Even George Clooney loves Clive Owen, and it’s all because he’s so genuine, writes Kevin Maher
IT’S 1988 and on the streets of Belfast an unknown 24-year-old Royal Academy of Dramatic Art graduate from Coventry called Clive Owen has innocently walked into a world of trouble. Sirens sound. Brakes screech. And a military personnel carrier comes thudding to a halt in front of him, disgorging heavily armed troops. Owen, who is only in the city for a week to play Romeo in the Young Vic’s touring production of Romeo and Juliet, is merely out for an afternoon stroll, and duly terrified. ‘‘ It turned out to be a routine incident,’’ Owen says, ‘‘ but it felt like a war zone to me. I have very strong memories of how rough it was back then.’’
Fast forward 21/ decades and Owen has returned to Belfast, this time to play a worldweary MI5 agent in the Troubles thriller Shadow Dancer. In the interim he has married actress Sarah-Jane Fenton, his Juliet in that production all those years ago, with whom he has two daughters, Hannah, 15, and Eve, 13. He has become a bona fide movie star, hitting the big time with the 1998 sleeper smash Croupier and cementing his status in projects as varied as Closer (for which he was nominated for an Oscar), King Arthur and Inside Man. Plus he has earned himself the coveted tag of ‘‘ the actor’s actor’’ — someone likelier to be found on the school run in North London than at a premiere in Tinseltown, or who never sold out to a Hollywood franchise (his name has long been associated with Bond casting rumours), or who is simply the best thing about every movie he’s in.
Julia Roberts, Owen’s co-star in Closer, says: ‘‘ George Clooney is obsessed with Clive. Every good-guy actor talks about Clive as one of their favourites. Because his successes have stood on the shoulders of his talents alone, and because he hasn’t just been carried away by popular culture.’’ Shadow Dancer director James Marsh ( Man on Wire) adds: ‘‘ Clive has this innate ability to make you watch him. And you don’t quite know what it is that’s making you watch him, but all you know is you’re definitely watching him.’’
In person, too, in a London hotel suite, Owen is hard not to watch. Impeccably dressed in cover-star mode (Armani suit, white shirt, summer tan, flawless teeth and dreamy blueygreeny-grey eyes), he purrs with masculinity, and lathers the interview in the palliating boom of baritone laughter, for better or for worse. Questions on his allegedly ‘‘ tough’’ childhood in working-class Coventry, for instance, are greeted mostly with goodnatured chortles instead of actual answers. Elsewhere, all talk is funnelled into three conterminous themes of Owen’s choosing: Clive Owen, family man; Clive Owen, reluctant movie star; Clive Owen, lucky guy. I have interviewed him three times and on each occasion it’s the same rigid, if affable, script. I’ve gone from assuming he is some devious master of media manipulation and spin to accepting the fact that perhaps this is, well, if not the truth, then certainly his truth.
On Shadow Dancer, for example, he is very much the reluctant movie star. He had just finished an epic 31/ month shoot on HBO movie Hemingway & Gellhorn (in which he plays Ernest Hemingway opposite Nicole Kidman’s Martha Gellhorn) and he wasn’t looking for work. ‘‘ I was really tired and I wanted to take a few months off. And then this script came through and I started to read it thinking: ‘‘ There’s no way I’m doing this!’ But by the end of it I was like: ‘ Oh f . . k. This is really good. I’m going to have to do it!’ ’’
In the film, based on the novel of former Northern Ireland news reporter Tom Bradby and set against the backdrop of IRA peace negotiations in 1993, Owen’s government agent, Mac, turns Republican terrorists into police informants. After a queasy opening bomb sequence set on the London Underground, Mac encounters Colette McVeigh, a single mum and sometime IRA assassin, portrayed with febrile intensity by Andrea Riseborough. The film is very much a contorted romance. During an intense ‘‘ recruitment’’ scene, Mac stares into McVeigh’s eyes, tells her she’ll be safe and promises: ‘‘ I’ll be there. Day and night. We do this together!’’ It is, ultimately, a seduction scene, and the beating heart of the movie is in the pivotal power shifts between these two players.
To play the jaded Mac, Owen worked intimately on every physical detail, right down to developing a slightly sluggish walk. I know this because Marsh told me. Owen simply says he had a very clear idea of what the character needed but, otherwise, he doesn’t ‘‘ examining what I do, or why I do it’’.
Mac has an allure that is present in many of Owen’s characters. It’s a tightly wound masculinity that can spring at unexpected moments. Think of the white-collar father he plays in Trust who, on discovering that his daughter has been groomed online by a paedophile, explodes with: ‘‘ I swear to God, I’m going to find this animal, and I’m going to f . . king kill him!’’ Or his obsessive Interpol agent in The International hissing: ‘‘ There has to be a way to bring down this bank!’’ Or, famously, his jilted husband in Closer, screaming at the top of his voice: ‘‘ Because I’m a f . . king caveman!’’
I tell him Roberts has also said of him: ‘‘ The only surprise about Clive was how absolutely ferocious he could be on camera. When we shot Closer he used to make me cry. He’s a kind of emotional terrorist. So vicious.’’ He laughs. ‘‘ I think she’s talking about the brutality of Closer. The writing is pretty ferocious.’’ But does she not mean that you can access your ferocity quite easily? ‘‘ Yeah, but these were howls of pain in the script, and that’s what I did.’’ And do you have that within you? ‘‘ I think we’re all made up of everything, and we all have the potential to be everything.’’
I wonder about his childhood too. He was the youngest of five brothers, and lived with his mother and stepfather after his biological father, a country and western singer called Jess Owen, walked out on the family when Owen
like was just three. What life lessons did he learn growing up the youngest of five boys? ‘‘ No idea, but good question,’’ he says, smiling. ‘‘ Well, I love being in a house full of women! I love having girls, and I don’t miss having a boy!’’ Were you annoying to your brothers? Or were you the cute mascot? Or did you . . . ‘‘ No, I got into acting,’’ he says, interrupting. ‘‘ So I was the one who was doing something that was really unusual to them. I don’t think they ever believed that I’d become one.’’ Is there any chance his performing gene came from his biological father (from whom he is estranged)? ‘‘ No!’’ he says, emitting the biggest laugh of the afternoon. You’ve never thought about it? ‘‘ No. All I know is that performing was never around me. Never a part of me.’’
Owen’s break came in his third year at RADA. He was asked to cover for an ill Gary Oldman at a Royal Court production of Women Beware Women. ‘‘ I met Gary years later. And I said: ‘ You remember when you took ill at the Royal Court, and some kid from RADA came in? That was me!’ And he said: ‘ The only thing that I remember from that was when I came back all the knees on my tights had gone!’ I’m quite a bit taller than him. Hahaha!’’
After RADA there was Romeo and Juliet and his marriage to Fenton. When Hannah arrived in 1997, Owen gave up smoking and Fenton gave up acting. She is now a child psychologist.
Owen’s career coasted along nicely until he went super-stratospheric with Croupier, a gambling thriller. He says he needs to correct the assumption he was struggling before stardom. ‘‘ Before Croupier I was really fulfilled. I was doing TV, small films, theatre. I was loving what I was doing. I wasn’t chasing movies.’’ But he exploded on to the scene after Croupier and a series of viral BMW adverts directed by heavyweights such as Tony Scott and John Woo.
The mix of suave tuxedo shots in Croupier and high-gloss car porn from BMW led to suggestions he was a shoo-in for the role of post-Pierce Brosnan Bond. Another myth: ‘‘ During that whole time I had committed to three films, I was doing my own thing, no one ever spoke to me or my agent.’’
The films since have been mesmerising ( Closer, Children of Men, Inside Man), middling ( Intruders, Derailed) and some miserable ( Killer Elite, Shoot ’ Em Up). He is proud of the good ones and candid about the poor ones. ‘‘ The films that I’ve done, well, they haven’t always come off, but there’s always been potential there.’’ And then, again, he laughs. ‘‘ But three months on set is a long time to spend away from my family, so I’ve got to want to be there.’’
Talk of his daughters brings Owen gushing and bubbling into life. They’re teenagers now, which, he says, isn’t difficult at all. ‘‘ The relationship with them changes, but they just become more like equals,’’ he says. What about boyfriends? ‘‘ Well, I’m lucky, in that we haven’t got too much into that yet. But maybe I’ll talk to you in a year and I’ll be like: It’s a f . . king nightmare!’ ’’
Owen has finished filming with Marion Cotillard and James Caan in the Brooklyn-set gangster movie Blood Ties, and he is almost ready to begin shooting Words and Pictures, a classroom drama, with Juliette Binoche. But what about life? How does he really feel in those quiet moments of the soul? ‘‘ Really?’’ he says. ‘‘ I feel: ‘ Boy did I luck out!’ ’’ Seriously? ‘‘ Yes,’’ he says, as openly and as plainly as he’s yet been today. ‘‘ I’ve had the most amazing time. I’m very blessed and very fortunate.’’ And with that he nods. I shake his hand. And as I leave I look behind to see, one last time, the widely smiling visage of Clive Owen, family man, reluctant movie star, lucky guy.
Clive Owen . . . a right charmer