From Ocala to Outback

Marion's own Marissa Clark is one of 12 women in new reality show set in Australia

Published June 21. 2004 7:30AM


Ask Marissa Clark to pinpoint her worst experience during the filming of "Outback Jack," the new reality dating television series, and very quickly she zeroes in on the moment when she swooned with heat stroke in the 120-degree temperatures of the Australian wilderness. She recalls lying on the ground, IVs sticking out of her and medics scrambling to revive her.

"My heart was racing. I was delusional. At one point I thought I was going to die in the Outback," said the 23-year-old actress/singer, who was raised in Ocala, graduating from Forest High School and going on to study at the University of Tampa.

Needless to say, Clark did not die, since she's doing a telephone interview to promote the new series, which will run for eight weeks starting Tuesday at 9 p.m. on TBS. She did have to be taken to a medical facility for rehydration, although Clark isn't allowed to say if it permanently knocked her out of the running or was just a temporary setback.

The show gathers 12 "pampered city women" - those are the producers' words, not ours - and has them vie for the attention of Outback Jack (real name: Vadim Dale), a hunky Melbourne native who's a champion athlete and outdoorsman.

Clark's swoon is testament to the grueling real-life conditions the women experienced. They were forced to live in tents, climb mountains, catch fish with their hands, and put up with the outback's native residents.

"They have real crocs, real snakes - they have 10 of the most dangerous snakes in the world," said "Outback Jack" executive producer Brady Connell. "And huuuge spiders. The girls weren't very happy about that."

The newest trend in reality TV is to pull a bait-and-switch on the participants, luring them into thinking the show's about one thing, and then pulling the carpet out from under them. That happened at the outset of "Outback Jack."

The women were taken to a posh L.A. mansion, then told their bachelor was waiting for them 17,000 miles away in Australia. Dressed in extravagant evening gowns, they were flown halfway around the world. It wasn't until the producers pulled out some parachutes and told the women they'd be skydiving into the Australian bush that it finally dawned on them they weren't in for a few weeks of pampering.

"Since we were in evening gowns, I was still in denial," Clark laughed. "I thought another plane was going to come take us to the real place."

"Outback Jack" is a new step for TBS, which until now has shied away from reality programming. "Now they're really jumping into it with both feet," Connell said.

The show is from Bruce Nash's Nash Entertainment, which has previously produced "Meet My Folks" and "For Love or Money." In a bit of programming inspiration, "Outback Jack" will precede the heavily hyped reruns of HBO's smash hit "Sex in the City" in edited form on TBS.

"It's actually a perfect companion piece for that show, because the women who were cast in this show could easily have found themselves on the streets of 'Sex in the City,'" Connell said

As with other shows of the genre, the women competed against each other for private dates with Jack, and every week the bachelor bids farewell to some of his suitors. Clark said many of the contestants, including her, really fell for the handsome Aussie.

"The first night I got to have some one-on-one time with him," she said. "He's the type of guy who wears his heart on his sleeve. He was telling me about his family. That was really cool, and not common in men."

It was strange at first to be surrounded by film crews 24/7 - "This camera's in my face and I'm brushing my teeth or taking a shower" - but eventually Clark got used to it. She admits that as time went on, the cattiness between the women increased, and what had been a frivolous experience gradually became a serious one.

"I went into the show saying, 'I'm going to do the show for me.' I wanted it to be fun and have spontaneous adventures. And then as time went by and I got to know Jack, all that changed - in a good way."

Clark never intended to try out for reality TV. She was spotted at a New York City nightclub while celebrating her birthday, and was approached about auditioning. At first she turned it down, but persistent requests from the producers won her over. Florida is well-represented, with five of the 12 women coming from the Sunshine State.

Unlike some of the other participants, Clark already had an extensive showbiz background. She left college after her first year to form an R&B/pop trio. The group, Mpress, seemed poised to take off in 2001, with an album on the charts, "Suddenly," and opening for Britney Spears and 'N Sync.

"When I first met Marissa, in addition to her beauty and poise, she's also extremely determined," Connell said. "She left college to join a band. I liked that, that she was a risk-taker and gutsy in her personal life. I felt like that would translate to the show."

After Mpress split up, Clark turned to acting. She had just finished filming the pilot for "Rescue Me," a new series starring Denis Leary that's debuting on the F/X Network, and was set to appear in the first 13 episodes when she got the call for "Outback Jack." As it turns out, the producers couldn't find her during her long time away in Australia, and panicked.

"Long story short, they had an emergency recasting and gave me the boot."

But Clark says she has no regrets about the lost opportunity. She was already planning a move to Los Angeles before "Outback Jack" popped onto her radar, and still intends to go after taking a little "me time" while living in the Tampa area. Her Ocala roots remain strong, with father Sherman Clark, siblings Adrianna and Nolan Clark, and mother and step-father Mary and Al Burel still residing in the area.

"I believe everything happens for a reason," she said. "I'm excited about my new start."