Actress Patricia Clarkson has enjoyed an incredible run of complex characters throughout her career, from her Emmy winning turn as Aunt Sarah in Six Feet Under to her Emmy nominated work as Adora Crellin in HBO’s Sharp Objects. Well, Clarkson just added another Emmy as she won Outstanding Actress in a Short Form Comedy or Drama Series.

Clarkson portrayal Ellen in the series, a wife dissatisfied with the status quo and seeking reinvention in the second season of SundanceTV and AMC+’s anthology series, State of the Union

The acclaimed streaming series won its first Emmy in 2019 for Outstanding Short Form Comedy or Drama Series. With season two, State of the Union’s creative duo of writer Nick Hornby (BrooklynAn Education) and director Stephen Frears (The QueenA Very English Scandal) aimed to surpass that impressive benchmark, hiring Clarkson and actor Brendan Gleeson as married partners Ellen and Scott.

The premise — Liberal campaigning Ellen (Clarkson) drags her traditional, self-made husband Scott (Gleeson) out of his comfort zone and into a hipster Connecticut coffee shop, where they have ten minutes before scheduled marriage counseling sessions to drink a coffee,  rehash their marriage, and argue about everything from Quakerism to pronouns. 

Thanks to an impressive performance by Esco Jouléy (as a non-binary Barista named Jay), Scott begins to evolve in a way that’s both shocking and pleasing to Ellen, but it’s unclear if that’s enough to save the marriage as the two people redefine their lives in their sixties.

Having just filmed Sunday through Thursday on her new spy series, Clarkson was glad to have a day off when she spoke with Awards Focus from her hotel in Toronto, Canada. The Emmy nominee discussed filming during the height of the Delta variant surge, crafting the complicated relationship between Ellen and Scott, and what she feels that final kiss signifies about their future.

Awards Focus: Congratulations on the Emmy for your performance in State of the Union season two I’d love to dive into the building of Ellen, they’re such a grace and patience in your performance. How did you come to find that? 

Patricia Clarkson: I love you, that is exactly what I wanted. Some people had said that Ellen was tooo hard on her husband, but I felt exactly what you said. Ellen comes from working in the nonprofit world, so she’s lived a suburban  sophisticated life in Connecticut.

What I love about this piece is that it’s not focused on the kids, it’s about this couple and their foibles, traumas, and tribulations. It’s handled so beautifully by our writer, Nick Hornsby.

Nick was able to get to the core of a thirty year marriage and what happens when someone, in this case Ellen, feels adrift… no longer connected to the world she’d raised her children in. She starts to realize that she doesn’t want any of this, she wants a higher purpose.

AF: That feels very relatable these days, and quite inspiring.

Clarkson: I know quite a few women my age, and older, that have sought out meaning and have really changed their lives as they’ve gotten older. I think a real seismic shift happens in Ellen, and she is fundamentally in a different place.

AF: The whole discussion surrounding being a quaker and “quaking” is genius.

Clarkson: Oh God, Brendan Gleeson couldn’t get through the “shaking and the quaking” dialogue.  He is one of the funniest men and I just adore him so much. 

I got the call from my agent, in the middle of the delta variant wave, saying it’s State of the Union season two with Nick Hornby, Stephen Frears and they’re trying to get Brendan Gleeson. I told her I didn’t need to read it, I’m in.

My mother, who is eighty-six, she did not want me to film in London at the height of the Delta variant. Once I told her about everyone involved, she turned and said, “Oh Patti, you’re going.”   

AF: What was the pacing like on a short form shoot like State of the Union

Clarkson: It was brutal, we had 130 pages of Nick Hornsby dialogue to shoot in fifteen days, but I’m still standing. 

AF: Standing tall after watching this, I’d say.  I really enjoyed the twist in episode eight, when the tables turned on Ellen and the usually friendly barista Jay (played brilliantly by Esco Jouléy) switched her allegiance to Scott. 

It really threw Ellen when she entered the coffee shop and received a bit of a cold shoulder.  What was your reaction to learning about that turn? 

Clarkson: That definitely hurt (laughs), but that’s the brilliance of Nick Hornby’s writing. We all must all fall, and Jay turning on me was a pivotal moment. We have to be held accountable for our actions. All of of my friends were stunned at the end of the New York premiere, having seen the full arcs of these characters.

Patricia Clarkson as Ellen and Esco Jouléy as Jay – State of the Union – Season2, Episode 8. Photo Credit: Laura Radford/See-Saw Films/Sundance TV

AF: I love when we learn that the Ellen and Scott have been intimate again, and we witness how sex can further complicate the situation.

Clarkson: I loved that too, because that of course happens in life. I know so many married couples that are spilt and they fall back into bed together. 

So, that was just another one of many twists and turns that kept the material so engaging. We spent so much time running our lines over the weekends, my assistant and Brendan with me hunkered down in our bubble. “Let’s run it again,” was the most common line you’d hear.

AF: The button in the finale, with the kiss between the two… it felt like the wounds were healing despite the moving apart.

Clarkson: We talked so much about that kiss, “What does this mean? Is there a future for them, can we play that in the moment?” 

The pair would obviously keep in touch because of the children they share, but could they possibly come back together if she goes off and doesn’t find the level of happiness she’s hoping for with the quaker way of life. 

Ultimately, I decided it was its own moment, and we should let the viewer decide how it might evolve between Scott and Ellen. 

AF: What can you share about your current spy project? 

Clarkson: Well, it’s a dream part for a woman of my age. I wouldn’t call it a femme fatale role, but with the director Ruba Nadda, who did Cairo Time with me, is genius. I have this visionary collaborator who views women of any age as sexual beings. Showcasing women as both formidable and intelligent, and showing that these attributes don’t lessen as we age, they become more potent as we age.

My character is a sexy spy that comes back in after being in the cold for twenty years, where she’s been living a suburban life and now she has to reconnect with her family and account for her time away. It’s a brilliantly dark, emotional, and witty piece. The great Rupert Everett plays my boss, and there’s Shawn Doyle and these wonderful Canadian actors coming in to work… they’re humbling to be around and we’re all so grateful to be on this project.