It doesn't matter how many phony shoot-outs you do as an actor. Nothing prepares you for the real deal. "There's smoke in the air and I can see it and taste it," Jason Clarke says with reverence in his voice. He's recalling one of the many ride-alongs he was on with Chicago law enforcement in preparation to play a detective on The Chicago Code, Fox's new cop drama from The Shield creator Shawn Ryan. "Our car pulls up and there's a guy on the ground. He's been shot. It's nighttime. We're outside a church. My heart is pounding and my mind is going, 'What the hell am I doing here?'"
He was getting his Wysocki on, that's what. Clarke plays Jarek Wysocki, a cop as honorable as he is feisty, and tough enough to splinter doors with a single man-kick. But playing the character is quite a stretch for someone who grew up on a sheep ranch 9,500 miles away in the Australian Outback. For Clarke, every pitch-perfect Chicagoism — the South Side swagger, the poetic musings on the White Sox — is testament to a whole lot of homework.
In addition to tagging along with Chicago's finest, Clarke spends hours each week practicing diphthongs with a dialect coach, listening to drills on his iPod and "chatting up every Teamster on set with a similar vocal depth to mine," says Clarke, who previously mastered a Rhode Island accent on Showtime's Brotherhood. He also does most of his own stunts, including the car chases (Clarke races Porsches in his spare time). As his costar Jennifer Beals puts it, "I'm not exaggerating when I say this: I haven't seen an actor, other than maybe Dustin Hoffman, dedicate himself so completely to a role the way Jason does."
Hopefully, the effort is paying off. Given the track record of its creator and solid out-of-the-box reviews, The Chicago Code deserves to be a hit, though ratings are only so-so. Beals plays Teresa Colvin, the fierce police superintendent who hires her old partner Wysocki to take down a corrupt city alderman (the wonderful Delroy Lindo). There's a charming old-school/new-school dynamic between Wysocki and his Twitter-happy squad mate Caleb Evers (Friday Night Lights' Matt Lauria). Then there's the triangle between Wysocki, his young fiancée and his ex-wife. Underlying it all is a mystery about what happened to Wysocki's police-officer brother who was killed in the line of duty.
"The first half of the season was about pushing the boulder up the hill in terms of setting up our characters and what they're after," Ryan says. "[Now] the boulder starts hurtling fast down the other side and doesn't stop till the finale." Translation: more car chases, more revenge, more romance! Says Clarke, "As the season goes along, Wysocki ups the ante with Gibbons, he zeroes in on what his brother was really up to, and he's forced to figure out where he stands with his girlfriend and ex-wife. We basically put Wysocki through the wringer."
Clarke is more of a no-worries kinda guy. He grew up in a remote part of Queensland, Australia, in a family that moved seasonally for his father's work. "I did my time as a roustabout for three or four months but realized I was hopeless at farm work," laughs Clarke, who now calls Los Angeles home and is dating French actress Cécile Breccia. "That's when I thought, 'Maybe I should go to drama school.'" His first TV gig was on Australia's version of America's Most Wanted. "I was some dude in a car who takes a beating," he says. His American break came playing unscrupulous New England politician Tommy Caffee on Brotherhood, a role that "gave me a flavor for 14-hour days." Later he played Johnny Depp's associate in the mob film Public Enemies, which gave Clarke a taste for, well, Johnny's wine cellar. "I was so sorry for that film to end," he says. "We were just getting around to Johnny's rarest vintages." Perhaps it's no coincidence that his latest film — one of three Clarke shot during breaks this past year — is a crime drama about Depression-era bootleggers called The Wettest Country in the World. It costars Shia LaBeouf and Gary Oldman.
But it's The Chicago Code that demands most of Clarke's attention right now. One day many of the real cops who helped prepare Clarke for the role came to the set. Wysocki was exercising a search warrant on a house and the officers were brought in as extras. "All these guys I'd followed on the streets through gun chases and drug busts are there," he says. "But now I'm the guy in charge when we put the hammer down." How'd he do? "Oh, mate! It was s--t-eating grins all around."
The Chicago Code airs Mondays at 9/8c on Fox.