IF YOU want to wound Clive Owen, just call him an action star and watch him flinch. It didn’t seem unreasonable – after all, Owen has made a fine art of brooding gunplay; in films such as Shoot ‘Em Up, Sin City and I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, he could be the little brother of Alain Delon’s expressionless hitman in Le Samouraï, someone whose nihilism has bottom and some flavours to it, like a good cognac.
His latest, The International, is emblematic of Owen’s terse, introverted style, playing a driven Interpol agent whose obsessive mission is to expose a bank’s corruption and bring it down. Let’s not call it an action film though, even if he does have a gun and sometimes people get on the wrong end of it. Owen cheers up enormously when I say that the pessimism is in many ways a throwback to the monochrome urban thrillers of the Seventies, such as The Parallax View or Three Days Of The Condor.“I saw all of them,” he says happily. “When I did Inside Man, Spike Lee did this cool thing where he screened about half a dozen movies. It was a little film festival to get you inspired. Our director on The International, Tom Tykwer, loved that idea, so we did it on this with The Conversation and The French Connection.”
Despite its Seventies sensibility, however, events have propelled The International to the very edge of topicality. Tykwer first began work on the film script more than two years ago, and yet the film emerged with the most current of villains – a bank.
“It’s become unbelievably relevant,” agrees Owen. “The big questions in the movie are: do banks use our money appropriately? Can you trust them? Are they corrupt? Now the questions have been hugely to the fore in the last six months with what’s been going on.”
The realities of the credit crunch are already being felt by his industry, he says: “I don’t think anyone can avoid this kind of recession. Studios are tightening their belts and they’re getting more careful about how they spend their money. My worry is that at times like these people get more conservative. The studios will back the big franchise movies and the tiny independent movies, but the middle area may lose out.”
At 46, Owen has been internationally famous for a decade. He could have been a British George Clooney but instead of playing lucrative heart-throbs, he has carved out a screen image that is more like Bogart in bonnier packaging: watchful, unsmiling and sardonic. Perhaps that’s one reason why his next film, Duplicity, is lighter, reuniting Owen with his Closer co-star Julia Roberts as corporate spies with a romantic past who race to corner the market on a medical discovery. Roberts said the reason she came out of semi-retirement was down to Owen urging her to read the script and telling her, “We should do this.”
Owens explains: “We did Closer together and we got on really well. I really adore her. I personally think she raises my game because she has skills in areas I can only stand back and admire. She makes it look so easy – and that, to me, is the biggest skill an actor can have. It might also be one of the few my daughters can watch. Apart from Julia and I kissing a bit.”
In person, Owen is more animated and easygoing than the brooding, reserved persona he wears in many of his films, although when he doesn’t want to answer a question, he just laughs and waits for the matter to drop. Even when the flow of conversation is amiable, you notice his arms are tightly crossed over his chest, hugging his sharp Armani suit.
For the past 14 years, he’s been married to former actress Sarah-Jane Fenton, has two young daughters and is content to live what he calls a normal life in London (“and I wouldn’t live anywhere else”). An early success taught him how fraught press attention can be, however, and he’s still a little chary of revealing too much. In 1990, he was the lead in a television series, Chancer, playing a scam artist who takes over a failing classic car company. For a brief period he was Orlando Bloom and Ewan McGregor combined – handsome, roguish and apparently destined for stardom – and found his life transformed into paparazzi bait. “Perhaps I went through a lesser version because it was confined to this country – but at the same time the heat and tension of working in TV is greater than it is in movies because tabloids are very interested in TV,” he reflects.
“Nobody teaches you how to deal with that attention, and when you’re young it can be very disorientating. It takes away attention from what you actually do, and it’s very easy to get sidetracked. I feel for those 19-year-olds who get thrust into the limelight that young.”
When another offer of a television show threatened to heighten – and prolong – his small-screen fame, Owen opted out. Instead, he focused on a series of intimate theatrical productions, made films such as Bent, in which he played a homosexual in a Second World War concentration camp, and Close My Eyes, about brother-sister incest, and seemed content to be doing yeoman work in challenging but little-seen British pictures. Then in 1999, Croupier changed all that.
A sleek and twisty British noir, it bombed in the UK but took off in the States and created his screen persona as a brooding, brainy matinee idol. For the Croupier audition, Owen listened into a phone then stood, wordlessly, behind a makeshift roulette table. Finally, he recited a voiceover for director Mike Hodges. “I remember thinking it was an unusual screen test – usually you get lots of dialogue,” he recalls. “Mike was more interested in other things.
“We literally filmed long silences of me just doing roulette work, but thinking the voiceovers so that when Mike laid them on, they’d be a bit more vibrant”
Owen is an actor who is remarkably comfortable going to uncomfortable places. In one of his rare comedy performances, he pops up in the final Extras episode as himself, carelessly humiliating Ashley Jensen when she lands a part playing a prostitute in his period picture about the life of Lord Byron.
“I’m not very happy with this,” the actor says, ignoring Maggie looking painted and pained by his side. “I wouldn’t pay for that. There’s got to be a better one than this.” The director tries to appease his tricky star: “Clive, honestly, they sent me a truck load of absolute hogs and this is the very best one.”
“That was pure Ricky Gervais genius,” laughs Owen. “He rang me up and pitched me the whole scene, line by line, over the phone. I pissed myself laughing and told him I’d do it whenever he wanted.”
Playing such a hard-edged alternative version of himself might seem a brave, even foolhardy choice in an industry that tends to favour the ingratiating; but if there’s a thread connecting his movie choices, it’s that Owen isn’t interested in screen charm.
“The worst piece of advice I was ever given by somebody, a long, long time ago, was, ‘Clive, it’s all about likeability’. I remember thinking, ‘What a ridiculous thing to say about acting’.
“I don’t go into my parts wanting the audience to like me. I’m much more interested that they understand and believe me. People ultimately respect honesty more than they do charm.”
The International is released February 27; Duplicity is out March 20 www.everybodypays.com; duplicitymovie.net
Source: Scotland Today