The set of 24 was a chamber of secrets for Sarah Clarke, who had to keep quiet about her character’s hidden agenda – and her own romance with a costar.
You thought you knew Nina Myers. She was, you thought, the crime-fighting heroine of FOX’s 24 – its magnolia of steel. Resourceful and tough, she was the most tenacious defender of special agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), head of the CIA’s Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU). But here’s the astonishing truth: She is actually… really tiny. Jack could practically fit her on the dashboard of his car.
“As an actor, you always want a secret,” says Sarah Clarke, laughing. This 30-year-old St. Louis native – who plays the formidable Nina – is 5 feet 4 inches and maybe 100 pounds. And she sat for a long time on a much bigger bombshell: Nina’s got a dark side. In the closing moments of 24‘s 23rd episode, she conveyed a message, in Serbian, to the murderous Victor Drazen, thereby exposing her own part in the plot to assassinate presidential candidate David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert). When her cover was blown in the final episode, Nina fled CTU, reflexively murdering anyone in her path – including Jack’s wife, Teri (Leslie Hope). Viewers watched in horror. But Clarke was already reconciled to her character’s long-hidden duplicity.
“This gave me a secret to reveal slowly, and it was a wonderful, wonderful tool,” she says. Hanging out in a Manhattan bistro, Clarke sets a different tone than Nina – one of blue jeans and cappuccinos and lots of laughter. The producers “told me about two months ago,” she says with a mischievous grin. “Nobody knew. I don’t know if Kiefer even knew. I found out probably six scripts ahead of them.”
Clarke knew nothing of her character’s hidden agenda when she signed on for the part. With even the actors out of the loop, the set took on a sense of uneasy excitement. “We definitely talked about it,” Clarke says. “I remember every week, Carlos [Bernard, who plays CTU agent Tony Almeida] would say, ‘I think [the mole is] you.’ And I would say, ‘No, it couldn’t be me because I love Jack. I think it’s you.'”
In retrospect, Clarke is grateful for the producers’ stealth. “I might have started getting into this whole secret world that might have distracted me from what they needed me to do up to that point,” she says. According to executive producer Robert Cochran, the creators knew they could probably trust Clarke. “But we’re all human,” he says. “So it’s just better not to let anyone know anything until they need to.”
When Clarke did find out, she had to re-evaluate her own character. Nina had previously been romantically involved with Jack while he was separated from his wife. Once she knew the truth about Nina, she saw this liaison in a different light. Indeed, it could have been merely an element of Nina’s hoax.
“The way I looked at it is that I saw Nina as very ambitious,” she says. “Now let’s say she’s placed in the agency two years beforehand, and she knows that Jack Bauer is the guy that they’re going to bring down. She definitely wouldn’t instigate anything that would provoke suspicion, but I think there was a nice opportunity for her to take advantage of what was happening between him and his wife.”
Clarke is, quite clearly, fascinated by Nina. “There’s a scene where Jack’s wife confronts me that she knows [about our affair],” she continues. “And I think you empathize with both characters at that moment.” But looking at that same scene in retrospect – after Nina’s double identity is revealed – the dynamic between the women is even more complicated. “I go back to that scene now, and it’s funny to think about it,” Clarke says.
Off-screen, her love life has been equally furtive – but much less complicated. She met her fiancé, Xander Berkeley (who plays surly CTU supervisor George Mason), while filming the pilot of 24. “We were hanging out in the makeup trailer,” says Berkeley, 40, “and the power went out. So we sat there and talked in the dark. It had a really interesting effect of bonding us in some strange way, because it was just our voices without any distractions. It was one of those absolute, complete, swept-off-the-feet feelings from the word go. There was very little either of us could say or do about it.”
There was also, they agreed, little reason to tell their cast mates right away. “I just kind of wanted to keep it to ourselves for a while,” Clarke says with a smile. “I don’t know if I was just practising the whole CIA thing! But we started telling people in the new year.”
As for Nina’s fate next season, Clarke needn’t call on her secret keeping abilities. The producers have left her in the dark. She can, however, reveal what she knows of her own future: This summer, she’ll shoot two independent films, both of which costar her fiancé. In September, she and Berkeley will wed. (The couple share a home in Los Angeles.) And in the fall, both husband and wife will return for the new season of 24.
“After they made me so evil, I can’t imagine anyone wanting me to live and be free,” she says. But Jack might need her. “She won’t come back in the same job, obviously,” says Cochran, “but she might come out of prison to be used for something.” Nina’s been sidelined for the moment, but she’s still in the game.