Although her breakthrough roles didn’t arrive until her late 30s, it didn’t take Patricia Clarkson long to establish herself as one of the most versatile and respected actresses of her generation, as well as a sex symbol to thinking persons of any gender. In 1987′s “The Untouchables” she was a patient wife to Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness, then on the TV series “Murder One,” the less self-sacrificing wife to a more flawed great man (though, she once recalled, “I chopped more vegetables in a season of television…”). Her burgeoning career portraying long-suffering housewives was cut short by “High Art,” the 1998 debut film from Lisa Cholodenko (who went on to direct “The Kids Are All Right”), where Clarkson’s smoky voice lent a doomed glamour to the role of photographer Ally Sheedy’s drug-addicted muse. At an age — 50, as she’ll tell you herself — when many actresses are struggling to find good roles, Clarkson is at her peak, playing complicated, sexually engaged women of the kind movies rarely make room for: She’s an American actress with a European career.
What Clarkson hasn’t had till now is an honest-to-God leading role. But that changes with “Cairo Time,” in which Clarkson plays the wife of a U.N. aid worker left on her own in the Egyptian capital when her husband cannot extricate himself from a flare-up in Gaza. Instead, he sends a colleague (Alexander Siddig) to show her around the city. Thousands of miles away from her children, who themselves are moving out and getting married, Clarkson’s character finds herself, for perhaps the first time in decades, alone. She is drawn to Siddig, partly for practical reasons, but also because he represents an oasis of stillness in a world that has suddenly become new to her. Writer-director Ruba Nadda shoots in vivid, sensual colors, evoking the sweep of classic romance while also providing a tactile portrait of present-day Cairo.
In a slim blue sheath dress, Clarkson munched on minibar jelly beans while discussing the perils of fame, Justin Timberlake, and why she still doesn’t own a computer.
You and Susan Sarandon did a “Saturday Night Live” digital short called “Motherlover,” in which Justin Timberlake and Andy Samberg each offer themselves as a Mother’s Day present to the other’s mom. People are kind of nuts for that thing. Were you surprised how much it caught on?
Oh my God. And I’m working with Justin Timberlake right now, doing this new comedy where I play Mila Kunis’ mother. He’s such a dreamboat, and so is Andy. The two of them. And it couldn’t be more sexy, fun — I mean, yee haw.
You see actors sometimes, particularly younger ones, who seem to lose track of who they are when they’re not working.
I have to tell you, this business is so seductive, for so many reasons. It’s so easy to do everything but the work. And when you do everything but the work, you’re in big trouble. Because you won’t sustain a career. I don’t care how good you look, because eventually they’re not going to be hiring you for that reason. Or your popularity — that’s eventually going to fade, or go in and out. It just gets so many people into trouble. Oddly, I think the stronger you become as an actor, the stronger your self becomes, your confidence in who you are. I think the most seductive part of acting is to act, is to actually do the work. There’s nothing sexier than being on a set and really working your butt off, and taking a journey. You have a lot of time to have dinner and hang out. [Laughs.] But you have to be willing, and I think a lot of young people, they put the cart before the horse. They have this tremendous fame that’s based on nothing. It’s sad to me. But some recover. Not all of them fall of the cliff. Most, but some don’t.
The flame-out of fame is so accelerated now by sites like TMZ and Perez Hilton. It’s a much more intense process.
Oh my God, and the videos and the blogging. You know, I don’t own a computer, so I don’t keep track of all of that. I’m working my way towards an iPad. [Laughs.]
Not having a computer is obviously a deliberate lifestyle choice. It’s not as if you haven’t gotten around to getting one.
I’m technologically challenged, first and foremost. And I actually love, I love, to watch the news, I like to read the newspapers, I like to buy the New Yorker or New York magazine. I like to buy the paper. I like to have it right in front of me. I like the real thing. I think even when I have my computer, I will … I think they’re remarkable things, but I think as actors, it’s a trap you fall into of looking at yourself and everything online. You chart yourself, and people are such egomaniacs anyway. You’ve just got wall-to-wall tracking yourself every day: Who’s got me where, and what photos, and what are they saying about me? Oh my God. Turn on the TV and watch CNN or somebody. Find out how many men died in Afghanistan today. Find out something. And I don’t mean to be preachy, because I’m not that at all. I don’t live in any way an exemplary life.
It’s interesting, because a lot of people, myself included, can’t imagine living without one.
I know. I feel guilty. [Laughs.] I like Salon.
No offense taken. I’m just curious why you haven’t…
Why I haven’t given over? I am. I’m working my way towards it. I’m close. I have an “iTouch.” I haven’t really — I think it works.
By all means, take your time. It’s like getting a cellphone. Once you have one, you can’t go back.
But see, I have a lot of things going on, on my cellphone, even though it’s not a fancy cellphone. It’s not a Blackberry. It’s just a regular cellphone. But I have a cellphone, a fax. [Pause.] A phone at home, with voicemail.
In “Cairo Time,” you’re playing a rare lead rather than a supporting role. Is that very different to you — or are parts just parts?
Well, it’s significant in that it’s flattering and it’s advantageous to play them occasionally, so you continue to remind people that you can carry a film, that you can take on a large project and hopefully deliver. But at the end of the day, acting is acting, in that whether you’re in an hour and a half or one scene, you have to deliver the character. You have to hopefully bring the integrity and honesty and excitement that you bring to every character, no matter what the duration.
One of the benefits of playing character roles is that you get to come in hard and fast. You’ve only got one scene in “Shutter Island,” but you make it a memorable one, and you play the character with a hard and unnerving quality.
She’s antithetical to “Cairo Time.”
It’s hard to imagine sustaining that tone over the course of an entire film.
You have to pace yourself differently. They’re radically different characters and people and radically different movies — because tone and everything shifts when you step onto a set, and every set is unique, and every script and every character that you play hopefully is unique. But yes, when you are the lead in a film — and I’ve certainly been the female lead in a few films before, several — you’re carrying that film, it is a different journey, emotionally, physically spiritually. It is a journey that will leave you, hopefully, spent but ultimately fulfilled.
The cliché is that actors are vagabonds, but Juliette is a middle-aged mother of two. She has a tremendous weight and a history she carries around with her. That weight can be comforting much of the time, but it’s very different.
Which is beautiful. That’s what’s fabulous, that she’s not a 30-year-old woman. She has the weight of a middle-aged woman, of a 48-, 50-year-old woman. I was 48 when I shot it. But yes. And so do I.
You’ve said that one of the things you like about “Cairo Time” is that it’s somewhat old-fashioned.
There is a slightly old-fashioned veneer at times. But I still think it’s incredibly modern, because I think Ruba [Nadda, the film's writer-director] really had the courage of her convictions. She set out to make her own movie. And I think whenever a filmmaker really retains his or her voice throughout an entire film, there’s nothing old-fashioned about that.
There’s a quality to your leading man, Alexander Siddig, that recalls a more classical movie star, a kind of masculine hardness.
Alexander I think honestly — and I’m not kidding — he’s exactly what a leading man should be. And not just because he’s tall, dark and handsome. That’s fabulous. But you have to have the goods to back all of that up, and he does. He’s fiercely intelligent, which is ever-present. His grace comes naturally. He’s naturally graceful, which is rare, especially now. It’s rare. But it’s needed in this.
He feels as if he’s lived.
He’s lived, and he’s worldly and elegant and refined and still exciting and interesting and interested, and he came ready. He came ready to go. He just arrived. He understood this man. I think a lot of his father is in this man. He knew the man, knew him well.
Interestingly, there’s a lot of my father in Juliette. My father — look, he grew up in a house with six women. He’s a very dry, very calm, very inviting, a lovely man — very internal, slightly recessed. People go to him. He’s very comfortable in the background. He’s very comfortable observing. There are elements of that in me that I had to really bring forward. I’m an actress, and now been around this business so long that I’m more forward, more open. But it’s interesting how there are some people in this world, like where I grew up, who see me as reticent and quiet, which is strange to me. [Laughs.] There is a small fraction of me, but there’s a lot of my father in Juliette.
The movie features what, depending on your point of view, is either the archetypal or stereotypical scene, where Juliette goes walking the streets alone and Arab men start following her and whispering obscenities in her ear.
That is very true, even though Cairo is much more progressive than I think people realize. People were shocked seeing the movie: “Your arms aren’t even covered.” Well, have you been to Cairo? First of all, it’s not about the arms, and you only have to wear a hijab in a mosque. It’s the legs. You really don’t want to run around Cairo in hot pants. [Laughs.] I was very tempted. And I was tempted to wear them today.
So yes, I’m a very Western-looking woman. And I had to be careful where I went alone in Cairo. But that’s the exception, not the rule. There are certain areas where you really probably should be accompanied by someone. But you know, many, many other places you can shop and walk and go and have a fantastic time and nobody cares. And nobody cares that … I was wary of anti-American sentiment. Frankly, I was a little frightened of being the American. And nobody cared, oddly. I don’t know why. There were one or two moments when people said, “We don’t like Americans.” Whatever. And you can see that came up a few times, once, twice. The Egyptian crew treated me like they did anyone else — with such respect, dignity.
They must be used to having movies shot in Cairo.
Actually, there aren’t many movies shot there. It’s a very odd city for film. We had to have it approved — it’s very difficult. There was a censor on our set, a woman. Every day. I got to know her very well. And I got to distract her on a few occasions [Laughs.] That’s all I’m going to say.
Did they censor the script?
They knew the script. She was wary of Ruba showing the poverty, child beggars, orphans. But Ruba got it anyway. She did not want Cairo shown in a bad light. She was very much a Muslim woman. She was probably the most religious person I met in my time there. The most fundamentalist, I guess.
Sam Adams writes for the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Onion A.V. Club, and the Philadelphia City Paper. Follow him on Twitter at SamuelAAdams or at his blog, Breaking the Line.