Lawless features some towering performances. Tom Hardy commands with every grunt, Guy Pearce snarls in every scene, and Gary Oldman gives a quietly vicious performance. Then there’s Jason Clarke, playing the oldest of the three Bondurant brothers, Howard. He’s the brute of the group, the unhinged ox who’s seen a mass-scale violence, and he has clearly been affected by it. Clarke, like Hardy and his grunts, walks through the film with a lumbering physicality, as if he’s not even in much control over his own violent tendencies.
That physicality is a factor Clarke put a lot of thought into, from using a smaller heel on his boot to wearing weights on his ankles. It’s that sort of commitment which seems to have earned the actor gigs with the likes of Baz Luhrmann, Kathryn Bigelow, John Hillcoat, and the two peas in the pod, Roland Emmerich and Terrence Malick.
The actor was kind enough to take time off from walking around the White House for Emmerich to discuss his love for research, finding a character, and how you should never be afraid to go big.
You have two films this year that are based on true events, with Lawless and Zero Dark Thirty. How did the research process differ, especially since the accuracy of Bigelow’s film is more mysterious?
On Zero Dark Thirty, I was the first one to come in. That got up and ran pretty quickly once it all came together. I like to do as much hands on preparation as I can, so you get all your books and listen. On Lawless, I got ahold of the writer of the book, Matt Bondurant, to go and see his family. I drove to Franklyn county and spent about a week and a half hanging out with them, just hanging around the farm, drinking some moonshine, going to church, and just practical things.
On Zero Dark, a lot of it’s reading material, doing as much research off the Internet, and learning the practicalities of what they do and how they might go about it. Then you get over to Jordan early, to hang out in the area. That’s what a lot of those guys do: implant themselves in an area, set up a fake job, and start checking out the landscapes.
The environments Lawless, and definitely The Hurt Locker, play a big part in their stories. Considering that, it must be helpful immersing yourself in that atmosphere so early on.
Absolutely. You have to feel the energy of the place your character is going to exist in. To be able to touch it in some physical way is a very necessary part of whatever I’m trying to do. My favorite part of the film business is the research part, with the access we get from people who are excited to be involved and the things we get to see and do, which we’re not normally going to get in everyday life.
I’m getting ready to do a film where I’m playing Abraham Lincoln’s father back in the 1860s, and I’m going to try to live with an Amish family for that. What I like to look into is my enjoyment in the research, by discovering a good book or my own experience which could inform the character. I want to love the learning. I’m trying to live with an Amish family, which I think is the closest we have to Americans living in the 18th and 19th Century. You try to put as much food in the fridge as you can before you eat; it’s about getting it all there with the research and your experiences. Like, with a cop show, you do ride along, walk the neighborhood, and have experiences that can’t be taken away from you.
When does that research process stop? Even through shooting, are you still finding the character?
Yes. That’s one of the beauties of filmmaking, as opposed to theater: nothing is ever the same. With a good and open director, you can go all six ways to Sunday. The whole business of being an actor is to explore, from research to shooting to why you do it. You’re trying to see why people do what they do, and how it feels to do what they do.
So it’s usually an immersive experience trying to find the character, then? It’s more intimate than just going gig-from-gig?
You know, a lot of actors talk a lot about this as well. I remember a year ago I was just always angry and frustrated. I had been playing three angry, frustrated, and physically aggressive men for a year; it takes a toll on you. You become what you do, like your character. You are the sum of your actions. I like to do the things rather than act; it’s either real or it’s not. You come up with the physicality and explore it, to see as big as it needs to be. A friend, at the time, related a similar experience, and he had done A Streetcar Named Desire, and other things along that. Sometimes you hold on to these characters and love them, but sometimes you don’t see how they can act in your life or infringe on your relationships.
There’s a good deal of vulnerability to those aggressive characters you’ve played, especially with this and Public Enemies. Michael Mann has always been great at that.
Oh, Michael’s great at doing that. Michael’s a man’s man, but he’s also a very sensitive man, as well. You have to play the character for what it is: do what is required for the character and what is required in the script. Within that, everyone is fallible. Hopefully the script allows you to bring out as many dimensions that are there. In Public Enemies, they’re all men and they’re out there making it in the world.
When you join a project like The Great Gatsby, is it easier finding those dimensions, especially if you’re rereading the book a hundred times?
Yeah, yeah. That’s one of the great challenges of doing an adaptation — and it’s the same with Lawless — that there’s the book and the film. I will always start with the book. I read the book first, which is where the real work starts. Then you draw as much as you can, from the world, the language, the pacing, and the people in it. Then you come back and shoot the film, and it’s the film that is going to be shot. The hard, frustrating thing for actors is when it becomes another film in the edit. At that point, it’s out of your control. With Gatsby and Lawless, I don’t have all the scenes. I mean, in Lawless, my character had a wife. You could say to John Hillcoat you’d like to have that scene in there, but, hey, you got to serve the film. I always try to do that: exploring what’s there, rather than my side of the fence of wanting to get in my stuff. You’re there to serve.
Especially on something as massive as Gatsby. With that epic scope, from the costumes to those sets, you must feel like a small part in something gigantic.
Gatsby was great. Even though it’s a small part, that character represents the other side. His wife and his garage represents what kind of stuff is going on and living in his wake, and it was easy to come down to that. What you have to get across is the character’s journey to serve, to make it believable that my wife would have enough of me and for me to wonder who killed my wife. It’s all just clearly defined, you know?
Yeah. With Lawless and Public Enemies, there’s none of that heightened kind of period acting. When you work with someone like Baz Luhumann, do you have to go big or do you still play it with a sense of grounding?
I think I approach everything the same way. I am always joking around on the set to go big or go home. I think going big is a part of your enjoyment as an actor. If I’m feeling it I’ll go big, but, if the director says bring it down a bit…I mean, he’s not a flamboyant character and is a straight up man, but he’s grief, and I talked about that with Baz. Baz said to let it go as big as you want, so you can go big in whatever. If you got enough time to really work on your physicality the way Daniel Day Lewis does…although it might be shuffled in the end, what you’re doing is the sifts, the mannerisms, the ticks, and the speech patterns which can be quite big and grotesque, in a good way. It’s the challenge and enjoyment of filling out that big balloon I love, with any character. I approach it the same way, even on The Chicago Code, to remind myself to go big. You can go as big as you can, but it always has to come from a place that’s believable.
What did you want to achieve with Howard’s physicality?
A big ox of a bear man who is also unbalanced. He is the one brother who went to war, World War I. The whole world saw things they didn’t believe possible or that could happen to people. I had a rough picture in my head, and then I would go, “You know what? Maybe get a certain pair of shoes.” I had them make one heel a bit higher than the other, just so he’s a little bit off balance. I put some gym weights around my ankles, so there’d be some weight. With having a lot of weight and one shoe a little unbalanced, it helps me. Physicality is important.
All of the main characters in the film have a different stance on violence it seems. For Howard, does he think about the moral side of killing or is he just a “do it” person?
I think Howard is an innately active “do” person. These are questions I actually asked myself before we shot the film. I thought Howard was different than Forrest, because he had seen true violence, in terms of having patalians of your comrades mowed down in an instant. He has seen the grand-scale of where violence can get in. His temper is an innate — and it was was something he was born with — so he’s still capable of violence and prepared to do it. There was one scene in the film that was cut out, and it was after Shia takes a beating and Tom [Hardy] gives him a speech of being survivors and controlling the fear. There was a scene before that where he came up to Howard, and he says a similar thing, from a different point of view: about how to use violence and what it ultimately comes down to. How all three of us– and this is central to those three characters — perceive, use, and are affected by violence is really crucial.
Was there a lot of discussions with Mr. Hillcoat about how Howard is affected by violence or do you get that take by constantly going over the script?
You’re constantly going over the script, since it’s there and it’s in place. I think one of the reasons why Howard was last to be cast was because it’s a very difficult role to cast, in terms of how he fit in. The book is a three-hander, with Howard, Forrest, and Jack. In the movie, when you bring in Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf it became very Jack and Forrest-centric. Jack has the easy journey: a young man going to manhood. I understand why they did it and the film becomes something else, and you’re the one who follows. We’d sit around, workshop it, and figure out the guy. It was always about trying to bring more weight to the role, and what that supporting role is.
You mentioned how editing can impact a performance. Is that always a worry or when you work with directors like Luhrmann or Bigelow you don’t think much about it?
I don’t think about that idea at all. First and foremost, I am there to serve the story and the director. I’ll fight for the story first, and then the director, but it’s his film. That’s something I’ve let go of. I just go, get in there, do my best, and present opportunities. What happens is what happens. A lot of other forces come into play. Sometimes the weight of the film or the direction of the film can shift. It’s just one of those things in the film business: half the film is the shoot and the other half is the edit, and the edit is what’s going to get made. It’s so important to get a script right, get it right, and have the time…I think actors our your best bullshit detectors. You know, you sit there and listen to what’s working and what’s not working, and that doesn’t mean you can’t rehearse it and make it better. You’re looking for the natural sticking points. As an actor, you’re trying to get your ducks in a row, but sometimes it feels like the script isn’t getting its ducks in a row. Like, there’s a few jumps that doesn’t make sense, and you try to work them out.
How do you go about that, by talking with the director or just trying to figure that out on your own?
Usually everybody will go, “Yeah, yeah, I see that problem there.” Sometimes you might be wrong. You might have missed something. Generally when that does happen, people acknowledge it. It can be solved, like putting a band aid on a structure problem. I think that’s a part of the battle part of an actor, trying to get your ducks in a row. That’s the real visceral part of the work: picking up the script, plotting your journey, and connecting the dots. Even having to fight for that in the scenes — and not in terms of an argument, but working consistently — as each take is not the same as the last. You’re trying to make things connected, and that’s the enjoyable part of acting.
Lawless is now in theaters.