Academy Award-nominated actress Patricia Clarkson returned to the Hamptons International Film Festival this month to be a subject in the popular “A Conversation With…” series and to present the U.S. premiere of Learning to Drive, a film that’s dear to her and has been a long time coming.
Clarkson made her big screen debut in 1987’s The Untouchables. In addition to an Oscar nod for Pieces of April, she won two Emmys for her recurring role on HBO’s Six Feet Under. She’s known for Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile, George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck and Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, to name a few of the numerous films she’s worked on.
In an interview in East Hampton during the festival, the New York-based actress talks of how her film came together, what she loves about the story, and her admiration for the Hamptons audience.
In Learning to Drive, Clarkson plays protagonist Wendy, “a mercurial character, high and low in every which way.” Wendy is a New York book critic and journalist with a formidable career who is a massive intellectual and very independent.
“She’s a very strong woman,” Clarkson says. “The problem is she’s never looked up from the books and the pages.”
Wendy fails to see she had a beautiful daughter and husband right in front of her. “And they’re gone,” the actress says. “Suddenly, she realizes they are holding her accountable for the lack of life she has given them.”
While Wendy is entering this life crisis, she crosses paths with a deeply religious Sikh man, Darwan, played by Sir Ben Kingsley.
Wendy rides in Darwan’s cab and accidentally leaves a package behind. When he arrives at her home the next day to return it, she learns of his day job: driving instructor.
As independent as Wendy is, she’s never driven before. Living in New York City, she’s never had to. But now, in order to visit her daughter in Vermont, she goes to Darwan for driving lessons. In the process, she forms a bond with Darwan—who is facing an arranged marriage with a woman he’s never met.
“It’s a little bit of opposites attract,” Clarkson says of Wendy’s relationship with Darwan. “A little bit of hot and cold, Ying and Yang. It’s just this deliciously funny, comedic, dramatic journey—this dramedy ensues.”
This is Clarkson’s second time working with Kingsley. They played lovers in the 2008 film Elegy, and she was grateful that he joined the cast of Learning to Drive.
“He’s a fantastic man and we could never have made this film without him, so I am forever indebted to him,” she says.
Learning to Drive is based on a short story by Katha Pollitt published in The New Yorker in 2002. Screenwriter Sarah Kernochan penned the script.
Clarkson was attached to the film adaptation for eight years before Learning to Drive was finally made. “It’s a very long journey, but I never gave up,” she says, crediting lead producer Dana Friedman with keeping the project afloat through tribulations.
Whenever Clarkson thought the film was going into production, the director would fall out or the financing would fall through. “It was just classic independent filmmaking,” she says.
When they finally did start filming, with director Isabel Coixet, the shoot wrapped in just 21 days. It was all shot in New York, which meant Clarkson could enjoy sleeping in her own house at night.
“Every single shot of this movie is exactly where it is,” she says. “We don’t fake anything in New York City. When we’re in Queens, we’re in Queens. When we’re in Brooklyn, we’re in Brooklyn. When I’m on a bridge, I’m on a bridge. There’s no CGI, there’s no nothing.”
Learning to Drive premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, where it was runner up for the audience award. “It’s a testament to the power of this film,” Clarkson says.
Hamptons International Film Festival was the second stop for the film. Clarkson’s been to the festival before, and was happy to be back. “Who doesn’t want to be at the Hamptons Film Festival, especially with a film you love?” she says.
Clarkson attended as Learning to Drive screened at Guild Hall October 10, and says the audience was receptive, which she considers an honor.
“This is a smart crowd, very sophisticated people,” she says of the Hamptons audience. “They are not easily fooled. They are not warm and gooey and fuzzy. They’re tough. It’s a discerning crowd out here and I like that.”
Clarkson expects a late summer 2015 release for Learning to Drive through Broad Green Pictures. She and Kingsley will travel from city to city to help open the film. “It’s near and dear to both of us, so we’re going to put our hearts and souls into the release of it,” she says.
Clarkson’s next move is Broadway. She will be costarring in The Elephant Man with Bradley Cooper for a 14-week engagement at Booth Theatre. Previews begin November 7.