Reg­u­lar GUY

Even Ge­orge Clooney loves Clive Owen, and it’s all be­cause he’s so gen­uine, writes Kevin Maher

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - The Times

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

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