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Patricia Arquette lives — and works — outside the ‘incredibly boring’ box

Patricia Arquette lives — and works — outside the ‘incredibly boring’ box
Patricia Arquette has a strong shot at two Emmy nominations this year, one each for "Escape at Dannemora" and "The Act." (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Patricia Arquette has been writing a book about her life for the last four years or so. It won’t include the time she spent as a high school freshman living with her sister, Rosanna, in the Valley or the freedom she felt when she shaved her head as a teen or the endless days of discovery spent listening to the Clash and learning how to pop to beats by Zapp and the Dazz Band. That’s a book all by itself, one she plans to write someday with a friend.

What Arquette has discovered while writing — other than it messes with your head, empowering an inner critic who just won’t shut up about the meaninglessness of every damn word you’re putting on the page — is how, from an early age, she felt that life was moving her slowly on a conveyor belt to a destination dictated by expectations that other people put on her.

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And she wasn’t having it.

“There were so many ways you could never win,” Arquette says over a mug of tea recently, tucked into a nook at a Hollywood hotel. “I would walk down the street as a young woman and people would have this perception of what I was because I was blond and had green eyes. Maybe a guy would ask me out and I’d politely decline and he’d say, ‘You bitch.’ ‘Oh. Why am I being called a bitch? I have a boyfriend. Isn’t saying “no” the right answer?’

“This idea of looking like someone else’s fantasy that they could project onto,” Arquette pauses, shaking her head. “I rebelled against that straight off. I didn’t want to be some perfect thing. I just wanted to be my own self. And what is that? My own self is a little more raggedy and rough and messy. Being that other perfect thing? That just sounded so incredibly boring.”

Arquette has forged a career that has run roughshod over convention, landing her an Oscar four years ago for “Boyhood” and now, much to her surprise and delight, two of the best roles of her career, arriving just as she was celebrating her 50th birthday.

But even with these parts, both in true crime stories — playing a prison worker who becomes sexually involved with two inmates, helping them break out, in the Showtime limited series “Escape at Dannemora”; and a mother in a bizarre, co-dependent relationship with her daughter in Hulu’s “The Act” — Arquette had to block out the advice of friends and respected advisors and also suppress her own nagging doubts.

For instance: To play the complex and often unlikable women in these projects, Arquette wanted to put on weight. First, 45 pounds for “Dannemora,” which she took off during a two-month break for a flashback episode. And then she wanted to repeat the process for “The Act.”

“I had people telling me not to take the parts, and for a minute, I hesitated,” Arquette says. “Sometimes, there’s this constriction from society or your family that’s internalized and then compounded. ‘You’re not as valuable a commodity if you do this.’ And you’re told you always have to be this commodity that’s the most likable and the most attractive. But I don’t believe it. It doesn’t make sense to me. And you see all these women and, understandably, they’re trying to look like they’re 20 years old. But they don’t. And you can’t. And that’s OK.”

“She’s her own person,” says Ben Stiller, who memorably costarred with Arquette in David O. Russell’s 1996 comedy “Flirting With Disaster.” Stiller, who directed all seven episodes of “Dannemora,” made Arquette his first hire because he knew she’d find the humanity in a character that the audience might find unsympathetic.

“Patricia doesn’t care what anyone thinks about what she does, and I mean that in the most healthy way,” Stiller continues. “That is the quality [her “Dannemora” character] Tilly had — probably in a less healthy way.”

Stiller remembers reading an interview Arquette did in which she spoke about wanting to be a “wolf girl” or “witchy girl” as a kid. Arquette laughs when it’s brought up. “Oh, that was probably me talking about my crooked teeth,” she says. When she was young, her parents asked her if she wanted braces. Arquette sensed the family — which included siblings Rosanna, Richmond, Alexis and David, all of whom became actors — couldn’t easily afford the dental bill. But mostly, she wanted her own identity: “wolf girl.”

“Even when I fit most in the box of what people consider beautiful, there were still people who said I wasn’t attractive enough,” Arquette says, remembering the reaction to her soulful portrayal of sex worker Alabama Whitman in “True Romance.” “You really can’t fit into the box, no matter what you do. So don’t try. That was a great lesson to learn early.”

It’s one she’s happy to impart to anyone who asks — and many do. Chloë Sevigny, who has some great scenes opposite Arquette in “The Act,” calls her a “badass role model who tells it like it is.” Joey King goes a step further, saying she can't wait to be in her 50s so she can play a character as diverse and complex as Tilly in "Escape at Dannemora."

“I thought, as a young girl, it's like, ‘Well, when I hit this certain age, 30s, 40s, you’ll all of a sudden be that background mom character in a teen movie, and that's it,” says King, 19, who plays the imprisoned daughter in “The Act.” “But now, I can't wait to turn those ages, because I look at someone like Patricia, and I look at all these amazing actresses who are older, who I admire and I envy so much and … it’s amazing.”

Talk to Arquette and she doesn’t feel exactly amazing. At least not always. (Who does?) She has been working nonstop and then traveling to Uganda and Kenya, checking on ongoing sanitation projects happening through the GiveLove foundation she founded in 2010. She testified before Congress in April, pushing for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, another measure of her commitment to feminist issues. (Her 2015 Oscars acceptance speech calling for wage equity earned an ovation, prompting a passionate response from Meryl Streep that remains a go-to GIF to this day.)

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She loves the group involvement and the creativity that collaboration inspires. But at heart, she says, she’s a “hermit-type.”

“There’s a big part of me that could live in the desert in an old miner’s cabin and get my beans and rice dropped off every six months,” she says. “You know? Like, it’s brought in on an old donkey. And that’d be my human contact for half a year.”

Arquette needs to return to the 400-plus pages she’s written for her book and try to find a way to address the death of her younger sister, trans actor Alexis (who died in 2016 of HIV complications). It’s not going to be easy. Arquette still cries talking about her.

“I wonder if after finishing that there will be a sense of finality I’m still not ready for,” she says, dabbing her eyes. “I know I have to do it though.”

And it’ll probably be raggedy and rough and messy — and wholly Patricia Arquette.

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Times staff writer Yvonne Villarreal contributed to this story.

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