Clarkson, Kingsley and Coixet on the journey to make Learning to Drive
The new dramedy Learning to Drive may not seem like the kind of movie that can appeal to a wide audience, partially because it’s based on the relationship between a middle-aged Manhattan book critic named Wendy and her Sikh driving instructor Darwan, which on paper, might not sound like box office gold, but when you put Patricia Clarkson and Sir Ben Kingsley in those roles, you end up with something that’s truly original and special.
The project began with Clarkson, who discovered the original New Yorker article of the same name by Katha Pollitt through her agent and had been attached to play literary critic Wendy Shields for eight years. If you talk to Clarkson, she will use the word “journey” a lot to talk about a movie which they tried to get made with another director but that fell through until Sir Ben and director Isabel Coixet became attached and they could get the movie made thanks to financing by Broad Green heads Gabriel and Danniel Hammond. The brothers made waves at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) last year when they scooped many of the high-profile movies away from the regular players.
Meanwhile, they had a hidden gem under their belts when Learning to Drive premiered in Toronto to a huge reception with the audience laughing hysterically at some of the more humorous moments in an otherwise complex character drama. (It also was runner up for the festival’s People’s Choice award.) The next day, ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with the film’s two stars and Coixet, who we previously spoke to way back in 2008 for the Phillip Roth adaptation Elegy, in which Clarkson and Kingsley appeared together.
In fact, based on Coixet’s previous films, we were almost shocked that the relationship between Wendy and Darwan didn’t end in a murder/suicide.
“One of the things I liked about the script is that it was addressing meaningful subjects, very close to me, but with a lighter perspective and touch,” she told us when asked about this clear departure. “For me, it was also another opportunity to work with Patty and Ben. It’s good to work with people you don’t have to start again and discover how they are. When she gave me the script seven years ago, I felt very touched by it. I love the fact there is love but it’s not a love story. I love the fact that it’s the story of a friendship. It addresses the way people, especially in North America, they live this sheltered life and they’re not really open to the people cleaning their houses or driving their cars. It’s something that always astonished me.”
“At its core, it’s probably driven by Wendy, but I don’t think it’s solely a woman’s film,” Clarkson clarified about the film. “Yes, it has a very strong colorful woman at its center, but I think it is a story of two souls who in the end, and in a very surprising journey, form a very profound, deeply beautiful friendship. They find love without the physical longing that saves them.”
“I think it’s important in film that we have the faces of women who are not in their 40s, but women who are in their 50s and 60s to lead a film,” she added. (So far this year, there is a bit of a sea change with movies like Blythe Danner’s I’ll See You In My Dreams and Paul Weitz’s Grandma, which also opens on Friday.)
“It was a hard journey getting a movie made with two middle age people, starring me and an Indian man, and that is the shortcoming and sadness of Hollywood,” Clarkson elaborated. “We don’t have a lot of stars of color and diversity and it’s the biggest shortcoming of our business. It’s getting better but it’s also the lack of female directors.”
“What can you do? It is what it is,” Coixet responded when we mentioned her star’s statement.
“He is gravitas personified,” Clarkson said about her co-star. “Which is a beautiful thing. He just shows up ready to work and we’re similar in that way in that we’re workhorses and it’s all about the work for us. This was a very demanding movie with all the driving and the emotional scenes. And comedy’s hard. Sir Ben and I got to come back together for this beautiful journey and it made me so happy to be stuck in a little, smelly horrible car with him all day,” she says with a smile.
While many things have been changed in adapting Pollitt’s story, the biggest one is that her driving instruction is no longer Filipino but a practicing Sikh and Kingsley does an astounding job taking on another Indian role. The Oscar-winning actor didn’t have to prepare as much as you might think though, as his experience with the Sikh community goes back decades. “I was amongst them in India when I filmed ‘Gandhi’ because my bodyguard and driver was a Sikh, so I was with him every day. Then I have business acquaintances, one or two, who are Sikhs.”
“I’m fascinated by people,” he elucidated on his method of creating characters. “Nearly everyone I meet sooner or later will be in a movie of mine. Part of them—even a gesture—I’m collecting, I’m gathering, I’m hunting always. I think it’s almost unconscious now. I enjoy meeting and watching and looking, so I didn’t actually as a specific exercise say to myself, ‘Right, I’m going to go to that Sikh restaurant in London’ but as soon as I arrived on the set, the lovely Harpreet put my turban on for me every day. We chatted together, and I was naturally drawn to him and his kindness so the research I did was actually on the spot. It’s gathering and sharing with the camera, almost instantaneous.”
It’s also another great film about the immigrant experience (similar to Samba, another Broad Green release) particularly in the unique way they acclimate themselves to New York living, something Coixet expounded upon. “Maybe it’s because I’m from Barcelona, I love to know things about waiters and people working in hotels and cleaning ladies. They have been tortured. They could have a masters. I never forget these people they move from their country for a reason, and for me, I have to say it’s very easy to have empathy for them.”
“I fought for this movie because I knew it was singular,” Clarkson said about the movie’s sense of humor. “I knew it had comedy and pathos. It’s tragically funny and I knew that if we got it right it would be very funny. I know Wendy and I know where she lives and I know exactly at 53 where she is right now. I know this journey and it is funny. It’s incredibly sad and it’s going to kill me some of these scenes, but I know that it’s funny and that’s what I really loved. We are set off to the side in film or we are the very straight person in a film, which is so unappealing.”
“I was very cautious about not making a parody or a caricature,” Coixet confirmed about the film’s Sikh character. “These Indian accents, it’s like my accent. Some people make fun of it but Indian characters, they would always be eager to please, and that’s something I wanted to avoid. Everything was treated with a lots of respect. They are normal guys doing their stuff and not so different. There are more things that unite people than that separate them. We found a guy we can feel empathy for and we can identify ourselves in him.”
Any New Yorker can probably relate to Wendy’s “plight” in that we often have to rely on others if we ever want to get out of the city. “I really had stopped driving,” Clarkson admitted. “I do know how to drive, I have a driver’s license. I was born in New Orleans and my father taught me to drive in a parking lot. I know how to drive and I drove for years in and out and I dated a man who lived in the country so I would drive these country roads and I loved that. Driving in Manhattan now just seems so frightening to me, but I had to drive in this film. Me driving over that bridge, my heart was beating so fast but for a lot of that, I just had to show up because so much of what I was experiencing that day, Patty was experiencing also.”
“I really enjoy working with Isabel,” said Kingsley about their director. “She has the ability to place the actor perfectly on the screen. You feel held by the situation and where she’s placed you, and you’re given a place from which you can really jump as an actor. Some directors lack that ability. I think you can release a lot of good energy from an actor by placing him or her perfectly and then the camera capturing him perfectly. I always know with Isabel that whatever I do, she’s going to see it (because she operates the camera herself) and see everything that I’m offering her. I never have to worry if she may be missing the tiniest of gestures that I offer, so you can be very economical with Isabel. You don’t have to say, ‘Over here! I’m acting!’ She will find our way of telling the story and capture it and nurture it. It’s a very joyful experience.”
Interestingly, when we spoke to Sophie Turner for Coixet’s last film Another Me, she said essentially the same thing as Sir Ben, but as irony would have it, Learning to Drive was actually a reviving experience for Coixet, as she told us that Another Me was taken out of her hands and recut by the studio/producers. “After ‘Another Me,’ I thought maybe my career was over,” she said poignantly. “Maybe this is not worth it when you don’t have control over what you do, but I learned something from ‘Learning to Drive.’ Okay, your husband is leaving you for someone else and your house is not your house and you feel lonely and this is the end of the world, but no, it’s not.”
“The end of the world is something like what’s happening in the world right now,” she continued. “We’re having so many really, really difficult tragedies, so you have to put it into perspective these things, so for me, making ‘Learning to Drive’ was a real lesson. I have the opportunity to make this film and I’ll do it. I was heavily depressed. When you’re doing a film and they take it from your hands. I didn’t want to make a big fuss because all these things in the press, you’re either portrayed as a victim or as a weak person and I don’t think I’m either. I think a big corporation took over my little film and made it something that was not mine and was not what they wanted.”
“The more I see of the world, there are certain unimaginable instances, I mean horrible instances, where you just have to act the unthinkable,” said Kingsley about his own forays into heavier drama. “I’ve been in three films now that involve the Holocaust. I’ve played Simon Wiesenthal, I’ve played Otto Frank, Anne’s dad, and of course I was in ‘Schindler’s List.’ There are certain things that are beyond my knowledge and all of our knowledges. It’s absolutely incomprehensible and yet, you put the yellow star and the striped uniform on, and you have to find truth.”
As always, you can’t talk to Sir Ben without learning something about the artistry of acting and he shared a few thoughts on how it is that he can get in and out of these roles so easily. “I did physics, chemistry and biology at school because I was thinking of a medical career. I remember in physics, there’s this wonderful law of elasticity that if you stretch something beyond its point of elasticity, it will not shrink back to its original shape. I feel that with some actors, if they are not really strong—and it’s a tough business—then you can stretch some actors beyond their point of elasticity and they won’t shrink back.”
Fortunately, things are looking brighter for Learning to Drive and Clarkson is delighted that people can finally see the results of their work. “For me to see this film come to fruition was a very emotional day for me,” she said emphatically. “I’ve been on a journey with a few, but this was the longest journey ever.”
Next up for Clarkson is Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, in which she has a larger part than the previous movie, while Coixet made another movie with Juliet Binoche and Rinko Kikuchi called Nobody Wants the Night, which played at Berlinale earlier this year. It was also recently announced that she is adapting Penelope Fitzgerald’s “The Bookshop.” Sir Ben Kingsley has been busy as ever with roles in Robert Zemeckis’ upcoming The Walk and also voicing Bagheera in Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book.
Learning to Drive opens in select cities on Friday, August 21.