One actress who doesn't really care if you like her

While some actors seem to have an expiration date that leaves them high and dry once they reach a certain age, others are forced to labor for decades before moviegoers will embrace the talent that was there all along.

Brian Cox, Marcia Gay Harden, and Chris Cooper were exemplars of this phenomenon and with this month's release of Sundance darlings "Pieces of April" and "The Station Agent" Patricia Clarkson catapults to the top of the list.

"She's ready to enter the pantheon of great American actresses," says "Pieces of April" writer and director Peter Hedges. "Patty brings a fearlessness, a great throaty voice that defies description and a willingness to say the unsayable with relish. She's also sexy and funny even as she dares the audience to dislike her."

In writer and director Tom McCarthy's debut "The Station Agent," the 40-something Clarkson plays Olivia, a divorcée who uses humor to overcome a tragedy. In "April," she is an exasperated parent dying of cancer, who resists her family's Thanksgiving reconciliation with a wayward daughter.

"I cannot emphasize enough how many actors of Patty's caliber want their characters to be always-likable," says Mr. Hedges, who first saw Clarkson perform at Yale. "And it is that likability in movies that I think has begun to diminish the power of contemporary cinema. The fact is, lots of people aren't nice and there are instances where a person shouldn't be."

As a result of these roles and other performances in well-regarded indies like last year's "Far From Heaven" and this year's "All The Real Girls," Clarkson has become one of the most sought after It Girls of the Sundance film scene.

"I think it's her sense of honesty - there are no tricks to Patty's acting," says McCarthy who wrote the part of Olivia with Clarkson in mind. "I just knew that she would bring a weight to the character, a complexity and a rawness that Patty brings to all her work."

But breakthrough offers weren't always as plentiful as they are today. "Of course, I wanted to get bigger parts over the years, but I was never really an ingénue," Clarkson admits, with a laugh. "I really had to kind of grow up and get older [and] suddenly I've found myself in the place I wanted to be in my mid- to late-30s. Things really changed in my face, in my voice, and my body and it kind of opened up the door for me...."

Clarkson did character work in college, but was then asked to perform more traditional roles - like "the wife" in "The Untouchables" - when she started acting professionally. "In school, I was specifically cast against type many times," she recalls. "I did do some ingénues and young leading ladies, but I also had a writer friend [Dick Beebe] there who was writing crazy things for me to do like an eight-year-old murderer or a big Cajun Mama. But when I got out I had to play more conventional parts - people used to see me as WASP-y rather than saying, 'Cast her as a hooker!' "

Still, it was that early theater work that Clarkson says helped her develop her now sought-after versatility. "It lessens the fear factor, and you have a sense that it's not so frightening to look different or to sound different or to be different," she says. "I'm not attached to looking beautiful in every movie or looking glamorous or being sexy.... That's a very nice thing to be in films, but letting go of vanity and letting go of ego is important."

Over the past 10 years, when Clarkson was auditioning and not landing leading roles, she was also racking up her share of personal hardships that now seem part of her screen persona. "I'm fortunate in that I've never lost a child, but I'm single. I'm 43. I have suffered loss - I have suffered despair - and for me, it's just about bringing certain emotions and qualities we all share to the surface," she says.

In "Pieces," April is played by a reinvented Katie Holmes, who wears goth makeup and parachute pants and is branded a drug-taking hellion. However, it is Clarkson's character, Joy, who is unrepentantly brutal and acid-tongued to those around her.

"I don't think the character has been this way all her life, but since she's that sick all bets are off for her," says director Hedges. "Joy doesn't have to worry about social graces or being polite. She may not be around long, and since that's the case she needs to have a 'take-no-prisoners' quality."

Given the buzz building around three breakout roles in in a single year, Clarkson, too, will soon be able to call more of her own shots in Hollywood as well. "The really deeply guerrilla filmmaking days might be behind me, but if somebody says, 'Look Patty, I've only got $60,000 to make this film,' and I love the part, 'Hey, let's go!' "

Though Oscar glory may be around the corner, Clarkson says she's satisfied just seeing her labors of love ensconced on marquees across the country. "For me to have these two films coming out right now is such a high point in my whole.... I want to say 'career,' but it's also a fulfillment of my dreams because these films mean so much to me," she says. "The fact that people are seeing them and are affected by them is just wonderful."

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