Top GearJason Clarke has had an impressive run of notable film performances, culminating in this month’s Everest. But if stardom is beckoning, he’s in no big hurry to get there. for him, focusing on the goal isn’t rewarding unless you enjoy the journey
The guttural pock-pock-pock of the idling 860hp engine sounds like the love child of a Harley and an Apache helicopter, and renders anything Jason Clarke could say completely inaudible. The truck is unlike anything the actor – best known for roles in Terminator Genisys and Zero Dark Thirty – has ever driven. This is an all-carbon, NASCAR-engine-equipped rig straight out of Mad Max, totally different from the Porsches and open-cockpit Radicals that petrolhead Clarke races in his downtime. Strapped in securely, he hits the gas and tears up a dusty hill in the Hungry Valley State Vehicular Recreation Area, north of LA. At the crest, Clarke brakes suddenly and spins the rig around, creating a huge cloud as he races back.
He gets out, his face as white as a sheet.
“It freaked me out,” says the 46-year-old. “I was like, ‘Whoa whoa whoa, put the brake on! I can’t see f–king anything over there, let alone where the track is.’ ”
Did he hit the top speed of 255kph? Clarke doesn’t know.
He has his own measure, however. “I was going fast enough,” he says, “for my anus to tighten.”
Risk and reward are the currency of Clarke’s career, an anomaly in a town that emphasises the safe bet. The approach suits the affable Australian just fine: the destination has been the journey from the very start. The eye-catching role in director Phillip Noyce’s aboriginal drama Rabbit-Proof Fence; the lauded, chilling performance as a CIA operative in Zero Dark Thirty? They were just stops along the way. He’s since proved his blockbuster status as simian sympathiser Malcolm in Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes and John Connor in Genisys. But it’s his tender performance as doomed mountain guide Rob Hall in this month’s Everest that could cement Clarke in the minds of mainstream audiences and place him on the brink.
“On the brink of what? Of taking over from Robert Downey Jr?” he laughs. “That would be one of the great gigs, by the way.”
Clarke is seated on a park bench in the fading afternoon light, away from the dust and noise of the day. The Trophy Truck is parked nearby in all its glorious menace. It’s owned by Robert Acer, an enigma in the motorsport community who keeps his real name and identity cloaked behind a character clad all in black who never removes his Daft Punk-like helmet in public. A man of means from Malibu, so the legend goes, Acer wouldn’t have minded if Clarke had wrecked the car, as long as the actor himself was unharmed. “I didn’t want to tell Jason this,” says Acer, a muted voice behind a carbon helmet and a mirrored glass visor, “but the faster you go, the smoother it is.”
Clarke was born the son of a sheep shearer and a court clerk in the tiny town of Winton, Queensland. The eldest of four, Clarke would lead his siblings on adventures in the vast expanse of the Outback. But the pull of the big city proved too strong.
He headed to Sydney, where he soon became infatuated with the backpackers who would stream through the café where he worked. When he figured out that acting might be able to provide the same sense of adventure, Clarke went about it pragmatically, enrolling on a course at drama school.
Cue several years of struggle and dead ends. Broke, he leant on friends for help and began to question his life choices.
“If it wasn’t going to happen,” says Clarke now, “I would have gone and done something else. I don’t think there’s any point sitting around and being a suffering or frustrated actor.”
Then, as he was about to give up at the age of 33, a break came in the form of Noyce and Rabbit-Proof Fence. Clarke shone as a constable in the powerful aboriginal drama, and Noyce – a fellow Aussie who had successfully made the leap to the US – had an encouraging word in his ear. “Don’t be scared,” he told Clarke. So Clarke planned his next step, figuring how much it would cost, how much commitment he’d put into it, and readying himself for the possibility that he might return with nothing.
“Coming to America was a big thing for me,” he says. “It was an all-in thing. Everything was at stake. What are you going to do if it doesn’t work out? I didn’t have a Plan B. I grew up with my father and saw how hard that kind of labour is.”
Clarke had US$10,000 in his pocket when he landed in Los Angeles, eager to see how far the money would take him before it ran out.
When the acting roles didn’t materialise, he climbed into the 1989 Ford Thunderbird he had bought himself and drove out to the desert, filling his time by rock climbing, or else going backpacking in Northern California. “I felt like I was doing something,” he says. “If it didn’t work, well, at least I’d get to see America. Desire needs opportunity to have a go. And there’s that period when you keep putting your foot in the door and it just keeps getting crushed. Then, finally, you get your foot in the door and you poke your head in, you do your thing and someone says, ‘C’mon in.’”
That break was Brotherhood, a US TV series in which creator Blake Masters cast the unknown 37-year-old as one of the two leads. “I’ve been lucky like that a few times in my career,” he says. “With [directors] Michael Mann for Public Enemies, Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty and Baltasar [Kormákur] for Everest. There was a lot of pressure to cast a lot bigger names than me. I mean, [Christian] Bale was originally doing it.”
But Bale left and the rest of the names never really existed, says Kormákur. “I was interested in someone who was working his way up,” says the Icelandic director, who liked Clarke’s “gravity” in Zero Dark Thirty.
“Someone who was hungry and ready to go the lengths with me.” And Clarke did it the only way he knows how: all in.
“You learn it in drama school, but you also learn it when travelling, especially backpacking,” says Clarke. “You’ve got to throw yourself into it. I backpacked a lot. Going around China, if you don’t understand where you’re going to change your money, what are you going to do? You’ve got to find where it is. As an actor, that’s your job.”
At Christmas a few years ago, the Everest cast was filming scenes at Pinewood Studios near London when a huge storm hit Ireland and Scotland. Seizing the opportunity, Clarke and real-life Everest guide and consultant Guy Cotter got on a plane and headed north to 1,344m-high Ben Nevis in the Scottish Highlands.
“For two days, we went night climbing and abseiling in the storm, just to feel what it was like,” says Clarke. He wanted to understand how the little things, like a lost glove or a late start, could doom an expedition like Rob Hall’s in 1996, as famously chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air.
“No one was like Jason,” says Cotter. “We would spend hours going through the books, comparing accounts and discussing it in fine detail.”
Cotter was a young man when he joined Hall + Ball Adventure Consultants (the company set up by Rob Hall and business partner Gary Ball) in 1992, and the prospect of a film about his good friend was slightly worrying. The 1996 tragedy, in which eight climbers – including Hall – lost their lives when a storm hit during their descent, was a traumatic event that resonated way beyond the climbing community.
“There was every chance for it to be Hollywood-ised,” says Cotter. But Kormákur and Clarke got in touch soon after filming began and asked him to join the production. He became Clarke’s tutor in all things Hall, taking Clarke climbing in the mountains of his native New Zealand and on the Tasman Glacier. In Nepal, close to Everest Base Camp at 5,364m, Clarke would pester Cotter, asking him how he would move with this amount of oxygen deprivation, and how he’d communicate with the team.
And then there was the yak.
There’s a shot in the film where a herd of the beasts crosses a bridge. Kormákur demanded a few takes and the yaks protested. “You could see them getting irate,” says Cotter. Suddenly, one began to stampede, so Clarke and co-star Josh Brolin grabbed it by the horns before it sent someone over the cliff. It’s the kind of anecdote that sums up Clarke.
The day’s driving has come to an end and Clarke pulls himself out of the cab of the truck, his shades still on, the helmet off. He makes small talk with the catering guys reclining in the shade to escape the 30°C heat, his Australian twang subtle and charming. However high up the celebrity chain this acting thing takes him, Clarke wants to avoid becoming the awkward star: “I like my life, I like meeting people.”
Clarke spent a few months filming in Thailand this summer, then it was off to Prague to play a despised Nazi leader in a WWII movie, each trip a chance to find out a little more about the world.
He recently became a father, and now legacy is on his mind too. “There’s this famous quote: ‘Apart from his health, a man’s most valuable possession is his name.’ I don’t want to leave my kid with hundreds of millions of dollars. Find your own way. I think there’s adventure in that.”