarkson's performance comes from Olivia's recognizing parts of herself that she's been suppressing."
Clarkson, who lives in New York City's West Village with her dog, returned to theater in the spring of 2004 in the revival of the Tennessee Williams classic, A Streetcar Named Desire, at Kennedy Center in Washington. She was cast as Blanche DuBois, the tragic widow who becomes unglued at any mention of her early, ill-fated marriage. The Southern-belle Blanche comes to live with her sister, Stella, and her ogre-like husband, Stanley, who enjoys taunting Blanche for her airs. Brantley, the New York Times' theater critic, lauded "Clarkson's sharp-edged portrayal in this largely spark-free production" and asserted that "her Blanche is unlike any you've seen before."
Several new films—some independent, some mainstream—were next on Clarkson's schedule. They included The Woods, a psychological thriller set at a private school in the 1960s, and as the wife of Kurt Russell's coach character in Miracle, the story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team victory over their Soviet counterparts. She was also slated to appear alongside her real-life boyfriend, actor Campbell Scott (Rodger Dodger) in The Dying Gaul, in 2005. Its story centered on Scott's character, a Hollywood producer who is bisexual. That same year, she filmed All the King's Men and signed on to appear in Goodnight, and Good Luck and Conquistadora.
While admitting that real-life Hollywood is, by reputation, a tough place for a working actress in her early forties, Clarkson is thankful that directors like Cholodenko, Haynes, and Hedges believed in her. "That can be the danger zone, and you're either going to break through or you're going to be struggling," she told Entertainment Weekly journalist Gillian Flynn. "And I am lucky, lucky, lucky, that I was able to break through that." Known for tackling roles that often deal with the darker side of life, Clarkson said she refuses to play it safe with lightweight parts. As she explained to Entertainment Weekly, "I'm always seeking something that will challenge me, something that will get me going. And frighten me—it's good to be frightened."
Daily Variety, May 30, 2002, p. 8; January 8, 2003, p. 58; November 12, 2003, p. A1.
Entertainment Weekly, November 27, 1992, p. 67; February 12, 1993, p. 45; February 7, 2003, p. 43; June 27/July 4, 2003, p. 41; October 10, 2003, p. 100; October 24, 2003, p. 85; February 6, 2004, p. 68; February 13, 2004, p. 52; March 5, 2004, p. 55.
Guardian (London, England), March 24, 2004, p. 24.
Interview, November 2003, p. 38.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, November 14, 2003.
Los Angeles Magazine, February 2004, p. 57.
New Orleans Magazine, March 2001, p. 38.
Newsweek, October 20, 2003, p. 11.
New York Times, March 2, 2003, p. 31; October 3, 2003; October 12, 2003, p. ST9; May 18, 2004, p. E1.
People, September 12, 1998, p. 17.
Variety, November 17, 1997, p. 75; February 2, 1998, p. 29.