Wendy (Clarkson) is a fiery Manhattan book critic whose husband (Jake Weber) has abruptly left her for a younger woman. Darwan (Kingsley) is a soft-spoken political refugee from India who moonlights as a taxi driver and is on the verge of an arranged marriage to Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury).
Traumatized Manhattanite Wendy, who never learned to drive, wants to go connect with her daughter (Grace Gummer) who lives in Vermont. (I could relate, I didn’t learn to drive until my 30s. Living in New York City for decades has left me frightfully rusty behind the wheel. Its a crime the Department of Motor Vehicles renews my license; I havent driven since 1990.)
Wendy, a wired, hot mess, hires Darwan as her driving instructor. While she is completely undone, he is calm and collected. The two develop an odd yet life-altering bond while crammed together in the front seats of a car. Darwan passes along wisdom, kindness and patience. Wendy teaches him about women and helps him to prepare for his soon-to-be bride. Theres even a tantric sex scene but not with each other.
Learning to Drive was directed by Isabel Coixet and produced by Dana Friedman and Daniel Hammond. The script, written by Sarah Kernochan, was based on an essay by Katha Pollitt. The film was edited by Martin Scorsese’s favorite, the brilliant Oscar winner Thelma Schoonmaker (“The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Hugo,” “Shutter Island,” “The Departed”).
One of the best perks of being a journalist is meeting entertainment greats like these two. Here are my interviews with Patricia Clarkson and Sir Ben Kingsley for TheBlot Magazine.
How did this movie begin?
I had read this beautiful story in The New Yorker, and I loved it. It resonated with me in so many ways. I was 46 at the time. I realize now I could never have made this movie when I was 46, I needed to be in my 50s. The movie gods stepped in and said, Were going to make you wait to make this film, and then youll be the right age to play Wendy. Then youll have lived, loved and lost and had all the right elements to play this damn character. Pardon my French.
Anyway, I was captivated by this story, and it wouldnt leave me. When I realized they were going to make it into a film, I was over the moon about it, but they wanted to change the ethnicity of Darwan so we could cast Viggo Mortensen opposite me. They wanted to take a lot of the scenes out of the car. I was like, No, thats the whole point of the film. Its about a hardcore New Yorker a brilliant, intellectual woman, a Sikh and a car.
Having lived in New York City for so long, were you much of a driver?
I was born and raised in New Orleans; my father taught me to drive. I had a beat-up, ratty old Corolla that I drove to high school my senior year. I think this car had three wheels, but I thought Id died and gone to heaven. As I became more Wendy, as I slowly moved into [her] New Yorker life I mean Ive lived in New York for over 30 years and slowly lost my ability to drive. I dated a man for many years who lived in the country, and I would drive his Subaru I do love a Subaru. I would drive down the country roads, but driving in New York City, driving on the Henry Hudson [Parkway] or any of those scary highways, Im like, Never. So, no, I dont drive anymore. I do have a drivers license, and its valid, but I dont know how valid. [Laughs]
Often indies are shot outside of New York to save money.
Yeah, we shot this movie all over New York City. You couldnt fake this. Everybody was like, Well, you can go to Toronto. I said, Oh, yes, lets shoot me driving through Toronto. Nobody in New York will know the difference. Clearly, that wasn’t going to work. When I say Im driving on the Queensboro Bridge, Im driving over the damn Queensboro Bridge. It was one of the most frightening things Ive ever had to do in my whole life.
How do you not lose hope in an independent movie when funding keeps falling through?
You have to have tenacity, courage, patience and bourbon. [Laughs]
Do you find that things are getting better for female directors and female-driven stories?
Yes, and its because the rise of independent film has become commercial. It sells tickets, we win awards, we are the best films of the year and the films people want to see. They make money now, theres a real market. The art-house market has become so potent, and these stories about women are in demand.
I mean, Im all for blockbusters, Im part of Maze Runner, and I love that job. I love playing the character Ava Paige, and they pay me so well, hence my nice purse. [Laughs] But these films that are labors of love, that is why Im in this. One of the most beautiful parts of shooting this film was getting to the Sikh community and learning their life and culture.
You can see Clarkson in “The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials” which opens Sept. 18, 2015.
What caught your eye in this script?
The key to the success of the story, the film, is that you have two people from very different worlds that are thrown together by fate. Theyre captive in each others small environment. I wanted Darwan to stay inside his Sikh bubble and be as still as possible. New York is a rather neurotic landscape for him, especially when you compare it to his academic life back home in India.
Did it feel familiar to work with Patricia Clarkson again after Elegy?
In Elegy, we were both playing two New Yorkers; here, were from such different worlds that there was very little socializing, very little chat. Its quite a narrow channel of communication between Patricias character and mine. It doesnt have many shared reference points. Wendy and Darwan come from different worlds. Theyre forced to talk on a profound level as you do sometimes with strangers. Theres no small talk.
Between takes, wonderful Isabel [Coixet] was setting up the next shot and always thinking ahead. If we were in the car, as we often are in this film, Patricia and I just sat in silence. Patricia had to stay inside her troubled bubble of loss, and I had to stay inside mine. You have to find a way of approaching your character and embracing your fellow actor in a way thats appropriate to the material. It cant always be pal-y, chummy.
What have you learned about the Sikh culture?
From what I recall of my tiny acquaintance with them, they are consistent. When I was filming Gandhi in India, I had a Sikh driver bodyguard, and I used to sit in the back of his ambassador car and I could see the back of his head and the turban and these strong shoulders, and I knew that he would intervene if anything threatened me. They are a warrior caste. They have immense dignity and stillness and are men of very few words.
The Sikhs who were advising us in Queens actually let us film in their temple. As you know, not long ago, a temple was invaded and Sikhs were shot. For them to invite us in with a film crew was immensely generous.
Would you say the act of learning to drive is a metaphor for life?
I think its even more than that. There is a great ancient metaphor of The Ferryman. When you get onto his ferry on one bank of the river and cross the river with him under his guidance, your life is in his hands and then you disembark on the other side, and youve learned something or, perhaps more importantly, theres been a shift.
You spent a lot of time in the car, and its all shot in New York. Did people think it was funny to see you driving a cab?
Nobody recognized me. Dear Dana Friedman, our producer, was at an early screening, and she was accosted by a member of the audience saying, I came here to see Ben Kingsley in a movie, and he wasnt in it. I can be in a supermarket in the United Kingdom and not be recognized because people dont expect me to be there. I was never recognized whilst driving as Darwan because nobody expected me to be driving a yellow cab in a turban.
Was it fun to be anonymous like that?
Its always glorious to be so involved in creating a portrait of somebody. I really find that a joyful exercise. Although I dont use paints and oil on a stretched canvas, I am a portrait artist. I use my body, my voice and my imagination to create the portrait. It is a state of absolute bliss when Im creating my portrait, and the wonderful details, that make him into Darwan and not me.
Youve said that you choose films intuitively. Are films a kind of ferryman for you?
Im sure they are. Im blessed to be in this craft and do what I do for a living. For me, its the perfect choice. Ive been very fortunate. Ive converted that choice into action and a life; a career. Yes, its very much my ferryman.
Did this role appeal to you because many people have negative perceptions of cab drivers?
When we look at the people driving cabs in New York, youd be astonished by the number of professors, CEOs and people whove had a flourishing life somewhere else.
Can you talk about your upcoming movie, “The Jungle Book?”
We were at the wonderful [Disney D23 Expo in] Anaheim [Calif.] Saturday, and we showed a two-minute clip. Its all done and being edited and worked on. The response was amazing. Its going to be very, very beautiful.
Learning to Drive opens in theaters Friday, Aug. 21, 2015.
Comedy drama. Rated R. 80 min.
Watch the trailer:
Dorri Olds is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.