Out of the shad­ows

His Hol­ly­wood star burns brightly, but Clive Owen re­tains a healthy scep­ti­cism about the movie in­dus­try, he tells Tara Brady

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Frontpage -

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

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