Jason Clarke was born on July 17, 1969.
A day later, Ted Kennedy’s car plunged off a narrow bridge in Chappaquiddick, killing Mary Jo Kopechne.
Two days after that, man set foot on the moon.
Now, 49 years later, the Australian actor is set to star in films based on both historic events.
“I’ve found the best way of educating myself has been through the history books,” says Clarke, who plays the late Massachusetts senator in “Chappaquiddick,” out Friday.
“[Learning] why things are the way they are.”
Later this year he’ll play astronaut Ed White, alongside Ryan Gosling’s Neil Armstrong in “First Man.”
“The end of the ’60s man, there’s a lot of things going on. They set up a lot of what’s going on in the world now.”
In “Chappaquiddick,” the Ted Kennedy depicted is a mess of a man. “I think Ted was either depressed or having an existential crisis,” Clarke says. “It was a year since his third brother, his last brother [Bobby] was shot in the head. . . . He’d lost a lot. His father had a stroke. He was the father to 14 kids: 11 of Bobby’s, two of Jack’s, one of his own.”
For a man who had suffered so much tragedy — and who went on to achieve great things politically — did getting into Ted Kennedy’s skin prompt sympathy for the man who left a woman at the bottom of a tidal creek?
“No, you can’t escape what he did, and the choices that he made,” Clarke says. “The film is about showing a man’s choices — going with him on his choices. Going home that night, going down to the phone booth, ringing his father, waking up the next morning.”
Clarke says director John Curran was diligent about sticking to the facts of the story. “It didn’t need embellishment at the end of day,” he says.
And while Clarke thought he was knowledgeable about the story — “Ted drove off a bridge. A woman died. There’s a bit of inquiry, and he still wound up to be senator.” — it was the little details that were new to the actor.
“The biggest one was the fact that [Mary Jo Kopechne, played by Kate Mara] was still very much probably alive for at least 20, 25 minutes, longer. There’s the diver saying in the film, ‘I could have had her out in 25 minutes if somebody made the call, but nobody called.”
Despite the intimate portrait Curran creates, it’s hard for the audience to side with Kennedy as they’re taken along with him through his ordeal.
“But Ted is a complicated man, a complicated Democrat,” Clarke continues. “He is one of the great liberals with civil rights and with Medicare and health care and all that. He’s just committed a couple of terrible acts. Are they forgivable?”
For a man so easily caricatured, Clarke approached his portrayal with simplicity. “I wanted to be this man going through these things who just happens to be Ted Kennedy,” he says. “I wanted to bring the audience in to be with Ted, to demystify Ted Kennedy. ”