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Patricia Clarkson steps into leading light 

Patricia Clarkson, best known as a talented supporting character actor, finally lands the starring role she deserves in the romantic Cairo Time.

The leading lady's got it all. There's brains, beauty and backstory all balled up into one towering film figure.

But first, consider her other onscreen presence, one of a smaller scale: the female character actor has long played a sort of handmaid to the leading lady---the best friend, sister, mother or lover who brings nuance to the protagonist's narrative.

"I think I'm both. But I think all acting is character-acting," declares Patricia Clarkson, known for character work (The Station Agent, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Six Feet Under and Scorsese's upcoming Shutter Island). "I've gone back and forth between the two like I go back and forth between independent and studio films."

The New Orleans-born actor, based in New York, stars in Canadian director Ruba Nadda's feature Cairo Time. The film won the best Canadian feature at the Toronto International Film Festival, and is opening here on October 16. Her character, Juliette Grant, is a magazine editor. She arrives in Cairo to meet her husband Mark (Tom McCamus), with whom she has two grown children. A UN worker in Gaza, Mark's arrival is delayed, leaving Juliette alone to explore Cairo. But the couple's friend, and Mark's former co-worker (now a shop owner), Tareq Khalifa (Alexander Siddig), who initially brings word of Mark's delay, becomes Juliette's unofficial guide to the city. Bonded by the missing husband, the connection deepens between Juliette and Tareq.

"This was absolutely a classic leading lady part," Clarkson says. "I think she has grace," she offers of Juliette's backstory. "She has a good life and that's what I find beautiful about this story: this is not a deeply unhappy woman. This is not a woman who's in an unhappy marriage, troubles at home. She has the normal troubles of being married to a man who works for the UN and being the editor of a magazine. I think she has great love for her husband, great love for her children. I don't think she's in the middle of an empty-nest syndrome kind of thing."

For Juliette, turning to Tareq doesn't equal a turn away from her husband. Love can and does divide itself, and the new parts can exist simultaneously.

"The beauty of this story the serendipitous nature of it. That can happen to any of us in our lives: we can be taken. Even when we're at our happiest, we can be taken," insists Clarkson.

Most of Juliette's contact with her husband is on the phone. Clarkson brilliantly portrays these conversations---viewers only see and hear her---and their "shorthand," which is not artificially sweet or cute, but real and endearing. It's all in the tone. "You get a sense of the real intimacy between them," she says.

Clarkson praises Nadda for making a smart, romantic film that "trusted the intelligence of the movie-going public." She describes Cairo Time as "a challenging romance, which might be an oxymoron. I think Ruba's made a very complicated, complex, deeply romantic, truly romantic film. And I think she raises a lot of intelligent feelings and questions."

With respect to her career, how has Clarkson's beauty gone, if not unnoticed, uncelebrated? She's too real for this celebrity culture, some may proclaim. Long and lithe with strawberry-blonde hair, the camera often catches her in statuesque stillness or wandering through chaotic streets or, at the last minute at a wedding, with the handsome Tareq.

In particular, Juliette wears a radiant yellow dress in a city, Cairo, that radiates its own light, heat and noise. The dress was designed based on one Clarkson owns. "Often I'm playing women who are down and out," she says. "I'm rarely in just kind of a beautiful dress in a film."

A sense for the actor's physicality, not seen before, emerges in Cairo Time: the way she walks off the hotel elevator, stands for a moment against a brilliant blue-tiled wall and surveys the ornate lobby subtly states the character's confidence and capable nature.

"Ruba shot a lot of my body. I'm a very physical actress. That was part of Juliette: the way I walk, the way I move, the way I put that dress on."


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