Patricia Clarkson stars as Wendy in Learning to Drive, the story of a New York writer who has to get her first driver’s license after her husband of 21 years leaves her for another woman. The license is just a symbol of all she has to do to learn how to pay more attention to what is going on around her and to become more independent. In an interview, Clarkson explained why this small story resonates so deeply. “I think it’s not unique to women. Men have to go through growth experiences too. They do, they do, we all have to. As we age we have to encounter strife and change and that’s to me what interests me about making movies, it’s to reflect the things that we as adults are really going through. I mean I love to play fantastical characters really but it’s also nice a play people who have real life problems.” It seems that in every scene she is at a different stage, from denial to acceptance and transcendence, so I asked how she kept that all straight while filming out of sequence. “I spent a lot of time with the script. It’s part of acting, it’s part of learning, taking the journey and so as we work on a script, actors have to do homework and we have to really do homework or we’ll be caught up short. And so I had to just kind of chart her levels of denial and rage and anger and acceptance and love and I think at the end that’s where she lands. She’s able to love herself and other people and that’s the beauty of this journey. This is a woman who finds a better self, not a new self, a better self, a less surface self, which is a great journey for all of us to be on. More engaged, present. In this world of selfies and computers, we forget to actually be present in life, to actually take others in, to actually hear other people’s troubles, joys, to know anything. We forget to actually look right in front of us or look right beside us. That’s the beautiful metaphor of this film in that through driving she learns so much more about life. You have to pay attention, you have to look, you have to be present, you have to care. You have to be absorbed in something other than yourself.”
Clarkson herself learned how to drive without any drama. “I was born and raised in the great city of New Orleans and my father taught me to drive at 16. I was actually a pretty good driver but as I slowly became more and more of a New Yorker, as I slowly become more and more like Wendy, my driving abilities waned. So the glorious Sir Ben Kingsley had to trust in me that I had enough abilities left over to drive him in our scenes.” Unlike a real driving instructor, he did not have a passenger-side brake.
She was especially proud of the women behind the movie. “It’s extraordinary. I would say I have many, many proud moments on this film struggling to get it made and actually the first day of shooting was an extraordinary moment. But a couple of weeks ago we had a New York premiere and I took a photo. You know a picture says more than 1000 words. In that photo is the great Katha Pollitt who wrote the essay, Sarah Kernochan who did the adaptation, Isabel Coixet our extraordinary director, Thelma Schoonmaker the great one and only, greatest living editor of all time, myself, I’m okay, and Dana Friedman, our producer, it is a remarkable moment in cinema history that these six women came together. We had great men in front of the camera, it doesn’t get any better and two remarkable young men who started a production company and this was the first film they made and they were young men which is why I call them visionary. But this particular film, to have the six women at the helm, women who were not 25, 35, none of us were even 50. That’s a beautiful moment in this industry, it’s a proud moment for this industry. It’s a moment I shall cherish for a very very very long time.”
That may be why this movie has a sex scene that is more from a woman’s perspective than we usually see in films. “Sex scenes in movie are always not what they appear but I loved the scene. I thought it was funny, true, necessary, valuable to the story. Which you don’t get all the time and it’s nice that women my age are naked on film, it’s nice to see young women naked on film. But we have to continue to see women of all ages naked on film. We certainly see men of all ages naked on film.” She also spoke about the brief nudity in a flashback domestic scene with Wendy and her husband. “We know each other; it’s just a moment but it’s what she reflects on, which is what we do reflect on. When we miss someone we reflect often on the most ordinary.”
Clarkson also loved the cross-cultural friendship Wendy has with her Sikh driving instructor, an immigrant from India played by Sir Ben Kingsley. “At the end of the day what I honor most about this film is that we are obviously from different cultures, Sir Ben and I, our characters Wendy and Darwan, but at the end of the day we are just two people and we are grown-ups. It is about how true friendship can have a profound effect and change on one’s life. I hold most high and most dear those relationships. I have exquisite friends and I must say at the end of the day when I’m feeling blue or feeling fraught or feeling less, then I remember the remarkable and extraordinary friendships that I have. And this film is I think at the end of the day an ode to friendship, to adult friendships. And we can get a lot out of a relationship that is chaste, that is that is pure and that’s a nice thing. Purity is a beautiful quality. So having a pure friendship is a beautiful thing, when it’s not all muddled.”