Patricia Clarkson talks to SBS Movies about campaigning for director Isabel Coixet and co-star Sir Ben Kingsley to take on making her latest film 'Learning to Drive'.
Jessica Minshall

20 Oct 2015 - 3:50 PM  UPDATED 21 Oct 2015 - 9:46 AM

In the recently released Learning to Drive, Patricia Clarkson (Cairo Time, Easy A, Shutter Island) plays dedicated literary critic Wendy Shields whose marriage suddenly and unexpectedly ends.

Wendy struggles to readjust to single life, as her husband moves out, and she sets herself the challenge of learning to drive. She befriends Darwan Singh Tur (Ben Kingsley), a Sikh political refugee from India who works as a taxi driver and driving instructor.

“I think it’s a film about a woman who has everything but forgets to look up, and meets a man who had so little and saw everything,” Clarkson says, speaking to SBS Movies from her Manhattan apartment.

The film is, unusually, adapted from an essay. Katha Pollitt's piece about a partner's infidelity and learning to drive as an act of middle-age independence was published in The New Yorker magazine in 2002.

“I think it’s a film about a woman who has everything but forgets to look up, and meets a man who had so little and saw everything.”

Clarkson is credited with getting director Isabel Coixet (My Life Without Me) to take on making the film, by showing her the screenplay while they were making 2008 film Elegy, also with Kingsley (Gandhi, Schindler's List).

"I got to know Isabel in the process of shooting Elegy and got to know Sir Ben Kingsley quite well playing his lover, and I started to put two and two together and realised that this might be a match made in heaven. But it was complicated. Ben wasn’t sure he wanted to play it at this point because he’d just done House of Sand and Fog and he thought he played a similar character," Clarkson says.

"It was a long and circuitous route, but we all came back together. Me, Isabel, Sir Ben and it was meant to be. It was fabulous.”

Clarkson had already been attached to the project for some time.

“A woman named Dana Friedman, our producer, owned the script. I knew the essay that this was based on and I loved this story, I loved this essay and I was thrilled to become attached to it," she says.  

"I thought (screenwriter) Sara Kernochan did such a beautiful job and she really preserved the heart and soul of Katha Pollitt in the adaptation.”

The film is an interesting exercise in adapting an essay for film, attempting to capture and convey the tone from such a short piece of writing in a feature-length movie. There’s some dialogue taken directly from the piece, even though other key details have been changed in the building of the narrative around them - most significantly, the background, if not the nature, of Kingsley's driving instructor.

Clarkson says the essay featured heavily in her process of adopting the character of Wendy.

“Wendy stayed with me for many years, lived inside of me because I loved the essay. I was smitten by it, I felt it almost imprinted on me and so it stuck with me," she says.

"But what I realise now is that I needed all the time that this film took to get made, all the doors that closed in our face were opening other doors that I needed. I needed to experience more life, I think, and have more life under my belt in order to play Wendy.”

The time it took for this film to get made was nine years.

“Which people don’t realise in the independent world, nine years translates to about a year-and-a-half [for a commercial film],” Clarkson says.

"I needed all the time that this film took to get made... I needed to experience more life, I think, and have more life under my belt in order to play Wendy.”

(*Spoiler alert) The film portrays an unexpected friendship at a time of major transitioning for both Wendy and Darwan. But even though there’s strong affection there and the developing of stronger feelings, the audience is most likely to want the relationship to remain platonic.

"At its core, I think the real beauty of the film is that it’s about adult friendship and at the end of the day it’s about where true friendship takes you and aids you and helps you... I think people who really get the film know that this is the exact journey it should be. That this is the journey these two people should have.”

Much has been made of the fact that this is a leading role for the 55-year-old actor, and Clarkson says if that gets publicity for the film she's "all there for it".  

“There are many women in their 40s, 50s, 60s carrying films – I mean not as many as men, but there are quite a few out right now in particular. But it's always 'unusual', it's always the exception not the rule when a woman of a certain age carries a film."

"It's just a portrait of a real man, and that's what was important to me."

There’s a fantastic sex scene in the movie where Wendy has been set up on a date with someone who is into tantric sex, but Wendy is really not having a good time. She asks him to stop so she can go to sleep. It's a very funny scene, and empowering too. For Clarkson, it was "just part of the film", but she adds, "I think we need to see more middle aged people having sex”. 

In the film, we see Wendy witness racism up-close and Darwan's house targeted in a police raid searching for undocumented immigrants.

Clarkson says the political and social commentary is an important texture of the film.

"The majority of the film is me and a man who's a Sikh, so there's obviously going to be political aspects to this film. But what I think is beautiful about the story is, as opposed to being direct and exploitive in some odd way, it's indirect and it's resonant and it's just a portrait of a real man, and that's what was important to me," she says.

"Not a Sikh man. Of a man."

Clarkson, who has spent this year on stage with Bradley Cooper in 'The Elephant Man' and will begin shooting Maze Runner 3 early next year, says she's making the sorts of films she'd like to be.

“Yes. Yes. I'm at that point now when I can really choose to work or not to work and I choose the things that are really going to take me in a different direction, or challenge me or surprise me and that's what I'm looking for right now. It's been, it's a long road to get to a place like this and I'm very, very lucky and I know that.”

Now that she can leave Learning to Drive behind her, the next independent project she's pushing to get made is Tallulah, about 1930s and 40s actor Tallulah Bankhead.

Learning to Drive is out now.

Watch the trailer for Learning to Drive:

'Learning to Drive' is an exercise in feminist cinema
'Learning to Drive' is a movie for women, by women and stars Patricia Clarkson as a Manhattan writer whose marriage has collapsed and Ben Kingsley as her driving instructor.

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