Growing up in the Australian Outback, Jason Clarke used to help his dad shear sheep; later he attended law school to escape his rural upbringing. The physical and prosecutorial sides of Clarke's past are both on display in Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's gripping account of the Osama bin Laden manhunt: As the CIA operative who introduces a fellow agent (Jessica Chastain) to the dark arts of torture and interrogation, he reasons calmly with detainees before waterboarding and humiliating them.
The high-profile role in such a hot-button film is sure to put the spotlight on the 43-year-old actor, as Bigelow's The Hurt Locker did for Jeremy Renner. "That," Clarke says dryly, "would be good."

He's been searching for the "heart-mind connective tissue" in archetypal American men since moving to Los Angeles from Australia in 2005. There was the ethically challenged New England pol in Showtime's Brotherhood, the grizzled detective on Fox's The Chicago Code, the emotionally scarred bootlegger in last year's Lawless. Clarke sounds earnestly pro–red, white, and blue in his approach to these characters: "I feel responsibility because I'm playing Americans, it's part of their history, and I'm a foreigner." That respect for the Stars and Stripes is helping him as he becomes an in-demand commodity in Hollywood. He plays the doomed cuckold George Wilson in Baz Luhrmann's hotly anticipated remake of The Great Gatsby (out in May), and he recently landed the part of Abraham Lincoln's father in The Green Blade Rises, the Terrence Malick–produced epic about the 16th president's formative years. And yet, he also goes after POTUS in White House Down (out in June), his first big popcorn-movie role, as a rogue soldier and nemesis to Channing Tatum. "I'm holding up a rocket launcher, as you do, shooting it off the top of the White House, when he shoulder charges me," Clarke recalls. "Dude broke two of my ribs!" Welcome to America.

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