Interview: Patricia Clarkson on <i>Learning to Drive</i>

For her latest project, the luminous Clarkson stars in Isabell Coixet's, a charming slice-of-life fable co-starring Sir Ben Kingsley.
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The first time I saw Patricia Clarkson onscreen was in her feature film debut in Brian De Palma's 1987 crime epic The Untouchables. The subsequent decades have seen the hugely talented Clarkson rack up a truly impressive list of credits working alongside some of the most popular and well-respected actors and filmmakers of all time, in the process garnering considerable acclaim for her work on both big screen and small (she took home two well-deserved Emmy Awards for guest appearances on the HBO skein Six Feet Under).

For her latest project, the luminous Clarkson stars in Isabell Coixet's Learning to Drive, a charming slice-of-life fable co-starring Sir Ben Kingsley. The film, inspired by a 2002 New Yorker article by Katha Politt, casts the actress as Wendy, a recent divorcee who forms a unique and unlikely bond with Darwan (Kingsley), a Sikh driving instructor. What follows are some highlights from my conversation with Clarkson about the film, her relationship with Kingsley, and the continuing difficulties for women in Hollywood:

I was just talking to my colleagues about how we don't get these kinds of stories very often. I know this film spent something like 10 years in development.

I spent nine years trying to get this movie made alongside Dana Friedman. The wonderful Dana Friedman. It was a journey.

Talk to me about that. What was it about this story that you said, "I will stick with it."

I was so enamored of the essay in The New Yorker, and I love Katha Pollitt. She's many things but she's a poet at heart to me. She's written one of favorite poems of all time, called "Small Comfort". Read it sometime. You'll see.

I'll seek it out.

But I was so enamored of this story. It resonated. It stayed with me. Then I found that Dana Friedman had commissioned a script by Sarah Kernochan. Sarah Kernochan really took the short story and ran. I think she had Katha Pollitt's blessing to just...She took this story and made it a movie.

It kept the integrity of Wendy...The character in the essay was Filipino, the driver. But Sarah Kernochan had friends in the Sikh community, and decided to make the driver Sikh, which I thought was very beautiful. The culture, I knew a little of and now I know a lot of, which is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

I just thought she captured...Sarah had the heart of Katha in her, the essence of Katha, and really made it a movie. Made it a funny, witty, poignant movie in equal doses of comedy and tragedy. And I just thought it was unusual. It was surprising, and unusual, and had beauty to it. Great comedy. Like, real. I thought some of the circumstances in this film were genuinely funny, that grownups would find funny.

It's funny: as the film has opened and people have seen this, I know this is is an adult film, but my nieces and nephews have seen it and loved it. I've had some young friends go to see it and they love it. Love it. So, I do think, while this is a movie about middle-aged people, it resonates far greater. But I just...I wanted this story to be seen. I wanted people to laugh and hopefully cry, simultaneously.

I knew I just wanted to be a part of this and I didn't give up. But it's a tough movie to get made. But it was worth the journey. It was worth the journey. It really was. I actually arrived at a better place to play Wendy nine years later. I really did. [laughs] I had nine more years of life and love and loss. I was ready to play Wendy by the time we started rolling that camera, when I don't know that I really was nine years ago.

This is a contention that I have, and I'd love for you to confirm or disconfirm it. I think that Hollywood does not allow us to be a part of the process that women go through as they get older, in the same way that we have the opportunity with men. For example, we've seen Robert De Niro go from young man to distinguished older actor. We've seen that entire process. I feel like those same opportunities are not available to women.

They're not as abundant as they are to men. And that's sadly just the nature of this industry. It is a male-dominated industry. It is an ageist industry. That will never change, sadly. I mean, it's changing. Maybe a hundred years from now, somehow the scales will tip and it'll be all female, female-dominated and driven films. Maybe, you know. God, I wish I could stay alive another hundred years.

You can bemoan it, but you also have to just accept it, rise above, and make your own opportunities. I do think that with the rise of independent film, and not just...I grew up in the heyday of independent film with all these beautiful distributors, Miramax and October Films, the rise, the real hotbed of independent filmmaking. But what's happened now is something better.

Independent films have started to become commercial. They've started to enter the Oscar race. They've started to enter all of these award races. They've started to become the hot films of the year. They've lifted...More people now go to art films than before. It really was a very select group. And now cities all over the country have art houses. It used to be really New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. It was just the big urban cities.

But now there are more and more art houses, and people go! And so with the commercial aspect of these films, the financial wooing and winning of these films, it has made independent viable. It's opened up doors. More doors have opened up, and so more doors have opened up to women. Women, we have great stories to tell. And people go to see them. People want to see them.

I have to tell you, this film: I've had more people wanting to see this film than any film I've done in a long, long time just because. First of all, our incredible distribution company, we have an amazing distribution company, and we have these amazing producers who stepped in and got the film made. Because of them...They've actually invested in this film, which is even better. They've decided to put their money where their mouth is.

Briefly, I'd love for you to discuss how you formed your relationship that's just so beautiful and poignant with Ben Kingsley. What was that process like, the give-and-take?

What it starts from is a very deep and mutual respect that Sir Ben and I have for one another. We've known each other for a long time. We worked together on Elegy, a beautiful film we made. Have you ever seen Elegy?

I have, yeah. It's fantastic.

A beautiful film we made together. We played lovers, and if you ever want to bond with someone, play their lover. [laughs] So, we have mutual respect and admiration for one another and a friendship that came out of that and a love for Isabel Coixet that came out of that. We worship Isabel Coixet. We really do. She is delicious and divine.

Out of all of that, out of the process of Elegy, we formed this bond, and I wanted to bring that bond to this movie because I knew we had to rock and roll. I knew we didn't have a lot of time, a lot of money. We had to be joined at the hip in a way but to keep our disparate world. We had to keep our separate worlds in this film, which was essential, that we didn't blur Patty and Sir Ben with Wendy and Darwan, that we kept distinct lives, separate lives in this little, tiny confined space, which is very hard to do.

But Sir Ben and I showed up, ready-to-go. I had this film in me for nine years. We had the blessing of the whole Sikh community. Anyway, he came ready. I remember the first time I saw him in the turban in the mirror, and I looked over, and he looked so beautiful. I said, "Oh my God." I looked at him and I said, "We're shooting a film." There's Darwan. I had my hair in my ponytail. I was in my green dress. I looked at him. I said, "Oh my God."

"Is this real?"

"You're here. We've arrived. We're ready to shoot." [laughs]

That's amazing.

It was just a long time coming, you know? It was hard. It was a long process to get to, but that's what I love most about this film, is that it has all of these remarkable women involved in it, as you know. Thelma Schoonmaker, Sarah Kernochan, Katha Pollitt, Isabel Coixet, Dana Friedman, our producer.

But it was two very young men named Gabriel and Daniel Hammond, starting a new company, who chose...They could have made any hot film. They could have had hot stars, hot people. They chose to make this beautiful film as their first film. They chose to write a check, a big one, for a small movie, and chose to be our producers and come on board. And that's how this film got made, in one stroke.

And so that's why I continue in my life. I continue in this business because somebody will say yes. They will. [laughs]


Many thanks to Patricia Clarkson for her enthusiasm, her candor, and her time. Learning to Drive is now playing in select theaters, and I heartily recommend seeking it out for a quirky, unique, and ultimately satisfying experience. For more movie talk, be sure to check out the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast at this link or via the embed below: