This weekend, the 2012 movie that has generated as much critical praise as controversy, will finally be unleashed on the masses in wide release – Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty." A white-knuckle account of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, it's a surprisingly human tale, focusing on a cluster of dedicated operatives (led by Jessica Chastain's note-perfect portrayal of CIA agent Maya) who brought down the architect of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. One of those operatives is played by Jason Clarke, as man as skilled at the art of "advanced interrogation techniques" (aka the torture scenes that have gotten people so riled up) as he is in greasing the wheels of an informant by buying him an expensive sports car in the middle of the night. Clarke is an actor poised on the precipice of superstardom, having turned in a noteworthy performance last year in John Hillcoat's "Lawless," and has a great slate coming up including two Terrence Malick joints and Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby" (which we talked to him at length about here). On top of "Zero Dark Thirty," Clarke also discussed working with the elusive Malick, the challenges of playing a character shrouded in shadowy mystery, where he was when he heard Osama Bin Laden had been killed, and much more.
What is it like finding a character so concealed by mystery?
It was interesting because I know I'm never gonna meet the guy, nor should I, nor would I. Because he's out there doing what he does, as you see in the film. It's even shown in the film – Bradley is outed by the Pakistanis and he's got to go home. His job's over. And that's probably his best option – as opposed to getting put in a car and taken to god knows where. It actually prepared me for the role – the sleuthing. Mark's got some stuff there in the script – he's Dan Stanton, the CIA's man on the ground, he's bearded, boots, jacket, likes the Wu Tang Clan. And you go – outstanding! You then start to compile your research material. I've traveled a lot but I still bought the books on the places. You start reading through the food, the culture, the things you would do if you were a CIA agent. Even though Dan's in charge of the advanced interrogation when we start the film, he's a covert guy. And then, on another level, I go – Okay, I've got this big chunk of interrogation. I've played a police officer, I've watched a lot of videos of homicide interrogations and studied them for technique and then I started reading psychology books about doctor/patient relationships and creating the relationship between the here and now.
Did you have a certain feeling about these interrogation techniques and did that change?
I knew that it's not easy to do that to a person and it's not nice. It's never nice to be teased by somebody on any kind of level. My feeling, at the end of this, is that it's very hard to judge another person until you've walked a mile in their shoes. I really don't know it enough to say, "This is what I want." I think the film and the character speak for themselves. You see the journey that [my character] Dan goes on. You see what it does to him. You see where he starts and where he ends up. You see the consequences of that. You see the first interrogation – it's not a success. My opinion as an actor is something you learn to rightfully keep out of it because I'm playing somebody. It's not my position to judge it. I think it's a great thing that it brings this into the consciousness in a way that we haven't had yet. This film sticks to the facts and shows them, as one of a number of techniques — surveillance techniques, tracking techniques — and it was one of the things that was done. And it's good that it was examined.
How did your working relationship with Jessica change?
With Jess, it just gets better and better. The more characters and films you put in the bank, the fuller the fridge is when you open it. It's great. Because this film came together so quickly, it really helps to have somebody there who you know and trust and who you can relax with afterwards and have dinner together with.
Did you guys swap notes?
Yeah. Swapping books that we read and whatnot. Because there's so much stuff in there – the Washington Post did a great piece that wasn't available as a book but you could still sometimes find online that was a 20 page thesis on certain things. The more the merrier.
Was Kathryn someone you had always wanted to work with?
Yeah, you always gravitate towards the films you like to watch and the directors who make those films. I saw "The Hurt Locker" when I was in Michigan in winter and quite depressed. I wandered across the road from a Holiday Inn near the highway and saw it for a buck with two other people in the theater, and I came out feeling hot and sweaty, like I had been somewhere else and had really gone into the desert with these people. Which is incredible. She loves all her characters, good and bad. And when she hands you that character, she imbues it with a trust, and you feel that. You want to repay that faith and be there and give everything you have to bring it to life. I love the way she's going as a filmmaker. I watched it and came out of it stunned. I knew from the script and what we shot that it was going to be extraordinary but it felt like something I'd never been apart of.
Did anything surprise you?
The script did. Totally. I was literally going, "Really?" And Mark Boal said, "Yes." Then you read "No Easy Day," the firsthand account by one of the SEALs and he says he saw this female CIA agent at the back of the plane crying, at the end you just go, "Fuck wow." In watching the film what surprised me was just how accomplished Kathryn is now. That film is seamless. There's no fixit jobs in the edit.
Where were you when you heard Osama had been killed?
I was in Australia. I had wrapped "The Great Gatsby." I had gone to see my friend who's a doctor and he goes out and does country visits. And I was sitting in a car and he was tending to this old lady who had an accident. It came on the radio. I turned it up. I had missed the speech and all that. I was sitting to this stuff for a while listening to it and it was like, "Oh my god." It was a profound moment, especially when you sit there and consider it. It had gone down not long before and here it was, bouncing around the world, and somebody was dead.
You also recently worked with Terrence Malick. What was that like?
Well, I did two Malick films. I did "Knight of Cups" and "The Green Blade Rises" [which Malick produced]. "Knight of Cups" is the one with Christian Bale. Look, 'Green Blade' Terrence had been working on that for a while, like twenty years. And A.J. Edwards, who directed it, shoots all the second unit stuff for Terry's films and edits them. It's about Abe Lincoln as a 9-year-old and his father and his two mothers, because his mother died when he was very young. What fascinated him and what fascinates me is how a little boy in the middle nowhere, who was barefoot with nothing and a stern puritanical father, became the leader that he did. The education, the moral gravitas, and the leadership of this kid… and you find out. It comes from your roots.
And what was "Knight of Cups" like?
It was just hilarious! Well Terry is a guy where you get 20 pages of dialogue, this extraordinarily in-depth dialogue, and then you'll learn it and try and shoot it. But Terry's not after anything that's ordained or set up. He's creating an environment where he just wants to capture something that's alive.
Are you in it enough that you can't be cut out of it?
You never know with Terrence Malick. I remember when I told Jess, she said, "Just so you know, you might not end up in the film." There were so many people coming in and out and he's out there doing his thing. There's a craziness and a wonderfulness and a freedom but he's got great motives and aspirations. He's interested in pursuing things.
And you're in "White House Down."
Yep. I've got two broken ribs to show for it. I'm the guy who rushes in and takes over the White House. It was so fun. I love Roland Emmerich. He does those films like no one else. We had a ball. I get a knock-down, drag-out, ugly-ugly-ugly fight with Channing Tatum. It really hurt. And Channing is a lovely guy. He's been brought up well, he works his ass off. I just saw "Magic Mike." The dude can dance, man! He can dance! I had no idea. When we were working he was getting ready for a wrestling film so he was really in shape. I'd send the stunt guy in to wear him out a little bit. But man, he can move.
Did you get to use any of your training on "White House Down"?
A little bit. It's there and it helps. But it's a completely different film. Roland's style and movement; you're going there to be entertained in a serious way. It's big and it goes bigger and it keeps going. I got to drive a Cadillac into the pool of the White House.
"Zero Dark Thirty" is in wide release this weekend.