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Feeling Six Feet Tall

Patricia Clarkson has spent much of her film career in the background. But with an Emmy win for her 'Six Feet Under' role, she's taken the spotlight and will co-star this fall in two buzzed-about independent films.

October 08, 2002|KEVIN MAYNARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Patricia Clarkson is what's known in the business as an actor's actor, someone who her friend playwright Richard Greenberg says "has always been a cult fixture on the New York theater scene" but relegated to playing the obligatory love interest on film. That's about to change.

After years of perfecting the wife/girlfriend/appendage opposite leading men including Kevin Costner ("The Untouchables") and Clint Eastwood ("The Dead Pool"), the actress finally is coming into her own. She's got a new boyfriend (actor-director Campbell Scott) she's too shy to talk about. She just won an Emmy Award (for her role as freethinking Aunt Sarah on "Six Feet Under") and is working on a whopping nine film and television projects. And, mind you, all at the dewy young age of 43.

This fall, she co-stars in two buzzed-about indies. In "Far From Heaven," Todd Haynes' paean to the '50s melodramas of Douglas Sirk, she plays Julianne Moore's bigoted Connecticut confidante.

"There's a connection between that character and the women I knew in the South," says the Louisiana native. "It crosses the Mason-Dixon line. In high school, we would have to have slumber parties at my house because some of the white girls' parents would not allow blacks to sleep in their house. I saw a lot more prejudice there than I care to remember."

In "Welcome to Collinwood," a remake of the classic Italian heist film "Big Deal on Madonna Street," Clarkson plays Rosalind, a tough Cleveland street chick on the skids looking for a piece of the action. To get into character, she says, all she had to do was slip on the clothes. "She wore a hideous '70s leather jacket, just brown-orange horrible, suntanned panty hose and wedgies," Clarkson says, reducing her voice to a whisper. "And a water bra." Then, after another smoky-voiced gale of laughter, she adds, "Oh, come on! People change their hair, why not change your bust size?"

Clarkson loved the all-guy atmosphere of working with actors George Clooney, Isaiah Washington and especially Sam Rockwell. "Sammy's like my brother," she says. "I've known him for 13 years." They met in 1989 in Wilmington, N.C., on different film sets. She was filming "Tune in Tomorrow" and he was playing a bit part in "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." The actors stayed in touch and ended up neighbors in the West Village, friends long before both their stars began rising.

"I call Patty when I get stage fright," says Rockwell, who says Clarkson helped him when he performed "The Zoo Story" and "The Dumb Waiter" in repertory at last year's Williamstown Theater Festival. "I call her to calm me down. She helps me through a lot of actor's stuff," he says. "I would love to do something on stage with her. She really takes stage, as they say. She knows how to get into it."

Lately, it seems Clarkson has a harder time getting out of it--commitments, that is--the list of upcoming projects is impressive. Just in time for November sweeps, she stars in a revisionist TV remake of "Carrie" in the classic Piper Laurie role as the Bible-thumping mother from hell. "It's very cinema verite, close and dark, not sweeping and operatic like" Brian De Palma's, she says. "But it will inevitably have humor because you can't say, 'I can see your dirty pillows' without it being funny."

Then there are the film roles, almost all the kind of shoestring independents in which wardrobe changes take place in gas station bathrooms. "Dogville," Lars Von Trier's latest wrenching melodrama, is set in the Rockies circa 1930 and stars Nicole Kidman. All she will say about that experience is, "I'll be honest with you, there are moments in this movie where I went through hell." There's also "All the Real Girls" from experimental filmmaker David Gordon Greene ("George Washington") and a whimsical Canadian fantasy called "The Baroness and the Pig." Plus three more movies, each coincidentally featuring one of the kids from "Dawson's Creek." In "Pieces of April," she plays Katie Holmes' mother who's recovering from a double mastectomy, and she's in "The Station Agent" opposite Michelle Williams. In "The Safety of Objects" she plays a lonely neighbor who beds Joshua Jackson. "All my nieces, I am God to them now," she says.

Born and raised in the upper-middle class suburbs of New Orleans, Clarkson grew up in a sprawling, politically liberal family dominated by women. She's the youngest of five sisters, and mother Jackie Clarkson is a former real estate agent, current New Orleans city councilwoman and regular fixture on the society pages of the Times-Picayune. "She's incredibly gregarious, she coined the word," says Clarkson. "She knows people from all backgrounds because that's how she grew up. And I do love that aspect of acting. I love meeting new people." The only actor in her family had been her late grandfather John Patrick Brechtel, a football coach and English teacher who by night helped run a local repertory called the Algiers' Little Theater.

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