In “Learning to Drive,” Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley did not exactly learn to drive, but they did re-learn a few things about driving, and about themselves.
Opening Friday, the film reunites the actors with Isabel Coixet. the Spanish-born director they worked with on the underrated “Elegy” seven years ago.
“Sir Ben and I formed a friendship during ‘Elegy,’” says Clarkson, who visited The City with Kingsley to discuss the film. “Nothing bonds you like when you’re playing someone’s lover, naked,” she laughs.
In “Learning to Drive,” Clarkson plays a harried New York book critic whose husband suddenly leaves her for another woman. Fate brings her in contact with a Sikh cab driver and driving instructor (Kingsley), and the pair forms a touching friendship.
Kingsley’s character hails from India, and his performance may have viewers recalling his Oscar-winning turn in “Gandhi” (1982). But he says there’s a difference in approaches and accents: “They’re from very different parts of India, so it comes from a different part of the body.”
In another aspect of the performances, Clarkson says she and Kingsley often sat, for long periods, in the car togehther, silent, when they weren’t shooting the film.
“We realized that our personal friendship had to stay separate from characters. We had to be careful not to merge until we were meant to. We just both understood,” she says.
Typically, when actors drive onscreen, they are being towed, for safety, and so they can concentrate on acting. In this film, the actors really drove.
“When I’m driving over that Queensborough Bridge,” says Clarkson, “that is me in real New York traffic. I was sweating so badly.” After the first take, the sound man reported a strange, terrified squeaking sound, which turned out to be Clarkson, who says, “Isabel loved it! She said, ‘keep it!’”
At home, in Oxfordshire, Kingsley drives a long-wheelbase Land Rover Defender (“It’s cool, but modest”), and observes the same rules as his character.
“There’s such a great etiquette where I live,” he says. “It’s a narrow country lane, and I have to anticipate what might be coming around the bend. So I must always be ready to pull in. It’s lovely to have the riders wave as they pass. It’s a kind of bonding.”
Clarkson’s last car was a Volvo that she “saw on the corner and bought for a dollar.” As a New Yorker, she takes cabs or the subway. She says she has a valid driver’s license, though, she adds, laughing, “I don’t know how valid!”
IF YOU GO
Learning to Drive
Starring Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley, Grace Gummer, Sarita Choudhury
Written by Sarah Kernochan
Directed by Isabel Coixet
Running time 1 hour, 30 minutes