Clive Owen has a knack for looking suave and sexy, even when he’s being shot at, beaten up and being chased down by enemies — all of which frequently happens to him in several of his movies. In person, he’s just as smooth and sophisticated.
At the press junket for “The International,” I recently sat down with the Oscar-nominated British actor, who was in New York City to promote the action thriller. He walked into the room wearing a dark suit, and open shirt and a dazzling smile, and he literally personified the term “star quality.” In the movie, Owen is an Interpol agent named Louis Salinger, who pairs up with a Manhattan assistant district attorney named Eleanor Whitman (played by Naomi Watts) to bring to justice a corrupt international banking company. Here’s what Owen had to say about his favorite place during all of his globe-trotting during “The International” movie production, and what he really thinks of costar Watts.Can you talk about “The International’s” intense shoot-out scene that takes place in the Guggenheim Museum?
I think it’s one of the most exquisitely-realized sequences I’ve ever been involved in. It was talked about from the first time I met Tom. He said it wasn’t an action film, but when we’ve got action, I want it to be as explosive and as intense as we can do. They built a replica of the rotunda – an absolute to-scale replica – and while we were prepping the film, Tom had the whole thing worked out and choreographed way, way in advance.
How do you distinguish between being an action star and a dramatic actor when you’re in a movie that demands that you be both?
They’re kind of not too dissimilar, weirdly. In terms of the shootout, it’s kind of the same things apply. Basically, my job is to try and put people in the position of what it’s like to be in there – and it’s not to run around the Guggenheim trying to look cool with a gun. If guys came in there and started shooting guns like that, the reality is you’d be terrified, and it’s about trying to make people feel that palpable fear and intensity of what it might actually be like to be in the middle of that. So it’s kind of the same acting instincts that apply for dialogue really. You’ve just got to put people in the position you’re in, and try and make them understand and believe what you’re doing.
You filmed this movie in various locations around the world. Which was the biggest highlight for you?
Istanbul was the only place I’d never been to. It was a hugely exciting place, pretty incredible locations like the rooftops and inside the Grand Bazaar. The amazing thing about this film isn’t just the places we visited but the locations within the places. It’s one thing to shoot in New York, and it’s another thing to shoot inside the Guggenheim [Museum] and a do a full-blown shoot-out in there.
You go to Milan and you take over the main square there for two weeks. It becomes ours; it becomes a [movie] set. Once you’re shooting, it becomes a hotel; it comes a [movie set]. You don’t get much time to enjoy a place. Something like Istanbul, I want to go back there and experience it properly without having to work every day …
[In Instanbul], some of the reactions were pretty shocking. People would see [me running around with] the gun and laugh. I was like, “If this were New York or London, I’d be put up against the wall by now!”
Did this movie alter your vision of how the way banks operate, especially since so many banks are in a financial crisis now?
No one could’ve predicted how timely the film is, really. It was always a relevant script. It was always about things that are happening now. But with the collapse of the banks, the big questions of the film — “Can you trust your bank?” “Are they sound institutions?” “Do they handle money appropriately?” — they’re all questions that everybody’s asking now. Nobody could’ve foreseen how timely the film would be.
When the script came to me, it came with a lot of research material … It’s a very well-informed, well-researched script. Ultimately, it’s entertainment. It’s a big, sweeping international thriller, but it was very grounded. An area of the film that film goes into that is food for though for everybody is a simple thing like guns. You think about how many firearms there are in worldwide circulation: Every single one of them is bought and sold. That’s a huge amount of money being spent, which means the banks have to be [involved] somewhere along the line. It opens up these global questions.
When you’re the focus of all these close-ups, how are you focused on the action on the set as well as acting?
I certainly don’t watch myself. I think it was Stanislavski who said, “Beware of the actor who looks in the mirror all the time,” or something along those lines, and I agree with that. I think it’s a very dangerous thing to observe yourself acting. I’m very aware of what goes on on a film set, in all departments, and I think it’s hugely important for me to be conscious of what the camera’s doing, and how I react to that – and that is not necessarily to be obvious that I know what it’s doing – is a hugely important thing, because it means that I can be more specific about what it is I’m trying to do at any particular moment.
A good example I can think of is some of the stuff in “Children of Men” that was shot in a particular way that was supposed to feel like you were just there in the middle of it. It was very important that it didn’t look conscious for me, that it looked like things were happening as they were happening, and I think that’s what film acting is about really. You have to be conscious, but then not be obvious about it.
What did you like most about your character?
There’s something about his passion and anger and obsessiveness, and how far he’s prepared to go is the thing that I liked about it and why I wanted to do [“The International”]. At any given point in the film, most people would give up and not try to bring down this hugely powerful corporation. He’s a very fallible human being, but in some ways he’s kind of heroic because he’s prepared to go that far. He’s got an innate sense of what’s morally right and wrong, and I was attracted to that.
Can you talk about working with Naomi Watts and why the movie didn’t have a romance between your two characters?
It was great working with Naomi. I’ve known her on and off for a while. We nearly worked together a few times and it didn’t quite happened, but it was great that it finally did. I think she’s a special, great actress and a lovely girl. It’s easy working with her. The whole thing was a pleasure. I was very that [our “International” characters] relationship didn’t descend into cliché. They’re a partnership. There is an attraction there, but it’s based on their work ethic and their pursuit of the bank. I think it would’ve been an obvious and cliché thing to do to descend into romance. I think it’s a very delicately, well-pitched relationship.
How do you see yourself an actor?
I certainly don’t think of myself as an action hero. In my opinion, I’ve done one crazy action film called “Shoot ‘Em Up,” which was a comedy action film. And every other film [I’ve done] has got action in it, but that’s just the sweep of the story.
When did you first know that you wanted to be an actor?
I knew from an early age. I’m a bit of a cliché. I did a school play when I was about 13, and from that moment on, I knew that’s what I was going to do. I’ve been pretty unwavering ever since. If it hadn’t worked out, it’s a pretty terrifying thought. I never wanted to do or been able to do anything else.
What was the name of the school play?
I was the Artful Dodger [in the musical “Oliver!”]. And I’m still playing that part, over and over again. [He laughs.]