Zero Dark Thirty‘s Jason Clarke on Playing an Interrogator and Prepping for a Torture Scene

The film has reignited the debate about CIA techniques. How did the actor prepare to get down and dirty?

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Jonathan Olley/Zero Dark Thirty, LLC/Columbia Pictures

Kyle Chandler (left) and Jason Clarke in 'Zero Dark Thirty'

Zero Dark Thirty is, on a visceral level, a difficult movie to watch—waterboarding is just the tip of the iceberg—and a lot of audience squeamishness may be due to the work of Australian actor Jason Clarke, who plays Dan, a CIA interrogator. In a series of no-holds-barred torture scenes, Clarke brings to life a man who’s good at his job and wants to do good, even if that means treating certain people badly. Clarke, who will soon be seen in The Great Gatsby, spoke to TIME about how he prepared for the complicated role.

TIME: You’ve mentioned that you had read some psychotherapy books to prep for the role of Dan. What did you learn from them?

Jason Clarke: The guy I read and I love is Irvin Yalom. He wrote books like Love’s Executioner and he also wrote a book on therapy, a very layman’s-terms way of examining life and how you look at it. I’ve played a cop before and I’ve watched a lot of videos of homicide interrogations. At any point in a homicide interrogation you can call for your lawyer and it’s over. A great interrogator extends that moment as long as possible. Maybe it never even comes. I was just really conscious of how you get something out of somebody. It’s by relating to them. It’s like boxing. You’ve got to give a bit of skin to get a bit of skin, you know? That’s what Yalom talks about in his book, about giving a part of yourself to open up a person so that they give in.

What other preparation did you do, emotionally or physically, for those torture scenes?

You examine the instruments. Like a doctor, you have to look at what you’re going to use and how it works and what its limitations are. I Googled stuff on the Internet, YouTube. I read The Black Banners, which was written by an FBI agent who did the investigation of the Cole bombing. You connect with the other actor. Make sure there’s trust involved and he knows he can depend upon you and rely on you, which works for the scene as well. I want to let him know, “I’m here for you at the end of the day, unburden yourself.”

What was your relationship like with the actor who plays the accused terrorist, Reda Kateb, off-camera?

Fantastic. I just sent him an email the other day — he’s in Africa shooting a film. I said, “Dude, wait till you see it.” You can’t do it without the other person and we were just as committed to telling real events, telling things that actually happened, as tough as they are, in as honest a way as we could.

(MORE: Richard Corliss’s review of Zero Dark Thirty: The Girl Who Got bin Laden)

Did working on the film affect your opinions about those events?

As an actor, the first thing you learn in drama school is you never judge. My job there is to do what’s on the page. My opinion comes when I read the script if I find something either false or gratuitous. I think it’s a great debate going on right now and it’s hard to say what another man is like before you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. It’s also not easy to talk to victims of 9/11 or the Khobar bombings that were a direct result of lack of success in interrogation.

What did you think of No Easy Day?

I found it really interesting. Particularly with that end scene, it confirms [screenwriter] Mark Boal’s reporting. As an actor who doesn’t have access to all these people, you’re relying on the honesty and integrity of the person who’s done it, and you put a lot of trust in Mark. I know Mark from The Hurt Locker and I know [director] Kathryn [Bigelow], so I was willing to put that trust in, but to then pick up a book and read it and see it, you just go, yep, I wasn’t deluded in my trust.

(MOREThe Zero Dark Thirty Argument: Why Deceptive Art Can Be Great)

How did your Australianness influence your perspective on the story?

The fact that Australians travel a lot and I’ve traveled a lot — I know that Kathryn was very interested in the fact that I’ve been to a lot of weird, remote places. You could take the strangeness and the foreignness or where we were going to be and the conditions we were going to be in. I’ve been to a lot of these places and a CIA person, that’s what they do. Go to foreign places, rent an apartment or find a hotel, find a job, blend in.

Do you think you’d be good at that?

I did love it. I enjoyed the character and I enjoyed the world. It’s very different from knowing that somebody calls “cut” to being in it. You’re working quietly. You’re the guy behind the guy that nobody knows about. That’s the way it has to be. That would be tough.

(MORE: Critics and Oscars: It’s Zero Dark Thirty or Bust)

What did you think of the political controversy about the movie?

Having read the script, I thought it was silly. It was just irrelevant. You hope the truth always comes out, and I think our film shows that we’re not here to politically football-ize people who are out there putting their lives on the line and doing the hard work.

What was your first reaction when you read the script?

I read it so quickly and then dashed downstairs so quickly. I’m about to walk up to them both and I’m thinking, “I only took half an hour; I probably should have taken longer.” I was right there, ready to shoot, ready to go.

You’ve worked with Jessica Chastain a bunch recently, in Lawless and Texas Killing Fields. Do you guys coordinate or something?

Coordinate wardrobes, coordinate films… No, it’s just a happy circumstance. We’ve known each other 10 years, before we were getting paid to do it.