In the last 10 days, Patricia Arquette won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, threw down about equal pay during her acceptance speech, caused an online fracas after she expanded on her speech backstage, cleared things up on Twitter, and then turned her attention to promoting the March 4 premiere of CBS's CSI: Cyber, the network's new procedural revolving around attempts to extinguish internet villainy. Arquette is its star, playing Avery Ryan, whose career as a psychologist was ruined by a hacker, propelling her into the FBI to squash cyber criminals.
The 46-year-old actor, one of five kids (all of whom are performers), was 18 when she first starred in a movie (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors) and went on to have prolific indie film success with roles in True Romance, Ed Wood, and Flirting With Disaster. When rewarding movie opportunities began to dry up in her thirties, she switched to network television with Medium, for which she won an Emmy as a crime-fighting psychic, and she also began to film Richard Linklater's Boyhood with Ethan Hawke, Ellar Coltrane, and Lorelei Linklater. Not only did she win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her 12-year performance as Olivia — a mother, a scrapper, an eventual academic, and the heart of the movie — but she ran the table on every other award there is, winning a BAFTA, a SAG, a Golden Globe, an Independent Spirit Award, and numerous critics' awards.
Earlier this week, Arquette sat down with BuzzFeed News to talk about her wild experience of late, how she set the internet on fire at the Oscars, why activists should focus on equality for women, Twitter, CSI: Cyber and her appreciation for television work, and her nearly 30-year career.
So you won an Academy Award 10 days ago. What have you been doing?
PA: I slept for, like, four days. Because we'd been flying around and doing a lot of press, we got the flu in the middle of all that and just had to power through. The adrenaline — I don't know, it just kind of knocked me out for a few days.
Does the Oscar have a place in your house?
PA: It's moved around. It seems to be a bit of a vagabond traveler. First night, I tried to sleep with it in bed, but it was too hard — it's not a good cuddler.
Anyone paying attention to awards season considered you to be a lock for the Oscar. Did you know that going in? Or is that an impossible thought to have?
PA: The more people said it, the scarier it got, frankly, and the more I thought, This really might not happen. And then I don't think anyone's going to be able to look me in the eye. I'm going to be some weird pariah that they created, and I don't know why.
You had made a lot of speeches leading up to your Oscars speech that were all poised and gracious. And then at the Oscars, you began by thanking the requisite people to be thanked — and then delivered a rousing feminist call to action, which hadn't been your path in previous speeches.
PA: I won the Academy Award because I played this single mother who worked her ass off, moving from apartment to apartment, sending herself back to school while working, taking care of her kids and being the main provider. I thought, If this does happen, how do I best serve this woman and the many women like her?
You know, in America we are very privileged, and we live pretty great lives. But when you just peel the surface off and you start looking at wage inequality and the ramifications of that, it's really devastating to so many women. So I wanted to talk about that. Also, if really comprehensive wage equality had passed 40 years ago, so many women's lives would be different today. And we're basically going to doom our daughters into a whole other generation of this if we don't. America is No. 65 in the wage gap worldwide — that's really not a great position to be in as one of the leaders of the world. I don't think it's acceptable. Obviously, it's really impacting Latinas and African-Americans most harshly. Latinas, I think, make 55 cents to the dollar, where African-Americans make 64, and white women make 74 cents. Really, it all comes down to billions of dollars — $180 billion a year women lose in wages. And that means less money in their retirement, less in their social security.
As you delivered the speech, Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez were screaming their support in the audience. What was it like to receive that?
PA: It was pretty terrifying being up there. But it was important to me. I think it's really women's time.
Some people who cheered your onstage speech reversed after you said backstage that you want "all the gay people, and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.”
PA: I think it was very misconstrued.
The worry was that you were excluding gay women and women of color.
PA: Absolutely not. What I meant was the most adversely affected are women of color, and every single lesbian and transgender woman. So what I was saying is all of these bases should rally around women. I don't know why everybody just accepts that women should take this; that women should have to be paid less for the exact same job. I'm not talking about charity. I'm talking about working women doing the exact same job. I mean, I'm sorry people took it that way. We have these incredible activists in all of these areas who have made and fought for significant change. Why don't they come forward and support women? Half of their base is women — why aren't they fighting for that?
And what was your experience of that whipsaw? Were people in your life, like, “Uh, during the time you were backstage, things went off the rails, and you're now being accused of being an enemy of intersectional feminism”?
PA: I could see from people on Twitter. In general, I'm going to say 90% of the people were like, "Yes, finally, somebody's talking about this!" I'm not sure everybody's always going to agree with you anyway. I've been fighting with people on Twitter for a long, long time. I fought with them about Trayvon Martin, who was murdered with some candy in his pocket. I've fought with them about transgender rights. I've been fighting with them about date rape and college rape.
With these sorts of things, people often take one thing a person says not knowing the history of everything they've said. Your sister Alexis is a trans woman, and you're an ally to the LGBT community.
PA: Yeah. Absolutely. I'd gone on the record for weeks before that — on Meredith Vieira, all of these shows — everyone would ask me about Bruce Jenner. I said, "If she is, let's celebrate and embrace her. She should live her truth." I think I've been very clear on my positions in all these areas.
You went on to Twitter the day after the Oscars to clarify your thoughts. Is Twitter a good tool for you to say, "Here is what I mean, and good-bye"?
PA: I think it is and isn't. I look at it as a really interesting sociological experiment right now, the whole thing. I was talking to some actresses, and they said, "Why do you even talk to people on Twitter? About, like, the celebrity hack?" Well, because I felt like that's repulsive: It is like a sex crime, somebody invading somebody else's private romantic life. Let's call it like it is. This is a repulsive invasion of somebody's sexual space. So I think if you're not having that conversation in social media, where the social norms are being decided, I don't know if you can sit back and be shocked by the curve of the culture.
There are people who think the Oscars shouldn't be political, even though it's rewarding the arts, which are, and have always been, political.
PA: I can't separate myself from this character I played. I won this award because of this woman that I played — that we all have seen in our lives, but we don't really see very much in movies — and her struggle. And I really thought long and hard about how different her life would have been had she made one quarter more of her income. How different her kids would have been — maybe they wouldn't have had to change schools so much, maybe she wouldn't have gotten into some of the relationships she got into. So I just felt a personal responsibility.
Your sister Rosanna directed a documentary, Searching for Debra Winger, about the difficulties women in Hollywood face. You're in that movie, which came out in 2002. How have those pressures continued to play out in your life?
PA: I feel like I'm in a really great position. I feel like pretty early on, when I started seeing how difficult it was getting to get good parts in indie movies, I jumped ship and jumped on a network. And because I had a really successful show, and I was the lead, that gave me a certain amount of power in the television network business that then played into this opportunity, I think. I've always been working, thank god. And I feel really blessed and fortunate. It wasn't my idea to have a female lead in the new CSI, it was their idea. That was coming from the network, and it was coming from the CSI team. So I do think some things are changing.
You said in your acceptance speech at Indie Spirit Awards, the day before the Oscars, that you've made "a lot of independent films" and you've made your "living in network television — and thank god for that." It seemed like a pointed thing to say. What did you mean exactly?
PA: I think there's a snobby concept about film versus television that still sort of exists. I think less so with more cable shows that have really brave and interesting content. But I think a lot of people were like, "Oh, you're doing a TV series now" — like that was a bad thing.
PA: A certain aspect of the community. Although the working community understands how hard it is to make a living in entertainment these days. And I am very grateful. I get to be a lead. The first female lead in a CSI series. I get to be the team leader of this group, and a very knowledgeable woman who has a really specific skill set. That's important to me too.
There are boutique-y places in television — HBO, Showtime, Netflix, Amazon — and that is not where you've gone. You've done big, broad network procedurals.
PA: I was in Boardwalk Empire, and that was a great experience and a really fun part. But with Medium, I really liked the family dynamic — I thought that was really well-written. And no one was really blending this metaphysical aspect with procedural: I thought that was interesting. And CSI is interesting to me because technology is such a part of our lives. On a larger scale, this is the largest franchise in the world. To be asked as a woman at 46 years old to be the lead of a TV show of this magnitude that has an enormous global audience is really exciting to me.
You started acting when you were quite young and had a fruitful film career. And then Medium came along, which you did for seven seasons. Why did you decide to make that shift?
PA: I just had had my daughter and actually had already started Boyhood. There weren't very good parts for women. It was very boring, pedestrian, a couple of scenes where you were just supporting a man. You were the good wife, but he was having an affair. Or you were the annoying wife, and he was having an affair! There was nothing to those parts.
Procedural television is populist. But you still have an alt, indie vibe to you. How does that go with being a CSI franchise lead?
PA: This woman is much less indie than I am. My character's much more about the system than I am. Also, most of my characters have been very heart-based — empathetic and feeling in some way. This character is very brain-based. And that's interesting to play too.
One of the things that seems rewarding about television work is what you experienced in a different way with Boyhood: inhabiting a character for years. That never happens in film, but is the definition of character-building on TV.
PA: It's funny, sometimes it's really neat to discover who someone is, and sometimes you're really frustrated with who they are. I know that sounds really weird. I don't think we all love ourselves all day long — where we're at, or who we are — and it kind of becomes the same thing when you're with a character. Sometimes you bump into blind spots that they have and it's frustrating.
Is that something you're finding with this character? Or something that happened with the Allison DuBois character on Medium?
PA: With the Allison DuBois character, I'd say, "This couple has the same fight, the same fight, the same fight, the same fight." Like we all do in our own lives. I would talk to the writers, and I'd say, "Sometimes there's that moment when you actually break free, and you see it from a different perspective. You have a revelation." You either change, or you try to change, and then you forget it — and you go back to the same fight, back to the same fight, back to the same fight. Those are the really subtle things in life that are also interesting to me to explore.
The fact that my two Allison Dubois experiences are from watching Medium and seeing her destroy a dinner party on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills makes me laugh.
PA: I think she's developed a really interesting survival mechanism: The world will tell you when you're a psychic, You're wrong. You're right. That was wrong, that was right. Are you going to be right this time? Are you going to be right every time? I think the defense mechanism that she developed over the years is a really offensive position.
She was very ahead of her time with e-cigarettes, though.
PA: She was! That was a very far-out thing. I mean, even though there was a TV show about her, and even though she had written books, she hadn't really have very much experience on camera. And it's never a great idea to be drunk on camera.
You said to the New York Times a few months ago: "I gotta get old, people, do you understand? I need space to grow and get old and be a human being. I don’t want to be trapped in your ingénue bubble." What is it like, to be in the ingénue bubble? Is that something you knew you were in at the time?
PA: Well, there's definitely a certain age where the main story between men and women is a love affair, a sexual attraction. So it made sense, that was part of the story of my life in that age group, so that I understood as far as storytelling. But I also always understood there was a weird pressure that I was supposed to look a certain way. And I never agreed with that. And I knew I was right. I knew it was a lame, unfair, stupid thing.
Even when I was a kid, my parents didn't have a lot of money, but they said, "We feel like you look great, but if you want to get braces, you can." And I was like, "Why would I want to do that?" Some kid said to me, "You could be in Playboy if you got your teeth straightened!"
I grew up in a family where my mom didn't wear makeup. She wouldn't buy me a Barbie. There was still gender bias in my house, and in the world. But they tried to be pretty conscious about me not growing up thinking that's what I needed to contribute to the world.
Your father was an actor, as was his father — in one of your speeches, you mentioned you are a fourth-generation actor. Is it that simple that that's why your whole family of five kids are performers?
PA: I think it might be that simple. There might be some weird DNA in there that pushes you in that direction. But also I think we were raised that way. My mom was a therapist, so very early on we knew what narcissism was and passive-aggressive behavior and what a co-dependent was. Those were things my mom was talking about at the table while my dad was talking about acting. We played acting games growing up, and we were taught to think about other people and the way people feel and why people do what they do.
I want to ask you about some of your past work. Your first lead movie role was in A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3.
PA: That's right. Dream Warriors! In my dreams, I'm a gymnast! I was like, "Why is she picking this? Why is she a damn gymnast?"
Was that a crazy experience?
PA: It was really a hard shoot. The director didn't like you to try anything. Later, he apologized, after the movie. He said, "I have to say, I would yell at you when you'd do something, and then I'd end up using it in the cut. I'm sorry about that." We had this really mean DP, really horribly mean. It was kind of a trial by fire.
That movie scared me.
PA: I like horror movies. I really like them. I want to do another horror movie. I watched The Omen the other night.
You did Stigmata!
PA: I did that one too. I still got a horror movie up my sleeve. You just wait.
So I rewatched True Romance. The famous fight scene with you and James Gandolfini, it's just so long and seems so arduous. Working with someone like that, do you feel like you're linked with him?
PA: I do. It was really intense. I loved him, and I'm so sad that he left so early. It's weird that he's gone. He was an incredibly talented man. And I feel really bad for his kids too.
That scene was really pivotal. When I was working on it with my coach Roy London, we talked about how, in the whole beginning of the scene, Alabama is trying to stall him out until Clarence gets back. And at a certain point, the boy isn't going to come save the day. And you have to dig really deep. At the beginning of the scene, his character says, "When I first killed someone, I threw up." By the end of the scene, she's gone through that horrifying rite of passage. And she'll never be the same either.
I read that in the DVD commentary for True Romance, Tony Scott said he slapped you in order to prepare you for big scenes — and it worked so well for you that you started asking him to do it. What?
PA: He did slap me before the scene on the billboard. But he didn't just run up and slap me! I was really frustrated about getting emotionally to where I wanted in that scene. He said, "What's wrong?" I was saying, "I'm just pissed off at myself. I can't get to where I want." He was like, "Do you want me to smack you?" I said, "Yeah, maybe you should smack me!" So yeah. It was mutual and agreed upon.
PA: Oh my god, the guy loved me to death. The guy was the most supportive director I've ever had. Every single idea I had on that movie, he'd say, "That is brilliant!" There were, like, two times that he said, "I don't know about that idea." Then we'd shoot it, and he'd go, "You know what, Bama was right, we're going to shoot it her way." And every time Christian would have an idea, he would go, "That's a terrible idea, Christian." And Christian was, like, "What the fuck? Every time Patricia has an idea you say it's great!" He loved women. And I don't mean in a sexual way. I felt so loved and supported by him. I know that sounds very weird that he smacked me. It's not something I've ever experienced with anyone else.
Flirting With Disaster was David O. Russell's second feature. All reports indicate that he's an interesting person to be directed by. What was your experience with him?
PA: I think David is a genius. I thought Spanking the Monkey was an amazing, small, disturbing movie. I thought Flirting With Disaster was a really good, funny movie. So many great actors in that movie.
Do people quote that movie to you? I think about the bump and rob all the time.
PA: No, they don't very much! They'll say, "I like that movie." And I'll say, "Is this a musical table?" I'll say things to them. "You can't catch the wind!"
You can't catch the wind! I asked the CBS publicist to find out what movies of yours I should rewatch beyond the obvious ones. And she said Sean Penn's The Indian Runner and Michel Gondry's Human Nature.
PA: I think Michel Gondry is a genius too. And Charlie Kaufman is such a great writer, and all of those actors are really talented. To work with somebody who thinks so differently, like Michel does, and visually so differently... But also making sure you're emotionally connected. Because otherwise, it's just visuals — it has to be emotionally connected.
With Indian Runner, Sean is such a rich actor. Sometimes he would say, "You know, it's like this," and he would play your part. And he would play your part so much better than you could ever play your part that you'd be like, "Dude, don't do that." It's daunting. I made some incredible, lifelong relationships there. And I love that story.
We're wrapping up, so — can you believe Boyhood didn't win Best Picture? It's a nightmare.
PA: Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god. So many movies haven't, I guess? But it is a nightmare.
You were campaigning, and you were getting to see people you had worked with pretty frequently, I imagine. And now that's wound down.
PA: Yeah. But Ellar's going to come to town next week. And he's going to crash at my house for a couple of days.
That's so cute!
PA: I've done that kid's laundry before. I've done it before, I'll do it again!
This interview has been edited and condensed.