Clark Duke: The Journeyman
The best of workplace perks can turn any job into a dream come true. Just ask a sneaker fiend employed by Nike, or a video game junkie hired to test the latest Rockstar titles. Clark Duke, a young funnyman-actor ready for his close-up, can attest to this fact after his experience filming his latest flick, Hot Tub Time Machine.
In the new high-concept laugher, Duke stars alongside with John Cusack, Craig Robinson, and Rob Corddry as one of four dudes transported back to 1986 after passing out drunk in a mysterious — you guessed it — hot tub.
Comedy icon Chevy Chase, in a brief role, shows up as a mystical repairman. For Duke, 24, who grew up idolizing the former Saturday Night Live all-star, Chase’s one week on the Vancouver set was like a surreal trip. Something the Clark Duke of 10 years ago would’ve envisioned while daydreaming in homeroom. Rather than simply collect a paycheck, Chase drove Duke to the set every day, and the two ate dinner together each night. “He ended up being really fantastic to me,” Duke says. “The stories he’s got are pretty unbelievable, and he makes me laugh harder than just about anybody on the planet.”
By the end of 2010 audiences may send such lofty praise his way. Aside from Hot Tub Time Machine, he’s also starring in the genre-bending superhero romp Kick-Ass, as well as A Thousand Words, in which he plays Eddie Murphy’s punching bag of an assistant. The limelight is nothing new to Duke, though, who started acting at seven years old on the CBS sitcom Hearts Afire (1992-95). Unlike many others, Duke avoided the pitfalls of young Hollywood by moving back to his native Hot Springs, Arkansas, when Hearts Afire ended in ’95, to live a small-town life. “It’s a good move to have a normal childhood, relatively speaking,” he says. “You see a lot of kids that stay out [in Hollywood] their whole lives and never have any kind of grounding in reality.”
Yet the seeds had been planted. Duke knew that Tinseltown was where he needed to be, so he pushed himself to graduate high school one year early, taking senior-level courses at Garland County Community College at night throughout his junior year. In 2002 he headed back to Los Angeles, enrolling into Loyola Marymount’s film program as a production major.
While there, he resided in a Marina Del Rey apartment complex, where he quickly became close friends with a star-on-the-rise neighbor, Michael Cera, of Arrested Development and Superbad fame. Duke’s senior-year thesis was a reality TV pilot called Clark and Michael, which featured the pair playing exaggerated versions of themselves trying to pitch their own program. Clark and Michael received an A+, not to mention, after a mutual friend took the reel to a connection at CBS, a 10-episode online run in 2007, a year after Duke’s collegiate graduation. The network bought it for their CBS Internet imprint. Today it’s a cult favorite.
“CBS never promoted it at all,” Duke says, “but it definitely helped me out in town, as far as work-wise.”
It sure did. In 2007 Duke landed a prominent gig on ABC Family’s soon-to-be hit show Greek, as well as filmed his first starring role in a film, 2007’s overlooked but rather sharp Sex Drive. It was the latter that allowed Duke to subvert the “he’s a geek” stereotypes that his exterior — frumpy build and glasses — could inspire. The film allowed him to play against Lance, a suave Casanova in bifocals who gets more than one girl, obliterating a teen comedy cliché in the process. Sex Drive may not have been a commercial triumph, earning a meager $8 million domestically, but it showed Duke’s surprisingly nimble abilities.
“[Clark] doesn’t need to be relegated to either playing the nerd or the cool guy with swagger,” says Sean Anders, Sex Drive’s director/co-writer who also co-wrote Hot Tub Time Machine. “Clark plays smart really well, obviously because he’s a smart guy, but I also think he enjoys the humor in characters that can be a little smug and self-absorbed.”
Not to mention, he’s quite self-aware. Duke has no qualms with embracing his geekier side, responsible for the 15-foot bookshelf in his Los Angeles digs that’s overflowing with graphic novels. A lifelong comic book fanatic, he jumped at the chance to co-star in Kick-Ass, based on renown comic scribe Mark Millar’s popular series. Directed by London-born auteur Matthew Vaughn, Kick-Ass, subverts damn near every superhero trope, following a band of regular Joes that create their own powerless, crime-fighting identities.
“It’s going to change the whole superhero movie culture,” Duke says. “I don’t see how you can make something as broad as Spider-Man 3 after you see Kick-Ass.”
Duke plays the title character’s best friend, unfortunately meaning you won’t see him donning a homemade costume. For now. “I’ve been told that I get a costume in the sequel, if this one is successful, so fingers crossed,” he says. “They can put me in whatever they want. I just want [my own] action figure.”
Time to update that bucket list.
(This article originally appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of ANTENNA.)