Well, that plan to keep up regular posts during my vacation didn't work out so well, did it? I'm still out of town and seeing more black bears than I am movies, but I'm badly in need of some catch-up, so let's give it a shot, beginning with my interview with the unfailingly lovely Patricia Clarkson. Chances are, you don't need me to sing her praises, since everyone's already in love with her, but I won't miss the chance to draw your attention to Cairo Time, which gives the 50-year-old actress her first bonafide leading role. It's an old-fashioned romance with some modern concerns on its mind, a pleasing but insubstantial thing, but it's worth seeing it just to lay eyes on Clarkson and her co-star Alexander Siddig in the Egyptian heat. In our Salon interview, Clarkson and I talk about the difficulties of playing a middle-aged mother of two, her aversion to personal computers and her role in the Saturday Night Live digital short "Motherlover." (I neglected to ask her about the latter the last time we talked, and the A.V. Club's commenters made their disappointments known.) The movie is playing now in New York and Los Angeles and will be platforming across the country throughout August, landing on my home turf of Philadelphia on August 27. Clarkson and director Ruba Nadda will be appearing at several IFC Center screenings in New York this weekend.
The Salon interview was edited significantly a bit for space, so I thought I'd share a few exchanges that didn't make the final cut.
You seem like an actor who feels a sense of involvement with the project as a whole, and not just your part.
First of all, I take a movie not just because I like the part. I take a movie because I like the movie. And I like the other characters, too. I ultimately probably, if I’m honest, take a movie because I really like the part, but it’s rare that I’m going to to take a part and I wouldn’t like the film and I wouldn’t like what else is going on around me. So you have a responsibility I think as a character within that film to make sure that your’e int he right place at the right time and your emotional journey is charted properly — or what the hell are you doing there? [Laughs.]
So this character...
I always wanted to play a woman named Juliette.
Another one checked off the list. So what interested you in playing her?
First and foremost, I was drawn simply by the script itself — the words on the page. How spare it was. Which in this day and age, the scripts seem denser and denser to me, more verbose than ever. We are a culture now of so much gratification, verbally, visually: Eat, live, text. And this was just so distilled and so eloquent, and it accomplished much with so few words. I loved the fact that it was a different journey for a woman. This is not an unhappy woman. She’s struggling with little things here and there, common things that you would struggle with with a 25-year marriage and a job and children leaving — and empty nest now. But she is by no means a woman who has been cheated on, abused. She actually comes from a place of strength, and I liked that. It was a woman who was capable of love, had love, was in love, and it begins there. That’s what I liked.
Did you take your cues from the spareness of the script acting-wise?
Had to. I had to completely shift. I spoke with Ruba very early on, and I said, “This is a beautiful character, and there are absolutely parts of me that will be there. But you have to make sure that Juliette does not become Patty. I have become this character, and you have to be my watchdog, and you have to be my guard.” Every day, I had to shift. Her journey is charted in such fractions that I had to have someone, an objective eye keeping me in line. But I loved it, because I’ve had so many external bells and whistles in so many characters I’ve played. I had nothing in this.
Was the risk of “turning into Patty” on set greater on Cairo Time than other movies?
Yes. Oh yes. There was great risk. But every day, it was like I was a distillery. I had to sift and shift and wiggle and waddle and get it all to Juliette, a very calm and inviting, almost at times antithetical place to where I live. I live here [holds hand up to eye level]. Juliette lives here. I had to take it all down. That’s frightening as an actor. We like to play the extraordinary. It’s very hard — we don’t like to play ordinary.
The political subtext of the relationship between an American woman and an Arab man is not something Cairo Time dwells much on. It’s nothing like Sally Potter's movie Yes, where the affair between Simon Abkarian Joan Allen is heavily invested with exploring the relationship between those two parts of the world.
There are political undertones, absolutely. There are scenes that are political. But it is a romance. First and foremost, it is a romantic film about two rather ordinary people. He’s not a diplomat, or some government agency man. He’s not an official. He’s just a rather simple man in many ways. Not emotionally simple.
But he runs a coffee shop.
Yes. So I hope people will find that refreshing, in that it is one of the most glorious, beautiful, sensual cities in the world, and I think Ruba’s kind of brought it back to that. I think that’s a good thing. And I think it’s nice that Alexander is playing a very ordinary man. Just a man.
The confrontation they have when she wants to write an article about the child beggars is really interesting. He tells her she doesn’t understand, which can mean that she’s culturally naïve or that it’s something he thinks isn’t worth scrutinizing.
And Ruba gives all of those colors, which is really I think potent and powerful in the film. I think it’s all there. It’s all there. It’s just at the end of the day, it’s a romance.
It’s interesting that she does end up cheating on her husband, but not necessarily in the way you expect. It’s not about some torrid love affair.
It’s absolutely an affair of the heart. And I do think the heart can be split. I think we are capable of giving love. I think we are capable of falling twice.
Juliette’s husband doesn’t show up until the very end of the movie, but we see her end of several phone calls with him that very effectively portray the state of their marriage. There’s real affection and familiarity, and also impatience and ...
And brittleness and it’s the same old thing, tried-and-true, same old disappointments. He’s always slightly unreachable and I’m always slightly frustrating. It’s just our way of life. He’s a man who works for the U.N. In foreign countries and is always in difficult situations.
What do you think this second love provides for her?
That’s what I think is fascinating about this film. I don’t think she’s wanting. She’s not a hungry woman. She doesn’t start this film hungry, needing, wanting. She has the everyday ins and out, ups and downs of any woman with a marriage and children and a job. I don’t think she’s looking for something. And that’s what I love. The serendipitous nature of love. The absolute unexpected quality and nature of love — of real love. A formidable love, and formidable people. So I don’t know that there’s anything that she gets from it so much as what she takes from it.