The star of Zero Dark Thirty and Everest has not had a major small-screen part since The Chicago Code in 2011, but takes center stage in Catherine The Great as Dame Helen Mirren’s love interest Grigory Potemkin.
Potemkin is a swashbuckling military man, with a taste for women and an eye for a brawl. He charms his way into Catherine the Great’s affections, before leading her troops into battle with Turkey.
In an interview with Deadline the day after Catherine The Great’s premiere in London this week, Clarke said Potemkin was “behemoth,” and a role that demanded much of him — both in terms of preparation and performance.
The Australian actor also spoke with relish about being able to paint a character on a bigger canvas, the shifting power between film and TV, British success at the Emmys, and how actors are spoiled for choice in a golden age of drama.
Were you at the premiere last night?
I was. It was lovely. It’s just great to catch up with people. You know when we all leave after four months in the winter, it’s in a hurry and [you’re in] different parts of the world. And last night we’re all together again, it was wonderful.
So was it the first time you’ve seen it with an audience?
I didn’t watch it last night. I’ve actually watched the whole thing, I was sent a link and I watched it all. Just to refresh. I end up watching all four in a marathon session. It’s a great sign for the show. They’re four very unique and different paced episodes that tie up to something quite beautiful and profound.
What appealed to you about the character, why did it stand out to you?
Because it was going to ask a lot of me. It was such a big character to begin with. A guy that I was going to really have to reach for and I thought I needed to do that. And I felt like the rest of the pieces were in place for me. And what was required of Potemkin in the story was integral to telling this whole story about Catherine the Great. It was that that really appealed to me, as well as of course, the people and the quality and the exoticness of it.
It’s a story about a very strong woman. Do you think that’s an important story to be telling at this time?
I’m not one of these ones that go ‘hey what’s the meaning in this.’ Of course it’s inherent, everything’s inherent, and the fact they’ve chosen to do this and the finance was available and an actress of Helen’s stature was ready to do it. It was wonderful for me to do the [research] reading to understand how maligned Catherine and Potemkin were in history. That they were written out for a long part of it and rewritten for most of it and totally kind of discounted in Western history.
When you’re diving into all of this, does it require a lot of research? How much time do you devote?
I devote a lot of time to it. That’s going to tell you whether you wanna do the part. I went back to the Romanovs and how it all started. I didn’t have to read past Catherine, but I kept going and then you’re into communist 1918, and then you’re into Peter the Great. It’s just part of it. And of course there’s the physical part of riding the horses, working out the sword and finding what it must have been like to have been these behemoths. That and finding my Russian-ness, you know what it is and what that means. And watching Russian movies and the style of acting they have.
But with an English accent in Catherine The Great?
You either buy it or you don’t. What you lose in one area, you gain in the other and that’s just the overall thing. Who’s going to watch the Russian version? We don’t even watch Russian TV as it is.
This is one of your first big TV projects since The Chicago Code. How has the industry changed and has TV become more significant to actors of your stature?
On a personal level, I enjoy staying with a character. If I get to do that much work for it, I enjoy keeping it for a longer period of time. It beats you up to do it, shoot it, and finish and then have to find another one. I was exhausted by that. On another level, so many people watching these shows now.
It’s a golden age, but also it’s hard to keep up with the technology and what’s changing and the moguls that are running it, you’re HBO guys, your Apple dudes. Just the number of eyeballs that are on this now. There’s a great other avenue for people that love drama or love deeper storytelling than having to go and do a superhero movie. There’s nothing against it, they’re great experiences but it [TV] is on that kind of scale now. And of course it’s great to do a great small movie and go to festivals, but it’s so great for people to see your work and to discuss that work and for it to be out there on a huge scale.
If this was a movie now, you’d be getting phone calls about what it’s tracking and that can take away from your experience. In a way, it brings you back to a lot of enjoyment in being an actor.
So you’ve enjoyed painting on a bigger canvas?
Yeah absolutely. Everyone gets more time to tell their stories and to contribute their part to the story. You look at the level of actors in this show. I mean my God. It’s a deep bench here.
Do you think that there’s been a shift in power between film and TV?
It’s still about money. This is a film business, TV business. So there’s obviously a lot more ways of collecting revenue, of dipping into people’s pockets, absolutely. You got to look at the level of actors that are now doing TV. Absolutely. And the writers, I mean you’re seeing the biggest deals in the whole business now are usually showrunners, writers.
You get people like [Catherine The Great writer] Nigel [Williams]. A man of his age, where they’ve been passed over I guess in the movie business. He’s one of the few dudes capable of tying a monstrous story like this together — that has the intelligence, the history, the sharpness, the ability to cohesively work this into something that plays as a story.
For me I enjoy it. I’m doing an HBO limited series right now, the Lakers one, it’s just wonderful. In terms of budget and shoot and all that, there’s no difference in terms of the size and scale of what we’re shooting on and how we’re shooting it.
You’re here in Britain, what’s it been like working with British production talent at New Pictures and Origin Pictures?
The last three, four years I’ve done a film in Europe and it’s fantastic. I love it. At a basic level, the hair and makeup was wonderful. I always like coming to London. For an Australian actor, it’s a dream come true. There’s a different culture and way of doing things even to working in Australia, working in Thailand. You’re living a life in the middle of this work and that is one of the joys of our business. You get to learn new things, travel to different places and meet great people, and live an interesting life.
Do you think Britain is having a bit of a moment given the Emmy success?
Britain’s developed some of the best writers and people in the business. It’s definitely going to start understanding it’s worth now. It bodes well for the massive catalog of what you guys have done, and the depth of the talent you have here and their ability.
And as a viewer, we’re talking about all these different streamers that are available now. What do you subscribe to? What do you like to watch? Can you keep up with everything?
No no no. It’s funny you go back and you watch them at different times, don’t you? I subscribe to HBO. I subscribe to Netflix. It’s a changing world like that isn’t it? It was supposed to bring our bills down but the bill’s probably gone up.
As an actor do you have more choice now?
I think so, yeah. I get offers from all around the world now. French or Russian film, or an Egyptian film. It’s interesting.
Do you relish that choice or does it make your life a bit more difficult?
You can’t read everything. I can’t remember the last time I read a book because you’re reading scripts, or listening to books or material to get ready [for a part]. You get tired after a while of people talking about material and whether it’s going to adapt or whether we can buy it — sometimes I just want to read a book.
But it’s a really good time [for the industry].