Jason Clarke: from son of a Queensland sheep-shearer to international movie star
The Australian actor on his film set in post-war Germany, on the difficulty of Irish accents and the challenge of Brexit
“I met Lemmy from Motörhead,” says Jason Clarke in a characteristically delightful aside. “He was such a chilled guy. I said: for fuck’s sake, stop being so chilled: you’re Lemmy.”
One would have to think that chilled Lemmy must have got along famously with chilled Jason Clarke. At 49, people see him on the street and recognise him, but aren’t entirely sure where. “They usually ask: have we met?” says the Australian actor.
Perhaps that’s a testament to how much Clarke disappears into the roles he plays. It’s difficult to imagine Christian Bale – the other John Connor from the Terminator sequence – being asked: “Do I know you?”
Clarke’s versatility has seen him bounce between awards season contenders (Zero Dark Thirty, Mudbound, First Man), blockbusters (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Terminator Genisys), and big-name biopics (playing Ted Kennedy in Chappaquiddick and Reinhard Heydrich in The Man with The Iron Heart). He has been directed by Oliver Stone, Kathryn Bigelow, Terrence Malick and Jada Pinkett Smith.
I’d be very reluctant to do an Irish accent. I think I could get it to a certain level but to really do it? I think it’s impossible
Clarke isn’t sure which of his many high-profile projects represents his big break.
“Brotherhood, the TV series, was a big one,” says Clarke. “It gave me a job. It gave me a visa. It gave me time in front of the camera with great actors, and that’s important. And then came Public Enemies. That was my first big film with a quality director. So suddenly you’ve worked with Michael Mann and you’ve worked with Johnny Depp and Christian Bale.”
Along the way Clarke has become a master of accents, having adopted the tricky Providence burr for Brotherhood, that distinctive Massachusetts sound for Chappaquiddick, and a Mississippian drawl for Mudbound. Every so often he will attempt to repeat back something I’ve said, only to laugh at his efforts.
“See? I can’t get it,” he says. “I’d be very reluctant to do an Irish accent. I think I could get it to a certain level but to really do it? I think it’s impossible. If you spent months and months on it, you could get it to a certain level, maybe. But there’s a musicality to it that you might never get right. It’s a tough one. That and the Welsh accent.”
He goes full Sandhurst for The Aftermath, a new historical drama set against the ruins of Hamburg in 1946. Clarke plays a colonel of the British forces charged with rebuilding Germany. He is too busy to spend time with his forlorn wife (Keira Knightley), who is left to roam around the grand house they share with a handsome German architect (Alexander Skarsgård) and his tearaway teenage daughter.
It’s very much a heritage picture with fabulous silks and interiors, but the film’s depiction of German postwar misery – a levelled city, survivors still digging out bodies from the rubble, disgruntled Nazi loyalists taking guerrilla action – is not a common spectacle or theme for romantic British costume drama. For Clarke it’s a timely swipe at Brexit.
“It’s a fascinating time and it’s not that long ago, really,” says the actor. “It’s interesting because we’re still dealing with the fallout. The end of the second World War was what led to the setting-up of the EU. The idea was to stop events like that from happening again. Britain and Germany did horrific things to each other. They suffered. And that they came together was a great achievement. What are the British up to? They’ve put Northern Ireland in a terrible position. It’s easy to forget what other people have done to get us to where we all are now.”
He pauses: “Time to buy property in Ireland, I guess.”
We’re talking in London, just days ahead of the 2019 Academy Awards, a ceremony that was once expected to be dominated by Damien Chazelle’s excellent moon landing drama First Man. Instead, the film was nominated in just four technical categories, winning only for best visual effects.
It’s unfortunate, says Clarke, who played astronaut Ed White. “But it’s inarguable that it’s a great film,” he says. “I think it will stand the test of time more than a lot of other things that people are talking about and thinking about now. I can see them teaching it in film school. You can’t define success as a monetary thing or define it by whatever your social message is. You have to judge art for art’s sake. That doesn’t mean everyone else will like it. But First Man is a beautiful film and it’ll come back around.”
The scenic route
Clarke, the son of a Queensland sheep-shearer, could not have been born further from show business. The family travelled between shearing stations until Jason reached school age. He moved to Sydney with a mind to study law but found that it wasn’t for him.
“I think I realised when I kept finding myself on the tennis court while lectures were on,” he says, smiling. “At some point they said: if you’re not interested, would you kindly leave? And I said: fair enough. I had no clue what I wanted to do. I had never really listened to bands before I got to the city. I had never read Lord of the Rings. I didn’t know it existed.”
A friend introduced him to Tolkien and they began discussing how one might become an actor.
“The only actor I think I ever met growing up was with the touring puppet show,” laughs Clarke. “So me and my best friend – he’s a doctor now – looked into how you get into acting. We decide there’s two ways: you talk to a casting director for a TV show or you can go to a thing called drama school. So we literally knock on this woman’s door. She was a casting director. And we said, ‘Hey, we want to be actors; would you mind telling us how we go about it?’ We were like the Minions or something. She could have called the police but she brought us in, gave us a cup of tea, and explained this strange thing called drama school.”
I love the book. Making Pet Sematary, I felt like I was in a hardcore drama
He briefly studied alongside Hugh Jackman at the Actors Centre in Sydney before enrolling drama studies at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne. There were tough times ahead, and he briefly considered quitting before landing a star-making role in Phillip Noyce’s 2002 drama Rabbit-Proof Fence.
“To survive in this business, you have to have a degree of cluelessness,” says Clarke. “There’s no safety net, and the deeper you go, the longer you go, the less chance you have to educate yourself and find a different job. I didn’t realise until I got my first real job and I thought, Oh my God, I’m in my 30s! There is no back-up plan. You’re not in a position to contemplate having children or a house. I wanted a family but I couldn’t take responsibility for a family. So I was driving around, like the other actors I knew, in beaten-up cars, trying to work in a small marketplace. Because you’re not ready to abandon what you’re doing. It takes that tunnel vision to keep thinking that you’re going to get that break and then hopefully you won’t wake up at 50 and go: What happened? I’ve got no family and no job !”
He smiles: “Ah, the life of an actor.”
Pet Sematary reboot
Of late, Clarke has been brushing up on Russian history to take his place as a court favourite alongside Helen Mirren in the Sky Atlantic and HBO production Catherine the Great. In April he will play the bereaved father at the centre of the keenly anticipated (and undoubtedly meme-friendly) reboot of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary.
“It’s looking pretty good from what I’ve seen and what the directors [Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer] have told me,” says the actor. “I love the book. I am a horror movie person but I like to think of films like The Hunt as belonging to the horror genre. Films that are more disturbing than just scares. And that’s what King does. Making Pet Sematary, I felt like I was in a hardcore drama. By the end of every day, I thought: I’ve got nothing left to give. I just want to go home.”
The Aftermath is released on March 1st