Jason Clarke on 'Pet Sematary' Scares and 'Terminator' Disappointment

The Australian actor shares his thoughts on the Stephen King adaptation and his time as John Connor being cut short after ‘Genisys’ underperformed: “The stories that came afterwards were really exciting.”
Francois Durand/Getty Images
Jason Clarke

Jason Clarke insists that you see Pet Sematary with an audience. As positive reactions pour in from South by Southwest’s world premiere, Clarke has already heard the reaction of the film’s toughest critic.

Pet Sematary (2019) is the second feature film to adapt Stephen King’s classic horror novel from 1983, which just so happened to be Clarke’s introduction to King’s work. Since King’s famously unfavorable reaction to Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of his 1977 novel, The Shining, has become the stuff of Hollywood legend, filmmakers who’ve since adapted his work have anxiously awaited his approval, something the new Pet Sematary has received, according to Clarke.

When asked if it was quite a relief to have King’s approval, Clarke tells The Hollywood Reporter, “Of course, yeah. In the emails that I’ve seen, King understands that his work has to be interpreted. It’s wonderful to have that dialogue.”

Of course, this isn’t Clarke’s first go-round with famous properties of yesteryear. While his first franchise role in 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes received near universal acclaim and box office triumph, his second attempt as John Connor in 2015’s Terminator: Genisys was a disappointment with critics, as well as a dud at the domestic box office.

“Everyone wanted that Terminator to work. The stories that came afterward were really exciting,” Clarke says. “You do look at things and say…‘I wish James [Cameron] had been more involved as he is now [with the upcoming 2019 film]; maybe, they should’ve hidden the story a bit better.’ Retrospection is easy, but of course, you let them go. There’s no point in hanging on to the what-ifs.”

Clarke, who recently spoke with THR, also discusses the influence of filmmakers Michael Mann and Kathryn Bigelow on his career, his relationship with his fellow Australian actors and the ins and outs of his experience with Christian Bale on Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups.

Pet Sematary (1989) marked a lot of firsts for me. It was my first horror movie; it was my first exposure to Stephen King’s work; and it was the first film to genuinely unsettle me. What was your gateway to Stephen King?

It was this book when I was in my late teens. Pet Sematary was the first book that I read of King’s. It kind of scared me more than it unsettled me at that point. Then, I was more interested in the narrative of what happened: how did it work in the forest and how did they come back in the world. When I became a father, it really unsettled me.

You’ve played your fair share of complicated husbands, and Louis Creed is no exception. Since most actors avoid judging their characters, is it a challenge to continually find ways of humanizing these guys?

Of course, yeah. I mean, that’s your job. My job isn’t to judge my characters; my job is to contribute to the story and help the director make the film that he or she wants to make. With Louis, you want the audience to come with Louis to a degree, so that in some way, they can arrive around that point of “What if?” What if you lost your child and you knew there was a place that had the power to bring dead things back? Would you do it? What type of father would you be (a) if you did or (b) if you didn’t do it. That’s the job of an actor: to contribute and give as much to the director as you can to make what they want to make.

When there’s a Louis in the book, as well as a Louis in the script, is there a constant tug-of-war as far as which one you adhere to most?

The interesting thing is: the book is basically Louis’ inner monologue in a way. There are huge chunks where you’re hearing his thoughts and his processes that he goes through, particularly that night when he digs up Gage in the book. You have to shoot the film in the end; the script is what you’re shooting. It’s easy to make that mistake as an actor: to try and do the source material. If it’s not gonna work for the story that’s going to be told in the cinema, it’s gonna kind of run into a brick wall. So, that’s the director’s job — to guide you. There’s one line in the movie where I said, “Let God take his own fucking child.” That line was improvisation. It was Ellie’s line early on in the book: “Let God have his own cat.” By understanding the source material, you find ways to bring out more of the book, when you can, while still shooting the script.

This film is directed by co-directors, Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer. Generally speaking, is this arrangement mostly advantageous for you as a performer?

It takes a while to get used to. I’ve done it twice before. You’ve gotta understand the singleness of the director and separateness of them as well. And that they do have different opinions of what’s going on and learn how to use that. It can be really helpful in terms of just getting stuff done, particularly in a hectic shoot. So long as they’re on the same page with what they want, it’s pretty simple, but sometimes, they might have different opinions. That kind of adds to it; you’ve got someone else to play against and work with.

Given King’s history, I presume it was quite a relief when you learned that he was a fan of this latest adaptation?

Of course, yeah. I like The Shining, and I’m sure Stephen appreciates that movie in some way. In the emails that I’ve seen, King understands that his work has to be interpreted. There’s no way just to do a straight adaptation of his book. The directors had to make it their own, which I think they’ve done. It’s wonderful to have that dialogue. It must be great for him to see his books be interpreted still, 30 to 40 years after they’ve been written.

I talked to Ben Mendelsohn recently, and I got the impression that there’s a great deal of camaraderie amongst Australian actors. Do you keep in touch with your tribe, so to speak?

Benny! Yeah, there’s also different generations. Benny and I are from the same generation of actors. The last time I actually physically saw Ben was the Independent Spirit Awards when he was with the Gary Oldman movie [Darkest Hour] and I was doing Mudbound. You bump into each other and you see what they’re doing. Benny and I are a similar age and had a similar journey; we know each other. The younger guys I don’t really know that much. There’s a different generation that I haven’t really seen — unlike Ben, Joel Edgerton and even Hugh Jackman. Hugh Jackman and I studied together many, many years ago as we first started acting. So, it’s great to have that big group of people that you’ve known for a long, long time. Cate Blanchett and I did our first play together. So, it’s wonderful to see people grow and change, find success and have children — and still be doing it. And enjoying their work as Benny’s a great actor.

Do your past characters creep into your psyche or dreams ever?

Pet Sematary disturbed me — just that relationship with a child. I guess you’re always drawing on yourself and your life; there’s always part of you in each of your characters. So, it can creep in. Years ago, I did three or four angry men in a row, and I was a bit wound up. My girlfriend at the time, who’s now my wife, told me to take some time and calm down. It finds a way in, but you get better at shutting it out. The characters that you play find their way into all the roles that you’ve had. Playing fathers helps you play other fathers or helps inform other roles. You put these characters inside of you, and you use parts of them as you go down the road to create new characters for each role that you do.

You worked with Terrence Malick on Knight of Cups. As you’re hanging out in that palatial backyard with Christian Bale, what sort of direction did Malick give you since there was no script in the equation?

(Laughs.) “Just go and have fun. You see that guy over there? Go and torment him [Bale]. You see that guy over there? Go and play with him.” I think Terrence does a lot of his directorial work in his casting and just setting the boundaries of what the actors play within. He usually casts very high-caliber actors. I remember that day and time we were shooting. It was a great big zoo to go and interact with.

Bale’s character was shot in the eyes by a squirt gun offscreen. Immediately after, you hugged him and laughed while holding a squirt gun. Can you confirm that you pulled the trigger?

Yeah, I shot him; I shot him with a squirt gun. (Laughs.)

Bale seemed to break character for a moment or two.

I think that was part of it. Terrence just wanted an environment where anything goes. So, I was more than happy to shoot Christian with a squirt gun.

I’m curious about the lasting influence of your former directors. When you’re stuck or challenged by a scene, do you ever recall the advice of Michael Mann, Kathryn Bigelow, Oliver Stone, etc.?

I think you’re defined by all the people you’ve worked for, worked with and the experiences they’ve given you. Absolutely. For instance, let’s say Michael Mann. On Public Enemies, I had to do a death scene in the back of a car with Johnny Depp. I had to die rather quickly and I was a young actor then. Mann just put a lot of pressure on me to get the dialogue out and die, which is often a hammy moment. You learn to deal with things, and that really taught me to learn to deal with pressure and to trust my director in that way. Say the words and then die.

With Kathryn, she’s very free about letting you find your way into character. She often shot a lot with three or four cameras. They all contribute to you and you carry it around with you. You find yourself able to evolve and change as an actor. You open yourself up more, essentially. You get to a point where you have a bigger bag of tricks to reach into and give the director what they need.

Regarding Malcolm and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — I was reminded of Alien 3 at first since Malcolm was killed between movies a la Newt. Were you surprised when you learned that Malcolm wouldn't return to some extent?

Not really, no. Matt [Reeves] is a really amazing writer, conceptualizer as well as a director. I always had a feeling when we finished that he would go into a different area, and that it wouldn’t be a straight-up continuation. It would go into a brand-new place as you tell this massively huge, mural-like story of apes and man. So, it didn’t surprise me, no.

If Matt Reeves casts you as the Penguin in his forthcoming Batman movie, I’ll consider us even at that point.

(Laughs.) When you see Reeves, go and tell him that.

Obligatory Terminator: Genisys question: Fans often dwell on matters such as the marketing revealing the nature of your John Connor, or James Cameron not being as hands-on as he is with the upcoming film. Do you also play Monday-morning quarterback, or do you have a healthier outlook?

Of course, you do. Actors are fans as well. Going to watch Pet Sematary at the cinema really reminded me of how little I do that now — watch movies in the cinema — and I really enjoyed them as an audience member. There’s no need to be precious about your work. You do look at things and say exactly the same lines that you said: “I wish James had been more involved as he is now; maybe, they should’ve hidden the story a bit better.” Retrospection is easy, but of course you let them go. There’s no point in hanging on to the what-ifs. That’s part of acting; it’s moment-to-moment. You can’t be dwelling on what happened because you’re not going to get it in the present. So, to answer that, yes, but you find a way to let go. That comes with years of experience. Of course, you go and wish what-if. Everyone wanted that Terminator to work. The stories that came afterward were really exciting.

Do you miss Brotherhood as much as I do?

(Laughs.) You know what? I do! I miss Rhode Island a lot. That state was very good to me. It’s a very unique American state. I haven’t really found that anywhere else in America. I’ve had a lot of joy and a lot of friends, but Rhode Island is very particular. It was my beginning in this country, and it’s got great memories for me.

***

Pet Sematary opens April 5.