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TIFF 2014 Interview: Patricia Clarkson on "Learning to Drive," "October Gale"

At 54, Patricia Clarkson has lost none of the willowy elegance and inner glow that recalls those striking silver-screen sirens of yore. And the actress who made her film debut as Kevin Costner’s wife in 1987’s “The Untouchables” continues to be in demand, as confirmed by her status as a TIFF two-timer this year.

She’s a Manhattan book critic, unceremoniously dropped by her unfaithful husband of 21 years, who decides to finally grab a hold of the wheel of her life by getting her driver’s license–with instruction provided by Ben Kingsley as a Sikh cabbie–in “Learning to Drive,” based on a 2002 “New Yorker” essay. In “October Gale,” she reunites with her “Cairo Time” director Ruba Nadda, as a widowed doctor on a remote island who discovers that a man (Scott Speedman) with a gunshot wound has washed ashore.

The supporting Oscar nominee for 2003’s “Pieces of April” and two-time Emmy winner for the HBO series “Six Feet Under” also appears in “The Maze Runner,” an adaptation of an young-adult novel that opens Sept. 19. Beginning Nov. 7, she returns to the stage as Mrs. Kendel, the actress who befriends Bradley Cooper’s deformed 19th century Londoner, in a Broadway revival of "The Elephant Man."

Clarkson spoke to RogerEbert.com still on a high from the enthusiastic reception given "Learning to Drive" after its Toronto world premiere the night before.

When I read the descriptions of the movies coming to the festival this year and I saw you and Ben Kingsley were co-starring in "Learning to Drive," I knew I had to see it.

I hope we didn’t disappoint you.

No, you did not. I enjoyed “Cairo Time” so much. And even though this is a different sort of story, it sounded as if there could be some similarities in the relationship between you and your driving teacher.

There is. The chaste love. This is comedic, though, and “Cairo” is so pulled and stretched and romantic. And glamorous. This is New York. Warts and all.

The fact that you are connecting with a man from a different culture is also the same. You worked with Ben Kingsley before on 2008’s “Elegy,” which has the same director–Isabel Coixet

We were both in “Shutter Island,”  too, but we didn’t get together.

He is, as a movie title declared him, a sexy beast.

Oh, yes. Oh, yes. He is a beautiful man. He is so effortless. Look, for the two of us to come together is something. This project has been eight years of my life, just getting this movie made.

Are you a producer?

In essence. But I am a silent producer. But, yes, I've been attached to this movie for quite some time and it’s just been this circuitous route to fruition. It has been a long arduous task getting this film made.

Why were you so dedicated to “Learning to Drive”?

Because I find these two characters delicious. Wendy and Darwan. I think they are singular. I think they are original. I think what happens between them–it has certain clichés, and then it is so surprising with certain turns of events. I just didn’t give up on it. And I found it and that is what is so extraordinary about yesterday. To have taken this incredibly long journey and to arrive yesterday with that rapturous crowd. It was a very, very emotional day for me. My dress was so tight–Dolce and Gabbana–but, suddenly, I just didn’t care.

In “Elegy,” you and Ben had a very different relationship. You were his mistress.

Yes, we had this sexy, fraught relationship. Again, I loved my character in “Elegy.” I loved that book. I loved the adaptation of it and working with Isabel was an absolute dream. She is the camera operator. Did you know that about her? She is very Soderbergh-esque. We had a beautiful director of photography, Manel Ruiz, but she is the operator. She just gets behind that camera and she just is in there with you.

Where was she when you and Ben were in the car?

She was sometimes right behind. Sometimes, we were on a truck. We didn’t have a lot of money plus those trailers are a fortune. So a lot of the time, it was me–who doesn’t really drive anymore–driving. And I’m not religious but I did this once or twice–(She makes the sign of the cross).

So you being scared and nervous in the car wasn’t all acting?

Me driving over the Queensboro Bridge? I said, “Ben, I love you. And if somehow if this is the last time I see you, we are dying on a beautiful bridge.”

With most romantic comedies these days, the big question is how do you manage to keep the couple apart. With these two people, you can sense there is something special between them, but they are never going to be able to be together. For one thing, culturally, it isn’t going to happen–especially since he becomes part of an arranged marriage.

The film is not about that. “Cairo” is about a deep, physical yearning. What “Learning to Drive” is at the end, it's about two people who form a really profound friendship. A deep loving, which I think is rare in this world for two middle-aged people later in life to find something profound that has nothing to do with sex. But it has everything to do with love. We save each other in a way that is surprising.

You don’t drive very much? You must live in New York now.

I live in New York. I’ve kind of lost my ability to drive. When I go home to New Orleans, somebody has to drive Patty around. When I lived in the country, I drove on the country roads. A while ago, when I was in L.A., I would drive side streets. I never got on the freeways. So I related to this. I have a little bit of a fear of driving. I get it.

The tantric sex scene with your blind date is my favorite. Your reaction is hysterical.

Matt Salinger. You know who that is? That beautiful actor is J.D. Salinger’s son. Our extraordinary casting director in the ninth hour was like, “Wait. Matt Salinger.” He read it and said, “Of course, this is amazing.” He showed up, we got naked together and boom.

You did a very good job of hiding your naughty bits.

You still see some of the bits. But it’s discreet. When we started shooting the scene, I said, “Matt, don’t tell me anything. Do whatever you want to me. Don’t tell me what is coming.” He is a brilliant man. Very smart. He is the consummate actor. He was so prepared. He had read everything there is to read about tantric sex. He knew exactly what it was. He had been cast several days before and spent the next three days immersing himself in tantric sex. I said, “Your wife is very lucky.”

I first really noticed you in Lisa Cholodenko’s "High Art" in 1998 as a German heroin-addicted lesbian. I thought you were really like that.

Me, who has never done any drugs. I’ve certainly had my fair share of alcohol. But no drugs.

You’ve played plenty of wives, though, usually supportive spouses, in "The Untouchables," "The Green Mile," "Far From Heaven," "Miracle," "Good Night, and Good Luck."

Most women at my age are married. Have been married, are married, getting divorced. I chose to just have relationships. I chose never to marry but I had a marriage or two in essence (including one with actor Campbell Scott). I just never had to get divorced.

You have “The Maze Runner” coming out next week. I did a whole story on how these action films based on young-adult novels are required to have older recognizable stars in the cast such as Kate Winslet in “Divergent,” Meryl Streep in “The Giver” and Julianne Moore in “The Hunger Games” to make sure that an adult or two might buy a ticket.

There are quite a few of us. This young director, Wes Ball, is incredible. Look, I came in at the very end of this installment. I have more to do in No. 2 and 3. But at the end of this one, I just come in and lay it out.

Are you in charge?

I’m in charge.

It is great that “Learning to Drive” is by a female director–as is “October Gale.” I do think it makes a difference sometimes who is behind the camera. When can the public see these movie?

“October Gale” comes out next year. We have had a couple of offers. It’s me and Ruba, yet again. And it’s a beautiful character. And I get to play, once again, the object of desire at 54. Come on. Isn’t that good?

When will “Learning to Drive” reach theaters?

They are going to try to put it out at Thanksgiving. This is a fall film. I know we don’t have a lot of lead-up time and the fall is packed. But there is nothing like this film.

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