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Patricia Clarkson Holds Court
Over a Jack-and-ginger, the serial character actor and star of Season 2 of SundanceTV’s “State of the Union,” chats about her crush on her co-star Brendan Gleeson, a childhood spent tooling around in a VW bus, and her habit of playing mothers and wives.
By Sarah Larson February 7, 2022
On a recent Monday afternoon, in a corner banquette in the Greenwich Village bistro Bar Six, Patricia Clarkson greeted a waiter with “Hi, darling!” and happily accepted his suggestion of a drink. “I’ve been up for forty-seven hours,” she said, looking slyly pleased. “I’ll have my usual—a Jack-and-ginger, no ice, lemon.” Clarkson, sixty-two, sat beneath a wall mirror painted with prix-fixe dinner offerings, wearing an elegant midnight-blue blouse (“This is faux silk”) and an antique-style watch (“It was given to me when I won my first Emmy for ‘Six Feet Under’ ”), amused and languorously glamorous. “I’ve been up since five-fifteen—hence my ‘Today’-show hair,” she said. She leaned back, happy to relax. This month, the second season of “State of the Union,” a SundanceTV series in which she co-stars (written by Nick Hornby and directed by Stephen Frears), débuts; she recently finished filming “She Said,” playing the Times editor Rebecca Corbett during the Harvey Weinstein reporting; she was heading to Atlanta to shoot “Lilly,” in which she portrays the fair-pay hero Lilly Ledbetter. (“She danced with Barack Obama at his Inauguration!”) Before that, she’d spend the weekend in New Orleans, her home town, “to hang with my parents and see all my sisters,” including at a ladies’ brunch at Commander’s Palace, “the best restaurant in town.” (“The great Ella Brennan—I narrated a documentary about her.”)
Bar Six is French-Moroccan, with tagines and frites, but it also happens that it offers a French 75, and that early Louis Armstrong was playing in the background. “This is my home away from home,” Clarkson said. (She lives nearby and doesn’t cook.) Staffers smiled as they passed. “Oh, take care, darling!” she called to one. To another: “Hey, Noel, how are you?” Her character in “State of the Union,” Ellen, has a similar vibe with Jay (Esco Jouléy), a barista at the sunny Connecticut café in which the series takes place. It consists of ten short episodes, each set just before a marriage-counselling session. The first season took place in a London pub, with Rosamund Pike as a wife looking to communicate and a gamely beleaguered Chris O’Dowd looking to comply; Clarkson and Brendan Gleeson play empty nesters in a similar mode, whose easy rapport obscures the fact that they have little in common. Ellen is wry and self-possessed; Scott, the husband, barrels along in amiable befuddlement, flummoxed by, for starters, Jay’s pronouns and, reasonably, the name of the café. “What the hell is Mouthfeel?” he asks Jay. “Sounds like a sex club.”
The series filmed in London, a year ago, amid covid anxieties—“I only saw London from my little Mary Poppins balcony”—and professional joys. “I think for the rest of my life I’ll have a crush on Brendan Gleeson,” Clarkson said. “You know when your heroes don’t disappoint? He’s truly, he’s achy-breaky heart, this lovely, soulful, witty man.” Frears is “a gentle soul, does not let actors indulge,” she said. The series unfolds in real time—long, seemingly casual conversations, carefully scripted by Hornby, meticulously undeviated from. Clarkson has worked more improvisationally before (“In ‘Easy A,’ I don’t know that Stanley Tucci and I ever said a word that was on the page”), but here the goal was to do it “in the right and proper way, and we will not wane and we will not slack.”
Frears, Hornby, and Gleeson are all married, and Clarkson—who has played dozens of wives and mothers, from her film début, in “The Untouchables” (as Eliot Ness’s wife) to, more recently, parts in HBO’s “Sharp Objects” and “S.N.L.” ’s “Motherlover” short—is not: “I was the single girl in a sea of marriage floating on a bamboo raft.” She gave a throaty laugh. “People say, ‘You’ve never been married!’ I say, ‘No, I’ve never been divorced, darling.’ ” As Ellen, she’s patient and knowing, and says things like “Your untrammelled heterosexuality is a blessing and a curse.” She’s fond, but she’d like to be free.
“ ‘State of the Union’ is about the sacrifices you make to be married, to have children,” she said. “I knew at fourteen that I would not be good at it.” Clarkson, the youngest of five daughters, grew up in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans. Her parents, high-school sweethearts, are still married. “We were very close—the seven of us with our two dogs. I just watched ‘King Richard,’ with Will Smith, as Venus and Serena’s father. He’s got five daughters, and he drives a Volkswagen bus.” Her dad did, too. “Theirs was burgundy, ours was white and mint green. Watching Will Smith, I had so many beautiful memories of my father driving us around. We drove everywhere: Niagara Falls, camping at Pearl River, or just to get ice cream.” She blinked. “We would set up a camp, cook on the fire, wrap up a meat patty and some sliced potato—oh, how we lived!”
Clarkson went to the Yale School of Drama, by way of Fordham, the Lincoln Center campus. As an undergrad, she lived in a cheap apartment and worked at a Greek restaurant. “I was struggling. My mother called: ‘Patty, how are you doing? Are you drinking orange juice?’ I said, ‘Mom, I really can’t afford orange juice.’ And I hear, ‘Jesus Christ, Buzz, she doesn’t have the money for orange juice!’ ” Does she keep it on hand now? “I don’t really care for orange juice,” she said, laughing. “Unless there’s champagne in it.