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Politics gets personal in ‘Brotherhood’

Two Rhode Island brothers, one a rising star in politics and the other an outlaw, square off in new Showtime drama
This undated publicity photo, released by Showtime, shows Jason Isaacs, left, as Michael Caffee and Jason Clarke as Tommy Caffee in the new Showtime dramatic series \"Brotherhood.\"Mikki Ansin / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Jason Clarke is an actor you might never have seen before “Brotherhood” arrived two weeks ago.

But if you’re watching this terrific Showtime drama (airing Sundays at 10 p.m. ET), you’re surely imprinted with the image of Clarke as Tommy Caffee, an ambitious yet idealistic legislator in Providence, R.I.

Tommy is a rising star in local politics. But he’s also a man under threat, mainly by his outlaw brother, Michael, whose vicious criminality could bring down everything Tommy is striving for.

“Brotherhood” is rooted in the working-class, Irish-Catholic neighborhood the Caffee clan has long called home and that, nowadays, Tommy represents. Clarke remade himself to fit into that world.

For starters, he mastered Rhode Island’s distinctive “r” (or, more precisely, “ahhhr”), which was something of a stretch from his native accent: He grew up in Australia.

“It took time to learn,” he acknowledges over tea at a Manhattan hotel recently. “I couldn’t come in and talk that way right off.”

But when the casting people asked him, “Can you do an American accent?” he replied with an enthusiastic yes, he recalls. Then he reminded them, “I can put on an American costume, as well.”

Along with Tommy’s costume (typically a suit and tie), Clarke on the show wears a mask of guardedness and angst disguising his own open, boyish face. But there’s no masquerade for the interview: Clad in T-shirt and jeans, he seems downright happy-go-lucky.

Learning the rulesLike Clarke (who on Monday turned 37), Tommy is still young, but burdened as a family man with three daughters, a troubled marriage and that dangerous brother. Making his way as a public servant, he is learning under pressure how to play rough in the political game.

Clarke researched the role in Providence, where “Brotherhood” was filmed, by jumping into the old-school, grass-roots-level ward politics that lives on in that state.

Joining real-life representatives as they made their rounds, “I was trying to talk local politics with people on their front steps, trying to practice my accent, and hearing about garbage pickup or a tree branch hanging over their property: the things voters really care about.”

Meanwhile, with the series in production for six months, Clarke needed to buy a car. “One of the politicians put me in contact with the right people,” he says with a laugh.

Although “Brotherhood” is populated with a large and uniformly splendid cast, Clarke shares costarring duty with Jason Isaacs, who plays Michael.

By coincidence, these two actors also share their given name as well as non-American status (Isaacs, who appears in the Harry Potter films as Lucius Malfoy and was in the recent comedy “Friends With Money,” is British-born). But appearance-wise, they are ideal counterpoints. In stark contrast to Tommy’s square-jawed wholesomeness, Michael is raw-boned, hawk-like, as sharp as flint.

Here are brothers at odds on a decaying urban landscape — “in the total scheme of things, we’re not massive players,” Clarke says of the characters. He likes the story’s intimate scale. “I look at other shows on TV about politics, crime, family, and it’s always big and powerful.

“I think we can provide a good microcosm of what’s really going on in the rest of the world.”

Clarke was raised far away from the big and powerful. His father was a sheep shearer in the Australian Outback.

“I grew up in the country,” he says. “Then I went to university and studied law. Two dismal years.”

But then a friend in drama school got him hooked.

How did his parents react to his new career goal? “They had no comprehension — not that I had much comprehension either — when I said I was leaving university to be an actor.”

He landed stage work in Sydney. Appeared in a popular Australian cop drama, “Stingers,” and on other TV shows. Won a role in the acclaimed 2002 Australian film, “Rabbit-Proof Fence.”

Then, a couple of years ago, he packed up and moved to the United States.

“I spent everything I had,” he recalls. “I could have bought a house! And I didn’t even consider the risk if it didn’t work out and I had to go back home. I never considered failing, I really didn’t. Though after I got the (“Brotherhood”) job and got kinda settled, I went, ‘Uhhhh, how close did I come...?!”’

Clarke reports that his father visited him in Providence to watch an episode of “Brotherhood” being filmed, and, though enjoying himself, summed up Clarke’s profession as “stealing money” and “a bit boring.”

Laughing, Clarke looks happy with it. He’s in a great series and auditioning for other roles while he waits for word about a second “Brotherhood” season. He’s happy living in Los Angeles — an Aussie with an Audi that has Rhode Island plates. And when Angelenos ask what he was doing in Rhode Island (which they do), he’s happy to explain.