Top GearJason Clarke has been the author of a series of notable movie performances that culminate in this month’s Everest. But if stardom is beckoning, he’s in no hurry to get there. Clarke on enjoying the journey.
The guttural pock-pock-pock of the idling 860 hp engine sounds like the love child of a Harley and an Apache helicopter and renders anything Jason Clarke could say mute. This 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, Mad Max-looking rig, different from the Porsches and open-cockpit Radicals Clarke races in his downtime. Strapped in securely by a harness, he hits the gas and tears up a dusty hill in the Hungry Valley Recreation Area, north of Los Angeles. At the crest, Clarke, 46, brakes suddenly and spins the rig around, letting out a dust cloud as he races back.
He gets out, his face a sheet.
“It freaked me out,” he says. “I was like, ‘Woah woah woah, put the brake on! I can’t see f*cking anything over there, let alone where the track is.’ ”
Did he hit the top speed of 158 mph? Clarke doesn’t know.
“I was going fast enough,” he says, “for my anus to tighten.”
In a town that emphasizes the safe bet, risk and reward are the currency of Clarke’s career. 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 bona fides as the Simian sympathizer 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 the mainstream and put him on the brink.
“On the brink of what? Of taking over from Robert Downey Jr.?” Clarke laughs. “That would be one of the great gigs, by the way.”
He’s 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, a mystery in the motorsports community who’s kept his real name and identity cloaked behind a character in all black who never removes his Daft Punk-like helmet in public. A man of means from Malibu, so the legend goes, he wouldn’t have minded if Clarke wrecked the car, as long as the actor was unharmed. “I didn’t want to tell Jason this,” says Acer, a muted voice behind a helmet of carbon and a visor of mirrored glass. “But the faster you go, the smoother it is.”
Clarke was born the son of a sheep shearer and a court clerk in tiny Winton, Queensland. The eldest of four, Clarke would lead the crew of siblings on adventures in the vast nature of the outback. But the pull of the big city was too strong.
He started out in Sydney and worked at a café, where he became infatuated with the steady flow of backpackers streaming through. When he figured acting could provide the same sense of adventure, he went about it pragmatically and enrolled in drama school.
Cue several years of struggle and dead ends. Broke, he’d lean on friends for help and wonder to himself if this really was any way to live a life.
“If it wasn’t going to happen,” says Clarke now, “I would have gone and done something else. I don’t think there’s a point to sitting around and being a suffering actor or a frustrated actor.”
Then, as he was about to give up at the age of 33, a break came with Noyce and Rabbit-Proof Fence. He shone as a constable in the wrenching aboriginal drama, and countryman Noyce, who had successfully made the jump to the U.S., got in his ear. “Don’t be scared,” he told Clarke. So Clarke did what he does best. He planned it out—figuring how much it would cost, how much of a commitment he would give it and readying himself for the possibility that he’d come back with nothing.
“Coming to America was a big thing for me,” he says. “It’s an all-in thing. I think I had everything at stake. What are you going to do if it doesn’t work out? I didn’t have a plan beyond that. I grew up with my father and saw how hard that labor is.”
He had 10 grand in his pocket when he landed in L.A., ready to go for as long as the money would last.
When the roles didn’t come, he took the 1989 Ford Thunderbird he bought himself and drove out to the desert to go climb rocks, or go backpacking in Northern California. “I felt I was doing something, at least. … If it doesn’t work, at least I got to see America,” he says. “Desire needs opportunity to have a go. And there’s that period where you’re trying to get a go and you keep putting your foot in the door and it keeps getting crushed. And finally, you get your foot in the door and you poke your head in, you do your thing, and then someone says c’mon in.”
For Clarke, that invitation came in the form of Brotherhood, the Showtime series in which creator Blake Masters cast the unknown 37-year-old Clarke as one of the two leads. “I’ve been lucky like that a few times in my career,” he says. “With [Director] Michael Mann, for Public Enemies, with Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark. And Baltasar [Kormakur] with 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 Kormakur. “I was interested in someone who is working his way up,” says the Icelandic director, who liked Clarke’s “gravity” in Zero Dark Thirty.
“Someone who is hungry and ready to go the lengths with me.” And Clarke did the only thing he knew how and went all in.
“You learn it in drama school, but you learn it in backpacking and travel,” 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 go there. You’ve got to find where it is. As an actor it’s your job.”
On Christmas a few years ago, the Everest cast was filming scenes at Pinewood Studios near London when a storm hit Ireland and Scotland. Clarke and real- life Everest guide and consultant Guy Cotter got on a plane and headed north, to 4,409-foot Ben Nevis in the Scottish Highlands.
“That night and those two days we were night climbing and rapelling off in the storm, just to feel what it was like,” says Clarke. He wanted to understand how the little things—a lost glove, a late start—could doom an expedition as it did Rob Hall’s in 1996, famously chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air.
“No one was like Jason,” says Cotter. “We would spend hours going through the books, comparing accounts and discussing it to fine detail.”
For Cotter, who was a young man when he joined Rob Hall’s Adventure
Consultants in 1992, 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 beyond the climbing community.
“There was every chance for it to get Hollywood-ized,” says Cotter. But Kormakur and Clarke reached out soon after filming began and asked him to join the production.
He became Clarke’s tutor in all things Hall, taking the actor climbing in the mountains of his native New Zealand and on the Tasman Glacier. In Nepal, close to Everest Base Camp at 17,598 feet, Clarke would pester Cotter—asking him how he would move with this amount of oxygen deprivation, how he’d be communicating 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. Kormakur demanded a few takes and the yaks protested. “You could see them get irate,” says Cotter. One began to stampede and Clarke, with co-star Josh Brolin, grabbed it by the horns before it sent someone over the cliff. It’s the kind of anecdote that says everything about 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 87-degree heat, his Australian twang subtle with charm. However high up the celebrity chain this acting thing takes him, Clarke wants to make sure he never becomes the awkward star: “There’s nothing worse than people sitting around being weird because Somebody is there … I like my life. I like meeting people.”
He spent a few months this summer in Thailand for a film. Then it was off to Prague to play a despised Nazi leader in a WWII period piece. Each trip another opportunity to find out a little more about the world. He recently became a father, and now legacy is on his mind as well.
“There’s this quote. ‘Apart from his health, a man’s most valuable possession is his name,’ or your word. 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.”