On the windswept south side of Jonathan Palmer’s Bedford Autodrome, Clive Owen is pounding around in a track-tough Jaguar XKR. This particular circuit has some complex corners and a high-speed fourth-gear number, during which the driver’s cojones – not to mention the Jag’s tyres – are severely tested. But it seems that Clive is not in the mood to back off.
“On a group day,” one of the instructors tells me, “a 1min 9sec lap would win the event. He’s doing 1min 10s right now. Clive clearly doesn’t have issues with speed. Or commitment.” Or, for that matter, changing gear. It’s a metaphor he himself has used to describe the twists and turns his career has taken on the road to his current, undeniable status as a leading man.
Five minutes in his company is all it takes to establish that this is an unusually grounded Hollywood player. The tan is not easy to come by in the British Isles, but the attitude is definitely closer to Coventry than California.
And no wonder. His success has been hard-won. Like Michael Caine before him, his is a tough, working-class background. His father abandoned his mother, him and his brothers, when he was just three. He was educated at a Coventry comprehensive and spent two years on the dole before being accepted at RADA. The breakthrough, in Mike Hodges’ The Croupier, only came after American critics picked up on a film roundly ignored on its initial release.
Fair to say that he hasn’t looked back since. The Bourne Identity, Closer, Sin City, Inside Man and Children of Men have all followed. This month, he is starring in the new action adventure film Shoot ‘Em Up. In it, he plays the mysterious Mr Smith, entrusted with protecting a new-born baby from an army of assassins.It’s a full-tilt action movie, “beyond tongue-in-cheek”, according to the man who stars in it. Amongst innumerable eye-popping highlights, Shoot ‘Em Up features a shoot-out during a sex scene and an astonishingly OTT car chase.
And Clive Owen loves his car chases. Back in 2001, BMW made a series of five short films called The Hire, part of a pioneering ‘viral’ internet campaign. Overseen by directorial talents as varied as Ang Lee, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Guy Ritchie and the late, great John Frankenheimer, Owen was the constant, brooding presence. Not only does he know how to look like he can drive, he actually can drive.
He can take a joke too. Despite stocking a wide variety of lids, the Palmer people struggle to find a crash helmet large enough to fit his head. Eventually, an XXL one is located. “Oh, here we go,” he laughs, “I can see the headline now. Though I should point out that I do actually have an unusually large head.”
When you’re looking at a script, do you find yourself flicking through to see if there’s a decent car chase sequence?
It’s great fun doing stuff like that. Shoot ‘Em Up has some wild action in it. In one sequence, I drive into a vanload of baddies who are hanging out of every window shooting at me, I shoot out my windscreen, shoot out theirs, the vehicles collide, I go through my windscreen, through theirs, hit the back of the van, then shoot them all dead. Ridiculous! (Pause) A car chase in a movie is like any other aspect of acting, it’s like having dialogue.
Yes it is. You’ve still got to convince people that it’s really happening. So even if you’re doing something minor during a chase, if you don’t do it very well, then you’re not a very good actor. It’s just like nailing dialogue. That’s the job at that particular point.
Working with John Frankenheimer must have been a real privilege…
He was the king of the car chase, and he was obsessed. He invented the rig where the steering was ripped out and set up on the passenger side, and he put a dummy wheel on the driver’s side for the actor. So the stunt driver is out of view throwing the car around and I have to look like I know how to throw a car around. Better than Robert De Niro in Ronin, I hope.
Great in Taxi Driver, but not such a convincing getaway driver…
Frankenheimer actually pulled me into his trailer in LA and – well, I’m not going to say anything about whom he actually showed me – but he said, “I want you to watch some clips of people driving in movies who look completely crap, like they don’t know what the hell they’re doing, and I want to show you people who look perfect.” John constructed car chases incredibly specifically, beat by beat. He had it all worked out… “Clive, this is where you turn, this is where you’ve got to fight the wheel – you pull on the handbrake here…” I did plenty of driving working on The Hire. It was a treat to be in the car with those stunt guys.
You drive a Jaguar XKR. Is this to do with staying connected with your home town?
It’s a nice association for sure, being a Coventry boy. There were no immediate family connections, but Coventry was a motor city, and I had lots of extended family, uncles and friends who worked at car factories. The XKR is a truly beautiful car.
Were you obsessed with cars as a kid?
But you’re a football fan. I have a theory that men are either big football fans or big car nuts, but rarely both…
I’m afraid that’s nonsense. I know lots who are into both. I just wasn’t that crazy about cars when I was younger. I only passed my test on the third attempt, when I was 21. I’m more into cars now…
What kind of driver are you?
I enjoy driving… (laughs) but I don’t agree with road rage, or getting into rucks. I enjoy driving in LA more than anywhere else. It’s a city that’s been designed around the car.
Shouldn’t you have joined the rest of the Hollywood A-list and got a Toyota Prius?
My wife has one. (Pause) C’mon, a Jaguar XK and a Prius…
Fair enough. But the Prius typifies the kind of Hollywood mentality of being seen to be doing the right thing, while the limo waits around the corner. How do you avoid being sucked into all the bullshit?
Well, movies opened up quite late for me. I’d been around a long time. I’d done years of television and theatre. I don’t think I’ll let it go to my head. I don’t take any of this for granted. (Pause) I’m having a very good time.
Is there a fear that it could all just stop?
Every actor has that. You’d be crazy not to have that fear. It just takes a couple of bad films. It’s happened to some of the biggest stars in the business. Doesn’t matter how successful an actor is, fear is always a motivator.
Some of your choices have been quite risky.
I try to keep things as mixed up and varied as possible. I’m not consciously thinking, “Well, I’ve done that, so now I must do this.” It’s more instinctive. When I look back on the choices I’ve made, it’s pretty varied. Some movie stars – in inverted commas – have constructed a strong persona, there’s a role they play, and they have to protect that. I want the opportunities that are out there, but I’m not interested in repeating things.
Can you let go of a project when your bit is done?
It’s very difficult. But film is a director’s medium, not an actor’s. You’ve got to work that out pretty fast. If you’re after control as an actor, you’re going to get yourself into a very odd situation. In fact, you probably should be doing something else. You’ve got to be smart and go with the best scripts and the best directors, and then trust them to get on with it.
Do you have any kind of ‘method’?
I worry when I hear actors talking about how they get into a role. Acting is about concentration. It’s about turning up and concentrating very hard. That can be tiring if you do it day after day. But it’s about staying focussed and disciplined, not about staying in character.
Children of Men was a remarkable film. Very political and issue-driven…
Absolutely. Even though it’s set in 2027 it’s more relevant than most films that are set in the present day. Immigration, the environment, the climate of fear and repression… these are issues people are very concerned about now. My character’s main traits are apathy, cynicism, depression. Holding a film together with a leading character like that, a guy who has pretty much given up, was very challenging.
And back to car chases again… there’s an incredibly complex chase sequence in the film that was shot in a continuous 12-minute take.
Hugely ambitious. The guy doing the camera rig said it simply couldn’t be done. Impossible. That we’d have to break it down into its component scenes. But they invented a new rig, which meant that we could go into the car and keep the camera moving around everyone and then back out again.
It took ages to set up, and some days we didn’t shoot a thing. And the producers are breathing down your neck the whole time. Most people would have bottled it and compromised but Alfonso [Cuaron, director] refused to give in.
There were some strange cars in the film too. A Fiat Multipla in that sequence, a five-door Renault Avantime in another scene. And Michael Caine’s character drives an old Citroen CX estate. What were the reasons for such choices?
I remember there was an issue with the cars in the film. Alfonso’s vision for the future in the film was one that looked like now, but had gone backwards rather than forwards.
The design guys wanted to do futuristic things, and he kept saying, “Use cars that look modern now, then break them down…” So they got covered in ugly plastic bumpers. He used to joke that this was a $70m film, and he was trying to make it look as cheap as possible.
The writer David Mamet described you as being ‘the enigmatic impersonation of restraint’ while Robert Altman said that you ‘don’t act, you occur’. Do you ever find yourself going, “My God, that’s nice…”
Er, yeah. But I’ve been going, “My God, that’s nice” for quite a while now.
Source: Top Gear