Clive Owen: the unself-conscious sex symbol

As an impressionable Rada student, Clive Owen read up on Constantin Stanislavski, the great Russian theatre director who invented the acting “system” adopted by James Dean, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman. One Stanislavski quote stood out for the nascent movie star. “Beware the actor who looks in the mirror too much.” In other words, reckoning yourself to be something of a Bobby Dazzler is not a good thing. “If it gets too self-conscious, if people are too knowing about what they are doing, it can look like a kind of reflected acting,” Owen explains. “They are doing it knowing the effect it has, and that’s never the best way.”On a scale of one to 10, just how vain is he? “Truthfully? Not very vain.” His daughters, Hannah, 11, and Eve, 9, who regard everything he does as “hilarious”, won’t allow it, and old friends back in his home town of Coventry keep him grounded. “Yes, I am vain, because I have to go out in front of the camera, and, yes, I suppose I am conscious of the way I look. But not excessively so.” Still, it has to be said that Owen, crisply laundered, sharp of trouser crease, hair pomaded, skin expensively emulsified, really does look rather good as he makes this remark.

Because he’s modest and not smug, handsome but not overly aware of it, women tend to like Owen. Mention his name to your wife or girlfriend and she’ll “oooh” – a soft exhalation, swiftly followed by an appreciative purring. The fact that he has been with the same woman for 20 years (he met the actress Sarah-Jane Fenton when they played the lead roles in Romeo and Juliet – how cute is that?), is happily married with two daughters and doesn’t do scandal or the party scene only adds to the mystique.

Dishy in a suit of armour and completely devastating in a suit, Owen is the antidote to silly, diffident, chick-flick-fodder Hugh Grant; a tall, dark glassful of virility, with Clooneyish dimples in all the right places. Men like Clive Owen, too.

Because he seems genuine. An actor, not a celebrity. A man who works hard and doesn’t whine about fame, who’s handsome but not offensively so, who looks good for 43 while still actually looking his age. We liked his menthol coolness in Croupier, admired his buttoned-up, below-stairs act in Gosford Park and his magnificent swearing in Closer. Then there was that line (“F*** off, I’m Clive Owen! That’s mental”) when he guested as an egocentric caricature of himself in Ricky Gervais’s Extras, a cameo that showed us that cool Clive doesn’t take himself too seriously.

This likeable, easy-on-the-eye, cross-gender appeal is commercial catnip to the cosmetics behemoths, which are well aware that although many men buy their own aftershave, there are still lots of women who buy it for them. So, it’s kind of inevitable that Lancôme has signed up Owen as the global spokesman for Hypnôse Homme and the Lancôme Men skincare line. He has done a big-budget campaign with a fashionably vague accompanying cinema ad, directed by Wong Kar Wai and featuring the supermodel Daria Werbowy.

Still, it quickly becomes clear that the star of this highfalutin vanity project is never going to do a “science bit”, à la Jennifer Aniston. Nor is he your pentapeptides-peddling Nadine Baggot type or a preening, metrosexualised narcissist. Shekhar Kapur, who directed Owen in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, says he is “the least self-obsessed actor I’ve ever met”. Which is just how the Lancôme people like it.

“I would argue that this whole thing is not about vanity,” says Owen practically. “This is not plastic surgery, Botox or make-up, it’s just skin creams and aftershaves. I’m not standing up there saying, ‘I’m great and I’m so sexy and cool, and that’s why I am doing this.’ It’s more to do with acknowledging the way that the whole products-for-men thing is changing. Most guys I know do use moisturiser. In theatre and film, looking after your face is a pretty normal thing. It’s just business.”

Being the face of a high-profile product line is, he admits, “a delicate balancing act. Men have very strong opinions on other men, and it can go either way. I know I can easily be turned off a product if I get the vibe that the guy advertising it fancies himself too much or thinks he’s better than you”.

We talk about Owen’s sexy supermodel-nuzzling scene in the ad. Did he method-act himself into single, predatory-man mode for the role? “Nah,” he says. “You just get on with it.”

Owen’s childhood reads like a Tom Waits song, albeit one set in the English Midlands. He grew up on a council estate in the mining village of Keresley, near Coventry, the famously lifeless Ghost Town immortalised by the Specials back in 1980. His estranged father, Jess Owen, was a country singer who walked out on the family when Owen, the fourth of five brothers, was a toddler. His stepdad was a railway ticket clerk. Owen has described his upbringing as old-fashioned, working-class “rough”.

As a kid, he was once caught having a crafty tab in the woods and frogmarched home by a family friend. His mother was furious with him. “And how working-class is this?” he laughs, as he spins the Loachian tale. “When the woman had gone, my mother said to me, ‘If you’re going to smoke, you smoke in our house, not outside.’ ”

School wasn’t any better. When Owen announced he wanted to be an actor, his teacher actually encouraged the rest of his class to laugh at him for being so preposterously unrealistic. “I would be with my careers officer, all po-faced, saying, ‘That’s what I am going to do, act.’ They were like, ‘Yeah, right.’ ”

Owen left school with just one O-level, signed on, took odd jobs and concentrated on becoming more pretentious. He took to reading Raymond Chandler, watching Brando and De Niro, enrolled at a local drama school, toyed with the idea of changing his name to Owen Clive, revved up his smoking habit (“I was a hard-core, 20 cigarettes a day, I-am-going-to-die-of-lung-cancer smoker, right up until my first daughter was born”) and hung out with Stan Campbell and Roddy Byers, aka Roddy Radiation from the Specials.

“The whole ska thing was a big deal for us,” he says. “Ghost Town was a kind of anthem.” So, did he rock the two-tone uniform of porkpie hat and tonic suit? Or was he a moon-stomping skinhead? Owen looks slightly offended at the suggestion. “Oh, no, I wasn’t one of those Made in Britain types. I was more . . . individual. I was a Bowie obsessive.”

The Thin White Duke had a profound effect on the young Owen. “I used to dye my hair all sorts of different colours,” he says. “Once, I had the total Aladdin Sane album cover look. A friend of mine reminded me what I looked like when I first went to Rada; how I bowled in wearing an old mac, my hair dyed all sorts of colours. I had just spent two years on the dole in Coventry, but I was an arrogant little shit.”

These days, the Owen coiffure is tidier and monochrome, the arrogance replaced by a humble appreciation of his good fortune, while the wardrobe is head-to-toe Armani. “I am a Giorgio Armani nut,” he admits. “I have no arrangement with them, other than I really love their clothes and they look after me. Even before I had any money, I was the kind of guy who would blow whatever I had on Armani clothes. Now they send me stuff for free.”

Moments later, with the interview over, I bump into Owen again in the bathroom of the hotel suite where we’ve been talking. It’s a slightly embarrassing moment. The journalist who has just been grilling the actor about degrees of vanity and starry narcissism is caught out trying to fix his hair, probably sucking in his cheeks a bit. There are water splashes down my trouser front and I’ve been crop-dusting my neck with complimentary Lancôme Hypnôse for Men, while affecting my best “blue steel” pose for the bathroom mirror. Owen knows that I know that he knows what I’ve been up to but he’s too polite to say anything.

“You carry on,” he says, squeezing past and shutting the loo door. “I’ll try to be as quiet as possible, shall I?”

Source: Times Online UK

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