“I’m not for everyone,” Patricia Arquette admitted in a recent interview. It’s instructive to think about why that might be.
Arquette, 53, has more than proved herself to be a fascinating actress. Starting at 19, she grew up in independent films, working with notable director after director: Sean Penn, Diane Keaton, Tony Scott, David O. Russell, Tim Burton, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese. She played the title character of the hit TV series for five seasons medium. She’s won all the major awards — two Emmys, three Golden Globes, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, a BAFTA and an Oscar — many for her role as a multi-faceted mother childhood (2014), which was filmed over 12 years. your new series, severance paydirected by frequent collaborator Ben Stiller, is out February 18 on AppleTV+ – more on that in a moment.
Arquette also spends about a third of her time on activism. In her Oscar acceptance speech, she passionately advocated equal pay for women. (Meryl Streep’s response — enthusiastic clapping, pointing, and “Yes!” — became an instant meme.) On Twitter, she’s an outspoken Democrat who denounces political hypocrisy and a champion of transgender rights and community arts programs.
Maybe that explains the tea thing, which isn’t for everyone. It’s not just Hollywood that prefers a woman not to make too much noise, be it about money or anything else.
You’d think a public face would get perfectly fair job offers for equal pay, but that’s not the case, says Arquette — not on the first project she was offered childhood, another one offered to her last year. She reclines in a comfortable looking chair, pale skin and blonde hair glowing. Her voice is an ASMR dream light, scratchy, musical.
“It’s not just about the money, but it’s fair to ask for what you deserve,” she says matter-of-factly. “I’ve been in the business 34 years, I bring an audience from other projects, I tick a lot of the boxes that they look to. So I don’t understand why different rules apply to me.”
Here’s another reason: Arquette is drawn to roles that explore what society finds scary about women. In the Showtime miniseries Escape at Dannemora (2018), based on a true story, she played a prison employee who has sex with and supports an inmate, while toning down her beauty to give us a complex look at the frustrations and desires of an ordinary woman. In the Hulu series The act (2019), based on Another True Story, she played a monstrous mother who fabricated illnesses and disabilities for her daughter.
“I don’t know if I’m intentionally dressed like that,” Arquette points out. Then she laughs. “Although I’m filming something now” – the black comedy series high desert, also for AppleTV+, directed by the outspokenly political Jay Roach – “where my character has some frightening aspects of her personality that we don’t normally expect in a woman. She has failed at things that women normally make their priority. And even when I was a resourceful, in true romance and Abandoned highwayI’ve always paid attention to how my characters met their needs, using what society saw as a barter chip, whatever value they had.”
your character inside severance pay, the purposely inappropriately named Harmony, is perhaps Arquette’s scariest yet. Harmony is an ambitious manager in a shadowy, powerful corporation in a dystopian near future. Employees must undergo ‘severance pay’ – a chip implanted in their brain blocks all memories of their personal lives when they are at work and vice versa. After work, Harmony poses as a hippie/herbalist/lactation consultant to keep a better eye on her subordinates. (It’s hilariously funny that the least threatening alter ego she could dream up for this girded, mildly cruel woman would be a warm breadwinner.) Her society is her politics, her family, and her religion, and if a cadre of Numbers – Crunchers led by Adam Scott threaten to rebel, and Harmony’s ferocity becomes truly terrifying.
severance pay addresses many of the questions Arquette is asking these days: “Who are we really as humans?” it rhymes. “What is our nature? How much control do we want to give up? Am I still black and white or have I gotten to a point in my life where I see the gray areas? I am a political person and there is no “other side” to many of the causes I advocate for. For example, during the pandemic, there was a month where 100 percent of the job losses were women’s jobs. That’s crazy. The abolition of the child allowance will affect women and children the most. These things bother me all the time.
“But the groups out there that are taking actions that I disagree with — they think what they’re doing is right,” she continues. “They want to be heroic, but they have been misinformed. I’m starting to think if I could sit down and talk to someone in a non-hostile way to say, “Hey, we all want to do what’s right, we all want everyone to be okay.” Given equal pay, one could argue that white men have long had the advantage, so why would they want to give that up? But many of them are also struggling – they don’t feel favored, they are treading water. I don’t think we have to take anything away from anyone. We want to create a situation in which we are all fine. But how do we communicate that?”
When I ask Arquette about her relationship to her own power, she laughs. “I never thought I would have any,” she says. “Winning the Oscar came as a surprise. I never built my career like that. I was wondering if it was for a reason, to help me help other people. But as it turns out, I don’t have that much power. I can’t control anything or save the world. I often feel off balance. So now I’m just trying to make some kind of peace with myself.” She’s her own cup of tea, and that’s enough.
Specially for The Globe and Mail
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