It's okay if I don't work any more. I would be sad, but if that's what it takes, I guess that's what it takes.At the 2015 Academy Awards, almost three years before the inception of the Time'sUp movement, Patricia Arquette stepped on stage to deliver a call to arms. Winning her first Best Supporting Actress Oscar, at the age of 46, Arquette used her time at the podium to demand equal pay for women — in every industry, not just Hollywood. Meryl Streep threw her hands in the air and whooped; Jennifer Lopez clapped like a woman possessed.

And then came the backlash. Arquette won the Oscar for her role as a divorced mother in Richard Linklater's Boyhood, filmed over a 12-year period and showing the actress ageing before our eyes. It was an extraordinary performance, yet Arquette wasn't exactly inundated with offers after the ceremony. In fact, she admits, she lost at least two roles as a result of the speech. She turned down work, too, after being given "deals that were really s--- and different from men". Her stance was later credited with helping to pass California's Fair Pay Act, but in her own industry those 20 seconds had made her a pariah.

"There's this unspoken rule that you're not supposed to get political up there," Arquette tells me. "But I grew up in a family of activists, so it is my nature to try to change something, or shed a light on something."

Besides, she says, "It's okay if I don't work anymore. I would be sad because I want to make art, but if that's what it takes, I guess that's what it takes."

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The work hasn't completely dried up. We meet for lunch in a New York hotel, ahead of the premiere of her television drama Escape at Dannemora. The diminutive Arquette is midway through her grooming preparations for the night ahead, and is rather delightfully clad in pink silk pyjamas and a pair of enormous fluffy slippers. The message, loud and clear, is that this is not a woman who cares what anyone thinks of her; "likeability" is very low on Arquette's list of priorities.

"It's a burden people put so much more often upon women — and actresses — than they do upon men: 'Is she likeable? How can we make her likeable? How do we make people empathise with her?' I don't care about that. It's liberating to not worry about being likeable."

Patricia Arquette participates in the Escape at Dannemora panel. Photo / AP
Patricia Arquette participates in the Escape at Dannemora panel. Photo / AP

Arquette has made a career out of playing characters who you wouldn't necessarily want to spend much time with in real life — notably as the shrill prostitute Alabama Whitman in her 1993 breakthrough hit True Romance. Her latest incarnation, Escape at Dannemora's anti-heroine Joyce "Tilly" Mitchell is, she says, gleefully, "a wild thing, and a total piece of work. She's narcissistic, and always sees herself as the victim."

Dannemora is based on a true story about prisoners fleeing a high-security jail in New York State. In June 2015, the escapees — Richard Matt and David Sweat — were found after a three-week manhunt, costing an estimated $2 million. Matt was shot and killed, while Sweat was arrested and taken into custody. Tilly, who was supposed to drive the getaway car, backed out at the last minute, but was found guilty of criminal facilitation in helping the two men plan and execute their escape. The dramatisation of the case stars Benicio del Toro as Matt and Paul Dano as Sweat.

Arquette, 50, used dental devices that altered her jawline and gained almost 19 kilos for the part. Formerly the face of the plus-size fashion label Marina Rinaldi, she has long refused to subjugate her body to fit a more mainstream Hollywood standard. Of Tilly she says: "Here's someone whose body type's not your typical sexy-movie-body type, but who's unapologetically sexual and enjoys her sexuality. Why does society make us feel like that's wrong or weird? Why aren't you allowed to be a sexual woman at 50 years old, with a 50-year-old woman's body?"

Escape at Dannemora contains several very graphic sex scenes (all taking place in a cleaner's cupboard), and Arquette confesses to finding the very idea of stripping off in all her plus-sized glory "terrifying". "I'm a terribly, terribly shy person," she says. "I'm a person who usually takes baths in the dark." The performance earned her a Golden Globe Best Actress nomination, but she was aware that it was a risk. "A lot of people will be like, 'Yuck. No.' It may impact my career ... I know very well there's going to be a lot of movies nobody's going to even think of me for because of the way I look in this movie."

Arquette hails from a long line of performers and rebels. Her great-grandparents were vaudevillians, and her father, Lewis Arquette, played JD Pickett in The Waltons. He and Arquette's mother, Mardiningshi, raised their five children — Rosanna, Patricia, Alexis (who was born Robert and died in July 2016), Richmond and David (all of whom have gone on to become actors and performers) — on a commune in Virginia. Patricia regularly went on peace marches with her mother and tries to follow in her rebellious footsteps. (She once recalled Mardi waiting for a bus, when the driver refused to let a handicapped man board: "So my mom lay down in the middle of the road.")

Last time we spoke, shortly after her Oscar win, she was busily working on her memoirs. "I'm still working on them," she deadpans. "I was almost done with what I thought I was going to be writing, then my sister Alexis died [of an HIV-related heart attack], so the last few chapters I've been working on are so f------ painful, it feels like I'm tearing my own heart out and shoving it on a stake."

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The writing process has helped her process past situations, she says, but she won't be including much about her tumultuous marriages. "When I was growing up, I saw my life so much through the lens of my partner and their dreams. It's not that they're inconsequential, and I'm grateful for the relationships. But if I really tell the truth about what was fundamentally my foundation, it's not those stories."

Arquette has been married twice to actor Nicolas Cage, had a child with musician Paul Rossi at 19 and was married to actor Thomas Jane (with whom she has a daughter, Harlow) for five years. She is now happily unmarried to the artist Eric White. At home, however, she admits, her activism is tempered by "a lot of old-fashioned gender dynamics that I'm okay with. I like to make my boyfriend dinner. I like that he takes out the trash," she shrugs.

"I think that people think I sit around throwing darts at men's heads."

Escape at Dannemora is available now on Neon.