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Clarkson Stays True to Southern Roots

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By Bennett Sumner
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, July 3, 2009

Patricia Clarkson says she always seems to be playing wives and mothers, even though she is neither in real life.

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From her recent comedy stint as Justin Timberlake's mother in the "Saturday Night Live" skit "Mother Lover" and her role as Chris Cooper's wife in the 2008 drama "Married Life," her characters have required a wide range of attitudes and emotions.

Though she had difficulty relating to certain parts, when she read the script for Woody Allen's "Whatever Works," she immediately felt a close connection to her character, Marietta, yet another mother, this one in search of her runaway daughter.

"I couldn't dial the phone fast enough," Clarkson says. "I literally would have had to have been on Mars with the astronauts or on a mission somewhere not to accept the part. It was an amazing moment to read his script. It was pure joy, elation even."

In the film, Marietta moves from small-town Mississippi to New York in search of her daughter, Melodie St. Ann Celestine, played by Evan Rachel Wood. Once the two are reunited, Marietta discovers her true identity as an artist and fully embraces a new, free-spirited lifestyle, becoming part of a menage a trois and trading her hot-pink dress suit for an edgy bandanna and black leggings.

On the outside, Marietta's big-city transformation appears to be all-consuming, but Clarkson says, "You can take the girl out of the South, but you can't take the South out of the girl."

Having grown up in Louisiana, Clarkson knows firsthand that "a Southern upbringing is a very specific upbringing."

Clarkson was the youngest of five girls in New Orleans. Just like Marietta, she loves sweet tea and crawfish and has a perfect Southern drawl. But Clarkson described her childhood home as progressive, rather than stifling like Marietta's.

"My family is Southern, and I'm very sensitive to Southern characters. And you know, the keenness of Woody Allen is he took this stereotypical archetypal Southern woman and transformed her," Clarkson says. "Now, I'm not exactly like Marietta, but I did grow up in a very old-fashioned home, which is very specific."

On top of her Southern roots, Clarkson could relate to Marietta's Big Apple experience. At 19, Clarkson moved north to study theater at New York's Fordham University.

"I was just a nice Southern girl who left home," she says. "New Orleans is a much more cosmopolitan city than where Marietta was from, but [moving to New York] was a rude awakening in many ways. It was a looser, more open way of life than I was accustomed to, and it just felt less structured."

Clarkson drew on that time of "self-discovery" to bring Marietta's emotions to life. She also used her family and friends from Louisiana as inspiration. For instance, Clarkson's father "was frightened and fearful" when she moved to New York, so she was able to take his experience and use it to relate to Marietta as a mother whose child had left home.

In one scene, Marietta and her daughter take a double-decker bus tour through New York.

"I had never done that before as a New Yorker, and I thought, 'Oh, my God, this is fabulous, let's keep going.' And I realized, 'So this is why people take these tours.' My excitement in that scene was a mixture of Marietta and Patty, because Evan and I had such a great time on top of that bus," Clarkson says.

Marietta's over-the-top personality and complex emotions made her an exciting character to play, and Clarkson says she found her "genuinely funny and genuinely sexy, which is difficult for writers to do, especially for a woman in her 40s."

"I think what's beautiful is that she's undergone this physical transformation, but I think she'll have a paintbrush in one hand and a mint julep in the other," Clarkson says. "At the core, she's still a Southern lady."

Clarkson readily says that at the core, she, too, is still a Southern lady. While talking about "Whatever Works" via cellphone from her New York apartment, she giggled at her 14-year-old pit bull beside her named Beaux, Cajun for Bo. And she admitted to almost calling Allen and Larry David, who plays a grumpy older man whom Marietta's daughter bunks with, "Mr. Woody" and "Mr. Larry," a Southern sign of respect.

When describing her co-stars on both "SNL" and in "Whatever Works," she says, "Just like any Southern girl, I'm always searching for a gentleman. Justin Timberlake and Andy Sandberg are young gentlemen; they are very nice boys. And Larry and Woody are just slightly older nice boys."



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