On the Learning To Drive red carpet

Catching up with Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson, Isabel Coixet, Sarita Choudhury and Jake Weber.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson on the Learning to Drive red carpet
Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson on the Learning to Drive red carpet Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Patricia Clarkson returning from England last week after starring with Bradley Cooper and Alessandro Nivola in The Elephant Man walked The Paris Theatre red carpet with her Learning To Drive co-star Ben Kingsley. Director Isabel Coixet, Sarita Choudhury, Jake Weber, Avi Nash, Harpreet Singh Toor, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, author Katha Pollitt, screenwriter Sarah Kernochan, producers Daniel Hammond and Dana Friedman and executive producer Gabriel Hammond joined them.

Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson at the Southgate after party
Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson at the Southgate after party Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Bryan Batt, who played Judge Turner in Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave and Orry-Kelly in Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's The Last Of Robin Hood, William Ivey Long, Lena Hall, Matthew Morrison, Renee Puente, Laura Michelle Kelly, Cornelia Guest, Sydney Van Til, Montego Glover, Sakina Jaffrey, Nanette Lepore and Peter Cincotti were among those invited to the VIP première and the Southgate after party.

One fateful night in Learning To Drive, a man (Jake Weber), rushes out of a restaurant and into a taxi. A woman (Patricia Clarkson), obviously angry and hurt, runs after him, shouting for the driver to wait for her. Darwan's (Ben Kingsley) split second decision to listen to the woman, not the man, changes their lives. Questions of fate and chance enter the film on tiptoes. Isabel Coixet has her actors anchored in concrete anger and alluring humor. Sarah Kernochan's dialogue is precise and true and doesn't shy away from the real-life absurdities we all encounter.

Patricia Clarkson on coming back from London:
Patricia Clarkson on coming back from London: "I miss my co-stars. But now I've got Sir Ben." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Yes, the backseat of a taxi is the perfect place to confront the husband of 21 years, who is leaving her for the "third seven-year-itch" as Wendy (Clarkson) will at one point call it. She points out his cowardice to tell her in a restaurant, a public place, and thus, very elegantly, the audience, which at this point includes the taxi driver Darwan, knows everything we need to jump into the story.

Learning To Drive is based on an essay in Katha Pollitt's Learning To Drive: And Other Life Stories.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Where did you learn to drive?

Isabel Coixet with a twinkle in her eye: In Los Angeles. And I know how to drive but I don't know how to park. The next movie is going to be called Learning To Park.

AKT: You just learned to drive recently?

IC: I learned when I read the story, Katha Pollitt's story. Because I'm from Barcelona, I never had to learn how to drive. I didn't need it. I learned to drive because that short story really gave me the strength. Also the short story in a very particular moment in my life, taught me to think, it's not the end of the world, you know. Okay, my marriage is collapsing, I don't know exactly where I live. But then you see the struggle of really, really damaged people, and then your little tragedies are nothing.

Jake Weber with Learning to Drive director Isabel Coixet and Harpreet Singh Toor
Jake Weber with Learning to Drive director Isabel Coixet and Harpreet Singh Toor Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: You got a film and a driver's license out of one short story, that's not bad. I am very much looking forward to seeing the film tonight. So parking is your greatest problem these days?

IC (with a smile): I can't park. Parking is my greatest problem.

Ben Kingsley walks the red carpet next and tells us how driving is only the beginning.

Ben Kingsley: Driving is a tiny metaphor. You know what it's more like? The ancient myth of the ferryman. You get on his boat on one bank of the river, you cross the river and you get off on the other side and you learn something. The ferryman has a profound effect… I learned how dignified the men are that I am playing. When 9/11 happened, Sikh cab drivers turned off their meters, asked anybody if they were looking for loved ones, [saying] "get into my cab, I'll help you find them, no charge."…

Sarita Choudhury:
Sarita Choudhury: "I use language a lot, the idea of not having it, the only other thing I could do is dance." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

I have an amazing memory. My memory is like a bank of people that I've met. Many, many years ago, I was doing a film in India, called Gandhi, which you may have heard of. And I had to my great joy and benefit, a Sikh bodyguard driver who was with me the whole five months of the filming. When I learned that I was to play this role he came right out of the shadows of my memory into sharp focus.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Do you miss The Elephant Man already?

Patricia Clarkson: Yes, I do. I miss my co-stars. But now I've got Sir Ben. [Working with him] is even better the second time around.

Wendy's driving instructor Darwan is originally from India and awaits the arrival of his wife to be, Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury). It is an arranged marriage and the two of them have never met before.

Anne-Katrin Titze: How did you learn to drive?

Sarita Choudhury: I don't drive.

Ben Kingsley with executive producer Gabriel Hammond as Patricia Clarkson catches my eye
Ben Kingsley with executive producer Gabriel Hammond as Patricia Clarkson catches my eye Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Will you? Did the film inspire you?

SC: I want to. But you know how it is. Do you drive?

AKT: I do have a driver's license, but I don't drive in the city.

SC: It's too many steps. I just want to get the car. I will, though. I'm going to.

AKT: Tell me a bit about your character in the film. How do you see her?

SC: I see her as a very normal woman but because she doesn't speak English her arrival in America is tricky. Because all her humor, all her natural abilities are cut off. So, then who is that person, that's what I had to figure out.

AKT: The person becomes a person through language in a way?

SC: In a way. Also because I use language a lot, the idea of not having it, the only other thing I could do is dance. It's hard.

AKT: That sounds like The Little Mermaid. She gives up her voice and all she has is her movement.

Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson, Gabriel Hammond and Daniel Hammond at The Paris Theatre
Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson, Gabriel Hammond and Daniel Hammond at The Paris Theatre Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

SC: That's true. But this character [Jasleen] is stuck in a basement with no windows.

Jake Weber, who plays Ted perfectly as the cowardly husband to Clarkson's Wendy, was going to see Learning To Drive for the first time that evening.

Anne-Katrin Titze: You were in one of the best films at the Tribeca Film Festival this year, Hungry Hearts.

Jake Weber: Oh, good, I haven't seen that either.

AKT: How was it working with Saverio [Costanzo]?

JW: Saverio is awesome. He was great to me and he is a really good filmmaker. I really look forward to seeing it. The script was amazing. Such a beautiful script. And all these Italians always yelling at each other, it was like a madhouse.

AKT: Did you get a sense that it was going in the direction of Rosemary's Baby?

JW: I had so little. I was there for only one day and I did all those talking scenes with Adam [Driver]. I don't really have a sense of the surreal component.

Avi Nash, Sarita Choudhury and Bryan Batt
Avi Nash, Sarita Choudhury and Bryan Batt Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Do you remember Dr. Sapirstein [Ralph Bellamy] in Rosemary's Baby? You are also playing a doctor...

JW: Oh my, yeah, I love Rosemary's Baby. I haven't seen it in 20 years.

AKT: What is your role in Learning To Drive?

JW: I play the lead character, Patti Clarkson's husband [Ted] who leaves her at the beginning of the movie. After 20 years of marriage, he splits, he has a new relationship. He is the catalyst for sending her on her way to the next chapter in her life.

AKT: Where did you learn to drive?

JW: I learned to drive in San Francisco on hills in a stick shift VW Golf. It was traumatising. I'm still recovering from it.

Learning To Drive opens in the US on August 21 and screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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