Patricia Arquette interview: ‘I had a hard time with True Romance – her boyfriend killed someone and she’s still so supportive’

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 actor had begun filming what would become his star role: the tough-as-nails fantasy girl Alabama in Tony Scott’s true romance, a barbed love story with a smoking gun where a first kiss should be. As the distraught wife of Christian Slater’s runaway killer, Arquette at least had the look of Alabama: the cow-print miniskirt, the leopard-spotted coat, the feathered Farrah Fawcett done on the cheap. Everything else? Not really.

“I had a hard time playing it,” she recalls, 30 years later and serenely seated in a hotel suite in Los Angeles. “She is so supportive, even for things that are a bit shocking. Her boyfriend kills someone and she’s still like…yeah! My acting coach said, 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 would never have guessed that, I told him. She lets out a sigh of relief. “I’m so glad you didn’t see my fight.”

The role distills the essence of Arquette’s on-screen presence: no one loves quite like her, whether it’s this scary or this unconditional. At Tim Burton’s Ed WoodShe was a housewife in conservative 1950s Hollywood who didn’t care that her filmmaker husband was a transvestite. As a seductive femme fatale in David Lynch lost highway, she was love in its most disturbing form, the kind you want to run away with even if it can kill you. In Childhood – which won her the Oscar for best supporting actress in 2015 – she played one of the most real, versatile and least idealized mothers in cinema.

She had to curb those instincts to Breakup, a new Apple TV+ series so believable it’s wrong to call it science fiction. It’s set in the eerie hallways of a tech company called Lumon Industries, which apparently specializes in “theme sales” and “macro data refining.” Arquette plays Harmony, Lumon’s all-seeing manager and a woman as warm and cuddly as an HR textbook. The company has innovated a hellish solution to the quest for work/life balance: employees have their minds erased as they enter and leave the workplace, splitting their lives in two. When they’re at work, they have no idea what they’re doing outside of it, and vice versa. On paper, it’s mildly enticing, but also ripe for exploitation and ethical horror.

Arquette found the premise telling. The 53-year-old has spent much of her career balancing motherhood with acting – that’s her toddler Enzo, now 33, stomping along the beach at the end of true romance, and she has an 18-year-old daughter named Harlow. Sometimes she was desperate to turn one or the other off. “As a mother growing up as an actress, I always felt guilty for not being home,” she says. “But when I was at home, I was like, am I going to know my lines for tomorrow? Work and home were always bleeding on each other. So the [Lumon] the idea sounds – conceptually – like relief. But really, and as an actor, I need my whole life experience, and my observations of people when I’m not at work. I need the things I feel: my life and my losses. As an actor, that would be a horrible thing.

On Zoom, Arquette speaks softly and melodiously; she squints behind dark glasses, which stand out in spiky icy blonde bangs. She looks like a politician, a serious tongue-in-cheek who only cracks when she talks about her family or her professional past. Then it becomes looser, funnier, a bit nostalgic. I told her it was unusual to see her so thin and isolated in Breakup, while she is often so tactile on the screen. She is always cuddling, smiling, smelling.

“Everything was confining”, she remembers her time on the set. Breakup was filmed in the midst of the pandemic, and Arquette continued to be quarantined, both because of on-set Covid rules and when people she knew tested positive. “I would go from this [rigid] structure at work in this apartment where I was alone and far from my family. It was an endless pressure cooker of strangers. We couldn’t joke around with the crew like we used to. Even as actors, we couldn’t really bond that way. I felt a kind of starvation.

Arquette as the all-seeing Harmony in Apple TV’s “Severance”


Coincidentally, the show is reminiscent of David Lynch. Not in the way “Lynchian” is shaken up every time something is done that’s a little formally awry, but because it almost dares you to go for it. Breakup is obtuse and unusual, a drip of unsettling horror that feels distant yet frightening and familiar. Arquette loves this space, or this work that does not take its audience for fools. She felt a symbiosis with Lynch when she was directed by him, both artists drawn to the unconventional.

“He has an incredible openness to mistakes,” she recalls. “He told me that people think all movies have a beginning and an end, but there isn’t necessarily one. A crew member would come in and say, ‘Oh, I had this weird idea,’ and he’d go, ‘Ooh, let’s check this out!'” At one point, Arquette’s character in lost highway seems to fade and blur into one shot, like a seductive ghost. It wasn’t intentional, she said. “He’s like, ‘She got blurry? Oh great!’ He just has a lot of respect for the audience and thinks we don’t have to tell stories exactly the way we’ve always told them.

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This sense of artistic disruption left a lasting mark on Arquette. But she had always been allergic to the typical, even since her early years. She calls her late parents – actor Lewis and artist-turned-adviser Mardi – “activists and radicals”, who were drawn to different faiths and creative vocations. “My mum was Jewish and my dad converted to Islam – they were never supposed to get married. They questioned everything and raised us like that.

I really like getting old. I find that this sweetness is starting to rise.

It would have been a weird and disappointing twist if she and her siblings — actors Rosanna, David, Alexis and Richmond Arquette — hadn’t ended up being so interesting. Today David is a professional actor, wrestler and clown. Outside of the theater, Rosanna is a leading voice against sexual misconduct in Hollywood. Richmond is a regular under David Fincher. Alexis, who died in 2016, was a trans trailblazer who packed performances of staggering weight and complexity in her short career. Patricia, on the other hand, was more shy and quieter than her siblings and originally considered becoming a midwife. Rebellion was in his blood, however. As a child, she always wore a badge with the words “question authority” written on it. Today, she describes herself as a “troublemaker”. In her Instagram bio, she sits alongside “actor” and “activist”. “I’ve always been a bit of a protester,” she explains. “There is an aspect contrary to me.”

When she won the Oscar for Childhood, she used her speech to advocate for equal pay in the United States. Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez could be seen pointing fingers and applauding the audience, in a reaction that quickly found a second life as an internet meme. Seven years after her victory, she still doesn’t know if the speech had an impact on salaries within the film industry. “Most of the big movies these days are these giant sci-fi action superhero movies, where fewer of the main characters are women,” she says. “So I don’t know how this conversation is going.”

Arquette in Alabama in Tony Scott’s “True Romance”


Arquette’s uncertainty could be due to the fact that she hasn’t done many films since. Childhood – or even in the years before it. Instead, she spent seven seasons on the underrated mystery drama Averageand has appeared in recent years in an enviable string of hit limited series, playing a suffocating mother in Starz’s true-crime drama The actand a lone prison guard in Sky Atlantic Escape to Dannemora. Television has been successful, but it longs for more cinema and the pleasures of watching movies on the big screen. “I miss the community [feel] to look at art together,” she says. “Laughing together, or crying, or being scared together. There is a shared energy in this room. Kids growing up today, some of them never knew what it’s like to watch a great Disney movie with other kids. It’s a very surreal time. We live in science fiction.

The strange new rhythms of the world – exacerbated by the pandemic – have only reinforced the value of community and togetherness for her. Likewise, she has begun to open up to ways of thinking that she may have shied away from years ago. “I really like getting old,” she says. “I find that this sweetness is starting to rise. [I’m] get an overview of things. It wasn’t like this before. Her parents often told her of a “ritual celebration party” they had taken her to when she was a toddler – it was in their hippie years – in which various objects were placed in a circle. The kids would be asked to choose one from the circle – a guitar, a cop badge, a legal file, etc. – with the story that the object chosen would correlate with where each child would end up. The young Arquette jumped towards a particular object. “I picked up a judge’s gavel and just started knocking it down,” she laughs. It ended up coming true to some extent. “I’ve always been very black and white, very judgmental. That was my nature. Now, though? I’m trying to see more gray. Alabama would be proud.

“Severance” is now streaming on Apple TV+

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