Patricia Clarkson stars as Wendy in Learning to Drive (Linda Kallerus/Broad Green Pictures)
When Patricia Clarkson speaks, the resident of New York City for over 30 years cannot hide the inner Southern belle. Every time she refers to her leading man in Learning to Drive, she calls Ben Kingsley “Sir Ben,” and she worries what her father will think when he sees the scene in the film in which she has tantric sex.
“I can’t wait for my old-fashioned Southern father to see that,” she laughs, while making sure to not paint her father as unenlightened. “My father is a cool, amazing man, a liberal, but he’s still an 80-year-old Southern man.”
But the key to Clarkson’s charm is how easily she can shift from this wonderful sense of courtesy and propriety to the bawdy humor of a longtime city dweller. Discussing the tantric sex scene, she crows about getting Matt Salinger to perform the scene opposite her.
“Having tantric sex with J.D. Salinger’s son – it doesn’t get any better than that,” she exclaims before turning the tables on her interviewer. “What man do you get to come in for one scene, get naked and simulate tantric sex? Would you do that?”
Clarkson is aware that her status as a well-known actress prevents her from having a conventional romantic life.
“I’ve been on some very crazy dates. They weren’t blind, but I wish I had been. I’ve never really had a blind date, to be honest with you. It’s not like I can go on OKCupid,” she admits, musing about how others might react to seeing her there. “Patricia Clarkson’s on OKCupid? I’m not sure whether that’s cool or sad. If I weren’t an actress, I’d be on those sites.”
In Learning to Drive, Clarkson plays Wendy, a New York book critic recently separated from her husband who forms a friendship with a Sikh driving instructor played by Ben Kingsley who teaches her how to drive. Channeling the fear that Wendy feels while driving for the first time was easy for Clarkson, who learned to drive as a teenager in New Orleans but had no experience driving in New York. The film’s low-budget required that Clarkson perform all of her scenes behind the wheel, which was difficult.
“I slowly lost the ability to drive, and I saved it all for the film to really connect back to that art-and-life merge,” she says. “Driving over the Queensboro Bridge, I looked at Sir Ben and said, ‘I adore you. Hold on, I promise I will get you to the other side.’”
Learning to Drive was a passion project for Clarkson, who had pushed to make the film almost a decade. Six years before the film was made, she pushed for Grace Gummer, the daughter of Meryl Streep, to play her daughter in the film. Despite the passage of time, Clarkson was lucky that Gummer remained age appropriate for the part. She deadpans about Gummer, “Fortunately, she still looks 12.”
The delays before the film received financing was fortuitous for Clarkson, who insists, “I needed to be in my 50s to play Wendy. I’m now thankful that we couldn’t get it together and couldn’t get the financing in my 40s.”
Despite the similarities to other films about women whose lives are disrupted in middle-age, Clarkson resists the comparison.
“This is not about a woman finding herself. I’m a 55-year-old woman, and we’re able to have jobs, spouses, children, adopted children, surrogate children – we can have it all.”
Everything except, perhaps, an account on OKCupid.
Learning to Drive is now in theaters.