"What was I thinking?" laughed Patricia Clarkson when asked about her first return to Broadway since 1989.
Clarkson, who last trod the boards in Eastern Standard, is known for her hair-splitting comedic turns, particularly as over-sexed mothers in films like "Friends With Benefits" and "Easy A." But the Academy Award nominee is taking a more serious turn in the latest revival of The Elephant Man.
Bernard Pomerance's play tells the story of John Merrick, a disfigured man who is featured in a traveling freak show until a doctor takes him under his care at the London Hospital and he becomes a subject of society's fascination. Clarkson plays Mrs. Kendal, an actress who develops a relationship with John Merrick, the titular character played by Academy Award nominee Bradley Cooper.
"It's this beautiful, chaste love affair that I get to have every single night with Bradley Cooper," Clarkson said, adding she is "the luckiest girl in town." "Every night I get to take this exquisite journey with the remarkable Bradley Cooper," she continued. "To watch this great actor transform into this beautiful man, this great, great man — it's a once-in-a-lifetime moment and I get to be a part of it.
"I love Mrs. Kendal, she's witty and sexy and yummy. I'm not 25, and I get to play this really delicious part."
A prolific film and TV actress, Clarkson received an Academy Award nomination for "Pieces of April" and won two Emmys for her performance in "Six Feet Under." She has also appeared in "Shutter Island," "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" and "Lars and the Real Girl," among numerous other roles.
Joining Clarkson and Cooper is Alessandro Nivola, who plays Fredrick Treves. The Broadway production marks a reunion for the trio, who starred in a staging of The Elephant Man at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2013. After almost two years away from the role, Clarkson said she has has discovered many new aspects of her character.
"I have a new perspective on some moments that I hadn't thought about, that hadn't hit me, and there's many," she said. "It's not like one big revelation I've had, one big epiphany. I've had many."
The Elephant Man follows the platonic relationship between Mrs. Kendal and John Merrick, a relationship that Clarkson described as similar to that of "Beauty and the Beast."
"He's both," Clarkson said of Merrick. "That's how I think of it. John Merrick is such an amazing man; I think he is the Beauty and the Beast. I think he is all-encompassing."
The production marks the culmination of a labor of love for Cooper, an Academy Award nominee who has been determined to play Merrick onstage since his days in acting school. Read Playbill's interview with Cooper here.
"Every night, we do this play in his honor," Clarkson said. "Bradley's profound love and devotion for John Merrick has come into all of us and infused all of us, and that's why we're here. That's why we're on Broadway: to bring this man's remarkable story back to life."
Merrick's story is an important one, Clarkson said, as she emphasized its relevance to teenagers and the problem of bullying in present-day culture.
"I think in an age that is filled with, first of all, so much bullying, and also sadly an age that is so beauty and celebrity driven, here is a man that is antithetical, and yet he's one of the most beautiful human beings ever put on this planet," she said. "I think this story is timeless. I think it's classic, and I think those who come to the theatre, it will have a profound effect on their lives.
"I urge parents who come to bring their teenage children," she added. "I think it's a play for teenagers. I think 15, 16, 17, 18-year-olds, I think they will understand this more than people realize. I hope we get some high school students in. I think it would be a beautiful night for them to witness the power of ugly words and the profound effect that they can have on a life, and that you can change that in a moment. Because it was just the kindness of strangers that lifted this man up — lifted him and saved him, and young people can do that all the time, if they choose to." (Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)