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Patricia Clarkson: Indie queen

Actress stars in ‘Pieces of April’ and ‘The Station Agent’

Patricia Clarkson is queen of the 2003 film festival circuit. She had four movies at last winter’s Sundance Film Festival, where she received a special acting prize for performances in “The Station Agent,” “Pieces of April” and “All the Real Girls.”

She then had a juicy little role in Nicole Kidman’s “Dogville,” a harsh critique of America that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

And finally followed it up with a whirlwind of publicity to promote this fall’s theatrical releases of “The Station Agent” and “Pieces of April” at September’s Toronto International Film Festival, where “Dogville” also had its North American premiere.

In “The Station Agent,” Clarkson’s a lonely, grieving artist. In “All the Real Girls,” she’s a slaphappy mom who does a goofy clown act for kids. In “Pieces of April,” she’s a caustic ice queen stricken with breast cancer. In “Dogville,” she’s a judgmental matron who suffers a horrible comeuppance.

“I’m suddenly where I always wanted to be in this business in that people see me in many, many different ways,” Clarkson, 43, said in an interview at Toronto.

Memorable performances
Clarkson’s name may not be that familiar, but she has left memorable impressions with a series of small film roles over the last 15 years. Anyone who caught Clarkson in “The Green Mile,” “The Pledge” or “Far From Heaven” likely remembers her soulful eyes, aristocratic nose, angular cheekbones and husky voice.

And anyone who saw the 1998 art-house hit “High Art” is bound to recall Clarkson’s ferociously manipulative role as an aging drug addict jealously scheming to maintain a hold on her lesbian lover.

Clarkson cobbled together a decent resume of stage performances and supporting roles in TV and film, including “The Untouchables,” “The Dead Pool” and “Jumanji.” But film roles came fitfully until writer-director Lisa Cholodenko’s “High Art” gave Clarkson a career jolt at an age when most actresses begin finding work scarcer.

“I went through a lull in my early 30s, oddly, but hey, in my late 30s, things took off,” Clarkson said with a snap of her fingers. “Every day, I wake up and I have a little thank you to Lisa Cholodenko for casting me in her movie. Because it changed everything for me. It is a cliche, but sometimes it is just one part that opens people’s minds and eyes.

“And I think also, I needed to get older. There was a part of me that needed to kind of grow into my voice and my face and my body.”

The last five years have brought great reviews, prestigious acting honors and steady work in such films as “Joe Gould’s Secret,” “Welcome to Collinwood” and the upcoming “Miracle,” starring Kurt Russell in a dramatization of the 1980 U.S. hockey team’s Olympics triumph. “Miracle” and “Dogville” are due in theaters early next year.

The New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics named Clarkson best supporting actress for last year’s 1950s melodrama “Far From Heaven,” in which she played Julianne Moore’s hypocritical pal. A few months earlier, Clarkson won an Emmy for a guest spot on “Six Feet Under.”

She had been considered an Academy Awards contender for “Far From Heaven” but missed out on a nomination. It was Clarkson’s first big taste of Oscar fever, and she admits it stung to be overlooked.

“Would it have been nice to be nominated? Absolutely. Was it disappointing? Of course, a little bit. A little bit, and that is honest,” Clarkson said. “But at the end of the day, I still am part of that movie. I still had the experience of making that movie, and that will live on. That’s still better than anything.”

On a roll Clarkson has had a rich series of roles in literate independent films in 2003, as a divorcee pining for passion in “The Safety of Objects” and a straight-talking mother with a jester’s heart in “All the Real Girls,” which both hit theaters early in the year.

In the current art-house hit “The Station Agent,” Clarkson plays opposite Peter Dinklage and Bobby Cannavale in playwright-turned-director Tom McCarthy’s sweetly funny portrait of misfit friendship.

“Pieces of April,” written and directed by novelist Peter Hedges (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”), flits back and forth between two stories: A bungling attempt by Clarkson’s black-sheep daughter (Katie Holmes) to reconnect with her dying mom by cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the family, and Clarkson’s acerbically funny road trip to get there with her hubby (Oliver Platt) and their younger children.

“She’s an amazing actress. She has such a very powerful presence,” Holmes said. “She always has given outstanding performances and worked very hard, and I think probably she’s finally getting the acclaim she deserves.”

The youngest of five daughters, Clarkson grew up in New Orleans, where her mother is a city councilwoman and her father was administrator at Louisiana State University medical school.

Clarkson, who dates actor Campbell Scott, got hooked on acting in high school and studied drama at Yale before working her way into live theater in New York City, where she lives.

She would like to return to the stage at some point, but movie work has left no time. Clarkson went straight from the Toronto festival to Montreal, where she is shooting the thriller “The Woods,” in which she stars as headmistress at a boarding school where girls are disappearing.

“I think my cameo days are over,” Clarkson said. “I hope to do a play again sometime soon, but I have so much film work coming up. And it’s all so great. The parts have just gotten more demanding and more fulfilling.”