In The East, a film that flaunts a stable of young talent both behind and in front of the camera, one of the most surprising performances comes from a Hollywood veteran, fifty-three year old Patricia Clarkson. Clarkson plays a corporate security guru and ruthless mentor to her gifted but innocent protégé, Sarah (Brit Marling). Marling, who also co-wrote the film with director Zal Batmanglij, imbues Sarah with a Siddhartha-like idealism that makes Clarkson’s air of knowing patronage all the more wickedly irreverent. When I meet up with Clarkson to discuss her role, I find an actress as debonair as the woman she plays, but without any of the nasty politics. Here, we discuss what it’s like working with such a young director, the unique challenge of supporting roles, and her impassioned response to the Deepwater oil spill.
You often look like you’re having a good time in your roles. In The East, that enjoyment is palpable.
For so many roles I’m in the home. It’s about my marriage, my children. Rarely do I play women who have powerful jobs. That was one of the reasons I took this part. Other than the fact that I really loved the script, and I do always seek higher ground. And I love to be part of something that is truly fabulous and detailed and odd.
But you’re so good at this kind of role.
I don’t know if that’s a compliment!
Well. Your character is not… unlikeable.
But she’ll cut you fast.
Don’t you think that’s the case with a lot of your characters? They’re clever. There might be circumstances that restrict them, but they know how to pull strings.
They have a certain power, yes. That probably comes from who I am. But in The East, for once I was able to really have my voice and strength. I didn’t have to have suburban hair. I didn’t have to wear mom clothes. I got to have a helicopter waiting for me on a tarmac!
Doesn’t that happen to you all the time?
I have a helicopter waiting for me right now. You want to take a ride?
You know there are actors that have helicopters waiting for them.
Like who? Brad Pitt?
Well, he needs one because people are always swarming him.
Doesn’t that happen to you?
I’m recognized. I do wear a hat on the streets of New York, you know. It just makes it a little easier. But it’s flattering. I’m a New York actress. People know who I am and they’re incredibly effusive and lovely. I’m lucky. I’m lucky, lucky, lucky.
When people approach you, what role do they remember you from?
It varies. Now it’s Cairo Time, which has become part of the zeitgeist. Sometimes it’s the Woody Allen films. It depends what sifts into the fabric of the city.
Have younger people started recognizing you?
Easy A now is crazy with the 25-and-under, 30-and-under crowd.. Easy A and Saturday Night Live.
Your time in The East is brief, but you’re extremely memorable and crucial to the story.
I like doing the leads in film, of course I do, but I also like doing a good supporting part, it makes you a better actor. You have to create an entire character in a few moments.
It’s very clear that Brit’s character imagines she could one day become you. You’re a role-model of sorts. But a very bad one!
Oh absolutely. Sometimes the hardest people on women as they move up the ladder are other women. They take on the misogyny and sexism of the very men they’re trying to top. Women can be just as deadly––just as cutting, just as unforgiving.
There’s a Medea quality to it. It reminded me of your power struggle with Nicole Kidman in Dogville.
Oh Lars! You know, Lars [von Trier] and Zal [Batmanglij] are kindred spirits. They are both really great directors. For a young man, Zal has real vision.
Was it strange working with someone so young?
My first conversation with Zal, we talked for an hour and a half, and I thought, ‘This young man, he knows what he’s doing.’ Zal is tough. It’s hard for young directors to be tough, to maintain themselves. I’ve seen young directors get pulled in a million directions. But Zal was Zal, every single hour of every day. He knew exactly who he was, exactly what he wanted. And I loved that. I love not being the strongest person on the set.
She was the ninja. She has a beautiful, quiet dignity and grace.
You grew up in New Orleans. You were quite vocal after the BP oil spill.
My mother is President of the city council so I was there right after Katrina, and I went out into the Gulf right after the oil spill. I saw it first hand. I was out in a boat, with my mother. It was devastating. There’s no other word for it. You saw life dying right before your eyes. You saw birds still covered in oil. After seeing that I would have loved for the head of BP to wake up with dead oily pelicans surrounding him, just like the horse head in Godfather.
When you first read the script, was that compulsion for justice and revenge something that grabbed you?
Of course. The oil spill sits with me, all of us. My heart and soul, my allegiance lies with the anarchists in the film. But I also like playing characters that challenge my world-view. Ideas and allegiances shift. We are all malleable, and we are always trying to see the other side. That’s what the film is about.