'Everyone has been captured by this chaste love story," said Patricia Clarkson in reference to "Cairo Time," which she called the "little movie that could."
Shot on a shoestring in Egypt by writer/director Ruba Nadda, the film -- about the unconsummated affair between magazine editor Juliette Grant (played by Clarkson) and her husband's former bodyguard, Tareq Khalifa (Alexander Siddig) -- boasted the highest per-screen box-office average of any movie in New York when it was released there a couple of weeks ago.
Whatever its charms, "Cairo Time" won't make an indie-film sensation out of Clarkson, simply because she already is one. Speaking by phone from Manhattan, the 50-year-old New Orleans-born actress displayed the great concentration for which she has been known ever since her show-stopping role in Lisa Cholodenko's "High Art."
Q "Cairo Time" is a romantic film whose characters gradually become intimate. How important is it for actors in such a film to have a close relationship off-camera?
A It's essential for me to have a real rapport [with my co-star]. In this case, we had only known each other for five days before shooting! But actors can move very quickly in terms of intimacy. I think it's in our DNA. I was fortunate that Alexander was such a gracious, open, lovely man. He's the dreamiest damn leading man a gal could ever want, and we really did connect off-screen.
Q What are the challenges of playing a character like Juliette, who communicates largely without words?
A It's always about doing your homework -- in the wee small hours of the night. Yes, it's true that Juliette is the most quiet, internal character I've ever played. She almost makes the woman I played in "The Station Agent" look like a cheerleader [laughs].
I'm a very different woman from Juliette. I wish I had her grace and patience and kindness. But I've experienced many of the emotions she's experiencing. So it was just a matter of connecting my personal life to hers, and being in the right emotional place for every scene.
Q Were you shooting the film in sequence?
A Oh, no. That would've been glorious, but it's a rare luxury in movies. And this was a very difficult shoot, simply because of the nature of Cairo. Until now, no North American film had ever been shot completely in Cairo, which is very hard to navigate. Ruba warned me. She said, "This is gonna be really rough, and you're in every frame." For Ruba to have rested her film on my shoulders was daunting -- but flattering, too.
Q Women directors are rare in the industry. When you work with a female director, is it a different experience?
A I do think talent is genderless. I've worked with extraordinary male directors, everyone from Woody Allen ["Whatever Works"] to Martin Scorsese ["Shutter Island"], and I wouldn't trade those experiences for anything. But yes, it's different to work with a woman.
There's a shorthand, a sign language that we have as women. Ruba intuitively understood on certain days that I was wrestling with the material, and that was helpful for us. We're going to do another film together in about a year from now. All I can say is that it involves me and a shotgun [laughs].
Q There aren't usually shotguns in a "chaste love story," which is a very specific kind of melodrama -- you could call it the "Brief Encounter" genre. What do you think are the high points of this kind of film?
A Well, I'm not a cinephile [laughs]. I just know that ["Cairo Time"] has been compared to many films -- everything from "Summertime" to "In the Mood for Love" and "Lost in Translation." That's beautiful company to be in.
I'm really in awe of cinephiles -- those who have such a firm command of the history of cinema. Scorsese, for example, has seen everything. Having a conversation with him is fabulous because he can reference everything at all times. Me, I didn't grow up on film. I rarely watch DVDs. I don't think I've ever ordered a video on demand.
Q What's it like to have been called the "queen of indie film"?
A Well, I think my crown has been around for a while [laughs], because I've been very much a part of that world for years. But I'm honored by that description to this day! To me, independent cinema is some of the best cinema around. I obviously do studio films, too, but I make a real living from indies. They're what I love.
Rob Nelson writes regularly about movies.