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Exclusive Interview: Jason Clarke on the dark side of fatherhood in “PET SEMATARY”

Thursday, April 4, 2019 | Exclusive, Interviews


Jason Clarke stars as the doomed patriarch of the Creed family in the new adaptation of Stephen King’s classic 1983 novel. RUE MORGUE had the opportunity to talk to Clarke while PET SEMATARY, which opens tonight, was in production outside Montreal, Canada.

Clarke’s career has seen him deal with the realities of war in ZERO DARK THIRTY, menace Leonardo DiCaprio in THE GREAT GATSBY, reimagine the iconic character of John Connor in TERMINATOR: GENESYS (2015), survive an ape apocalypse in DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and deal with an unrelenting haunting infestation in WINCHESTER. Now, as Louis Creed in Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s PET SEMATARY, the actor takes on the role of a father and husband who will stop at nothing to keep his family intact.

The book gives so much detail about Louis’ life and inner turmoil, and in the original film… You haven’t seen that, right?

No, I haven’t seen it.

In that movie, Louis is a very straightforward, “I’m a good man” kind of person. Then when you go back and read the book, he’s so conflicted he hates things but he loves them, and it’s such an interesting contradiction. How did you bring that to life on screen?

I love the book; I’ve read it like eight times now. And it is surprising when you go back, like with LORD OF THE RINGS or something, and you keep finding different things you either hadn’t read or you’d forgotten about. There’s a lot of surprising stuff there, like the sexuality King brings to Louis’ relationship with Rachel, the way he describes their sex. They’re just an ordinary couple, and then he writes these sex scenes that are almost so intimate they’re embarrassing, you know? There’s a real baseness to them, and a simplicity to them, and you find a horrible argument about death in there.

One of the really hard things about adapting a book of this quality—and PET SEMATARY is a great book, and King’s a great novelist—is that you’ve got to let go of what cannot be in it. There’s so much going on. There’s a shocking part in the book that I was really disturbed by it. Louis says to Rachel, “Remember when Gage had that head problem?” [Gage had] an enlarged head and they went to a doctor, a specialist, and there was a real chance that Gage was going to have issues when he grew up. And Louis asks Rachel, “Would you have loved him if it had turned out that that’s what he had? She says, “Of course I’d love him. He’s our son.” You realize, of course, it’s cut with the fact that you know what Louis is going to go and do, and it seems to be another of those reasons that send Louis down that path. And that’s not in this film. There are so many pieces. You try to put them in, because Louis is a complex guy. He’s full of faults.

And he’s our conduit as well. That must be such a hard balance, because we have to follow Louis down this very dark path.

Well, what if you knew there was a place up on the hill that could bring things back to life? That’s a big thing for Louis; he says, “I accept this place is what it is now,” and once that happens, a lot changes in his own mind, and I think even in the audience’s. If you can be that conduit, and you can sit there and imagine yourself at one point doing what he’s doing, you can ask, “Could I do this, could I not do it? What would I do?”

Why is that relevant and resonant for audiences in 2019?

Well, I don’t know; I mean, people ask that about a lot of movies: Why is it relevant? I don’t really care in one way, you know? I mean, a great story is a great story is a great story. If you want to dig and look around, great stories are often about family, that tight nuclear family, and responsibility is the other big one. If you’re going to create Frankenstein’s monster, and it has life and a consciousness, it goes into a whole other level regarding what you’re guilty of, and what you should take responsibility for. This is one of King’s great novels, and it’s there for the picking; it resonates, this book, with a lot of people. It’s many people’s favorite book, and I think it’s my favorite King novel.

Was there anything else from the book that you were hoping they’d put into this version that they haven’t?

Yeah, of course. There are some wonderful scenes I’d love to have done. [There’s a scene in the book] at the funeral parlor, dealing with Louis’ backstory there, with Rachel’s father and the animosity that exists within the relationship. And the fact that you know the animosity exists, and that Louis is carrying on and nobody’s ever told Rachel, kind of makes you closer to their relationship and understanding, and it doesn’t make them such a nice lovey couple. They’ve got problems. They’ve got issues and differences, but they’re making it. They’re a real family; they seem to be a real couple.

And then at the funeral, Louis gets beaten up by this old man. He hits him, but then the old man actually beats [Louis] and kicks him and wants his vengeance from years of anger. So on top of everything there’s the humiliation, and he’s behaved horribly. His son’s casket comes open and he’s thankful his son doesn’t roll out. That’s another thing leading into when he’s digging it up as well. I’d have loved to do that, but you just can’t do everything. There’s a lot in there. I’ve read the book eight times, and I really enjoy it. I could just pick up a little piece, and refresh myself with it before I went and shot a scene. I marked pages in the book where I could say, this is my reference point.

What are the elements that make a horror movie really work, and really sing, for you in general?

That’s funny, because when I was thinking about doing this film, I watched IT, because I hadn’t seen it at the cinema. I don’t normally watch a whole lot of horror, though I loved THE SHINING, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and THE EXORCIST. And when I watched IT, with that clown, it just freaked me the fuck out. I had to stop it; I was like, dude, I don’t need this in my day. But then I loved that it gradually became the story of these loners, losers, banding together to save this town. So it became less scary as it went on, and it became a very taut psychological drama. With magic in it, in a way. Then, by the end, with the clown, I wasn’t wound up, as you are in these other ones where it’s horror, and you know it’s going to get worse and worse. It seemed to get more open and cleaner and better as it went along.

I think a good horror film allows you to be a conduit. You’ve got to have something that scares the shit out of you, and that is great in itself, you know? But for me, the ones that have endured are the ones that are still great films, with great acting and great scenes that you want to go back and watch. Funnily enough, the horror genre is where great directors have often come from, where you learn your craft very cleanly. You have to understand the movement of your camera; there’s a real language there which is used and abused, so it can bring out some of the best people.

It’s interesting that you mentioned IT, because it does relent somewhat. Meanwhile, PET SEMATARY just gets darker; it doesn’t relent. Is that haunting for you, in this performance?

Louis goes down a dark road. But I think the road is believable, once you’ve accepted certain things we could all go down. He just keeps going down, doesn’t he?

It’s interesting too because Louis is a man of medicine, and then as the movie goes on, he almost becomes more spiritual because he’s getting absorbed into this legend. Is that also appealing for you as an actor?

He’s not just some bumpkin coming along, no. There’s the medicine thing and the fact that he doesn’t believe in an afterlife. He’s seen too much death. But the other side of it is that idea of playing God, surgeons and saving lives. They have that ability, and they have saved someone in that split second. That almost becomes a trap for Louis as well—and here he is, bang, up there, burying his kid.