A bold turn as a bin Laden-hunting CIA agent in ''Zero Dark Thirty'' has made Clarke one of Hollywood's most wanted

By Sara Vilkomerson
December 14, 2012 at 05:00 AM EST

When Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) told Jason Clarke she wanted him to play a part in Zero Dark Thirty, he surprised both the Oscar-winning director and himself with his reaction. ”I just grabbed the woman and hugged her,” says the actor, 43, still sounding somewhat incredulous. His enthusiasm is understandable. Zero Dark Thirty (rated R, in theaters Dec. 19), which tracks the manhunt for Osama bin Laden, has been topping critics’ lists and is already considered a Best Picture favorite. And Clarke’s portrayal of a CIA operative charged with breaking accused terrorists is mesmerizing, a potent mix of intelligence, tenderness, and ferocity. ”I always thought that [my character] was the type of interrogator who’s like a boxer,” he says. ”You’ve got to give a bit of skin. You’ve got to open yourself up if you want to get in there and hit.” The role is generating Oscar chatter for the Australian-born actor, who’s been working for almost two decades, most recently alongside Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy in Lawless and on Fox’s The Chicago Code. And he’s not slowing down: In 2013 Clarke will be seen in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby; the action thriller White House Down (from which Clarke is currently nursing two ribs cracked in a fight scene with Channing Tatum — ”At least they were broken by the Sexiest Man Alive,” he jokes); Terrence Malick’s star-studded Knight of Cups; and William Monahan’s Mojave. But for now Clarke seems content to enjoy the success of Zero Dark Thirty. ”This is a once-in-a-lifetime film,” he says. ”You can feel that it’s special.”