In Conversation with Patricia Arquette, Oscar Winner and Human Rights Activist • Empty Mirror

Patricia Arquette interview - Emma Eden Ramos

I first encountered actress Patricia Arquette in the early 2000s when, as a young teenager, I saw David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) for the first time. Growing up surrounded by photos of Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Mae West, and Bette Davis, I also discovered at that time a newer genre of female artists, musicians like Siouxsie Sioux, Kathleen Hanna, PJ Harvey, and Carrie Brownstein; and I remember being struck by Arquette’s unique image: half 1930s Hollywood icon, half punk rock rebel. Not long after Hurricane Katrina, I learned of Arquette’s humanitarian work and came to admire her not just for her acting career but for her drive to use her celebrity to bring awareness to pressing social crises.

Since her 1987 film debut in the third installment of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Patricia Arquette has won, among other awards, an Oscar, two Golden Globe Awards, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, and an Emmy, accumulated over sixty acting credits, and earned recognition for her outstanding work as a social justice activist. Despite well-deserved accolades from Hollywood, she has never abandoned her unconventionally cool outsider image. She agreed to an interview, and we spoke by phone.

EER: You come from a family of actors. Like the Barrymores and the Fondas, your family has been in show business for generations. Unlike many actors from prominent acting families, however, you were not raised in Los Angeles or New York. You, in fact, spent a portion of your childhood on a commune in rural Virginia. How do you think your upbringing affects your work as an actor? Does it influence the choices you make when choosing roles?

PA: Well, my dad was a actor, and my grandparents and great-grandparents were actors. I think it was important, though, to my dad and my mom for us to grow up in nature for at least a period of time and have a different experience in the world. I think that those early years were really informative in the way that I perceive the world. I don’t know that I would be the same person that I am today if it wasn’t for that experience. Even though we moved from Virginia to Chicago briefly, it was really a big shock when we moved to LA. I didn’t understand the way the world worked at all. I didn’t understand the concept of material wealth because everyone on the commune was really poor. A lot of people didn’t have cars, you’d take a bus or get a ride with somebody to the market if you needed something, so it was really weird when we came to LA and everyone was talking about what kinds of cars people owned. It just seemed very foreign to me.

I think, in general, that most actors starting out don’t have a lot of options with the kinds of roles they get to take. And certainly with girls, there isn’t much variety in the kinds of choices or parts. You’re usually the girlfriend, or the object of desire, or the mean girl, or the best friend of the girl who is the object of desire, but there aren’t really a lot of options when you’re younger and just starting out. It’s only really in success that you have even the “privilege” to be able to make decisions about what you do or don’t want to do. I think for a long time it was very limiting, the scope of female parts, and also the parts available for middle-aged women. I think I came along at a good time, and right now there are more options for choices. And I have enough success from the past to be able to take on parts that are a little more interesting to me. Now having said that, I know a lot of people are afraid to make choices because I think the business has put people in a lot of fear that if they don’t look a certain way, or if the business doesn’t see them as beautiful or keeping it all together, then they won’t get much work. So for me, right now, it’s nice. I feel like I’m starting to get offered parts that are really about acting, where people really believe in my capacity as an actor. I do feel like it took a long time to get there, though.

Patricia Arquette at the Academy Awards, 2015 / Jaguar PS via ShutterstockPatricia Arquette at the Academy Awards, 2015 / Jaguar PS via Shutterstock

EER: You are known as much for your stellar acting as for your work as an activist. You are the Executive Director of GiveLove, an organization that strives to bring safe sanitation to countries in need; you have been one of the most vocal and active advocates for the passing of the ERA; you were awarded by GLAAD for the work you do fighting for equality for the transgender community; you were recently involved in a project to help the children of undocumented parents in California who are vulnerable to ICE raids, and much more. Where do you think this passion for activism comes from? If you weren’t an actor, do you think you might have had a career in, say, public policy or social services?

PA: That’s so funny. That was really never part of my dream, to be a politician. If I wasn’t going to be an actor, my plan was to be a midwife. My mom was an activist. Our dad used to take us on the picket line when there were union strikes. They were political people and activists, and so I think that was just a part of our worldview. And part of what we were taught was responsibility as human beings to be engaged in the world. I don’t know how you really can be an actor and not have empathy for other people.

But for us, I think that a lot of it has to do with growing up the way we did. We’ve all been, in our own ways, really active. My sister Rosanna was a really early, pivotal voice in the Me Too Movement, and really put herself out there, and now that’s become a global conversation. She also does a lot for LGBTQ rights. She started the Alexis Arquette Family Foundation. But you know, we’re all human beings. Nobody’s perfect, and this is a path that we’re all on. There’s a lot that’s happening in the world, and if we want to have progress and change as a species in a more beautiful way, we need to start to address systemic bias and imbalance. Then we all get to be a part of that change.

EER: You recently addressed Congress about the Equal Rights Amendment. You also famously mentioned the ERA in your 2015 Oscar speech. When you speak about gender inequality, however, it is clear that you are referring to inequity in all industries, not just Hollywood. On the top of your Twitter page, you write, “80% think gender equality is guaranteed by the Constitution? IT ISN’T.” So many of us incorrectly assume that such an amendment already exists. When did you learn that the Constitution does not guarantee equal rights for women? Are you surprised that this is still a debate in 2019?

PA: A friend of mine, Kamala Lopez, was making a documentary called Equal Means Equal at the time that I was nominated for the Oscar, so I was watching her put that together, seeing cuts of it, and having a lot of discussions with her. That’s when I became aware of it. I then started looking at the social impact, at how much bias there was in every state and how that bias was impacting women. I started looking at how ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment could actually be a tool that could be used to address the widespread bias, a tool to examine some of the norms that have a negative impact and that we don’t really talk or think about very much.

You know, most of my life I grew up not even knowing about or thinking about how certain issues were impacting women. I grew up in a time when not many people used the word “feminism,” and it had a kind of negative connotation. So, I just really wasn’t aware of the inequality. But then, as I started to dig deeper, I started to recognize how devastating it can be. Women are twice as likely to retire in poverty, and it takes several years longer, especially for women of color, to pay back their college loans, or to save up to buy houses. The equal pay issue dogs women throughout their whole lives, impacting them and the families they’re trying to support. There are so many full-time working single moms who are still in poverty, and children who have single moms are more likely to be in poverty than any other group with children. So it’s impacting people in so many different ways, and I think it’s estimated that half of the kids living in poverty are going to bed with food insecurity. That may not be the case if their moms were paid their full dollar. That’s one in five kids in America. That’s a lot of kids! It’s sort of like on a plane when you have to put your own oxygen mask on first. I think many women are good at taking care of everybody else, and I think we’re at a critical point where women have to put on their own oxygen masks before taking care of everyone else. When I was younger I always used to think, because I had my son young, when I was 20, “I’d never do that! I’d always put it on my baby first!” Then somebody said to me, “Well, then you’ll pass out and your baby will die, and no one will be able to carry him out of the plane.” So, it makes sense, put it on yourself, then put it on them. So, yeah, I think we need to triage this now because otherwise women are just going to sink more and more into poverty.

And, also, there are so many other problems that I just don’t think we even look at or think about the way we need to. For example, what about all of these rape kits that went untested in every state for years and were then thrown away? Why? Because the majority of victims are women. And, why did we need the federal government to give grants to every state to process these kits, or have activists raise money for their own state to start processing them? It’s never a priority or part of the budget, you know, dealing with the criminality of rape. Well, it needs to be a priority because when they do start testing these backlogged kits, they find serial rapists they could have caught years before. Or when you look at child marriage where, in a lot of states, adult men were impregnating girl children, and then their families were forcing these girls to marry their rapists. If not for activists, many of them women of color activists, a lot of these changes would have never been made. Part of the issue is that we don’t have every tool at our disposal, like the ERA, to start examining bias and laws.

EER: In some of your recent interviews you discuss the gamble a female actor takes when she chooses to play an “unlikable” character. You’ve also mentioned the unspoken rule that only some women get to explore their sexuality on screen. Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell, your character in Escape At Dannemora, is neither “likable” nor “feminine” in a conventional way. So, in a sense, you took an extra gamble when signing on to play that role. Were you worried about what critics might say?

PA: We had conversations, my team and I, about the possible blowback. I actually thought I would deal with more critical backlash for some reason, and then have to explain myself and try to get people to understand why this is an important conversation. But I didn’t really face so much of that blowback in the business, so I was happily surprised by that. But, then you’re so conditioned for so many years of understanding that this is how the business works. You know, you hear about a part and your agent calls on your behalf, and then they say, “Well, what does she look like now? Send us a picture.” Or you hear in casting that some great actress didn’t get hired because some actor didn’t think that she was fuckable enough. So, meanwhile, this guy is certainly not some kind of Adonis, but somehow he felt that that’s really what women have to lead with, that’s what they have to offer. I think there’s a lot of layers to it, but certainly this line of business conditions you to be fearful of making any choices that aren’t really the obvious ones.

With Tilly, I think she’s kind of refreshing because unlike a lot of traditional female characters, she puts herself at the top of her list. Like it or hate it, she cares about herself first. And that’s interesting in a female character because we don’t see that every day. I think when people make choices that are painful or questionable, there’s always some reason why they do, and I think these characters help us understand people and the choices they make when we look a little deeper.

EER: You were inspired to become an actor after watching Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under The Influence and Jessica Lange in Frances. Both Mabel Longhetti (the main character in A Woman Under The Influence) and Frances Farmer (the actress whose life story Frances is based on) are psychologically complex and tragic characters. What was it in particular about those roles that resonated with you?

PA:Well, I think part of it was that they weren’t just delegated to being someone’s girlfriend or the femme fatale. They were struggling with a lot—with society, with what society expected of them, with what the norms were around them, their complicated feelings, and how to have their own kind of sense of self and chance to express themselves.

With Frances Farmer, when you look at her, there are a lot of layers. There’s the film industry stuff, her wanting to be an artist first, then breaking into a community of artists with this unpopular political ideology [communism] that scared people. Then she also had this relationship, this struggle with her mother, this love/hate relationship, and having her power taken away by her mother. Just being a woman who questioned the world was dangerous for her, for both Frances Farmer and the main character in A Woman Under The Influence.

EER: You are in the process of writing your memoir! Autobiographical writing can be cathartically rewarding but also, in some instances, emotionally draining. How are you finding the process?

PA: I’ve actually kind of ground it down to a halt because when I started writing Alexis was still alive, but by the time I started coming towards the end, Alexis got sick and passed away. I really wanted to include that in the last few chapters, but it’s still so hard for me to write about that. It’s so traumatic to write about. I’m still trying to work through that, and it feels like a constant shock and blow. Alexis was a wonderful person, and we were very close, so it’s a big loss. I think I’m still traumatized about it [her death].

But, then, my mom was a poet and, for me, writing was part of self-soothing when I was little. I also really respect writers and writing. But it’s pretty terrifying because I think as much as you face some of your inner critic when you’re acting, you also deal with your outer critic. But with writing, I’ve never encountered something that’s so vicious as that inner critic constantly attacking me. It’s just crazy. So, we’ll see. I just have to get back at it, process it in whichever way I do. Some people have said to me, people who are really good writers, “Maybe you’re not ready right now, and maybe that’s okay,” as far as writing about Alexis. But then there’s another part of me that feels like maybe I should write about how hard it is to write this. Grieving is a process, you know. We have such an immediate culture where everything’s right this second. But grieving, it’s a long process.

EER: In addition to writing your memoir, you are in the process of directing your first film. Can you tell us anything about your forthcoming directorial film debut? Can we expect something similar to Frances or A Woman Under The Influence?

PA: So, we’re still working on the script. It’s actually based on a true story and is about women’s activism, a group of women who became activists. As an actor it’s really interesting to discover this process because we, as actors, always try to work on things and improve them and hopefully work with the writer and get them better, but as a director you start so early. The script at the stage where we’re at now is never the script that I would see as an actor. You use a different part of your brain when it comes to acting.

And for me, for the first, I don’t know, 30 years of my career, I only worked with two female directors ever. Now that’s changing. More than half of the episodes of The Act were directed by women! I thought I’d never see that day. So, it is changing, though obviously not as quickly as anyone would like. But women just didn’t have those opportunities before. Now you have the success of Wonder Woman [directed by Patty Jenkins] and Ava DuVernay. We’re starting to see all these women filmmakers succeeding, and you never would have seen that a few years ago. And the stories that are coming out are really important and need to be heard, so I’m very excited to see this starting to happen.

About Emma Eden Ramos

Emma Eden Ramos is the author of two novels and one poetry chapbook. Her novels have been reviewed in The San Francisco Book Review, The Roanoke Times, and other well-known papers. Ramos’s poetry chapbook was shortlisted for the Independent Literary Award in 2011. Ramos has also written articles and essays for Afterimage: The Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism, Women Writers, Women’s Business Relationships, Directed By Women, Agnes Films Journal, and other magazines. She worked as an editor and contributor at Luna Luna Magazine, and has had her articles mentioned on RogerEbert.com, Examiner.com, and on WBAI 99.5 Pacifica Radio. Ramos currently teaches high school at The Beekman School in New York City.

Business Relationships Book