“There’s some characters… that have the map of your life inside of them. And it gives you a chance to, at least, rehearse that in your own life.” – Clarke Peters
In the new AMC+ series, La Fortuna, Clarke Peters plays Jonas Pierce, a brilliant lawyer who’s just taken a case of undersea treasure stolen by a renowned adventurer (Stanley Tucci). Peters, as always, is terrific and one of the reasons he did the show was to work with Tucci. Watching them together is a pure treat.
Peters spent years working on London’s West End theatre scene, playing roles in musicals and plays before moving to TV and film. From The Wire, True Detective, Jessica Jones and Foundation to the upcoming The Man Who Fell to Earth on Showtime, he’s a true character actor whose roles always seem to be thoughtful and confident.
In this interview, he chats about his role in La Fortuna, his career, the importance of listening and being “in the moment”, and his worst audition ever. These are edited excerpts from that conversation. For the full interview, check out the video below or on YouTube.
Can you talk about your role and the show itself?
Clarke Peters: I wanted to do it because I thought it was an interesting case, because it was about cultural heritage and the importance of it to a nation of people, in this case being Spain. Also, because it’s a good story. It’s a real good story and I got to work with [director] Alejandro [Amenábar].
In the first episode, you have this really nice scene with Stanley Tucci. When you do a scene like that, is there much rehearsal or since you guys are both complete pros, do you just sit down and play?
Clarke Peters: Yeah. Yeah, that’s exactly it, you play. We both know our intention in the scene, and you come to it with the intention, and you try to realize that as best as you can as actors. And sometimes, you’re feeding your other actor. Other times, they’re feeding you. But as long as you listen and you’re present in the moment, emotionally connecting and looking the person in their eye. Yes. You can pretty much get it.
When you talk about listening it seems so easy to say, but the practice can be very hard to do.
Clarke Peters: Yes. And as an actor, you know that when you do listen, a scene can move very quickly. You wonder where the time when you look back at it, because when you’re absorbed in the scene, it carries both of you as actors, you know? And I love that. That’s what I love about acting.
There’s sometimes when I’ve done a scene and I just don’t even remember doing it. It’s a little rare for me but I’m sure it’s not rare for you.
Clarke Peters: No, it is rare for me. And when you are playing with somebody like Stanley, then you know that you’re on point because it does move quickly. And you’re not thinking about, well I should have done this and I should have tried that. You’re not thinking about that because you’re in the moment.
Are there times when you’re like driving home from set and you think, ‘Man, I should have said it this way.’ Or, ‘I should have done it that way.’
Clarke Peters: Yes. Yes. I’ve had lots of those moments. [laughs] I’ve had lots of those moments, Lance.
I guess we have those moments because we care about what we do and because the creative process hasn’t stopped. As you know, there’s more than just regurgitating words on the page. You’re investing part of yourself in that character, in that moment, in that scene. And that carries a certain momentum. Particularly, if you have a whole day of scenes or if you’re leaving a theater.
And particularly in theater, in the rehearsal period, you’re always on point and constantly churning over what you could do next and you’re looking forward to doing it the next day at rehearsal. And sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. But yes, I’ve had those moments for sure.
With a role like Jonas Pierce, are you already interested in the historical aspect of the show or is more that you want to learn and research everything related to it? Or is it both?
Clarke Peters: Yeah, it is kind of both. in this instance, I was more interested in the trial and in the closing argument and what needed to be said there. And the questions that he poses to the court are the same questions that Clarke would like to pose to the world at large. What happened to respect? What happened to the education of our kids? What do we do with each other? Where is patience? Where’s altruism? Those type of questions are questions that I wonder about daily in my own life.
I know about this case, and I know that it was based on something similar that happened I think back in the nineties, where there was a treasure that was found, and there was a dispute over sovereignty of that treasure.
I’m sure you get offered a ton of roles. How do you pick what you want to do? You easily float from genre to genre to genre. Is it like, ‘I haven’t done a science fiction movie in a while.’
Clarke Peters: You just hit it on the head. ‘Oh, well, I, haven’t done a science fiction in a while.’ Pretty much like that. I don’t get offered a lot of roles, but I do try to pick interesting roles for myself and roles and part of stories that I think are interesting for a viewer to see as well. I think first and foremost, if it’s got a challenge or if there’s something that I would like to be a part of that is living my truth, then I will go with that.
When I was in Los Angeles some years back, I was receiving scripts that were just inane. It made me wonder why anyone or why a company would consider producing something that was so stupid, you know? [laughs] We have a wonderful tool at our hands with the media. We have a great responsibility as actors to tell stories that are worthy of being told. But we also in an industry that seduces us with the dollar sign, and I understand that we need the dollar we all do.
We all have to pay the rent or mortgage somehow, I guess.
Clarke Peters: Yeah. It’s a funny balancing game that we have to play to maintain your own integrity and not to sell out. And to use the craft that God has given you for the best purposes, you know?
I feel like most of your characters have this confidence, either inward or this outwardly confidence. Are you that way in real life?
Clarke Peters: No, that’s why I hide behind those characters. [laughs] For Freamon [in The Wire], for example, he was such a lovely man. I realized that he was the man I was wanna be when I grow up. There’s some characters that are just written like that, that have the map of your life inside of them. And it gives you a chance to, at least, rehearse that in your own life.
Haven’t, you found yourself sometimes as an actor saying lines from a piece to your partner, to your kids, to somebody else, and you figure, ‘oh, where’d that come from you? Oh, that’s not really me.’ But oh, yes, it is.
So, I do try to try to find things that feed me. People I’d like to be. I’m not always that confident, you know? And I think that now, I’d like to find characters that are more serviceable to the world at large now.
And that doesn’t mean always being the good guy. If the story is a good story and proverbial in its own sense, I’ll go there. I’ll be the bad guy in that if the story is right.
When was the last time you were actually nervous on set? Do you still have the first day jitters?
Clarke Peters: Yeah. Not so much on set. I really had a huge… it was actually about two years ago, maybe even three years ago now, just before lockdown. I was doing a play and one of the said to me, ‘Clark, you look like you’re nervous. Are you all right?’ And I had to admit, I was scared s–tless.
I’m glad that this actor pointed it out to me because if he could see it, then every else in the company could see it. And although it was a challenging role and I came to it late, they were also depending on me to come through, you know? And I burdened myself with all of that responsibility, rather than the responsibility of just doing the job and getting those lines down in that short space of time. So, I understand my nervousness, but it’s not a place I want to inhabit ever again. [laughs]
The Wire is in one of the best shows ever. Do you ever reflect on that time and think how special it was? Or did you ever think how special it would become?
Clarke Peters: I never knew how special it would become because I was in the moment, so I wasn’t really looking forward. But in hindsight from this point, yes, I can see why it was special.
And I guess I knew there was something unique about it maybe by the third season, simply because by the third season, it was already in parts of Europe and Europe was responding to it in a very interesting way. People in Spain were saying, ‘oh, this is Madrid.’ People in Ireland were saying, ‘oh man, this is Belfast’ or, or Dublin, you know? And that’s what made me think, ‘oh, there there’s something in this.’
And good stories are like that. Good stories are universal. And what that kind of shows you is that the system of governance that we live under is universal and has the same pitfalls as Maryland. Baltimore, Maryland is a microcosm of the Western world in all of its flaws.
You mentioned theater. You’ve done a lot of theater and musical theater as well. You’ve played Sky Masterson twice. When was the last time you actually did a musical?
Clarke Peters: 2010 maybe? That’s the last time I performed in a musical, I think 2010. I directed one in 2017, which felt really good because it was as close as I could get to a musical without being on stage. But it was lovely to be there living the experience vicariously through all of the actors. It’s been a while. I’m about due.
How do you prepare for a role? Does it get easier for you over time?
Clarke Peters: I don’t know whether it gets easier or whether I pick roles that are fluid. And by that, I mean going from one role to the next, being able to take something from the last role that you play and carry on with that journey into the next role.
I remember when I first started doing theater, someone was saying, ‘Clarke is the musical man.’ I thought, ‘no, he’s not the musical man.’ And I went from doing musicals with the National Theater into something that was completely different. And then I was called back to the musical.
And so, for a while I was working two jobs, which was really very, very, very nice. I was doing a musical in the evening, and I was in repertory doing a dramatic play during the day, which had nothing to do with music whatsoever. And I think that was the best time of my life being able to go from one to the other. But as I get older, I think I like, like I say, the roles that I can carry something from one to the next and move like that.
If it’s a well written role and has some aspect of humanity in it. As you know, like with the characters in The Wire, they may have been gangsters, but you saw their humanity. You understood something about them. Those are the guys. That’s the philosophy I’d like to use moving through characters from one to the other.
What’s been your worst audition ever?
Clarke Peters: My worst audition ever. Actually, my worst audition ever got me into to the National Theatre. I was auditioning for Sir Peter Hall, who was the head of the National Theatre at that point in time…. No, that wasn’t my worst one. This was my worst one: coming to the RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company] and I was reading for Aaron in Titus Andronicus. I had never read the play and I was given these sides and I’m reading these lines and I think that I’m really giving it, you know? And the director said, ‘that’s very interesting. Did you understand what you were saying?’ And I said, ‘no.’ [laughs] All I knew was to make sure that I hit the meter. Needless to say, I was not part of the RSC after that.