"Zero Dark Thirty raised the stakes," Clarke acknowledges. "It raised the stakes in cinema, man. I don't think people really know how to grasp what type of film this is."
The polarizing film, which follows the chase and ultimate killing of Osama bin Laden, opens nationwide Friday and carries the distinct honor of angering Congress while simultaneously stirring the Oscar pot. (The Senate Intelligence Committee is pushing the CIA to release all information the agency shared with the filmmakers.)
Behind the movie are director Kathryn Bigelow and journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal, who team up again after earning Oscars for The Hurt Locker. It's not a delicate tale, and much of the film's controversy rests on scenes stacked in the first half-hour in which a steely, results-driven CIA field agent (Clarke) interrogates and tortures a detainee (Reda Kateb) as part of the agency's frantic mission to prevent another 9/11.
Bigelow doesn't surgarcoat the story, Clarke says over lunch on a sunny patio at the Sunset Tower Hotel. "And in the same way bringing this topic up, you can't sugarcoat it because there's no need to. Here it is."
To prepare, Clarke first subjected himself to being waterboarded, something he can liken only to the feeling of almost drowning while surfing. "It's scary. Really scary. Anytime you're in fear for your life, it's intense."
Chastain returns to the Oscar spotlight playing Maya, a CIA analyst who works ruthlessly to connect the dots in al-Qaeda's fluid, murky network. It's her third film with Clarke, after starring with him in The Texas Killing Fields and Lawless. The actress, who was nominated for an Academy Award last year for her work in The Help, says Clarke delivers "a crushing performance."
"In real life when you meet him, he's so educated, he's very well read, he has the most exquisite manners, he's just a lovely gentle giant," she says. "And then you see him in these films and he's so dangerous and shocking."
But he takes care of actors, she says, and in those torture scenes, Clarke and Kateb "always had a safe word. They knew to say each other's real names if they felt uncomfortable."
"It was really hard to shoot those scenes," says Clarke, whose character eventually decides to trade the morally depleting field work for a desk job in Washington. "The pressure of war, of what they're doing is so visceral."
Yet somehow Clarke manages to infuse a magnetic, multifaceted charm into his character. Raised with three siblings by a sheep-shearing father in the Australian countryside, the actor gained prominence in Public Enemies and on TV series The Shield and The Chicago Code. Friendly and chatty in person, he will recite grin-inducing Family Guy scenes line by line, loves to race cars, and dishes on his own fan moment: when Charles Barkley recently sent him a congratulatory drink in a bar. "He and John McEnroe, I think, are the best commentators in the business," says Clarke, who dreams of taking the mike during the U.S. Open.
His turn in Baz Lurhmann's 3-D take on The Great Gatsby (expected May 10) looms next, followed by the action thriller White House Down with Channing Tatum. Then there's two Terrence Malick projects, Knight of Cups, in which he plays a Hollywood big shot, and a black-and-white film focusing on Abraham Lincoln's family, The Green Blade Rises.
Lessons abounded from each, but the biggest difference between Bigelow and Luhrmann's sets was "about a 100 million dollars," Clarke jokes. "I've never seen 3-D like this. I don't think anyone has."
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