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A bit of a journeyman actor who turns up, with equal aplomb, in everything from “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” to “Everest” to “Mudbound,” Jason Clarke tackles perhaps the most complex role of his career in “Chappaquiddick” this month. Portraying the late politician Ted Kennedy in the aftermath of that infamous 1969 Martha’s Vinyard car accident, which left campaign specialist Mary Jo Kopechne dead, Clarke sinks his teeth into a story of human frailty and moral corruption, turning out a gripping performance that might be his best to date.

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“That was one of the toughest things, when I decided I wanted to do this, was how do you follow a lead character when he commits a heinous act or crime very early on,” Clarke says. “It’s very difficult because you don’t want to hate the person but you don’t want to sentimentalize. The script stuck to the facts. Watching a man be responsible for his own moral corruption, for his own moral destruction, almost — we all want to live. We all want to save ourselves. He has many, many opportunities to be true to the truth in his soul, and he keeps taking these small diversions. But there’s no getting away from what Ted did.”

Playing a real-life character brings with it the usual necessity of steering clear of impersonation, particularly with an identifiable, larger-than-life persona like Ted Kennedy. The trick is finding an essence, something true that isn’t distracting for the audience.

“I guess that started with my look,” Clarke says. “We were never going to do prosthetics. We did a wig to get that classic line and then said, ‘Let’s do some teeth.’ That took months to get them right, just the thinness, so I could still speak without a lisp. And then I had bleeding issues, when you have it in there for 14 hours — any little rub. It had to be intimate. You either accept me early on or you don’t. It’s an emotional journey, and for that the audience has got to just go in and forget about it.”

Later this year, Clarke will star as astronaut Edward Higgins White in Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” follow-up “First Man.” Clarke was in awe of the youngest filmmaker to ever win the Academy Award for best director, and the project — about the 1969 moon landing — makes for an interesting bookend to the events depicted in the run-up to that moment in “Chappaquiddick.”

“He’s a behemoth in terms of his understanding of film and love of film,” Clarke says of Chazelle. “It’s his commitment. I’ve seen that with different directors. I would watch the monitor with Damien to watch his other stuff with big group scenes. His eye for what he’s after is really unique. You can see it on camera. His ability to distill story, to really understand what he’s showing in a scene — he’s just got a very clear picture of what he’s saying. He goes to sleep dreaming of the movie. He really does.”

For more, including a final look-back on a year of “Mudbound” and Clarke’s thoughts on how director Matt Reeves concluded Fox’s “Planet of the Apes” trilogy, listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link above.

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Jason Clarke photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback Podcast
Dan Doperalski for Variety