Out of the shadows
His Hollywood star burns brightly, but Clive Owen retains a healthy scepticism about the movie industry, he tells Tara Brady
IT’S THE MORNING after the Olympics in London and the entire city seems to have a spring in its step. Clive Owen, too, is in jolly form though he’s deep into preparation for a sporting event of a different kind. “I’ve just been to a friendly,” he says of his beloved Liverpool FC. “I’ve been watching them all summer. We’re looking good I think.”
It’s typical. While every British sleb was crammed into a stadium to see George Michael performing new material, Owen was off watching a low-profile kickabout. ’Twas ever thus with the star of Sin City, Closer and Children of Men, a man who lives quietly in Highgate with his wife of 13 years and his two daughters.
“They’ve only just started to realise what I do for a living,” he says. “They used to wonder when people came up to me on the street. ‘Who’s that man, daddy?’ ‘I dunno, sweetheart’. ‘Well, why is he talking to you then?’ They were totally confused. It was the funniest thing.”
Square of jaw and high of cheekbone, Owen looked like a movie star long before he was one. Raised mostly by his mum in his native Coventry, Owen has often described his childhood as “tough”. No one was more surprised than he when a school production of Oliver! opened up a whole new world of possibilities.
“It all comes back to that school play,” he says. “It’s funny because now when I watch my girls in a school play, I have such a strong memory and the sense that a life’s journey can begin there. And you do sometimes see kids who, even at that very early age, are totally cut out for it. They shine. They look completely happy doing what they’re doing.” What did he play back then? “The Artful Dodger,” he grins. “Yeah. I know. I’ve been playing the same bloody part ever since.”
Inspired by picking a pocket or two, Owen made for London as a teenager and ultimately enrolled in Rada. He graduated alongside David Mamet’s wife Rebecca Pidgeon and Liza Tarbuck before he won a position at the Young Vic theatre.
Television soon beckoned. By the early 1990s, Irish and British audiences knew Owen as the lead in TV’s Chancer. He was, he recalls, “a total working actor”, jumping between ITV prime-time slots and the stage.
“I was happy,” he says. “I never cared whether I was famous. I was pretty content with the way things were going. I could have retired happy working between theatre, small films and a bit of TV. You have to do this job for the right reasons. You can’t do it just because it looks easy. Not that I’m complaining. But for most of my career, if I had an offer to be in a film, I said ‘yes’ and thought, ‘Bloody hell, I'm going to be in a film’.”
Croupier, a low-budget British noir about a writer turned casino worker, changed everything. An unexpected hit in the US, director Mike Hodges’ drama wowed critics, took up residency on top-10 lists and left American movie punters wondering about the film’s debonair hero. Two years later The Hire, a series of high-profile commercials for BMW featuring Owen and a constellation of name directors, secured his reputation Stateside.
“You can’t legislate for anything in acting,” says Owen. “It’s one thing I’ve learned. You equip yourself as well as you can and you go in there and give it good go. But even with something that reads great on paper, you have no idea how it’ll go. People say to me ‘what’s your gut feeling about this?’ and to be honest, I have no idea. If there were rules, then we’d all make better films. But good films can fail and films you never imagined would make a splash sometimes do. Croupier changed my whole life and career. A film that cost a million dollars to make. Never seen that one coming. When I look back on things, on all the opportunities I’ve had, that was the key.”
Sure enough, since Croupier, Owen has worked with John Frankenheimer, Ang Lee, Wong Kar-wai, Guy Ritchie, Tony Scott, Spike Lee, Tony Gilroy and the late Robert Altman on Gosford Park.
“Once you get into the work, you forget who you’re working for,” says Owen. “But I did think Altman was a kind of genius really. It’s the reason you do films; it’s to keep getting opportunities to work with great people. And one opportunity leads to another.”
Earlier this year, Owen’s face loomed large over the Cannes Film Festival, where HBO screened Hemingway & Gellhorn, a biopic starring Owen as the all-American author and Nicole Kidman as his journalist wife.
“I had such a great HBO experience,” he says. “It’s such a good working environment. They really care about their material. They get people in like Phil Kaufman who has directed such amazing films. They really pour over the script and and nurture each project into being. They’re not making a film to try and sell it. They know where the film is going. So they’re always making the best possible film.”
Even clenched to the loving bosom of HBO, the project was a challenge.
“Here’s one of the most iconic writers of the last century,” explains the star. “And here’s me. From Coventry. He was very much a man of his time. There was a kind of swagger about him. I did find myself feeling very manly. I didn’t drink as much as him. But I gave it a go.” So no marlin fishing or bullfighting? “I did go fishing actually. I went down to Cuba. When he died, his wife took all the paintings with her but gave the house to the government. They’ve left it untouched. It’s a museum. You can look in the windows. But they let me in there. And everything is preserved exactly since his death. His clothes are still there, his typewriters, his record collection, his boots. His jacket is hanging in the closet.”
Owen had intended to take a family break after his exertions as Hemingway. But
Shadow Dancer got in the way.
“There was no way I wasn’t taking time off,” he recalls. “I promised myself a few years ago that I wouldn’t miss my
daughters growing up. But this script arrived and James Marsh was directing and I loved
Man on Wire. So I thought I better read it anyway out of politeness. And I couldn’t stop. I really lived it. I’ve never seen a script so tight, so lean. It was a thriller. it was a tense family drama. it was spare and economical and complex at the same time. So that was the end of my time off. I flew back from San Francisco and went straight to Ireland to start shooting.”
Shadow Dancer, a sleek, gripping thriller, is set in 1990s Belfast on the eve of the peace process. James Marsh’s second fictional feature casts Andrea Riseborough as Colette McVeigh, an active member of the IRA who is forced to turn informant in order to protect her son. Owen exudes pathos and danger as Colette’s sympathetic MI5 handler. But can his superiors, including Gillian Anderson, be trusted?
It does not require much for films with such a subject matter to attract rotting fruit and Daily Mail jeremiads. Was Owen – who remembers helicopters and soldiers on the streets of Belfast while passing through with various theatrical tours – worried?
“It is a big responsibility but James is so smart and the screenplay is very understanding and non-judgemental. Everybody in the film is trapped and compromised. Besides, time has passed and we can afford to be more reflective. I was confident in the material and the director. I didn’t have any concerns. Going in, I knew it was going to be handled intelligently and sensitively. He’s a documentary filmmaker. He’s after something real even in a feature film. He was never going to make something showy and manipulative.”
There’s still chatter about a Sin City sequel – allegedly due in 2013 – and there remains a vocal Clive Owen for Bond lobby. Owen laughs off both suggestions.
“News to me,” he says. “They’ve been talking about a Sin City sequel for years but I haven’t heard anything in a while.”
Would he do Bond if Craig hangs up his dinner jacket after Skyfall?
“That’s all just talk,” he laughs. “You can’t listen to movie people; they’re movie people.” Which does he get asked about more: Sin
City or James Bond? “It’s about neck and neck. It’s one of those things that people come up and ask about. And then my daughters wonder why I’m talking to strangers on the street again.”
Clive Owen and Andrea Riseborough in James Marsh’s
acclaimed Shadow Dancer