PAtricia Arquette was tired, shaking, and didn’t know how to love a murderer. It was a cold Detroit winter in 1992, and the then 24-year-old actress had started filming her breakthrough role: the badass fantasy girl Alabama in Tony Scott’s true romance, a love story with spikes and a smoking gun where a first kiss should be. As the infatuated wife of Christian Slater’s fugitive killer, Arquette at least kept Alabama looking down: the cow-print miniskirt, the leopard-spotted coat, the feathered Farrah Fawcett done cheaply. Everything else? Not as much.
“I struggled to play her,” she recalls 30 years later, sitting serenely in a Los Angeles hotel suite. “She’s so supportive, even with things that are kind of shocking. Her boyfriend murders someone and she’s still like… yeah! My acting coach told me, well, what are you going to say? ‘Do not do that?’ ‘How dare you?’ So I treated it like it was a survival mechanism. I think her ability to love totally without judgment is what people respond to. But it was really difficult to play that.” You never would have guessed that, I tell her. She breathes a sigh of relief. “I’m so glad you didn’t see my fight.”
The role captures the essence of Arquette’s screen presence: no one loves quite like her, whether so frighteningly or so unconditionally. At Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, she was a housewife in conservative 1950s Hollywood who didn’t care that her husband, the film director, was a transvestite. As the seductive femme fatale in David Lynch’s Abandoned highway, she was love at its most foreboding, the kind you want to run away with even if it might kill you. in the childhood — which won her a 2015 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress — she portrayed one of cinema’s most real, multifaceted, unidealized mothers.
She had to rein in those instincts severance pay, a new Apple TV+ series that’s so damn believable that calling it science fiction feels wrong. It’s set in the spooky corridors of a tech company called Lumon Industries, which appears to specialize in “actual sales” and “macro data refining.” Arquette plays Harmony, Lumon’s all-seeing manager and a woman as warm and cuddly as an HR manual. The company has come up with one hell of a solution to the quest for work-life balance: employees are sanitized as they enter and exit the workplace, effectively dividing their existence in two. When they are at work they have no idea what they are doing outside of it and vice versa. It’s faintly alluring on paper, but also ripe for exploitation and ethical horror.
Arquette found the premise instructive. The 53-year-old has spent much of her career balancing motherhood and acting – this is her toddler Enzo, now 33, who ends up trudging along the beach true romance, and she has an 18-year-old daughter named Harlow. Sometimes she really wanted to turn off one or the other. “As a mom who grew up as an actress, I always felt guilty about not being home,” she says. “But when I got home I thought: will I know my lines for tomorrow? Work and home always bled on top of each other. So the [Lumon] The idea sounds – conceptually – like a relief. But really, as an actor, I need all of my life experience and observation of people when I’m not at work. I need the things I feel: my life and my losses. As an actor, it would be a terrible thing.”
Arquette speaks softly and melodiously over Zoom; she blinks from behind black glasses that peek out from sharp ice-blond bangs. She has the air of a politician, a dead seriousness that only breaks when she talks about her family or her previous work. Then she becomes more relaxed, funnier, a bit nostalgic. I tell her it was unusual to see her so rejuvenated and isolated severance pay, when she is often so tactile on screen. She hugs, grins, always feels.
“Everything was tight,” she recalls of her time on set. severance pay was filmed in the midst of the pandemic, and Arquette was repeatedly quarantined, both because of Covid rules on set and when people she knew tested positive. “I would assume from here [rigid] work structure into this apartment where I was alone and far away from my family. It was a never-ending pressure cooker full of unknowns. We couldn’t joke with the crew like we used to. Even as actors, we couldn’t really bond that way. I felt a kind of hunger.”
Coincidentally, the show is reminiscent of David Lynch. Not in the way that “Lynchian” gets thrown around when something goes wrong formally, but because it almost challenges you to go along with it. severance pay is blunt and unusual, a drip of unsettling horror that feels distant yet eerily familiar. Arquette loves this space or works that don’t fool their audience. She felt a symbiosis with Lynch when she was directed by him, both artists drawn to the unconventional.
“He has an incredible openness to error,” she recalls. “He told me that people think all movies have a beginning and an end, but it doesn’t have to be. A crew member came up and said, ‘Oh, I had this weird idea,’ and he said, ‘Ooh, let’s check that out!’” Arquette’s character came into play at one point Abandoned highway seems to fade in and out in one shot, like an alluring phantom. It wasn’t on purpose, she says. “He’s like, ‘She’s blurry? Oh cool!’ He just has a lot of respect for the audience and believes we don’t have to tell stories exactly the way we used to tell them.”
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This feeling of artistic disruption left a lasting impression on Arquette. But she’d always been allergic to the typical, ever since she was very young. She calls her late parents — actor Lewis and consultant-turned-artist Mardi — “activists and radicals” who were drawn to different faiths and creative callings. “My mother was Jewish and my father converted to Islam – they should never marry each other. They questioned everything and raised us that way.”
It would have been an odd and disappointing turn of events if it hadn’t made her and her siblings — actors Rosanna, David, Alexis, and Richmond Arquette — so interesting. Today David is an actor, wrestler and professional clown. Outside of acting, Rosanna is a leading voice against sexual misconduct in Hollywood. Richmond is a regular David Fincher. Alexis, who died in 2016, was a trans pioneer who packed performances of astounding weight and complexity into her short career. Patricia, on the other hand, was more shy and quiet than her siblings and initially considered becoming a midwife. However, rebellion was in her blood. As a child, she always wore a badge that said “Ask Authority.” Today she describes herself as a “troublemaker”. In her Instagram bio, it comes first, along with “actor” and “activist.” “I’ve always been a bit anti-establishment,” she explains. “For me, there is an opposite aspect.”
When she won the Oscar for childhoodshe used her speech to campaign for equal pay in the United States. Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez pointed and cheered from the audience, in a reaction that quickly found a second life as an internet meme. Seven years after her win, she’s still unsure if the speech had any impact on film industry salaries. “The majority of the big movies these days are these huge sci-fi action superhero movies with fewer female protagonists,” she says. “So I’m not sure how this conversation is going.”
Arquette’s insecurity may be due to the fact that she hasn’t done many films since then childhood – or even in the years before. Instead, she spent seven seasons on the underrated mystery drama mediumand has appeared in an enviable string of hit limited series in recent years, playing a smothering mother in the Starz true crime drama The actand a lone jailer on Sky Atlantic Escape at Dannemora. Television has thrived, but she longs for more filmmaking and the joys of watching movies on a big screen. “I miss the community [feel] seeing art together,” she says. “Laugh or cry together or be scared together. There is a common energy in this room. Kids growing up today, some of them never knew what it was like to watch a big Disney movie with other kids. It’s a very surreal time. We live in science fiction.”
For them, the strange new rhythms of the world – amplified by the pandemic – have only increased the value of community and togetherness. Likewise, she has begun to open up to ways of thinking that she may have resisted years ago. “I really love getting older,” she says. “I find that gentleness is starting to creep in. [I’m] see the bigger picture.” It wasn’t like that before. Her parents often told her about a “ritual celebration” they took her to when she was a toddler—that was during her hippie years—where various objects were placed in a circle. The children were asked to choose one from the circle – a guitar, a police badge, a legal document and so on – with the story that the object chosen would correspond to where each child would end up. Young Arquette jumped at one object in particular. “I took a judge’s gavel and just started banging it down,” she laughs. It has come true to a certain extent. “I’ve always been very black and white, very judgmental. It was my nature. But now? I’m trying to see more gray.” Alabama would be proud.
Severance is now streaming on Apple TV+