It is unmistakably Patricia Clarkson on the phone, that husky, honeyed purr and laugh too distinctive not to recognize.
“I’m a New Orleans native, so I know 100-percent humidity,” she says, as she discusses shooting her latest film, “Learning to Drive.” “But filming in that car — with the windows up in the middle of summer — that was brutal. And I wasn’t in a turban and long pants, like Sir Ben. I was lucky.”
“Sir Ben” is Ben Kingsley, her co-star in Isabel Coixet’s film, “Learning to Drive,” which has been building audiences each time it expands its run since it opened in mid-August. Clarkson plays a literary critic whose husband leaves her for another woman; a New Yorker who is reliant on others for transportation, she takes her mobility into her own hands and signs up for behind-the-wheel training with a Sikh emigre played by Kingsley. Life lessons ensue.
“She’s a character who’s of my generation, and we have had it all,” Clarkson, 55, says. “We’ve taken huge strides. We have jobs and partners and spouses and children. I mean, I have a career and a very good life. But sometimes we forget to look up and don’t realize what we have.
“This film comes at classic situations with a very discerning eye. It’s a unique story that mixes humor and pathos in a surprising way. It’s a film that was really made by women, which makes it very rare.”
Clarkson knew how to drive before she took the role; she learned as a teen growing up in New Orleans: “But as I became a New Yorker, I lost my ability. So this was art and life merging. I had to learn to drive again — and then there I was, driving over the Queensborough Bridge. I was just trying to get over it in one piece.”
Clarkson, who will be seen next week in the second film in the “Maze Runner” series, worked with Coixet and Kingsley in 2008’s “Elegy.” At that point, the seed for “Learning to Drive” was planted, though it took time to grow into an actual film.
“We had this incredible experience on ‘Elegy,’ and I adore them both,” Clarkson says. “Isabel and I are similar in age and we just get on so well; we’re broads together. Sir Ben is a dream. Everyday was about the work and not about anything else. I’m a workhorse and so is he. We show up knowing our lines and say, ‘Let’s put all the energy of the day on film.’ I welcome that approach with open arms.”
Despite the presence of an Oscar-winner like Kingsley and an Oscar-nominee like Clarkson, the film — based on a nonfiction piece by writer Katha Pollitt — had to clear a number of hurdles to find financing.
“Getting this made was a journey that took nine years,” Clarkson notes. “And it only all came together in the final hour. People wanted to change this and that if they were going to give us money.
“Gabriel (Hammond, one of the heads of Broad Green Pictures, which is releasing the film) didn’t want us to compromise. He knew we had to shoot this in New York — and he wrote us a check. He could have made any movie — and he chose this movie about two little people in a car in New York.”
Clarkson is back in Manhattan after a 12-week run in London opposite Bradley Cooper in “The Elephant Man,” which followed a similar run of the revival on Broadway.
“It was one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had,” Clarkson says. “Bradley was the man to get me on board and I’m forever thankful that he thought of me.
“I’m not sure where I’ll go from here. ‘Maze Runner 2’ is coming out and I’ll shoot the third one next year. I’ve got a few offers. And I’ve got another film I’m trying to get made. It’s a long journey, and it takes tenacity, patience, courage — and bourbon.”