It Kept Evolving: Jason Clarke on Zero Dark Thirty and White House Down

Shooting the controversial torture sequences and what to expect from Roland Emmerich's new Die Hard riff.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Jason Clarke has a key role in the year’s most anticipated, and so far most acclaimed film, Zero Dark Thirty. In the story of the 10-year manhunt for Osama bin Laden, Clarke plays Dan, a CIA operative who begins as an interrogator in the Middle East. Hurt Locker collaborators, screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow, portray the events that led to the execution of bin Laden by SEAL Team Six. We got to chat with Clarke in Beverly Hills about his work on Zero Dark Thirty and a host of highly anticipated films for 2013 as well. Some spoilers for The Great Gatsby follow in case you’ve never read the book or the Cliff Notes.

CraveOnline: I read that you’d auditioned for Kathryn Bigelow before. What was that for?=

Jason Clarke: It was an HBO series that she was doing and then we did a bunch of workshops. Then I went to “Chicago Code.” HBO were delaying it depending on where it was going to happen or if it was going to happen, and then I went to Chicago with Shawn Ryan.

So that HBO show never got made?

I don’t think so. I’m not sure. I don’t think it did. I don’t know what happened.

What was it like filming the waterboarding scene and extended interrogation?

It was intense, dude, yeah. It was really intense. We shot them really quickly. Kathryn gets three, four cameras up. Reda [Kateb] and I connect. We have a chat. He’s French Moroccan and we sit there and talk, and then you just start shooting them. Because there’s no reverses or lighting setup, you follow it through and it feels as powerful doing it as it is to watch. It’s intense.

Was that dirty torture warehouse all set dressing, or was there some real filth and stink in there?

It was a real building. You put some water on the ground. I don’t think we threw a whole lot of stuff. It was just an old prison.


With multiple cameras and not worrying about reverse shots, and most of the film is shot with handheld cameras, what does that do for the blocking of scenes?

Well, it’s great because when you come to block, say, a big scene with movement in it, you know as an actor that the movements you set down, they’re going to set marks and then you’ve got to his them again and again and again. So when you don’t really know exactly how you’re going to do it or you want to take more time or freedom to find it, it frees you up totally. Kathryn’s set up allows you to just explore the scene, explore the moment with the other actor and not think, “I’ve got to hit that mark, I’ve got to go back there.” It frees you up and I think brings more reality to the scene.

Would you do it different ways for a single scene, or once you found the way you’d stick to that?

I think we pretty much did it roughly loosely, but the bones of the scene were pretty much the same. The intensity or the way it was done, it kept moving. It kept evolving. It was a live piece because you knew that you didn’t have to choose one side and then match the other side to it. It was just like one take could be used because we were both in the same moment, if that makes sense.

Was there a lot of rehearsal on this film?

No. No, there was a lot of discussion and reading of the script but not a lot of rehearsal.  There’s a lot of research with Mark and the people they brought in and their own research. Filming in Jordan, India and London we were in the environments. There was a lot to soak up and get you ready to shoot it.

How did you end up backpacking in Pakistan in September of 2001?

I was in China. I was actually backpacking through China and I was in Kashka and I just saw a bus going to Sost and Chitrol across the Karakoram. I’ve always wanted to go across the Karakoram. Just got on the bus.

Do you still travel a lot?

Yeah, I do, yeah. I mean, I try to. It’s great when your work takes you to a place. I love traveling. I think it also helped Kathryn and Mark in getting the film. They’re going to be shooting all over the place, and the CIA guy, Dan, is used to going to strange places and is used to fitting in and being comfortable and making a life there. Any chance I can get I’ll go.

When 9/11 happened were you able to come back home?

I came back home, yeah.

Did you hear about it immediately when you were traveling?

I knew something and then I saw it in a Chinese newspaper.

Was the monkey grabbing the ice cream cone scripted?

Yes, it was scripted.

It looks so spontaneous!

Well, that’s an actor. That’s an actor and a monkey. You give a monkey half a window, it was harder to not let the monkey get it too quickly.

Are you pretty committed through February on awards circuits?

Well, nobody’s locked me in yet. I’m going back to Australia for a quick break and then I’ve got a week on another film I’ve got to finish up in January in upstate New York. I hope so. I’d love to go to London and see some football, see my team over in England.

We were supposed to see The Great Gatsby already but it’ll be out this summer. With Wilson, does the movie have everything: the accident, the climactic ending?

All those moments are in there. They’re key points you can’t miss. They’re all there. Me shooting myself, it’s all… I love Wilson. I love Wilson. To play that part, because you’re representing T.S. Elliott’s The Hollow Man, you’re representing the other side of this great wild, crazy New York who’s the ash heap, the working man.

Is the line “God sees everything” in the movie?

“God sees everything,” yeah, that’s in the movie. It’s a beautiful shot. Wait ‘til you see it. It’s an amazing show.

Have you gotten to see the whole movie?

No. I’ve seen all my stuff in chunks of different parts, but Baz is still doing so much work with the CGI and the music and the sound. He’s working away. Every two weeks I get a call, “I want to get a couple lines for ADR.”

Did you get to see the 3D on the set?

On set it looked spectacular. We had the glasses and the monitors to watch because it’s very different to watch yourself in 3D, not just when you’re up close but also in the background because everything’s in focus, so you can still continue telling whatever story is appropriate in the background because people can see it. It’s not a blur.

I’m excited about White House Down also. What do you get to play in that?

I play a guy that takes over the White House. Me and James Woods.

I miss the “Die Hard in a …” genre. Is this bringing it back?

That brings it back, it does. It actually does. It’s Roland Emmerich. Roland Emmerich does those films really well. It was a hard shoot.

What cool action did you get to do?

Dude, there’s a couple fight sequences with Channing Tatum, you’ll be able to feel the pain. You’ll be able to really feel the pain. There was a lot of pain in it.

Are you the henchman to James Woods?

He’s the insider in the White House and I’m the outsider, and we both are working together to come forward and execute the plan.

I didn’t even realize there was another take on Lincoln coming out. The Green Blade Rises, what kind of take is that?

It’s something Terrence Malick has been working on for a long time. A.J. Edwards who directed it shoots a lot of Terrence’s second unit stuff and edits his films. It’s a very simple story about a family moving to Indiana in 1816 when the boy is 9 and his father and first mother and his mother dies. It never mentions that it’s Lincoln. You know this family but you get to understand or have an insight into the guy. The question really is how did this man who we know and love and respect and accomplished all these things, how did he get there from growing up barefoot in the middle of nowhere in this world? That’s what it goes into, just a family at that time and what makes it up and we know who he becomes.

And you play?

I play Tom Lincoln, his father. It’s just basically when Abe is 9 or 10. He had two mothers. His first mother died and then Tom remarried and he had a stepmother.

What was your take on the “Chicago Code” situation? Was there a point you felt it wasn’t going to continue?

That’s an interesting and funny question. No, there wasn’t. You feel that kind of thing of hey, it’s up in the air and as an actor you get tired of it so you let it go. It is what it is. There’s nothing I can do. I can hang onto it like bad anxiety or a smoking habit or something, but I’ve got to say I was surprised because I knew it was a good show. I knew it was a character I wasn’t ready to let go of. I really enjoyed that character and a lot of that character helped in I think getting this part as well, just in Shawn’s style and the scripts are great, you’re having to get up every day, bring the guest actors in, make them feel comfortable, work on scenes that needed work and you’re taking responsibility 14 hours a day to make this work. They wrote this guy that was not just the straight up normal thing you’ve seen. It was complicated. It was interesting. And real. I like that character a lot.

How quickly did you get back to work?

What did I do after “Chicago Code?” I think it was pretty quick. I think I went and did Trust with David Schwimmer. I went and did Wall Street[: Money Never Sleeps]. It’s all a blur, dude. I’ve been in so many hotel rooms. But pretty quick. I’ve been very lucky like that. Working on TV like that just gears you up. You’re ready to go. You’re used to working fast and having an opinion on script and a feeling about what things in the story need work or where you relate to. It tools you up in the right way to be an actor I think.

There’s been so much attention on Zero Dark Thirty, even before it got made, was there any point you guys were able to just work in private and make a movie?

Yeah, we did, dude. Pretty much the whole way. I got cast in this part in November/December. Then I went to Australia to shoot Gatsby and we all shut up. It wasn’t about “Hey, let’s be secretive, nobody’s going to get the script.” We just wanted to leave a small footprint with this film and forget everything else, leave it aside and concentrate on the story and making it as well as we could without hoopla, this and that and everything else. I was in Australia so that was easy. I came back for like two weeks after Gatsby and Christmas and then I was in Jordan straight away. Jordan was very respectful to us and gave us all the room and the quiet that we needed. It’s not like, “Hey, I’ve just been cast in this and blah blah blah.” The story needed integrity. If you’re going to pick up this and attempt to tackle it, do it with a bit of decency and selflessness which is what I think Kathryn’s really achieved.

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel