SANTA MONICA, California – “I just play beautiful people’s mothers.”
That’s how Patricia Clarkson describes the current state of her career. And get that note of cheerful resignation. She seems to be saying that things could be a lot worse: This is better than getting no acting jobs at all.
So she obligingly lists some of her current, recent and upcoming assignments: mother to Jim Sturgess in next month’s One Day, to Mila Kunis in the current Friends with Benefits, to Emma Stone in last year’s Easy A, to Evan Rachel Wood in Woody Allen’s 2009 movie, Whatever Works.
Furthermore, she clearly doesn’t think that a “mom” role need be the kiss of death, career-wise. After all, if you’re an award-winning actress with an impressive list of credits dating back a quarter of a century to the role of Kevin Costner’s wife in The Untouchables, that’s proof you’re a Hollywood survivor, ready and able to deal with all manner of circumstances. And when it comes to portraying mothers on screen, there’s nothing generic in her approach: She has the talent to play them in all their infinite variety.
Consider her performance in Friends with Benefits as Mila Kunis’s off-kilter mother – an aging groupie who still has a capacity for reckless living and sexy young men, and who shamelessly sponges off her daughter whenever life gets too difficult.
Director Will Gluck told her he wanted her to deliver “a raunchy, ex-groupie lady . . . but, like, on drugs.”
Clarkson immediately started analyzing such a character and thought: “Oh, OK. Maybe her greatest gift is in NOT being a mother; it’s being a groupie and sniffing glue.” Then she started studying the script and reading her opening scene when she stumbles on Kunis and Justin Timberlake in bed together; that was enough for her to think: “Wow! Yeah! This could be fun.”
She saw Lorna as a middle-aged, sexy woman who has survived a lot of hard knocks and numerous failed relationships and lives a complicated life.
“She’s like a musician, except that she has no talent,” Clarkson says with a throaty laugh.
Lorna has raised her daughter Jamie (Mila Kunis) as a single mother – the sort of mother who shrugs off the fact that she doesn’t even know who fathered her child.
“I think she honestly doesn’t know; I think she honestly has no idea. I think there were just too many drugs, too many men, too many buses she was on, too many backstage passes.”
The 51-year-old Clarkson couldn’t resist the chance to play someone like this, but there was the further attraction of working with Kunis and Timberlake as a young couple who think it’s possible to conduct a sexual relationship without true emotional intimacy.
“Oh my god,” she told director Gluck, “You let me walk into my first scene and Justin Timberlake’s naked!” More seriously, Clarkson believes Gluck is reinventing romantic comedy, both with this film and with his previous Easy A.
“He’s finding romance in the frankness and the humour and the bawdiness.”
Gluck decided later that some of Clarkson’s scenes were too out of bounds, so he cut them. The sequence she misses most is still in the trailer, but missing from the finished movie. “Mila comes home and I have a young lover and I’m dressed in my Little Pony outfit,” Clarkson recalls wistfully. “It was kind of silly and it was just too much for the tone of the film.”
She and Timberlake were involved in another outrageous display of motherhood two years ago in the SNL video, Mother Lover, which went viral on the Internet. “I played Justin’s mother and Andy Samberg’s my lover.” Meanwhile, Susan Sarandon, playing Samberg’s mother, is involved with Timberlake.
“I got a call on, like, a Wednesday night, which is how they do things on Saturday Night Live. It’s always crazy and last-minute. We shot that video on a Friday, they edited it by Saturday, and it aired the Saturday night before Mother’s Day. And I instantly became the coolest person with every niece and nephew!”
Next month, she will appear as quite a different type of mother in One Day, the film version of British writer David Nicholls’ international bestseller.
“It’s a beautiful book. It’s a great book. And it is one of those books that I think was actually meant for the screen, too. It makes a good film.”
Clarkson was filming Friends with Benefits and One Day at the same time, while also trying to promote Cairo Time, the low-budget Canadian movie she did for director Ruba Nadda. Cairo Time was definitely not a mother role, but rather, a study of middle-aged romance – “If you haven’t seen it you should see it: It’s a beautiful, romantic film.”
She wanted to give Cairo Time all the help she could, but she also had these two other commitments.
“I almost lost my mind. I was shooting One Day, travelling New York to Scotland, New York to Paris, New York to L.A., and then I started this one, Friends with Benefits.”
She felt she weighed 12 pounds by the end of it all, she was that stressed.
“I thought, ‘Oh my god, my hair’s going to fall out!’ Thank god I was wearing a wig in the Mila Kunis movie.”
Clarkson is surprised to be doing so much comedy, but she isn’t complaining. She’s just glad to be working.
“Comedic parts for women my age are few and far between, and it’s harder and harder. I’m very thankful that I’ve got this new place. People always offer me drama, but now, people are offering me comedic parts, and I owe Will Gluck a lot.”
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- Review: ‘Friends With Benefits’ More Like A Pen Pal