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Interview: Jason Clarke on Acting with Apes & Terminators

I wonder aloud if Jason Clarke, the still rising breakout star of Zero Dark Thirty, is feeling a little overscheduled these days. Is he scheduled in 20 minute increments at this point? He claims he's taking a little time off to enjoy himself in the days surrounding our 20 minutes on the telephone, but I'm not sure I quite believe him. Which is a strange feeling because onscreen, the fortysomething Aussie is never less than believable whether he's torturing prisoners in Zero Dark Thirty, totally unnerved by talking armed apes on horseback (who wouldn't be?) in Dawn of the Apes, bootlegging with his Bondurant brothers in Lawless, and so on.

Perhaps more surprising than his authenticity onscreen is his modesty. He didn't so much steal his scenes in Zero Dark Thirty as oxygenate then, detailing the emotional and intellectual and moral gaps between his hardened CIA operative and the newbie in his camp with his duet with Jessica Chastain. And though Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbel do amazing work in their motion capture suits as Caesar and Koba, this still human actor is so effortlessly grounding that he anchors the large excellent cast and behemoth fantastical enterprise that is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes without ever drawing attention to himself.

Thankfully Hollywood has seen through the modesty. Jason Clarke is very busy. As unintentional proof he struggles to recall which order he filmed things in "I did a couple back to back. Terminator and before that I shot Everest. [Pause] What did I shoot before that?" Better Angels, a small black and white period indie which just opened in select cities, is so far back in the "before that" list that you know you'll be seeing a lot of him onscreen.  

Our talk is after the jump...


Nathaniel R: Do you trouble getting back into the headspace at all when people like me as you questions about them?

JASON CLARKE: I guess it highlights what you remember, what you take away from a project. I tend to forget the bad things…

That’s good because actors aren’t supposed to talk about the bad things anyway when they're promoting their pictures.

[Laughter] It’s interesting what you remember and what’s not important afterwards.

From the outside looking it appears that Zero Dark Thirty was your breakthrough, the moment your career exploded. But from the inside, did it feel that way? 

JASON CLARKE: I think it was a gradual but certainly after Zero Dark the phone rang a lot more. Also you’ve got a body of work. All of a sudden your body of work pays off. Does that make sense? A lot of people in the industry saw Zero Dark. And it was a certain type of role that people like — and it’s good for other films even — but then they look at your other work and then the whole of it pays off.

Nathaniel R: You did a couple of short-lived TV series between the movies. Would you do a series again?

I thought they were quite good and absolutely. At the end of the day it comes down to material. As an actor you have to remind yourself of that otherwise you stop being an actor. I’ve caught up with some series that I’ve missed recently and there’s some incredible material out there. The format is changing. You no longer have to sign off your life 24 episodes for 7 years.  I think it’s great for actors. You’ve got to work hard. You’ve got to work fast. And you get to work with a lot of different actors. I love the challenge of that and the community spirit of that. It can be grueling, yes, but films are grueling. Time is money and everyone wants to get the most of it that they can.

With something like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes obviously the filming would be a different challenge than Zero Dark Thirty. How hard is it to connect your character to things that aren’t there when you're working with visual effects?

It’s a completely different challenge. In a film like Apes you have to really use your memory. You have the actors and Andy in there with you. But when they step out your imagination and muscle memory have got to be strong so that you can recreate it as if it’s real when you’re acting with a dot. 

That’s one of the things that drew me to me Apes, the ability to work with that technology. Physical work is great! It takes you back to your theater and drama school days. It can be liberating experience to embody a character physically and not just in tight closeup. 

One thing that i thought was interesting about Apes in terms of your career... well, you’ve done a lot of I don't want to say "hyper masculine" but movies for men. I liked that you were - not a passive character exactly - but Malcolm was quieter than I’d expected.

He’s gentler. I’m not a guy — often you will see a guy serving his own character. He might be doing a great character but he’s not working with the other actors or within the story. I think story comes first. Matt [Matt Reeves, the director] and I were talking about the way this world has come and what Malcolm has had to face -- Caesar is the much more aggressive alpha male. Malcolm grows in assertiveness but maybe that’s just the way he likes to operate, not to dominate but to bring together.

Well, I loved the sensitivity of it, uncommon in “hero” roles. You were very good and I thought your character had real thematic resonance with the movie itself.

Thank you. That was a choice Matt and I made to bring that dynamic to the world.

With more morally questionable characters like in Zero Dark Thirsty do you think about concepts like “likability” or do you just trust your charisma as an actor?

It’s up to the director to walk those lines. My job is to serve the script. The director can shoot it and bring it up or down or whichever way they like. I am working on being truthful. With a guy like Dan in Zero Dark Thirty he’s in a very complex world and he’s in a very complex situation and he’s right in the middle of it. He’s still going through it. With a role like that, if I can make the character interesting— no, not interesting— if I can allow the audience to go into this person and ask questions about what they see and how they feel and what their choices are… that’s what I’m after rather than being charismatic, likable or unlikeable. 

In that movie you had a lot of scenes with Jessica Chastain but most of your projects have been tilted heavily to largely male casts. Would you like to work with more women or with a big female cast?

Jason Clarke co-stars with Jake Gyllenhaal in Everest coming in 2015Yeah, I would. I’m looking for another one. We’ll see. Absolutely.  A) You don’t want to get typecast and B) You want to have different experiences - that’s part of why I like the job, to play different characters and assume different roles. Hell, I’d love to do a really out there Ricky Gervais type comedy. Or even like a Waiting for Guffman.

Guffman. Love it. Do you have a favorite performance of your own work?

No. I don’t. I have favorite experiences. The experience I just had on Everest which we shot in the Himalayas and I knew that story really well for a long long time and met a lot of people involved with the expedition. That was amazing. [Excited] The places you go and the people you meet — like the Dr Seuss book! It’s a life experience in the end.

And bonus: you get to work with Jake Gyllenhaal who is killing it lately. So great in Nightcrawler.

I really want to see it.

Next up is Terminator Genysis. And you're playing the iconic John Connor.

[In Exaggerated American Accent]  “JOHN CONNOR”

[Laughs] A lot of other people have played that role. So is that intimidating? Could you take Christian Bale in a fight?

[Laughter] I know him. He’s a lovely man. It was the thirtieth anniversary the other day - it was a seminal film. I watched the first one again recently. And ‘Fuck I was a teenager when this came out’ . Christian is always great. Eddie Furlong was fantastic in the second one. You can draw from what people have done but you take it off and do your own thing with it. I don’t get intimidated.

NATHANIEL: Do you have any feelings about how much information we get about movies before we see them now. Recently there’s been a lot of stuff online about this movie. Photos, storyboards. 

JASON CLARKE: That was interesting when we were doing Zero Dark! We had a story that hadn’t broken. The days of having a truly fresh experience in the theater are kind of gone - it’s rare that you get that anymore. It’s a bit of a shame but that’s just the way marketing has gone.

I do know that Paramount is trying to keep a couple of big key plot pivot points for the cinema rather than the leadup. I hope they can achieve that. That would be wonderful.

Is it weird to act with someone you watched onscreen as a teenager.

[Laughter]  yeah yeah yeah. Arnold is wonderful but he’s larger than life. I remember when we sat down for a read through in New Orleans. I saw his name card next to mine on the table. You go  'Arnold Schwarzenegger! That’s just hilarious.’ and then he comes in and you go 'wow'  and then you hear him read his first line as a terminator and you just go, ‘Oh, fuck me!’  

It’s hilarious. It’s a wonderful business. The places you find yourself. You find yourself stopping and going ‘Holy shit. Look what I’m doing and look where I am.’ It was the same thing on Everest standing 18,000 feet on a mountain king ‘My god!’ 

The forest in Apes also looks rather breath-taking.

The set design was truly incredible. The monkey village was amazing to walk up into. There was no acting required. It was jaw-dropping.

Okay, last place to discuss. You are from Australia. 


What is the deal with Australia having so many great actors? 

[Laughter] There are some good actors aren’t there? I think there’s a good work ethic in Australia. The business is small and competitive there aren’t many films made. There are younger kids coming up they work hard and they have to be versatile. Put their heads down and their arses up. They usually have the ability to perform under pressure, knuckle down and get into it. That’s my idea. 

previous interviews 


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Reader Comments (11)

Whatta man, whatta man...

1) Says nice things about Bale.
2) Had great (non-romantic) chemistry with Jennifer Beals on the cop show they did a few years back.
3) Some director or casting director once said in an interview something to the effect that Australian/New Zealander/UK actors are better at being American leading men than American actors because the toxic narcissism of the US system (acting schools, modeling biz, Hollywood, Broadway) hadn't completely infected the masculinity of the Aussies/Kiwis/Brits/Irish etc. At least that's how I remember the observation.

"He didn't so much steal his scenes in Zero Dark Thirty as oxygenate them..." Can I steal this?

November 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

NO. you may not. I was proud of that line.

November 21, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Yeah, two thumbs up for that line! The rest of the interview as well, but especially that line.

November 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Well, you should be proud of it, Nathaniel. Then I will quote you.
That kind of oxygenation is the perfect antidote for what I think of as "airless" films (see Ruffalo in Foxcatcher).

November 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Chicago Code. He, Lauria and Beals were all solid. I was sorry to see it go.

He has become someone I look for in films because he always comes across with such honesty.

November 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Good interview Nat - but I can guarantee the line in the final answer should be "put their heads down and their arses up". no Australian bloke worth his salt would ever say asses :)

November 21, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermatt

ugh oxygenate is SUCH a great way to put it for scene-stealers who manage to be completely un-showy and in tandem with the rest of the cast/scenery.

November 21, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercaroline

I loved Clarke's scenes with Edgerton in The Great Gatsby. I thought, oh now I'm watching men not boys, and now I'm watching actors not movie stars.

November 22, 2014 | Unregistered Commenteradri

Is it weird that I don't like it when you do interviews or got to publicity events?! I don't want any bias when it comes to the FilmBitch awards --> I'm very fond of those.

And I see again and again how 'exclusives' or flashy screenings with star mingling influence what writers/bloggers write. That's why the studios and stars do them!

Re: Clarke. His career was really made off of TV. He would never have gotten the level of opportunity (or Zero Dark Thirty) that he has reached without his fantastic performance in Brotherhood. It's funny that when TV actors make it big in film, everyone forgets about all of the incredible tv performances that they've had and it all becomes about that one film. It's sort of like saying that Kyle Chandler owes his film career to 'Wolf of Wall Street' or Jon Hamm to 'Bridesmaids'. It's just silly. It's like one day Katee Sackhoff will make it big in film and critics won't think it has anything to do with Battlestar Galactica even though that show's guaranteed to make up 80% of her highlight reel.

November 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnonny

anonny -- i agree that this is always a danger and I try hard not to let it affect me. BUT I will say that, generally speaking, half the interviews I do (at least) are because I already like the person's work. So the interview isn't affecting my feelings.

But you know it's also about economics. I have to do these things (interviews, events, etcetera) to stay competitive. Reader contributions don't even come close to paying my rent ;) so I gotta sell Oscar ads and keep traffic up.

ALSO great point about tv work. However I would say in the case of Katee Sackhoff this isn't true should she ever make it in film. A) she is 1000% brilliant on Battlestar Galactica but B) we've seen time and again that genius work on genre shows does not make a career. People just tend to ignore it for reasons I will never ever ever understand. She should have been a massive star already with that level of charisma already proven to people with eyes. But, frankly, casting directors just much not watch genre stars because they so rarely snatch up the sensations from those shows.

November 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I wonder if the loaded complex or expectation packages of masculinity (in all its stages & flavors) are the true issue, or it's simply a matter of diversifying the variety of life experiences onscreen. It's easy to choose between apples and oranges, just as it's easy to assume ten different types of apples from select places constitute all the important fruits in the world.

February 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNeff

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