It is not easy being a mere mortal pitted against a population of spectacular CG-enhanced and motion-capture simians. But Jason Clarke does our species proud as Malcolm, the human emissary who seeks a peaceful co-existence with the genetically evolved beasts who now have the upper paw in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” The Australian actor, whose waterboarding skills as a CIA interrogator in 2012’s “Zero Dark Thirty” left quite a disturbing impression, shows an altruistic side without getting all sappy. Or snappish, as was the case with Charlton Heston‘s shout-prone astronaut in the 1968’s “Planet of the Apes.”
While Andy Serkis is getting the lion's share of praise for his motion capture performance as Caesar, Clarke scored some upbeat notices too. “A former architect whose heroics ring true, with overtones of strength and kindness that reminded me of Paul Newman," writes “Wall Street Journal’s” Joe Morgenstern. And “The Altantic’s” Christopher Orr declares Clarke to be “a better actor than he is a movie star.”
Movie stardom might be inevitable now that he is part of a burgeoning “Apes” franchise whose first sequel managed to collect an estimated $73 million – about 33% more than 2011 predecessor “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” – and claim the spot atop the weekend’s box office chart.
Signature line: “When you lie to me, I hurt you” – Clarke as Dan, the CIA torture expert who is unflinching on the job yet is near tears when an Army base’s monkeys are euthanized in “Zero Dark Thirty.”
Career peaks: At 44, the son of a sheep shearer in rural Winton in Queensland, Australia, is far from an overnight sensation. Clarke has been working since 1995, appearing in numerous Down Under TV series. He struggled from job to job and was ready to quit when he was recruited to play a cop in countryman Phillip Noyce’s well-received 2002 drama “Rabbit-Proof Fence.”
Inspired by Noyce’s success in Hollywood (“Patriot Games,” “Clear and Present Danger”), Clarke landed major roles on a pair of American crime dramas, Showtime’s “Brotherhood” in 2006 and Fox’s “The Chicago Code” in 2011 with Jennifer Beals. He also made the leap to movies in between, with supporting parts in 2009’s “Public Enemies” and 2010’s “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.”
Clarke then did a trio of movies that just happened to also feature actress Jessica Chastain: As part of ensemble cast of stalled-on-arrival “Texas Killing Fields” (2011), as member of a family of moonshiners in John Hillcoat’s ultra-violent "Lawless" (2012) and as Chastain’s mentor in “Zero Dark Thirty.” He appeared in two high-profile mainstream releases in 2013: “The Great Gatsby” as the cuckolded mechanic George Wilson and “White House Down” as a terrorist.
Biggest assets: It’s not just his furry co-stars and reviewers of the Homo sapiens persuasion who have taken a shine to Clarke. This strapping 6-foot-plus actor with the unruly curls, piercing blue eyes and aquiline nose has also caught the eye of female moviegoers. He is a part of a fresh breed of Aussie leading men, including Joel Edgerton, Sam Worthington and the Hemsworth brothers, who share a knack for easily meshing machismo with vulnerability.
But Clarke, a whiz at American accents, is still in the process of being discovered by the general public. And he likes it that way: “You need mystery. You actually do," he told a 2012 Cannes interviewer. "There's still a sense that you need to keep some of the unknown because that's where the soul resides, or something.”
Awards attention: He deserved a supporting-actor Oscar nomination for “Zero Dark Thirty.” But given the job opportunities he has attracted, Clarke’s day will come soon enough.
Biggest misfire: “Texas Killing Fields,” directed by Michael Mann’s daughter, Ami, after Danny Boyle dropped out. Despite a strong cast that also included Worthington, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Chloe Grace Moretz, the reality-based crime drama grossed a little over $45,000 on a handful of screens.
Biggest problem: Clarke intentionally maintains a low profile in his private life, especially with the press -- the better to be believable in a variety of parts and not be typecast. Many moviegoers probably don’t even realize he isn’t American. As “Apes” director Matt Reeves told The Sydney Morning Herald, “I’ve been following Jason’s career for a long time and he’s just a brilliant character actor who disappears into his roles, and that’s what we always wanted for this film. He’s someone who always brings an emotional reality to the role and he won’t be unknown much longer, trust me.”
Gossip fodder: Though amiable in interviews, Clarke is social media’s worst nightmare. He has managed to keep his personal life to himself. He won’t say much about his marital status or about his partner, who could be named Cecile and might be either French or half-Italian. While promoting “Lawless” at Cannes in 2012, Clarke did confirm to GQ that he has a French girlfriend.
Career advice: Finding fame at a mature age has its benefits. Clarke prefers to let his work speak for itself, and his choices say volumes about his talent and taste. He learned his craft at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne and has paid his dues on the small screen. And he is duly grateful for his opportunities so far: “I’ve had amazing experiences with directors who believed in me. First Phil and then Michael Mann, who went to bat for me as an unknown and insisted to the studio he had to cast me in ‘Public Enemies,’ and then Kathryn Bigelow, who did the same with 'Zero Dark Thirty.'"
Now Clarke just needs to continue to show us what else he’s got – but without any of those computerized apes upstaging him.
What’s next: Get used to it, because Clarke’s face will soon be everywhere. Expected this year: Sundance drama “The Better Angels,” as Abraham Lincoln’s father, Terrence Malik’s long-awaited improvised drama “Knight of Cups” with Natalie Portman and Christian Bale, and the crime drama “Child 44,” about a series of child murders in Stalin-era Russia. Then matters truly get serious in 2015, with Clarke tackles the iconic role of John Conner opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in action epic “Terminator: Genesis.” After that, he co-stars with Keira Knightley, Robin Wright, Jake Gyllenhaal and Josh Brolin in “Everest,” the true story of a doomed expedition up the tallest mountain in the world.