Thursday 19 April 2018

Climbing the summit of success... actor Jason Clarke

Australian actor Jason Clarke continues his steady ascent in Hollywood with a new role as ill-fated Everest climber Rob Hall

Jake Gyllenhaal, as Scott Fischer, in the film Everest.
Jake Gyllenhaal, as Scott Fischer, in the film Everest.

Julia Molony

When casting the lead role of Rob Hall in Everest, real-life mountain guide and the man at the centre of the 1996 disaster in which eight climbers perished in a brutal storm at the mountain's summit, the film-makers needed someone who would bring a certain natural weather-beaten hardiness with him. Someone who could seem convincingly callused and capable in extremis. It makes sense then, that Jason Clarke, the Australian actor they chose, was raised on a sheep station in the far reaches of Northern Australia. It's not the Himalayas, to be sure. But you don't tend to grow up to be a delicate flower if you are born into life on a station.

Clarke is 46. He's been acting virtually since he left school, but it's only in the last few years that's he's really forged his way into the big leagues. His current run of success began with a memorable and brutal performance as a CIA agent in Kathryn Bigelow's controversial thriller Zero Dark Thirty, based on the hunt and capture of Osama Bin Laden. Since then, he's further forged his way into the multiplex, thanks to his headlining role alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator Genisys earlier this year, and now, with Everest.

He is tall and rangy, with an affable, Aussie manner which belies his craggy, intense appearance. After decades of professional struggle, he seems delighted to be where he is, and "making a good living from it too," he says.

"I'd change nothing in my career path. I was never built for being a handsome teenage star. That's just not in my psyche I think. I would have hated to have grown-up famous. I'm glad to have grown up in the countryside and played, and had to use my imagination rather than a TV and had to learn to act the hard way, to have dealt with the rejection. It's a life as well as a job, at the end the day we all have to work for a living, but we have to have a life as well." Though he never talks about his private life, he is rumoured to be either married or in a relationship with an unknown French woman, which is perhaps what informs his view that, "Europeans have it better than the Americans. The Americans work too hard. The balance is out of whack. Europe's hung onto a little bit more of living a life and then working as well."

He's aware that to be able to come into your own as an actor relatively late in the game is a privilege, in part, to his gender. The 40's can be a golden age," as a male actor," he says. "You've just got to look at the roll of the dice of the way roles go. Women have a much more difficult job. There's only room for one Meryl Streep. But as a man you come into fruition a little bit later. Or I certainly have, anyway."

Still, despite his current success, he's still not quite sure how he found his way from the-middle-of-nowhere that is Wilton, Queensland, to Hollywood. Particularly, how he ended up pursuing acting in the first place, given that it was a world very far removed from the one he grew up in. "My mum and dad joke about it a lot," he says. "I have a distant memory of being sick at home sometime and watching Sweet Bird of Youth. . . . I had no idea about movies at the time - you know when you're sick and there's a mid-day movie on sometimes?" But that's about all the light he can shed on how he discovered his vocation. " I don't know, I was a dreamer..." he concludes. In any case, he says, "It's too late now, I can't do anything else. I'm stuck with it."

Everest was shot on location in Nepal and the Italian Alps, and is a knuckle-grawingly immersive rendering of the experience of perishing in a blizzard at thousands of feet about sea-level. It makes use of 3-D and spectacular, swooping panoramic shots, and is a film absolutely conceived, designed and created for the big screen, if not the IMAX screen.

Clarke knows that in the era of video-on-demand, this gives a particular box-office pull. "More and more these days you've got to have a reason to go and see something in the cinema," he says. "And the cinema can be a proper experience, where you're feeling the cold, and you're feeling the tension and it builds on you. And I think this film does assault you in a big, huge way but then it's very intimate, and it does become stressful and it becomes upsetting."

The interests of authenticity meant that the cast had to deal with a lot of the same, real-life conditions as the climbers they were portraying, albeit in closely-controlled conditions. "Shooting in the locations wasn't just about a great backdrop - or a great view or a great wide-shot," he says. "It really was about us being there, and having a reality between us - as well as the sights and the sounds and the colours and the noise. But about us having to create some of the drama- it being real as well."

He brought a mountain-climber's obsessive dedication to his own preparation for a role. He climbed Ben Nevis and a New Zealand glacier before shooting. "I wanted to do it," he says. "I wanted to get better. I wanted to know what I was doing. I needed to have a competency and a level of understanding of how I operate."

But climbing aside, one of his hardest tasks was to replicate "Rob's vocal quality," at the point at which he'd been stranded at the summit overnight, and was in the process of dying of lack of oxygen and exposure. "It was weeks of work to get that stuff," he says. "I'd get up in the morning and I'd strain my voice. I'd yell, early, without warming up," all to try to capture "a gradual decrease in Rob's vocal quality, from the wind and the snow. You can hear he's been up there so long it is affecting him now. You know that it's too long. But that you hear his strength under it too. He's still doing what he's doing but his voice is giving him away. He's got nothing there left. You can feel his pain and you can feel his strength," he says.

He'd already had a long-held interest in the story anyway. Since it first unfolded in front of the watching world in May 1996, resulting ultimately in the deaths of expedition leader Hall (a pioneer in leading commercially-run, guided climbs up the world's highest peak) and seven other climbers.

"I'd followed this story since it happened in 96," he says. "And I really did know it. I'd read all the books and all the articles, and even all the things that were hard to find. So I think (the director, Baltasar Kormakur) was impressed that I really wanted to play this part and I knew this world really well, and I also had a sense of adventure. I'd done a lot of backpacking and travelling to some really strange, lonely foreign places. And he could see that I'd be there for him. I'd be right there for him when he needed me."

He understands the psychology of someone who is driven to risk everything and to test the limits of their endurance. "I can see the desire to do it," he says. "You leave home as a child and you go out and you do all these things. And you live on the other side of the world, or you climb mountains. There's just something about humans, we've got to scratch that itch."

There was a responsibility, he felt, to the memory of Rob Hall, and to his surviving family - his wife, who was seven months pregnant with the couple's daughter when he left on the ill-fated expedition, and his daughter Sarah, who was born soon after he died. "I didn't want to be some showy actor, I just wanted to do it," Clarke says. "Rob was a quiet, kind of just-get-on-with-it dude. These New Zealanders are not show-offs. They're not bravado. They're competent, they're quiet, they're gentle, but they're strong, and that was really important to me, to capture the spirit of Rob."

Everest is in cinemas from Friday.

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