12/17/2012 09:42 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2013

Jason Clarke, 'Zero Dark Thirty' Star, On Torture Debate & Staying Under The Radar

Jason Clarke is one of the most talked-about actors in Hollywood right now -- you just might not realize it yet. Clarke gives a standout performance in "Zero Dark Thirty" as Dan, a CIA intelligence officer who specializes in "enhanced" interrogations. If that description raises the controversy antenna, it's no accident: All of those articles about whether or not Kathryn Bigelow's latest film supports torture discuss Clarke's opening moments on screen, where his character waterboards a prisoner named Ammar (Reda Kateb) in an effort to discover information about the next terrorist attack (as well as the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden).

The torture debate aside, "Zero Dark Thirty" caps a big year for Clarke. He also starred in "Lawless" (opposite his "Zero Dark Thirty" co-star Jessica Chastain) and filmed a pair of highly anticipated 2013 releases: "The Great Gatsby" (with Leonardo DiCaprio) and "White House Down" (with Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum). Suffice it to say, Clarke's breakout will likely extend into next year and beyond, long after the controversy surrounding "Zero Dark Thirty" has died down.

Clarke, an Australian native, sat down with HuffPost Entertainment at a Manhattan hotel earlier this month to discuss "Zero Dark Thirty."

Did you get to meet the real "Dan" at all?
No. There are guys like Dan out there -- Dan's a real guy -- but no, that was never going to happen. I might have joked about it, but the dude's out there. His life is on the line as is his ability to do the job. Even having played the part, I wouldn't have even bothered to ask. Still, I like to get my ducks in a row. You go from the script: there's not expositional back story in this thing. That made it easier in terms of you are what you do. Then, to get in the mode of how these guys live, I likened that to acting: You're always in a hotel, you're always traveling, you're always having to adapt somewhere. Also, I had been to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jordan; lots of far-flung places. I know what it's like to want to blend in. Stay free and easy on the ground. I read a lot of books. Bob Baer's book, "The Black Banners," "The Looming Tower." I also read therapy books.

I knew I was going to have to get in there and relate to somebody. For me, it's all about getting to know the other person and letting that person unburden themselves. I read a guy called Irvin Yalom, who wrote about creating a relationship in the here and now, which allowed me to get where I need to get to. Then, also, I studied a bit of boxing. Not just for physicality, but for movement, space, owning the ring and shutting things down. Also, as a boxer, it's one of those sayings: To get a bit a skin, you've got to give a bit of skin. I think you can see that with Dan. He takes his knocks. His style is very open. He's there for the person. "No matter what's going on, I'm here for you, dude." He offers up himself to create the environment. As you go through, it marks his journey. He goes to Washington and he's got to adapt there. He's got to polish up the fingernails and slick back the hair and get the suit on. I love that Mark Boal wrote all that.

To me, the interesting thing about Dan is that he's almost less sympathetic as he gets away from the interrogation room. Toward the end, he even turns his back on Maya, with whom he's built up a strong relationship. Was that kind of inverse arc fun for you to play?
I didn't think, "How can I give a great performance?" It was all about doing what was there. It didn't need flowering. That journey was there in the script and the journey was there in reality. It's in Mark's research. That happened, dude. You can imagine: Dan and Maya know each other really well. Even at the beginning it was never about creating sympathy. It was about getting the job done. CIA people are using so many different techniques, like bribery and surveillance. It's coming at it from different angles. Because what Dan needed is that information. He knew that, in two weeks, something is going to go off. He doesn't know where. That's the pressure these people are under.

It's hard to watch the scenes of waterboarding and not think of them in a political context ...
It may be hard to watch before you go in. But once it starts and we're going to black and you hear those sounds from 9/11 ...

Right, but the film does show torture having worked, as Ammar gives up a key piece of information about Bin Laden's courier.
Well, it failed with Ammar as well. Khobar went off.

That's true, too. Did you guys discuss a lot of this while on set?
It was there in Mark's script. None of us -- but particularly Mark and Kathryn -- are going to be free and easy with history. Because everybody could jump on this and there's no need to. The story is so amazing and it's so tight. It's coming at it with integrity. The ability to stick to the story and stick to the facts and trust that it's going to bring you out. In the same way Kathryn doesn't build the Abbottabad compound in fake walls on a Hollywood set. It's built for real, and the camera and the actors were forced to squeeze in there to make it work. That brings you the amazing raid at the end. It brings you the integrity of the scene, which the audience feels. The reward is there.

The waterboarding scene is so intense because it's so intimate and real. Was there a lot of rehearsal to get that right?
No. It's the same way as building the Abbottabad compound: "Let's do it. Let's make it work within the confines." I remember walking on to shoot that scene. I was so nervous. Normally, you shoot it wide [with one camera] to block out the scene. So, if you get it wrong, you're stuck, because you have to repeat the same moves again for the camera. But there were three or four cameras going [during that scene] at once. You realize she's going to get the coverage she needs. That creates an environment where you're going to find the scene, and that's where you can find the reality. You can find those moments that really connect. Like the orange juice bottle. When Ammar hangs on to it and then you see him give it over. Just to watch that is powerful. It's that environment that we're working in, and then it's shot before you know it. For Reda [Kateb] and I, that was a gift. Because that's not something you want to be doing for a week. The amount of emotional and physical commitment it takes to do those is exhausting.

Was this a tough character to put down at night when the day was over?
I like to get out and explore wherever I'm at: go home, go to the hotel, go to the streets, go to a little falafel joint. Meet some locals. Go to the bathhouse, meet some other locals. You always stay within the character. You immerse yourself enough so you feel like you can touch on [the character] at any point. You can access it, you can explore. That's the great thing about shooting where we shot. We went to these places. Dan's a guy who does have to get out there and look around, meet the locals. I'd go out to play games with guys, who would ask what I was doing there. I'd say I was backpacking or whatever. Somebody would take me to their shop. I'd have lunch with somebody or see kids who wanted to speak some English. They didn't know me.

That feels like it could be fleeting. You've been working for a while, but now you're the "next big thing." Is that weird?
Yeah. You know, we all need to walk through those doors. Not just to grow as an actor but to be able to get the next part. That's how this business runs. It's what kind of consciousness level are you at within the community, so they can put you in a film and get it out there. It's weird. The other night, I'm at the Governor's Awards. There's Kurt Douglas. "Please say hello to Warren Beatty." Amy Pascal is showing me around and introducing me. You go, "Man, this is hilarious." You walk into the Sony lot. Then you remember back to drama school and where you started. I always try to hang on to the reasons you're in it and why you're doing it.

Where were you when you found out Bin Laden was killed?
I was back in Australia. I think I had just finished "The Great Gatsby." My best friend is a country doctor; we went to university together. He was helping some lady. We got a call, we were going to to go dinner. I had gone down to see him and I was sitting in the car listening to the radio while he was in there. It was in the middle of nowhere. Then I'm hearing this stuff and it was like, "What?" I mean, "What?" Because it was the radio as well, so I'm hearing it. It wasn't just the speech. "They're out on the street in New York City." I just sat there and sat back. I'm in a dark night on the other side of the world and just taking it in. Then you're like, "It just happened and not that long ago."

'Zero Dark Thirty' Reactions
'Zero Dark Thirty' Reactions