Friday, March 28, 2008

Actress Patricia Clarkson isn’t one to sit still. When she begins a late-February interview in Washington, for example, she’s seated on a maize-colored couch, leaning over a tiny bottle of Coca-Cola that delights her because it reminds her of the ones her grandmother used to serve.

Moments later, the strawberry blond is slumping back against the sofa, her petite form uniting with the cushions all the way from her head to her calves.

Before long, she shifts her weight again and sprawls out to her left, leaning her head on her elbow as if posing for a photograph.

The diminutive actress with the deep, husky voice never seems to let herself settle into one position for too long or get too comfortable during the discussion, which means she conducts interviews the same way she conducts her career.

“Well,” she says, “I’m always looking to mix things up.”

Miss Clarkson, who holds a master’s of fine arts from the Yale School of Drama, has taken on stage, film and television roles with equal amounts of gusto, often favoring difficult, complex characters over more straightforward ones.

Among the actress’s best-known portrayals are her Emmy-winning turn as the free-spirited, Vicodin-addicted Aunt Sarah on HBO’s “Six Feet Under”; what many consider a definitive interpretation of Blanche DuBois in a 2004 production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” at the Kennedy Center; and her Oscar-nominated performance as a caustic mother with terminal cancer in “Pieces of April.”

The New Orleans native has also taken on a drug-addicted lesbian actress (1998’s “High Art”), a mournful woman who befriends some odd loners (2003’s “The Station Agent”) and an imaginative and wise small-town doctor (2007’s “Lars and the Real Girl”).

“I’m always looking to … change myself emotionally, physically,” says Miss Clarkson. “You have to keep changing your DNA as you act, or it can be really almost fatal, I think.”

The 48-year-old actress is currently appearing in writer/director Ira Sachs’ “Married Life,” a noirish drama set in the late 1940s. Miss Clarkson plays Pat Allen, a woman whose cheating husband, Harry (Chris Cooper), decides he must murder her in order to spare her the pain of a divorce. Rachel McAdams and Pierce Brosnan also star in the film as the other two sides of this mixed-up love quadrangle.

Typically in films like this, the wife character represents stable, emotional love, whereas the mistress provides passionate physical affection. In “Married Life,” however, Mr. Sachs creates two female leads that don’t fit the stereotypes. They’re unpredictable and intricately constructed. Pat, for example, is still very much in touch with her sexuality, despite the fact that she’s an “old married woman” with a grown child.

“I couldn’t say ‘yes’ fast enough,” Miss Clarkson says of the role. “I find it incredibly sexy and thrilling and challenging.”

The actress says that she loved being able to wear lipstick in the film (something she isn’t always allowed to do) and that she had a very positive experience working with Mr. Sachs, a helmer who tells us he sees his work as something akin to “being a therapist.” (It requires “listening quite intently,” he says.)

“We had some good sessions,” jokes Miss Clarkson. “I’m feeling so much better.” That’s a good thing, because the actress’ upcoming schedule looks hectic. We’ll see her in Stanley Tucci’s “Blind Date,” newcomer Daniel Barnz’s “Phoebe in Wonderland,” Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” Isabel Coixet’s “Elegy” and Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island.”

“I feel there are great opportunities for me in film now,” says Miss Clarkson. “More than I know what to do with.” Like the self-professed “nice Southern girl” that she is, Miss Clarkson knocks wood after speaking these words.

You can never get too comfortable, right?

Jenny Mayo

Sturgess a rising star

Jim Sturgess is on the brink of stardom. He has top billing on a big-budget film opening today, “21,” while appearing in a smaller role in another film currently in wide release, the period drama “The Other Boleyn Girl.” He was named one of Entertainment Weekly’s “30 Under 30” actors just last month.

The 26-year-old English actor is quick to point out he’s no overnight success, but he notes that when success starts happening, it starts happening pretty fast. “It comes in a big tidal wave,” he says in an interview in the District earlier this month. But “I didn’t just fall out of bed and someone gave me the opportunity to be in a film,” he quickly adds. “It’s a process that’s gone on all my life, really.”

Anyone who saw last year’s “Across the Universe” could have predicted this tidal wave. Mr. Sturgess was the best thing about the Beatles musical; the virtual unknown with the boyish face who could sing and act flawlessly was the find of the year.

Some actors carefully plan out their careers, working ruthlessly toward stardom. Not Mr. Sturgess, as he amusingly relates.

“I had no concept for finding an agent and becoming an actor. I just did acting,” he says. He and his friends would create their own opportunities. “I wrote a play, which is how I got an agent,” he recalls. “I put a one-person show on in a small theater in Manchester, just because I was hanging out with a lot of people interested in filmmaking, theater and acting.” A London actor saw him in that show and told him he wanted to recommend the young man to his agent.

Mr. Sturgess’ response: “What is that? Do I need it?”

He spent time on the stage and the small screen before securing the role of Jude in “Across the Universe,” which he calls a “dream job.” He’s loved music for as long as he’s loved acting — he’s put in time in a band, too — so he relished the chance to combine the two in a story that involved his earliest influences. “The ‘60s culture was a huge part of my life growing up in terms of what inspired me — the artwork, the music, some of the films, the attitude, the experimentation.”

He still writes a lot of music, he says; it comes to him instinctively.

“It’s different from acting,” he says. “You can pick up a guitar or sit at a piano and play for hours. It’s its own reward. It doesn’t feel the same as prancing around in front of a mirror quoting Shakespeare. Someone needs to give you a purpose for you to act.”

Just don’t expect an album any time soon. Mr. Sturgess approaches music the same way he approaches acting — without a plan or a sense of urgency. “It just feels relaxed,” he says. “The great thing about the Internet is you can get your music out there. I don’t feel I have this desperate need to get a Jim Sturgess album out.”

Kelly Jane Torrance

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