Clive Owen has made a career out of playing brooding loners, yet he never seems to be repeating himself. Even his hesitant heroes bear little resemblance to one another. His indestructible Sin City character will never be confused with his cartoon antihero in Shoot ‘Em Up or his weary Everyman reluctantly saving the world in Children of Men. If there’s a common thread to his roles–including the brilliant bank robber in Inside Man, the cuckolded husband in Closer, and Sir Walter Raleigh in Elizabeth: The Golden Age–it’s an intelligence and an air of sophistication that Owen can’t help but bring to every role he plays.His smooth confidence had many clamoring for Owen to inherit the mantle of James Bond, a role he claims he was never offered before Daniel Craig assumed the title. This seems inconceivable, as the character would have fit Owen as snugly as an Armani tux, but he’s getting plenty of espionage in his next two films. First up is The International, opening this weekend, in which Owen plays an agent with a checkered past who teams with a woman (Naomi Watts) to bring down a bank that funds war and murder for profit. He follows that in March with Duplicity, a thriller that re-teams him with his onscreen Closer wife, Julia Roberts, as corporate spies looking to bring down their bosses. Once again, the movies may sound similar–Owen as a dashing man of authority in a sweeping international thriller–but he assures us they’re very different. “The thing I’ve always enjoyed about my career,” he says, “is trying to keep it as open and varied as possible. I never want to do anything too similar.”
It’s a philosophy he’s held to since early in his career, when, after achieving fame on the British TV series Chancer, he accepted the risky role of a man involved in an incestuous affair with his sister in the film Close My Eyes. “I just knew that at that time it felt like an important thing to do, to break out of this prime-time TV thing,” he says. “And ever since then, I’ve always tried to do that. Whenever I think I feel like I’m getting in a place where people might think, ‘Oh, we know what he’s about,’ I want to do something different.”
In person, Owen is as impossibly handsome as you might expect, but he’s also a bit of a goofball. Full of nervous energy, his legs never stop bouncing when he sits. “I’m not uncomfortable; I’m always like this,” he apologizes. He laughs frequently and loudly. He’s self-effacing–as anyone would know who’d caught him on the British comedy Extras playing himself as a haughty diva who doesn’t think the woman cast as a prostitute is attractive enough for a man of his stature (immortalizing the line, “Fuck off! I’m Clive Owen!”). Why doesn’t he do more comedy? “I would love to,” he says. “But I don’t get offered very many. And the ones I do I don’t find very funny.”
Back Stage: When did you first realize you wanted to be an actor?
Clive Owen: I did a school play when I was 13 years old, and it was literally like a bolt of lightning. I decided that’s what I’m going to do.
Back Stage: Do you remember the role?
Owen: I was the Artful Dodger in Oliver!. If you think about it, I’m still playing the same part.
Back Stage: Is it true you turned down attending the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art?
Owen: That’s true. What happened is, I did a couple of school plays, and I was incredibly lucky because they had this little youth program attached to the local rep theatre. This is in the middle of this town in Coventry, this little studio building they run and lease to the local kids. I joined and did lots of different plays with them, and the teacher said to me, “If you really want to do this, you’ve got to go to drama school.” At the time, there were 13 accredited drama schools in England. Accredited means there was a good chance that if you couldn’t afford to go, which I couldn’t, your local council would possibly support you. So she said, “Which one should we aim for?” I said, “I’ve only heard of one: Royal Academy.” She said, “Clive, you’re a working-class kid from Coventry. Let’s go for one of the other ones. You’d have a better chance of getting in, and you can still get your grant and go and become an actor.” So I went down to London, I applied, but before I heard anything, I left school and I left home. I just sort of chucked it all. I went to Dublin with friends, and I got a call saying, “You got it! It’s amazing! You can do your thing!”
Back Stage: And you said no?
Owen: Don’t ask me where I got this from. I still look back and think, “What was I thinking?” But I said, “Nah, I’m not going to go to school. You can’t teach me to be an actor.” And everyone was tearing their hair out, saying I was crazy. Two years later, having not done anything–no youth theatre, no acting–suddenly I was going, “Am I really going to do this thing?” I applied once again to only one school, Royal Academy, and I got in. And I have to say, I was so lucky, because the guy running the youth theatre at that time, who helped me with my speeches to get into RADA, is, believe it or not, now running the RSC. That’s where he started, and he’s now running the Royal Shakespeare Company to huge acclaim. I look back and think, “God, even as this little kid, that was the kind of influence I was getting.” I was so fortunate.
Back Stage: Was the plan to stay in theatre, or did you always want to branch out to film and TV?
Owen: There’s no question I wanted to do movies. But in England, you can’t sustain a career just doing movies; you have to do theatre too. You have to do anything you’re given, really. Theatre, TV, and small films–I was happily doing a mixture of those three, and what happened is a very small film, Croupier, made an impact in America and it changed my career.
Back Stage: Do you consider Croupier your biggest break?
Owen: There’s no question. Before then I’d been in little films, but nothing had ever made any impact in America. And Croupier was ditched back home; they didn’t want to know about it. It was literally going straight to TV. It was through the persistence of a friend–a man named Mike Kaplan, who is a huge part of why I’m where I’m at, because he championed Croupier over here. He’s a marketing guy that saw the film and loved it, started screening it, and got it this tiny distribution. But because it got distribution, it got reviewed, and the reviews were great. So he worked that and he campaigned that and he kept the thing alive, and it built this momentum single-handedly. And it changed my career.
Back Stage: Was he working on the film in any way?
Owen: No. He was a good friend of Mike Hodges, the director, and he’d worked on a lot of Altman’s pictures. So it started with him screening it for Altman and various people, and that’s how he started to drum up interest in the film. It was just a passion, because he believed in it and thought this tiny little film deserved a life. The next time I came to the States, everybody wanted to meet me. It’s all down to one guy’s persistence.
Back Stage: Is that how you got Gosford Park?
Owen: Yep. Because he was friends with Altman. When I came to America, my first meeting was with Altman, who asked if I wanted to be in it.
Back Stage: You seemed to have a lot of fun playing an egotistical, vain version of yourself on the TV show Extras. How did that role come about?
Owen: That was literally me being in New York, and Ricky Gervais walking past and saying hello, and me saying, “I’ve got to tell you, I’m a massive fan.” He said, “You’ve got to come on!” A year later, I got a call from him saying, “I’d love you to do the show.” He pitched me the scene on the phone, and I just pissed myself laughing and said, “I’m in. Whatever you need, I’ll find the time, I’ll get there.”
Back Stage: What about your cameo as Agent 006–the guy “one away from the big time”–in The Pink Panther?
Owen: Same thing. I read it, it made me laugh, it was Paris for a day, and I thought, “Why not?”
Back Stage: It was also an opportunity to wink at the rumors that you were once in contention to play James Bond. You claim you were never offered the role–which I’m not sure I believe. But if you had been offered it, would you have accepted?
Owen: I’m very happy with what I’m doing. As I said before, I like to keep it as mixed and varied as possible.
Back Stage: Do you still audition? And are you good at it?
Owen: I haven’t done it for a very long time. As for being good: no, not really. I was not good at the small talk with the casting directors. I certainly didn’t enjoy it.
Back Stage: Do you remember the last time you auditioned?
Owen: No, I really can’t remember.
Back Stage: Was it for James Bond?
Owen: [Laughing] No!
Back Stage: You’ve done several films that seemed like sure-fire hits–King Arthur, Derailed, Shoot ‘Em Up–and yet underperformed at the box office. Is that disappointing for you when it occurs?
Owen: I’ve never ever really got too caught up in the way the films perform. It’s always better–professionally, personally, everything–if people go. If they don’t work, I can only do the best I can do. I won’t take a film thinking, “I’m going to do this because I think it’s going to be a success.” I’ve never done that. I’ve turned films down that I thought would be a big success–and they were a big success, and I have no regrets. That’s not what I want to do. I did Shoot ‘Em Up because I thought it was absolutely hilarious. I was disappointed for [writer-director] Michael Davis, not for me. He’s a huge talent, he’s extraordinary, and what he did on a limited budget is wild. I don’t know if they positioned it wrong or marketed it wrong. Personally, I made sure it was put out as a comedy. But it seemed to be put out as a straight action film. And it’s goofy violence; it’s Bugs Bunny.
Back Stage: What draws you to a project? Has it changed over the years?
Owen: It’s more and more the director. Of course it starts with the script; you very rarely meet a director before you look at a script. But I’ve started following directors more because it’s a director’s medium.
Back Stage: What do you hope for in a director?
Owen: I’m a good director’s actor. I want to serve them. I don’t go in there with my own agenda. Someone as bright and smart as Alfonso Cuarón or Robert Altman, I want to find out what it is they’re after and deliver. Altman was very brilliant. At the beginning of Gosford Park, he said to all of us, “I don’t want to talk about your characters. Don’t come and ask me about them. You all should know why you’ve been cast.” He didn’t want to sit there for ages. It’s not that I need a lot from directors, but I do want to feel in tune with them. I want them to feel I’m giving them what they want and they get what I’m trying to do for them. And when I feel in tune with a director, I’m at my happiest and I do my best work.
Back Stage: I love that Altman said that.
Owen: He came up with a few. Another brilliant line he came out with is, after putting one of those big, sweeping shots together, which led everybody in and took all morning to rehearse, he says, “We’re going to go for this now. Just remember, everybody: If you know what you’re doing, we won’t notice you. If you don’t, we will.” I’ve always remembered that.